Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rural America

We have just crossed the meat loaf line in America, that invisible divide in the landscape across which restaurants are far less likely to have sun-dried tomato concoctions and far more likely to have, gravy.

We come across American-made cars and bumper stickers such as: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Fords” and “Warning: In Case of Rapture, This Vehicle Will Be Unmanned. We have found an entirely different attitude toward money. A lot of people don’t have much, even though they don’t exactly look poor. Rural America has suffered some appalling economic blows over the past few decades—falling commodity prices, the decimation of small manufacturing plants, farm after farm going bankrupt. While many young people move away, those who remain decide that money is not their god. There is intense social pressure not to put on airs. In many rural precincts, if you had some money and tried to drive a Mercedes, you’d be asking for trouble. If you hired a cook for a dinner party, people would wonder who died and made you queen.

If we’d continued to rural America, we would have entered a giant deflation machine. Gas is somehow fifty cents cheaper a gallon, parking tickets are three dollars, and there are racks and racks of blouses at the Dollar General for $9.99. There are no Saks Fifth Avenues, Neiman Marcuses, or Tiffanys in these rural regions, just Kohl’s and Value City, and it’s nice to be in a place where you can afford nearly everything for sale (when you’re in a city or an inner-ring suburb, you are constantly afflicted with high-end products ridiculously out of your price range).

In many small towns, you can set yourself a goal: Try to spend twenty dollars a person on dinner. You can order the most expensive thing on the menu—steak au jus, seafood delight, “slippery beef” pot pie, whatever—and you probably won’t be able to do it. You can ask the locals to direct you to the nicest restaurant in town; they’ll send you to a Red Lobster or an Applebees. You’ll spy a restaurant that seems from the outside to have some pretensions—maybe a “Les Desserts” glass cooler for the key lime pie and tapioca pudding. But you’ll check out the entrĂ©e prices and realize that you didn’t crack that twenty dollar barrier.

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