Stranger in Town

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

I'm walking down Broadway, a few steps from a year here. It's a November day that almost feels like November, people milling about in fresh sweaters and upturned hoods. At least the sky looks right, looks like Novembers I've seen before, half-bald trees waiting for sunset, crowned in a calm blue. It's a day I'd like to remember. But I don't remember very much of my first December in Cape Girardeau, except there wasn't snow.

I remember raking more leaves in an afternoon than I had seen in a handful of autumns. I remember watching the local evening news and heckling the reporters for something substantial like a political sex scandal or a gangland shootout. I remember sitting in my new living room, contending myself with breathing the new atmosphere around me, trying to learn about my environment from each breath. And I remember the panic, the undeveloped fear, the need for a reliable Internet connection and affordable long-distance minutes and as many tendrils out into the real world as possible.

The Cape Girardeau I had seen from the highway didn't change the few stories I had culled from my time in St Louis. Corporate outposts waved from the off-ramp, set to succor suburban dreamers stuck in the wilderness, failing to hide the untamed horizon in every direction. When I first saw Cape Girardeau, I saw a well-cultivated truck stop, a town halfway to anywhere and on the way to wherever you were supposed to be. And that image stayed in my head as I attempted to gauge how long I'd have to hold my breath here and wait until I could actually do something with myself.

And then, one day, I went out for a walk.

I walked through the hand-me-down neighborhoods between Broadway and Morgan Oak, where a block might remind me of a piece of Philadelphia or Savannah or Baltimore or Manila.

I walked onto the SEMO campus subliminally, unaware of just what crack in the sidewalk separated the Norman Rockwell homes from the academia until I was surrounded by towers.

I walked to the riverfront, and sat on the banks of the Mississippi, scanning for the ends of the river and watching the one bridge out of town, leading into the even more savage Illinois Route 3.

I walked past the murals of Cape Girardeau, and read their stories. I shuffled through the antique stores, looked at the treasures that locals consider extraneous here. I stared into the windows of the shuttered buildings, trying to figure out the last time their dust was kicked up.

I walked around looking for a decent milkshake, a pair of oversized wooden utensils, the latest collection of the Robinson STARMAN series, a turntable that played 78s, Southwestern-style curios, the filmographies of Kurosawa and Veronica Hart, potato wedges, a coat tree, and as many of the little touchstones of home that I could find.

And slowly, I started calling this place home.

I'm walking now, remembering the initial fear that I would have to put my life on hold while I stayed here, neither a four-year student nor a life-term resident. But when I think of the first twelve months I've spent here, I can't think of a time I've felt more free. And it's because I'm beginning to know this sidewalk. I recognize the faces that'll be behind the counters at the stores, even the one's I've never been in. I know the parade routes and the garbage routes, the times that the regular postman drops off the mail and the times that the parking lot outside the Phat Cat gets its loudest and the best time of the night to pick up a hot Slinger.

I still don't consider myself qualified to be a 'local' yet. I haven't been through any natural disasters or dramatic elections. I don't know any cops or local officials. I haven't been to any wakes or recognized any of the baby names that flash over William Street. I don't even know what a real winter is like around here. But I can honestly say I can't remember a time they weren't working on the bridge. And I simply can't call myself new anymore. But I can start calling this place home.

And so, to all of you, from the Stranger in Town, Happy Holidays. Celebrate as many of them as you like.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: