My wife and I have a commuter marriage: she lives and works in Valparaiso, Indiana, and I do the same in New York City. We fly back and forth as often as we can (without us United Airlines would be in big trouble). My trips to Indiana confront me on a regular basis with the disparities between life in Manhattan and in the small town midwest. Those disparities are not so obvious in nature as you might think.
They are also, for me at least, not all that jarring. Valparaiso was home to me for several years, and within hours (if that) of returning there it is home again—even as, on getting back to New York, I am at once entirely at home there. My wife says I’m a chameleon, and I don’t think she means that wholly as a compliment.
I know my son doesn’t. He worries about my character. He can’t understand, for example, my attitude toward sports. I grew up in Detroit and rooted for the Tigers. When I lived in Valparaiso, fifty miles from Chicago, I rooted for the Cubs and (to a considerably lesser extent) for the White Sox. Now, in New York, I root for the Mets and (yes, I confess it) even for the Yanks. This seems to me healthy adjustment to local circumstances. To my son it indicates inconstancy. I tell him that the difference between our generations is that his may be faithful to athletic teams but is faithless to spouses, while mine, its loves more properly ordered, is the reverse.
Still, for all my ease in adjusting to life wherever I am, I cannot be oblivious to the differences between Valparaiso (pop. 25,000) and Manhattan. Valparaiso is, in many ways, quintessential small town America. There’s a town square with a courthouse. The downtown has pleasant shops with friendly proprietors, and the tree–shaded streets that surround it are dotted with comfortable homes on uncrowded lots. It’s a college town, which saves it from being provincial, but it is hardly multicultural. There are few Jews, even fewer blacks or Hispanics. Crime rates are higher than they used to be, but lots of people still don’t lock their doors. Churches are everywhere and they’re full on Sunday morning. People get genuinely excited about the fate of the high school athletic teams, especially—it is after all Indiana—the basketball team. The politics of the town are generally Republican, although for the past decade a distinctly moderate Democratic mayor has retained office because—and this fits the small town pattern—people like and trust him. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Nothing in that picture applies to Manhattan. (Well, there are lots of churches, but, the Catholic ones aside, few of them are full on Sunday morning.) The routines of life, like the landscape, could hardly be more different, and the same holds for the people. It’s not just demographic patterns. Manhattan is filled with Type A personalities, and they generate a manic excitement and anxiety appropriate to their ambitions. As a friend of mine from Valparaiso said on return from a year’s sabbatical in New York, “It takes a lot of energy just to stand on a street corner in Manhattan.” The difference between Valparaiso and New York is the difference, in literary shorthand, between Main Street and The Bonfire of the Vanities.
And yet, scarcely beneath the surface, things are not nearly so simple. Valparaiso, to begin there, has a feel these days that is more suburban than small town. Indeed, real estate flyers now refer to it as “Chicago’s newest eastern suburb.” Every time I go back, there’s a new subdivision going up. The downtown is still picturesque, but much of the time it’s also empty; people do their shopping at one of the new malls that have taken over the farmland around the ever expanding city limits. You can tell it’s a suburb because people hardly ever walk anywhere, except occasionally for exercise. Cars don’t yet dominate life the way they do in, say, Los Angeles, but that’s the direction things seem to be going.
In Manhattan, by contrast, people walk—I walk—everywhere. I don’t keep a car here—only the very rich, the very stupid, or those who commute elsewhere to work do that—so transportation is either by subway, cab, or on foot, and it’s mostly the latter. I even walk to work. I’d guess the average Manhattanite does more walking than he would if he lived virtually anywhere else in the country. More importantly, he walks in his neighborhood. That’s the thing: midtown partially aside, Manhattan is a collection of neighborhoods, and, peculiar as it seems to non–New Yorkers, those so inclined can know in their neighborhood an experience of community available to relatively few people elsewhere in the nation.
I live in Stuyvesant, the neighborhood adjacent to the East River between 14th and 23rd Streets. I do all my shopping, with very few exceptions, at small stores within a six–block radius of my apartment. I’ve been to Macy’s a handful of times in ten years, and other than that have never—except when in Valparaiso—set foot in a department store, or anything like a shopping mall. The local supermarket is ludicrously small compared to those you find anywhere outside Manhattan, and even it now feels too large and impersonal for me. I buy most of my food at the deli on the corner. They know me there. And every Saturday, when I go to brunch at the little place around the corner, it’s right out of Cheers—the waitress greets me by name and the bartender, without waiting to ask, starts mixing my Beefeater martini. That never happened in Valparaiso.
Even my churchgoing experience doesn’t fit the small town/big city contrast you might expect. Immanuel Lutheran, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation I attend in Valparaiso, is one of the larger LCMS parishes in the country, with a membership in the thousands and a budget in the millions. It’s a friendly congregation, and the pastors work hard at avoiding a megachurch atmosphere, but, when I was a member there, there were inevitably an awful lot of people I didn’t know.
At Christ Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America parish I belong to in Manhattan (it’s across the street and down a few doors), I know everybody. It would be hard not to—if there are more than forty–five of us there on any given Sunday it’s a banner attendance. Not only do we all know each other, we regularly run into each other on the street during the week. (I tell my wife she’ll never have to worry about me carrying on an affair; given the goldfish bowl conditions of my life, I couldn’t get away with it.) I’ve never felt more attached to a congregation in my life.
So there it is. My wife and I have agreed that when we retire we will again live together in Valparaiso. I look forward to that, and I have no doubt that my adjustment to life there will be quick and uncomplicated. But it won’t, I know, be pain free. It will be Garrison Keillor in reverse, and there will be—I feel the pangs already—those moments of bittersweet nostalgia when I recall, with a longing almost palpable, the small town life I left behind in Manhattan.