My hometown was a working-class suburb of St. Louis, with a population of approximately 5,000 people, most of whom lived in tiny brick bungalows of 1,200 sq. ft. or so.
Bob and his wife Norma Jean lived next door with their two kids, one of whom, Steve, had a bedroom in the damp basement. Bob was a firefighter for the town. He supplemented his modest firefighter pay by working as a mechanic at the nearby “filling station,” or what is known today as a gas station, gas mart or convenience store.
Bob died one day of a heart attack at his job at the filling station. He died without rich death benefits or a pension. Small-town firefighters didn’t have such benefits back then. Norma Jean went to work and raised her two kids to be good, productive citizens. She still lives in the well-maintained house, and I visit her on my return trips to St. Louis.
Today, cities are going broke from the rich retirement benefits of firefighters, police and other municipal workers, many of whom can retire after 20 years and then go to work for some other government agency. Their political clout can be seen in the current campaign season, with politicians bragging about being endorsed by firefighters or police. Translated, that means that the politicians have promised them more stuff at taxpayer expense. Unlike in my boyhood, I no longer know any police or firefighters on a first-name basis, don’t live next to them, and wouldn’t care to, given how they have political power that I don’t have and use it out of greed at my family’s expense. The same with unionized school teachers.
Using political power to gouge your neighbors doesn’t build a sense of community.
Speaking of political power, one of my best friends was Danny, whose father was the mayor, a job that paid virtually nothing, so his regular job was driving a tanker truck for a gasoline company.
Another best friend was Don, whose father was one of the few men in town who wore a suit to work and drove a big Buick with features that our old Dodge didn’t have: V-8 engine, power windows, air-conditioning and an automatic transmission. Don and his family lived in a two-story home that was catty-corner to the backyard of my home. They had so much money, relatively speaking, that their house actually sat on two of the normal postage-stamp-size lots. Don and I would hop the fence between our yards to visit each other. We didn’t have to hop any class barriers, however, because there wasn’t any apparent class envy or resentment back then. Rich and poor lived close together and had similar values and interests.
Catholics were the majority in town, and the center of their social life and charitable giving and mutual support was the Catholic church and parochial school, which I attended. Families of modest means could afford private school in those years because taxes, including public school taxes, were a fraction of today’s confiscatory levels. The school didn’t have a school bus, but kids were fit enough to walk or bike to school, without wearing helmets or worrying about bad guys.
At the end of my street were the high school and theological college where kids with vocations were educated to be priests for the Catholic Diocese of St. Louis. The high school has since been bought by the town and turned into a community center, because so few Americans have religious vocations anymore.
The community center is one sign that the town has become “Yuppified” and is no longer a real community. Young, urban professional “knowledge workers” have moved in and demanded improved city services and filled the brick bungalows with granite and stainless steel and pretentiousness and shallowness and hysteria about global warming. The town also has expanded the city hall, built a large swimming pool, upgraded the ball fields, installed curbs along the streets, paved the former tar-and-gravel streets with asphalt, bought huge fire truces to replace the one clunker of my boyhood days, and quadrupled the police force. Working stiffs can no longer afford to buy homes in the town.
There is some justification for the increased police presence. The town is now the terminus of a light rail line that connects to downtown St. Louis, thus making it easy for bad guys to come to the town and do what bad guys do. Kids are now in organized activities and aren’t seen riding their bikes unsupervised. For sure, they don’t do what my friends and I used to do: hop on slow-moving freight trains and ride from one end of town to the other. Since the freight line was no longer needed in the new era of knowledge work, it was replaced by the light rail line, which uses the old freight right-of-way.
One can now ride the light rail to downtown sporting events at taxpayer-subsidized stadiums, where ticket prices and refreshments have skyrocketed in constant dollars since my youth. The smell of industry is no longer in the air, including the sulfur odor that used to permeate downtown from the old Monsanto plant across the river on the rare days that the wind blew from the east.
As young boys, my friends and I could afford to sit behind the third-base dugout at an unsubsidized stadium and eat hot dogs and drink sodas in seven-ounce glass bottles, which have been replaced today by mammoth plastic cups, because the obese, numbskull fans of today, with their tattoos, scruffy beards, and backward caps, would throw glass bottles at players on the field if refreshments were still served the old way. Oftentimes, my friends and I would sit next to well-dressed blacks, who impressed us with their sports knowledge, vocabulary and manners. I would later work as the only white on the black staff of a country club, at a time when most black men were married, supported their kids, and were starting the long climb up the socioeconomic ladder.
Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. He was right. My hometown has become like the rest of America: supersized, superficial, spendaholic, subsidized, socialized, statist, silly, and segregated by class.
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.