In Murgatroid, Ohio—a perfectly average small American town, in a perfectly average American state, where perfectly average Americans do not so average things—the day begins, as it does elsewhere, with alarm clocks, the cries of cuckoo birds, and the collective "Thshhh" sound of apple pies being thrust onto windowsills from North Snooker Street all the way down to South Shoobadoop Avenue. The sun's rays, golden in that way that rays are, peek over the horizon. It is morning in Murgatroid. Once again, a small town full of Americans bestirs itself for the unexpectedly inspiring day ahead.
Is there a diner? Yes. There's always a fucking diner.
Deena's Diner is like many other diners in America, but also, in that Leibnizian way in which all things struggle with duality, a diner all its own. It has Formica counters and all types of knick-knicks on the wall that evoke a simpler time in this nation of ours. [EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF KNICK-KNACKS HERE]. Deena Doohicky, the hardworking single mother proprietress who opened Deena's Diner with only faith in her neighbors as collateral for her hopelessly irredeemable loan, pours coffee, the smell of which is quite evocative of diners.
Take a moment to imagine the smell of coffee now.
From a choice perch in Deena's Diner, underneath the various Ohio State Buckeyes memorabilia that of course hang in this typical middle American watering hole, with a plate of Deena's famous Creosote Pancakes steaming invitingly in front of your nostrils, with children playing about the unlikely Maypole erected, with government stimulus funds, just outside of the diner's picture window on the town square, Murgatroid seems like a fine place to settle down and raise a family. But looks can be deceiving. Deena's Diner, of Murgatroid, Ohio, is more than just a place where bacon sizzles and the biscuits are fresh and the regulars are regular and the air is peppered with characters whose regional accents and various behaviors typical for their particular demographic make them easy set pieces for a certain type of newspaper writer; it is a symbol. A symbol of America's industrial decline and the struggles of small town business owners and the dwindling power of social connections and the battle for undecided voters and a whole kaleidoscope of other issues which can all be rolled up into a little ball made of symbolism and shoved into the tiny creases of worry that line Deena Doohicky's proud but fearful American face.
Try to visualizes those creases now. She loves her children.
Murgatroid was not always such an easy symbol of American decline. It was once an easy symbol of American success. Locals remember the town as the place where the tube sock was invented, and where the immortal Stepin Fetchit is buried. In the 1950s, the local Murgatroid High School Fighting Locusts dominated prep football, behind the broad American shoulders of star halfback Horace Horatio Impsington, who now wanders the town square frightening passersby with his shrieked exhortations, "I Like Ike!" In the good old days, Murgatroid was known as "The Jewel of the Northwesternmost Quadrant of Lower Southeastern Hellspit County." And now? Well, all you need to know is that the once-grand Murgatroid Theater, famous for hosting the Ohio premiere of Bedtime for Bonzo, is now a decrepit, boarded-up shell, home only to a fierce band of 1,776 feral cats, which, just this past summer, attacked and dismembered the town's pet bald eagle, George Jefferson, as a horrified but helpless crowd of onlookers looked on, from the safety of their Fourth of July parade floats.
The smell of Balsam & Cedar-flavored Yankee Candles was in the air at the time.
For the mayor of Murgatroid, Sheila Pestilencia, each day is a bittersweet symphony of civic pride mixed with a considerable amount of sewage that leaks from Murgatroid's underfunded gutters on a regular basis. Riding to work each day in her hand-cranked Edsel, Mayor Sheila waves to both upstanding citizens and the far more common roadside chain gangs from Murgatroid County Jail. "Hi, Mayor Sheila!" they uniformly reply to her. It is rather eerie, the uniformity. Mayor is a respected position, but in the typically crumbling middle American manner of Murgatroid, there are compromises—Sheila's husband is the city's chief judge and dogcatcher; Sheila's dog is the county clerk. Between filling out federal grant applications to revitalize the city's pockmarked streets and mopping the floors of the ill-fated Disco Dog Park that the city unwisely pinned its hopes on after a ruinous 2008 ballot measure, Sheila gets pretty tired each day. It can wear her down. Some days, deep down inside, she thinks about packing it all up and moving to a more vibrant and vital city, like Cleveland. But whenever those thoughts enter her mind, it seems, she rounds the corner of Poplar and Elm and passes the warm, lit-up window of Deena's Diner, the bedrock rockstone of this small town American town, and finds her soul warmed, and the strength to go on, and she's warmed, more, again, in her conflicted but fundamentally American soul.
Off in the distance, the crack of a bat; Little League baseball is being played.
[Award-winning columnist Dan Barry has probably already fed on your town. Image by Jim Cooke.]