Cameron, Ferris Bueller’s sickly, depressed friend in the Detroit Red Wings jersey, doesn’t tell you where Decatur is when he says his lines while lying prostrate in his bed, but his delivery
captures how people feel about it, or at least how I did growing up there. Decatur is a kind of purgatory; a place you actually might wish on your worst enemy. In college, this is what I’d say when people asked where I was from.
Was it really that bad? I mean, No? Well, maybe. At least it wasn’t Pana, or Taylorville, or Effingham (which we called “Fuckingham”), or Pleasant Plains (where the “straight-up” racists lived), places that loomed in my imagination as farming burgs that were even more backwards, even more soul-crushing. Weirdly I also gave thanks that I wasn’t from a Chicago burb like Northbrook or Arlington Heights, where I imagined all the preppy villains from John Hughes’ films lived.
If I’m being honest, though, it wasn’t that bad. In 45 minutes, I could be on Green Street in Champaign eating a burrito as big as my head while reading a smudgy newsprint copy of The Onion that I grabbed from a metal rack on my way out the door of the Record Exchange, where I had just purchased a Japanese pressing of a Cult CD. 45 minutes in the other direction and I could be in Springfield at Penny Lane, a dimly lit, heavily-tapestried music store/head shop where I spent hours flipping through racks of posters and black band t-shirts, never buying much, just absorbing the Patchouli and the heady feeling of independence.
That was my experience of Decatur: a profoundly white, upwardly-mobile, middle class experience of a geographically segregated city that is roughly 70 percent White and 20-ish percent Black, a city that has lost nearly 12,000 residents since my family moved there in the mid-80s, an exodus backhandedly accounted for in the October 30th 2000 issue of The New Yorker
in an article titled “Town on a String,”
in which the author takes as his occasion a seven year period where Decatur was in and out of national news, first for an ugly labor dispute between AE Staley and its union employees, which led to a two-year lock-out, then an FBI investigation into a multinational lysine price-fixing scheme led by the city’s largest employer, Archer Daniels Midland (“ADM: Supermarket to the World,” their commercials humble brag), followed by an investigation into the Bridgestone/Firestone tire factory because it was the suspected source of defective tires that led to fatal car accidents, and, finally, in the fall of 1999, a gang-related fight at a high school football game that led to the two-year expulsion of six Black students, which led to legal action and protests by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
That piece, written by long-time New Yorker staff writer Mark Singer (who happens to be from Oklahoma but attended Yale) is decidedly not a #Midwessay. It reads, instead, as the worst kind of parachute journalism: a high-toned profile where his tactful attempts to put into perspective the complex economic, class, and racial realities of Decatur comes off sounding like ruin-porn, or, maybe just the twerpy musings of a Yale undergrad. He dubs this confluence of unfortunate events the “Decatur Situation.”
The Midwessay, if there is such a thing (and especially its Illinois subgenre), is concerned at its core with these realities, but it does not get defensive or sentimental--as Singer alleges of some of the Decaturans he interviews--it instead leans into uncanniness, into these strange familiarities: the fecundity of corn and soybeans and their ubiquitousness in our food; the spooky rectilinearity of the fields; the fetishizing of Black on Black crime and the soft pedaling of white methamphetamine-fueled violence, dissolution, and neglect by claiming in not-so-coded terms that Chicago and St. Louis are the real sources of these contagions.
This isn’t Mark Singer’s fault. This is generations deep. We are the inheritors, the executors of a vast, flat, and dysfunctional estate. Recognizing this, many of us leave. We want nothing to do with squabbles over what’s in the attic or perpetuating myths about niceness and hard work, and so we become expatriates who visit during holidays, for weddings and funerals, or, if we do stay, our minds expatriate. We secede by moving out of the hinterlands into Chicago, or Detroit, or Columbus, or Cleveland, and vow to become part of the solution, but with no clear idea as to how.
Now that I’m older, when people ask where I’m from I reference Sufjan Steven’s 2005 album Come on Feel the Illinoise,
and his whimsical, cartoonish homage
to Decatur, with its dancing Civil War skeletons, kangaroos, and wild alligators, or, if I’ve had more to drink, I tell them the story about being the Decatur Herald & Review paperboy of the year, and how every morning I delivered the paper to Michael Andreas, Vice Chairman of ADM, who, not quite a decade later would go to jail for his role in the lysine price-fixing scheme, and how one morning in late winter I was stopped by two men in long wool overcoats at the entrance to his private drive, one of whom extended a gloved hand and took the tightly rolled paper from me. The next day as I rolled papers and secured them with rubber bands, I read on the front page that former Russian President Gorbachev was in town as a guest of Andreas.
In Kurt Eichenwald’s book The Informant: A True Story,
about the FBI’s investigation into ADM (which was made into a tonally confusing film
starring Matt Damon) he writes: “People don’t realize that a company they’ve never heard of is in everything.” This is how I feel about being from Decatur. This no-place is in me. It is a part of me in ways that I am still trying to understand.
No, it wasn’t so bad. But when my old friends get together, which is less and less frequent, since most of our parents don’t even live in Decatur anymore (they have all lit out for exotic retirement destinations like Toledo, Terre Haute, State College, and Kansas City) our reunions have the feel of people who have endured something together. Not so much hard times--Jesus, no, not even close--but now, as we (a couple of doctors, a nurse practitioner, a couple college professors, a non-profit executive, a restaurateur) enter middle-age, settling into our own middle class existences, we feel a sense of relief but also loss. No complaints, because who would listen anyway.
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