Tuesday, December 26, 2006

America the Conformist

I saw the day as a double opportunity. First, I visited Tim in the VA Hospital in Indianapolis and then Christmas-shopped my way home - going to Castleton and some of the strip malls in the area, then proceeding on to Noblesville to visit some of the shopping centers strung out along Highway 37. I plodded through Target and Kohl's and Meier's, looking for stocking stuffers. I went to Linens and More and Bath and Body and Penney's and Macy's and Pier One and Barnes & Noble - in other words, exactly the same stores I'd have visited to if I'd gone to Fort Wayne instead of Indianapolis. I bought a few things but then I came home and found different gifts that really pleased me at The D Shoppe and Billings and Treasured Dreams Cottage.

I have certainly noticed this before but on the trip to Indianapolis, I was especially struck by how generic we are becoming as a nation. Lazarus used to be one of my favorite department stores but Lazarus is no more. It has now become Macy's. L.S. Ayres used to be one of my favorite department stores but now L.S. Ayres is no more. It has now become Macy's. In the same way, we long ago lost the big department stores that we used to find in most downtowns - stores that were so much fun to shop in like Wolf and Dessaurs (I think I have the spelling wrong) in Huntington and King Leeson's in Elwood and Olsen's in Logansport. And here in Wabash, shopping downtown was great with individually owned stores like Beitman & Wolf, Resneck's, Wassman's, P.N. Hirsch, P.K. Department store and the Francis Shoppe. Now only the Francis Shoppe remains. I also loved to go to downtown Marion back then because the whole square was packed with stores.

I bought some things in Macy's and I guess the advantage is that it will make it easy for the kids to return anything they either don't like or doesn't fit because the store in Indianapolis is the same store they have in the mall at Fort Wayne.

If someone put you on a plane with a blind fold and ear plugs, then put you in a taxi to a main highway anywhere in America, there would be few clues to tell you where you were. You would see the same fast food restaurants, the same Lowe's and Office Depots, the same Walmarts and Radio Shacks and Cracker Barrels and Outbacks.

Maybe you'd know you were down south if you saw some palm trees or Spanish moss. Maybe you'd know you were in the west if you saw some towering mountains in the distance or in the southwest if the malls were built to look like adobe haciendas (although even this isn't necessarily true). Some different regions of the country have their own department stores but I believe Macy's is national (or international) so it is probably only a matter of time before those stores are bought out too. Some areas have their own restaurants. You are probably in the south is you spot a Po' Folks but if that franchise is anything like Cracker Barrel, they are probably building northward even as we speak.

And if you think turning on the radio would help you to identify where you were, you'd be wrong. Newscasters and deejays all have generic American voices now. Even when we lived in Charleston, South Carolina back in the late 70's, we loved listening to some of the local news anchors because of that slow, gracious Charleston accent but I expect that is a thing of the past in the 21st century. Probably all modern media people have to go to a special school to eliminate any trace of accent or regional dialect from their speech - and that's because they want to jump to a bigger market someday or expand their market - Bob and Tom are heard all over the country now.

The most fun I ever had Christmas shopping was one year when Bryan and I had to pick up a prisoner in Fort Lauderdale. Poor Bryan got deathly sick with the flu and had to spend a full day laid up in his hotel room. I felt bad for him but that left me free to take the car to a shopping district called Las Olmas Boulevard which consisted of blocks of unique shops and restaurants. I spent the whole day there and came back thrilled with gifts I wouldn't have found anywhere else.

I really hate our tendency toward more and more conformity. Part of the fun of traveling the highways and by-ways of America was the interesting individuality of our different regions of the country - the sights and the sounds and the smells. You can still find some of that if you get off the beaten track but mostly, you're going to find more of the same everywhere you go.