March 27, 2023

The Commercial Gentrification of America

I’ll hang on to my memories, thank you very much.

Traveling America’s byways in the 1960s was a rich and textured experience. The interstate highway system was burgeoning but not yet complete. As such, state highways and backroads were still the preferred routes to travel.

My father was an avid fisherman, and we made an annual trip to Bainbridge, Georgia, to fish on nearby Lake Seminole. I began going on these trips with my father and his friends when I was six years old — and what adventures they were! Each town that we passed through was different. Each town had businesses that were unique and most had a café or two that were usually good and at times extraordinary.

There was a legendary speed trap on Hwy. 19 in Zebulon, Georgia, but the town also boasted a wonderful country breakfast at its café. Both were worth slowing down for. Farther down the road in Cairo was a bait and tackle where my father liked to stop, as they apparently had fishing gear he couldn’t find at home. He bought me my first pocketknife in that store when I was six years old, a stag-handled Case Stockman.

My father’s friend Vick asked, “Mac, do you think he will cut himself with that knife?” My father replied, “Probably so, but he’ll learn something about knives.” I still have the scar on my left index finger from a slip a few days later, but in 60 subsequent years I’ve never cut myself again. Different times.

Nowadays traveling town to town by interstate, one encounters a mind-numbing array of the same few box stores at just about every town exit. There are a few notable exceptions, and Main Street revivals are refreshing, but not nearly enough. No wonder kids are bored traveling by car these days.

One of the memorable vignettes in my life occurred in central California in the ‘80s — memorable in both nostalgia as well as a sense of a passing era. It was a snapshot of a fading way of life, but one very much alive at that moment.

I had been training dogs with legendary trainer Rex Carr for three weeks in Escalon, California, and hadn’t shaved due to raw weather. Scheduled to fly home for Thanksgiving, I decided I had better clean up a bit. There wasn’t much in Escalon, so I drove to nearby Stockton. The region at that time hadn’t suffered commercial and residential gentrification and still had a good number of working cattle ranches.

Walking down the street on a misty morning, I stopped in a men’s store. The sign said it was closing at noon for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I found a nice Stetson hat in my size and due to the weather decided it was a good idea to buy it. The clerk says: “Folks don’t wear hats like they used to … mostly just the day workers now. Hat you just bought been sittin’ on that wall since I been here and I arrive 10 years ago. Prolly’ was here 10 years before that.” I paid for it, plopped it on, and walked down the street.

Finding the local barbershop a few blocks down, I walked into the mixed aroma of leather, bay rum, and a hint of cigar smoke. There was a sea of working cowboys in the room all wanting what I did — a haircut and hot lather shave to clean up for the holiday. For the better part of an hour, I enjoyed great conversation, a great shave, and an authentic experience I would wager is hard to find in America today.

I strike a conversation with a cowboy beside me who has worked at the Flying W in Crockett County, Texas, as well as the N Bar in Montana. He says: “Nice hat. Where ya get it?” I replied, “Men’s store about three blocks back.” He says: “Well I’ll be. Cowboyin’ is about over.” I say, “Yeah, I guess.” He says, “Places like this ‘bout gone.” I say, “Well, I hope not…”

They call my name; I get my shave, and when I get up the cowboy is gone. I hope he’s still cowboying somewhere.

So, build the Dollar Generals and Trader Joes and Walmarts in what used to be unique towns, but I’ll hang on to my memories, thank you very much.

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