The nice lady on the phone several days ago was a true voice from the past. Betty Rowe Baker was a close friend of my sister and the daughter of one of my heroes (see Nov. 2, 2007 post, “My Hero, Dr. Rowe Baker”). I hadn’t talked with Betty Rowe for at least 50 years.
We did a lot of reminiscing about days in the old hometown. My caller mentioned that she subscribed to the Tomahawk Leader, although most of the names in the news no longer were people she knew. That observation got us onto the topic of something that was unknown to many of us when we were kids in a small town. We seldom knew the street names, or if we did, we were hazy about where they were.
We found houses because they were “across the street from Nick’s, next door to Schmidt’s, “ or “right where the road turns north in Jersey City.” I knew where Wisconsin Avenue was because we lived on it. And Fourth Street was familiar, because beyond it, when walking “downtown,” Wisconsin Avenue was known as “Main Street.” Other than that, my knowledge of the location of streets was limited.
We thought we were pretty sophisticated in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After all, a passenger train stopped beside the depot at the end of Main Street every day. It disgorged travelers from such grand places as Chicago and Milwaukee. We even had a famous eatery. Jim’s Logging Camp, a steakhouse a few miles up the highway, modestly advertised itself as “The Antoine’s of the North,” assuming that we and tourists who came to our city were acquainted with New Orleans’ restaurants. We thought we were pretty worldly in many ways, but in fact we could be very provincial.
One night at our dinner table Mom started a conversation about a “man from Illinois” who lived in our immediate neighborhood. After a while, my sister asked just who this man was. When Mom revealed his name, we learned that the immigrant has lived across the street from our family home for 27 years!
Apparently, it took a little time to become recognized as a fully integrated citizen of my hometown.