For my story, “Mining for Efficiency,” I traveled to Garner, Iowa, a small town populated by just over 3,000 people. My visit to Garner reminded me a lot of my own home town, Cuba, New York. (Please, spare me e-mails inquiring as to “how the swim was,” or asking me to say “hello” to Fidel. I’ve heard ‘em all.)
Cuba, with a population of just over 1,700 people, is the definition of “small town.” Located off I-86 (which most locals still steadfastly refer to as Route 17) in Western New York, the town has two stop lights, one grocery store, a couple of restaurants and a handful of churches and bars (I’ve long believed that there is a secret law that requires small towns to offer a 1:1 ratio of praying establishments to drinking establishments). From a commercial standpoint, the biggest thing to happen to Cuba in recent memory is the introduction of a McDonald’s restaurant in the early 90’s.
Every small town has its claim to fame, something to distinguish it from every other small town in the country. Cuba seems to have quite a few of these trademarks. Every child educated in the Cuba school system knows that Charles Ingalls—father of “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls—lived in Cuba. In addition, we’ve got the Block Barn, a palatial concrete stable that runs a little longer than a football field, and which once housed mares owned by the Czar of Russia. Cuba is also home to Cuba Lake, which was—at the time of its construction—the largest manmade lake in the United States. And of course, one doesn’t bring up Cuba without mentioning Cuba Cheese, the manufacturer of the best cheddar cheese I’ve ever had (I admit to being a bit biased since my father worked for Cuba Cheese for a number of years).
Recently, a co-worker— upon learning that I grew up in a small town—commented to me that she couldn’t picture me as a small-town guy. I can’t say that I disagree with her, but as I thought about the comment, I felt a tinge of sadness. I guess that somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve always considered myself a “small town guy,” even though I’ve lived in or near cities for the last eleven years.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore living in a city. I love living near art-house theaters and being able to see independent films that I might never even have known existed. I’m absolutely fascinated by my ability to order pizza at eleven o’clock at night (which I do far too often). Even rush hour traffic has a sort of perverse charm to it. But still, there is something about the comfort and familiarity of my home town that I miss dearly.
When it boils right down to it, I cannot imagine living today anywhere but a city. But at the same time, I am abundantly thankful that I was able to experience my youth in a town like Cuba.