The Town Behind the One You Can See

Where you live is not always what it seems


Like many Americans, I was raised in a small town, and though my town had all the usual civic and commercial entities, from church to store to library to garbage dump, it also had all the quiet and secret civic and commercial entities that we residents knew of but did not acknowledge publicly. Such as, for example, the various places where you could, using the right signals and code words, buy illicit substances, ranging from marijuana to malt liquor to racy magazines. Or the places where a man might purchase amorous company. Or the two bars, one on either end of town, where policemen and detectives gathered at the ends of their shifts to discuss dark and intricate matters. Or the large house at the north end of town where the Hindu community, such as it was, gathered for its rituals and social events. Or the auto body shop, where guns of every caliber could be bought without the flutter and fidget of registration papers. Or the mysterious warehouse behind the shopping center, owned by men with guns and dark cars who knew guys who knew guys. Or the shop that sold secondhand clothing in the front room and tattoos and debt-collection services in the back room. Or the delicatessen in which zoning variances and building permits were offered for sale or barter on Tuesday mornings. Or the third window at the post office, where a former Navy man would for a fee adjust various forms of identification as long as they did not entail photographic work, which he declined to do for legal reasons. Or which priest to avoid at all costs, especially when the parish offered day trips to the carnival upstate or—God help us all—the annual overnight tour of the seminary for prospective enrollees. Or which of the nine small beaches at the state park was the one for you if you wished to engage in amorous adventure—heterosexuals to the west, homosexuals to the east. Or which librarian to ask if you genuinely wanted to read Henry Miller for literary purposes. Or which dock to fish from without having to bother the owner for permission.

The thought occurs to me that my town was actually quite normal, and that your town also consists of the town you can see and the town behind the one you can see, and that perhaps there are endless towns in a town, composed of all sorts of stories in all sorts of languages. That wouldn’t be so unusual, would it?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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