I was born in Columbus, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that I will die here. Not because of any kind of conspiracy (though really, you can’t rule that kind of thing out), but because I am at a point in my life where I’m unlikely to resettle. I’m too angry and shy to make new friends, I think public transportation is overrated, and I’ve finally perfected my green bean casserole recipe. Columbus it is!
I kid, a little bit. But every native Columbusite does. When we hang out, our collective inferiority complex tends to flare up. There’s an edge to our jokes about our old stomping grounds, a real disdain for the kind of people this town has made us. Can you believe we used to actually eat the bagels at Bernies? (Did you see Wesley Willis there? Which time? It was INSANE.) Can you believe we used to tolerate the smell of Nag Champa just to buy shitty records at Magnolia Thunderpussy? Our eyes grow wide and frantic and everything we say is punctuated by an unspoken question: why are we still here? Why were we abandoned by the post-college rapture that transported our friends and family to better, cooler cities? Why were we the last ones to hear about kale?!
I won’t mince words: this town hasn’t always felt like home. It’s a small blue city in a big red state, and even the most liberal folks have values that tend towards the traditional. I’ve always felt too fat, too poor, and too awkward to blend in with my fellow citizens. I never learned how to pretend to like the things that other people like. I don’t understand how football works and I’m never going to try. I’m a liberal feminist and I don’t pull my punches. I play Dungeons and Dragons on the regular. I’m not in the mix when it comes to idealized small-town people. It’s lucky for me that as you grow up you realize that nobody actually “fits in”, and the people with mainstream tastes and the ability to make small talk often feel just as alienated as you do. Once you realize that it’s the same for everyone, it’s liberating. It frees you to let some things go and make your life into what you want it to be.
I don’t envy people who live in New York anymore. I envy women my size who have the confidence to wear tank tops. It’s not because I’ve lowered my standards; it’s because I’ve realized there’s nothing in another city that makes me better than I am now. I’m good with what I already have, and what I have are huge arms and a low tolerance for heat, so it’s time to break out the sunscreen and re-assess my life goals as a newly-dedicated citizen of my hometown.
There’s nothing wrong with leaving if that’s where your heart is. If you set your feet down in another city and it feels like home, you should stay there instead. But there’s something special about the tough weirdos who stay in the Midwest. We have to work harder to find the good books, the good music, the good stuff that people in bigger cities take for granted. Bands usually end up here by accident, and every damn show is on a Tuesday night because it’s the only time they can squeeze us in between Detroit and Pittsburgh. We’re the easy punchline for every coastal city jagoff with a grudge against the hicks in the “flyover” states. Politicians and demagogues hold us up as the standard bearers for backwards values and discriminatory laws that only a handful of of our neighbors actually support. Football happens every stupid year and it never fucking ends. Until we find each other, it’s easy to feel alone.
But there are rewards! Once you get over yourself you see cool people making things on every corner, and a seat at the table for you if you want it. The things you love you truly love, and the things you create are truly your own. I have spent much of my life not trying to create or be anything because I thought it wasn’t for me. I thought I had to live somewhere else, be someone else, to be special. I’ve recently realized how stupid and selfish that is. I want to tell stories, even if they’re small and selfish, just because they’re mine. What’s stopping me, aside from crippling social anxiety and self doubt?
DC can brag about inventing punk rock, but the Midwest invented the kind of people who need it: people who got made fun of all day at school and then ran home and slammed their bedroom doors and spent the hours till dinner staring out the window and memorizing the words to every song on Combat Rock. People that have a lot of anger and a lot of hope in their big bleeding rustbelt hearts. People who channel the insane Midwestern work ethic into hustling their own angry art. People who are determined to be the best part of a city that doesn’t quite know what to do with them but gives them a home anyway. Punks and weirdos and loners become the outstretched hands of hope scattered throughout our small towns. There are plenty of backwards assholes, sure, but we’re all here too. We’re all still here.
I’m happy to be one of those people. I owe it to them to say that more often.