I learned to appreciate the value of grime at Lee’s Dairy Bar on the far side of town. The menu, yellowing and cracking under fluorescent lights, was a plastic pegboard with changeable letters, though I never saw anything change. The legs under the booths had the patina of inattentive mopping, and the floors had long been matte, stripped by dusty cleats and cheer sneakers dashing in after the game. Across from the railroad tracks, that shop was the end of the line in Thompson, North Dakota, and that was fine with me. With a cherry-dipped cone in my hand, there was no reason for me to wonder what was beyond the limits of town.
Decades later, I am on vacation with my husband in Monterey Bay, with the glint of the Pacific Ocean in my eye. We are doused in sunshine and the pier is pristine. I am pushing my toddler son in a stroller past an immaculate ice cream shop where the smell of sugar and vanilla pouring out onto the boardwalk is a portal back to Lee’s; I become a child again, with five quarters on my palm and a sweet tooth in my mouth. Except for the smooth boardwalk, the luminous surfaces, and the abundance of fresh paint, I could be at home.
The smell of ice cream shops is the same everywhere I go, but places all have different dirt. The dirt is one connection I still have to my hometown, although it is faint. I’ve found it in thrift shops with weathered clothes and can see it on cars after they travel on gravel roads. City dirt, to my child mind, seemed shiny and sinister to me, gleaming with dystopia. Country dirt felt like home.
While my mother kept a tidy house, gentle poverty and resistance to change ran the town just as much as Cop John and Mayor Jim. The effect was dirty siding on all the houses, nicks in Formica countertops, and linoleum floors seasoned like cast iron pans. I’m still the last one to notice blackened grout between tiles in my own home. I can’t quite relax when it’s too clean.
A sleepover at my friend Anita’s meant leaving her parents’ trailer, with the insurmountable piles of toys underfoot, and snuggling into their tin camper out back. Avoiding sleep as children do, we snuck out and traded change for soda cans from a vending machine behind Poor Richard’s Tavern. We guessed at the flavors because the buttons were filthy and worn. I can still hear the thumping of the cans against the plastic.
In Thompson, we swam in gullies after the rain. We were careful not to eat snow from the bottom of the bank, where it was mixed in a slurry with street rocks. Yet, we ate it from the top. We ran through the fields behind our house and came home crusted in soil. Cherry tomatoes from the veggie patch went straight into our mouths, unwashed. We touched all the country things we weren’t supposed to touch. Dead birds. Earthworms. Garter snakes. We ate crabapples sweetened with rot after falling from the trees. We played with rusted railroad ties and hefty, dirty nails. I didn’t mean to, but I stepped on a toad.
Living in the city, my young son has seen a syringe. He identifies alphabet sounds from graffiti and words carved into the sidewalks. He sees wilting furniture discarded on the corner by our house, so he knows the blooming shape of a mattress stain, origin unknown. He recognizes rainbows in oily puddles and the vibrancy of foil wrappers pushed by traffic to the curb. He knows the twinkle of a streetlight reflected from the casing of a bullet. He no doubt wonders what he can learn from a passing examination of roadkill in various stages of being flattened. He’s grown up with plucky animals that can thrive on concrete: cockroaches, rats, and stray cats.
Poverty isn’t as gentle in the city. There is no reluctance to change; change is the current that yanks city people along. Furniture is evicted, not discarded. The syringes are out there because that’s where they are used; Anita’s parents would have put their syringes out with the trash. There are bigger bullets in the woods. Ice cream in the city rattles by in musical trucks with peeling stickers, just as grimy as Lee’s.
We do not stop for ice cream in Monterey Bay in our hurry to see the aquarium that crowns the pier. It is spotless and everything looks new. The windows that look out onto those California waves are as vast as the ocean itself, and the sunshine on a beautiful day is total. Every wall, railing and square of flooring feels unused. There is staff to whisk garbage away, and they have all the resources they need to banish grime. The penguins, I thought, must have to work to keep their enclosures dirty, or else I imagine they’d feel homesick for the real world.
Trash and dirt are never invisible forever, though. Under that building, moss and barnacles grow. Toxins and litter wash in and out with the waves. There must be all manner of dead creatures, making their ways through the circles of life.
My hope for my son is that he will know about dirt. I’d like for him to see urban dirt with the fondness of home and rural dirt with the fondness of family. When he shakes red dust from his sandals, I hope he will feel the desert, and that he’ll feel the swamp when he steps in mud.
With that precious knowledge, he will always have a place to go.