March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
February 20, 2017
Have you noticed that every Target in the land smells like old buttered popcorn? Maybe you’re coming in from the balmy nighttime of south Florida, or the high lonesome plains of the Texas Panhandle, or the frosty doldrums of suburban Minnesota, but no matter: from sea to shining sea, when those glassy doors open for you and your big red cart, the scent is there. Every. Single. Time. And I love it.
Let’s rewind a couple decades. Envision the scene: small-town Georgia with its stately antebellum homes, magnolias, please-and-thank-yous, Confederate flags, low median incomes, and poorly funded schools. Picture a place where the railroad tracks splice the neighborhoods of people according to their skin colors and vastly divergent histories, a place with blood in the soil. Shortly after my liberal white midwestern family moved south to Georgia in 1987, a Ku Klux Klan rally was held in the middle of our new town. This is where I grew up.
I was not born in the South so I was not a true southerner, a fact I was often reminded of by almost anyone who knew my family. We were Yankees. We said “you guys.” We did not eat grits. And we did not attend KKK rallies. Our inherent otherness followed us around for years, like a suspicious old dog nobody trusts. I could not remember my Chicago birthplace and only knew this one southern town, yet I felt I would always be an outsider. Even if I wanted to, I wasn’t allowed to identify as southern, and so I started looking elsewhere.
Around 2000, a shopping center was constructed in a larger town about twenty miles up the interstate toward Atlanta, where suburban developments were expanding rapidly from its urban epicenter to the north. Within this strip mall was a shoe store, a party supply shop, a craft emporium, and a sparkling new Target. I was in high school but not quite old enough to drive, so I begged my mother to take me for a visit.
We pulled into the store’s vast parking lot, freshly paved and centered on a clearing of rich red earth scraped clean of rocks and pine stumps by large machinery still resting at its edge. The big Target sign glared in the hot sunlight above shoppers coming and going. Outside, it was sticky rural-suburban Georgia; inside, it was an air-conditioned Shangri-la. The store was not southern at all. But, like me, it wasn’t exactly northern, either. It was someplace where the poster models were all multicultural and the shoes were not prim. The clothing designs and home decor collections were so fun and colorful. There was no hint of the KKK. And they even had books.
For a girl living down the road in a town with a single stoplight, Target was a lifeline to something sophisticated, cool, and creative, to something better that I had always suspected was out there in the void. The store was a reminder, a letter from an alternate reality, that good things were coming. Take a look around, the letter read, and know there is a world beyond.
I am happy to report that eventually I did, in fact, get the hell out of Dodge. After college, I ended up in New York City: the kind of place I imagined all those adolescent years to be the epitome of the outside world. I had made it.
And yet I found myself so out of place.
The city was, in a word, stunning. I was stunned by the crush of people, by the utter largeness of every space and the microscopic role I had to fill in all of it. In the time that I lived there, I stopped smiling at strangers and picked up a habit of cursing at cabs. I learned quickly that I could not be nice to anyone. Nice was vulnerable.
“Where are you from?” the pizza dude asked me as I ordered a slice for my very first dinner in the city. “You’re too nice to be from New York.”
“I’m from Georgia,” I said. “Well, I grew up there at least. I just moved away.”
“I could tell,” he laughed.
Suddenly, to my surprise, I was very, very southern. Southern to everyone but, perhaps, myself.
“You’ll toughen up. One thing you’ve gotta learn about New York is not to be too nice. New York is—” he paused, “inhuman.”
Great, I thought. Just great. Inhuman. Hadn’t I just escaped all that?
Soon thereafter, I was overcome by homesickness. I dug my heels into the concrete, fighting the urge to fall in line with the rough and surly masses, finding refuge in the newfound southerness I had not previously recognized in myself or even wanted. I dismissed all the terrible things I remembered from my childhood—the ugliness, the moral corruption, the inhumanity—and dove headfirst into the rose-colored stereotype that New York was projecting onto me. The friendliness, the syrupy sweetness: I took the good southern stuff and ran with it. I made biscuits in my apartment. I smote New York’s army of frowns with my “hey y’alls.”
A little charm went a long way, but it didn’t last forever. After a while, I was worn down.
“What the fuck?” I cried as a taxi splashed mucky rainwater on my jeans while I stood waiting for my bus one day. “Fuck you, asshole!”
Who—no, what—had I become? Gracious sakes alive. I didn’t recognize myself.
That day, after leaving work in Manhattan, I decided not to catch the bus back to my apartment in Queens. I had had enough. I needed comfort. I walked along the top edge of Central Park and up Fifth Avenue to East 117th Street, where I hung a hard right and kept going until I could go no further.
What stopped my path that day? Target. Good old, bright red, bargain-hunting, cheery, tidy Target. The popcorn smell hit me, and I swear that my blood pressure dropped.
I hadn’t been inside a Target in nearly a year. I plucked a basket from a tall clean stack near the doors and commenced a long, leisurely stroll through the aisles, admiring this trinket and that. I felt a sense of renewed composure and well-being. The clearance signs, the sale stickers, the shelving, the playful advertising: it was all there. Just like in Georgia. Just like in, well, anywhere. Even in New York, the sameness hugged me like an old friend.
Now, make no mistake—I don’t intend to glorify consumerism here. I’ve simply found it to be a unifying experience in America, whether we like it or not. Big-box chain stores like Target occupy a uniquely fabricated corner of our country’s culturescape; they are conceptualized without regard to organic regional tastes and are planted here and there until, finally, they form a unified identity of their own. Regardless of what’s going on outside, the shoes will always be in the back. The stickers will always be bright red. And the taste—uniformly—will always hit a little above the middle. Every time.
So what exactly is Target? Target is the common commercial denominator of the middle class, a sluice box of sorts that shakes out the very rich and the very poor to reveal the vast menagerie of us middlings poking around for deals. Target is a dreamland suspended in midair, buoyed by middle-class aspirations and preferences and budgets. Its world does not actually exist, except within its own walls. And despite its unyielding sameness, a Target store is perceived quite differently depending on its physical address. In this way, its identity is a paradox: the store’s tenacious consistency is also the thing which fuels its shapeshifting relevance across the regions. In Georgia, it’s a little progressive in that it has greeting cards for same-sex weddings; in New York, it’s a little pedestrian in that it has greeting cards at all.
It’s something I had come to accept about myself. Tarjay, je t’aime.
About a year later, I left New York—it felt too exhausting, rude, and relentless. To say that I felt disillusioned after twelve brief months would be an understatement. Despite my newfound propensity toward spouting expletives at passing vehicles, I still felt like I didn’t belong. But if the South and New York couldn’t define me, what place could?
A few years later, as my fiancé was scrambling to find a job with his new master’s degree, I got a phone call. He was hanging out in a hotel room in a little town in western Colorado and had just finished an important interview.
“I got the job,” he said. “Google the town, and see what you think.”
I did. It was a place I had never heard of before: a little dot on the map, hours from any bigger dots, surrounded by wilderness and sketchy mountain passes. The population was frightening: a mere ten thousand souls.
Nope. Been there, done that, I thought. I spent my most formative times in a know-nothing little hamlet from which it took years to break free. I wasn’t going back without a fight.
“It’s too small,” I said when I returned his call an hour later. “And it’s really isolated. I can’t do the small-town thing again—there is no way we can do this.”
“It’s different here than in the South, though,” he contended. “It’s not what you’d imagine. They have a Target.”
Come again, I thought. A what?
We talked some more, and although I still felt immense trepidation at packing up my life again and heading west to yet another new place (sight unseen, mind you), something about the presence of that darn store made the fear a little softer. The great unknowns were not quite so unknown. As we later U-hauled across the nation, bumbling over the plains and mountains to our new life, a mantra materialized in my mind: “At least they have a Target. At least they have a Target. At least they have a Target.”
It’s a story my husband likes to tell, and it always gets a laugh. It should. It’s absurd. But you know what? I’m not alone. I’ve heard other transplants (and there are many here) reply, “Me too! I thought exactly the same thing. It can’t be that bad if there’s a Target.”
My people, you get it.
Nowadays, I find myself with a new label: to my friends in Colorado, I come from back East. I’ve become accustomed to that kind of loose distinction by now, but ask me where I’m from, where I’m really from, and I’ll tell you that I don’t know. I may never know. But I carry within me pieces of many places that, for me, have created something that defies regional boundaries.
Ever heard of a gal raised by a family of cornfed Cubs fans who says “y’all” occasionally, shouts expletives under extreme duress, and loves hiking at high altitudes in the wildflower-studded alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains? That’s me. Perhaps this is what puts someone like me in a uniquely American situation: I’m just one big messy mix. But I’ve learned to make peace with the clutter, settle into it, and even invite it along for the ride. Now I’m at home when I visit my relatives in the Midwest, at home in the red earth of Georgia, at home on the streets of the big city, and at home in the great rugged expanse of Colorado. It’s all there, within me, wherever the road winds.
Sometimes I go to Target just for something to do in this town of ten thousand. I walk through the aisles and pull on that cord that leads to the outside world, a stubborn tinge of longing still poking my ribs. But now that feeling is not quite so sharp and not nearly as urgent, and it’s tempered with a more keen understanding of myself and my own belonging. The popcorn smell hits, the baubles and shiny this-and-thats beckon, and I can wander aimlessly in a state of constant familiarity until I’m ready to return to real life.
Here, there, or anywhere.
Caitlin Causey lives and writes at about six thousand feet in western Colorado where her essays, food and travel writing, and journalism have appeared in a variety of regional publications. She is currently at work on a novel.