Wednesday, June 29, 2016
On the road, my wife and I try to avoid fast food restaurants because they serve not just crap, but boring, familiar, unhealthful, unappetizing crap.
Which means picnic lunches, if we've prepared them. If not, then venturing away from the tollway, looking for the ever-more-elusive local restaurant. At the back of my mind is "Mom's Diner," with Mom—curly haired, fat cheeks, powerful forearms, rolling out the pie crust, gazing out the window, somehow knowing we're about to arrive. ("Howdy. Take a seat anywhere. Leave room for pie—they should just be cool by the time you're done with supper.")
Yes, I know. There is something of the connoisseur's delusion to the idea—Mom's Diner can be lousy too; worse than McDonald's (at least once a trip I point out that local roadside eateries were so famously slow and consistently horrible that nationwide chains were embraced particularly for being quick and clean).
But part of our vacation fun is searching out a bit of local color, and seeking homemade pie.
And sometimes learning something.
Heading home Tuesday, I pulled off the road at the exit we were passing about 12 noon and we found ourselves in Michigan, heading north on 131. There was a commercial traffic bypass, and a "Historic" downtown local route. We went historic, ending up on Washington Street, the main drag of the village of Constantine, on the St. Joseph River.
One glimpse of the downtown and the restaurant almost became moot. It was a once prosperous, small red brick storefronts with turrets and trim, now empty and forlorn. A town on hard times, which was mystifying, because there were several enormous agricultural companies—Pioneer Seeds, Monsanto corn—on the outskirts. Maybe they were completely mechanized, because whatever profits they generate obviously aren't being spent in downtown Constantine. The ice cream parlor had gone out of business. Most of the windows were empty, or covered with plywood painted black. The several amateur efforts at retail, craft stores and such, had died on the vine.
To be fair, several buildings had their moldings brightly painted and seemed to have thriving businesses: a cafe, an art galley. But fully 80 percent of the downtown strip was shuttered.
We ate at the Harvey Restaurant, which the waitress told us had been in business since 1908 (actually, 1903) making it the oldest restaurant I had ever been in that retained not a whiff of whatever charm it might have once possessed over the decades. It was 70 percent empty at lunchtime on Taco Tuesday. A grilled cheese sandwich cost $2.
After lunch we explored downtown. Maybe I have election on the brain, but I kept thinking this is why people are willing to support Donald Trump, in spite of all reason and the demands of patriotism and humanity. They'll follow anybody who promises to deliver the country from this sort of dismal descent in to ruin. If you saw your town turn into this, it would be heartbreaking. It was sort of heartbreaking when it wasn't your town, just to come upon it for the first time.
Later, I tried to find out what had happened to Constantine: named for the Roman Emperor, for you fans of irony. The population didn't vanish—the village is as big as it ever was, 2,000 people, the same for the past 25 years. There was a bypass put in three years ago, the idea being get commercial traffic off Washington Street. Maybe it worked too well and siphoned all traffic out of Constantine's downtown.
So maybe the injury was self-inflicted. Maybe there's some other factor I haven't considered. A big Walmart in nearby White Pigeon, perhaps, that sucked all the business away. And this isn't to suggest it isn't a nice place to live: we saw children playing on swings, an elderly man on an enormous John Deere mower cutting grass. So no insult intended. I liked the place, tipped well, and was glad to have left money there.
But the general sinking feeling we felt, walking around, lingered with us. I felt zero big city hauteur. The presidential election has killed that in me, for good I hope. If the populist revolt that gave us Donald Trump's candidacy is indeed thwarted, then Agenda No. 1 needs to be to figure out how to get these buildings in Constantine unboarded and back into business. They had a purpose when they were built. They need a purpose again.