A lot of Americans are wondering what we have to celebrate this 4th, between the delegation of women to second class citizen status and the continuing Republican war on democracy. Then again, wondering what we have to celebrate is a very American thing to think, as evidenced by this column from the relative Eden of 2004.
Of course, life isn't worse in every way. Lorenz's garage, the 1851 business I was trying to save indeed was forced out ... and replaced by a Graeter's ice cream parlor. I have to admit, it was an improvement. Happy Fourth of July, stay safe around fireworks.
Ready for a shock? This will be my fifth Fourth — the fifth 4th of July in Northbrook, the fifth time we all trooped to the Village Green for the pancake breakfast hosted by the VFW, lingering for a little bocce ball. It's a nice moment, settling in under the swaying trees, pouring the syrup, securing the napkins. The Village Green is the best part of town — a fountain, a little gazebo where they have bands, a playground and a ballfield. I sip my coffee, take a big mouthful of pancake, look approvingly around and let the waves of burgermeister satisfaction roll over me.
And why not? A great country, this. A great suburb. Sure, the leafy suburban paradise has its problems. Across the street from the Village Green, the little strip of Shermer Road that Northbrook calls a downtown quivers on the brink of decay, with a vacant lot and a down-at-the-heels drug store and a thrift shop. Not exactly downtown Lake Forest.
But I like that about Northbrook. Well-off, but not so well-off that a person like myself feels bad about his blown opportunities. One of the nicest buildings downtown is an auto repair shop — the Northbrook Garage, a quaint 1922 brick structure, the cleanest repair shop you will ever see in your life. It looks like something out of a train diorama. The Northbrook Garage has operated on that spot for 153 years, ever since it was founded as a wagon repair business by Frederick Lorenz in 1851.
"There wasn't an awful lot going on here at the time," said his great-great grandson, Jay Lorenz, the garage's current owner.
How about a nice BMW dealer?
Lest we dwell too long on that quaint image, I should point out that the Village wants to seize Lorenz's property and force him out so they can put in a business more in keeping with their dreams of grandeur, such as the inevitable Williams-Sonoma found in every downtown on the North Shore.
"I find it very disturbing that my building can stay but my 150-plus year old business must go," Lorenz said. "Something is very, very wrong in Northbrook."
Not to single out Northbrook. People who run village boards are usually the type who think asphalting over cobblestones is progress. The town I grew up in, Berea, Ohio, demolished half its downtown to put up an outdoor mall of small, linked storefronts that seemed very retro chic in 1976. Ten years later, it was completely empty, and they ended up filling it with a senior citizen center. Nothing quite sparks up a downtown like an old-age home.
That's why small towns shouldn't engage in social engineering. They screw it up, kicking out the 153-year-old repair shop and ending up stuck with an empty building.
But I didn't want to carp today. Not with the fine July 4 weekend on tap. Did I say that the parade passes a block from our house? Let's save condemning those mini-Norman chateaus my fellow villagers insist on jamming between 1950s split-levels for another day.
I'd rather tell you that next month's "Northbrook Days" holds a bachelor auction, and if that isn't something out of "Oklahoma," here is the small print from the sign-up form: "I agree to participate in the Northbrook Days Bachelor Auction by fulfilling my obligation to attend the agreed upon dinner date and represent the organization in an appropriate and gentlemanly manner."
'Take your hands off me!'
Isn't that sweet? Or maybe my mind has been addled by too much time breathing the trackside air in Union Station. I suppose you could view the small print as evidence that Northbrook is concerned about being confronted by weeping, despoiled bachelorettes holding them legally culpable for their hellish evenings spent fending off the advances of some guy they bought at a charity auction.
No, let's not think that way. People here can be truly nice. The teachers at my kids' school —they're incredible. It's like they're in a cult or something. I remember the teachers when I was growing up — a grim gang of sourpusses, their clawlike hands digging into my shoulder as they glared at me, mouths twisted into these sneers of gleeful, acid, contempt.
"Your son . . ." Mrs. Southam, my fifth-grade teacher, told my mother, "will never amount to anything."
I probably shouldn't go into detail about Northbrook's Greenbriar Elementary School, because Chicago parents, whose kids are bravely blowing the asbestos dust off their moldy 1950s science texts, will feel bad. And every aspect is so off the charts you'll think that I'm making it up. The classrooms have 20 kids, tops, and because no teacher can be expected to handle that mob on her own, they all have assistants. Every day the kids come home with their backpacks stuffed with memos and newsletters and updates. Teachers send home poems of welcome and reassurance to soften the beginning of the school year. They have the kids construct homemade gifts for all major holidays and prepare scrapbooks of each child's year in class. The books are bound. The school has more special days on its calendar than the Catholic Church — science fairs and carnivals and concerts and open houses.
So life is good. And whatever the problems, from a zealous village board to the bog in Iraq, they shouldn't dampen the Fourth. Just because a place has issues doesn't mean you can't love it.