Whether you refer to them as hyper-regional oddities or local color, every town has its share of strangeness, often beloved or overlooked by the locals but which seem utterly bizarre to the uninitiated. If it's something you’ve never seen it’s a spectacle, but when it’s something you see every day it's invisible. When you’re an insider to the peculiarities of a community then you're officially a native.
Growing up in northwest suburban Des Plaines there was an old Greek immigrant who used to preach the gospel all around town. He would park his ancient bicycle against a street sign and shamble out into the intersection and up onto the boulevard, right into the middle of the maze of traffic. He wore an old threadbare pea coat regardless of the seasons and his "megaphone" was home-made from sheets of cardboard twisted together with duct tape and twine. If you passed an intersection in the morning and saw him there, gesturing wildly and shaking a bony finger at his captive audience stopped for the light, chances were you’d see him again in the evening if you drove by the same spot. He was always somewhere reminding everyone that this life was temporary and you better prepare or suffer for eternity. That’s a lot to contemplate when you're stuck at the light and running late for softball practice.
When I was a child he frightened me, but as I got older I viewed him with a certain degree of affection. One day I dared to meet his gaze with my own and I waved my finger around my head in the universal gesture of "you're nuts." To my surprise he smiled back and gave me the same gesture.
"I’m ready for the end of days," he shouted at me. Are YOU?" Apparently it was I who was nuts. I had no idea. I always liked him after that.
I stopped seeing him for the crazy, disheveled old man most thought of him as and began to see something else: a completely unique thread in the fabric of the community. It was like he was on this righteous path and as long as he was still around town all would be right with the world. Even the local police patrols never shooed him away from the street corners—they wouldn’t dare. I think the locals would have been offended.
One day years later I realized I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and it made me sad. As a Christian, though, I took comfort in the fact that all the preparing he did surely guaranteed him his place in paradise. I only hope God was able to find him a nicer coat.
I’ve been thinking about him lately because as a comparatively recent home owner here in Downers Grove, there will always be those peculiarities about this village that I will never "get." It’s simply too late for me. Like the old Greek preacher, I think you have to experience the same phenomenon both as a child and as an adult to really begin to see it differently, to gain perspective, wisdom.
I’ve always seen Downers Grove as a village of dichotomies, of startling contrasts that only I seem to see. In the past I simply assumed I was smarter than everyone else in town, which of course is a huge pile of crap. Now I realize it’s that I simply haven’t lived here long enough to see past that solitary fireplace sitting on the side of Ogden Avenue just East of 80 without saying WHAT THE HELL IS THAT DOING THERE?! every time I drive by. (I am offering a growler of 1 a.m. ale from to anyone who can explain its origins, how the heck it got there and who owns it.) It's actually a wonder someone hasn’t dismantled it stone-by-stone and reconstructed it in a yard. Wish I had the room.
Like Italian and Mexican restaurants sharing the same kitchen, there are simply some peculiarities within this community that I will never understand, and I’ve learned to accept it. However, there remains one that simply makes me nuts.
The North/South thing ... what is that all about?
Ever since we moved in I have felt this odd tension between the two halves of this community, and I’ve never understood it. It’s as if Richmond is South of 55th and Washington, D.C., is somewhere along Ogden Avenue. When I used to write restaurant reviews for local establishments I would receive an inbox full of mail complaining that I had a bias "toward the North Side of town" because I had never reviewed anyplace on the south end. Most of the restaurants I reviewed were in the downtown area and by definition I thought downtown implied "center," but apparently I was wrong.
Maybe it has something to do with having two high schools divided between both sides of town and the natural rivalries that one would expect from that. Makes sense if you're still in high school but c’mon people, prom was decades ago. For all intents and purposes both schools are statistically even in terms of academics (I couldn't care less about athletics, but hey, go Mustangs!) if not size, but who cares which school has more brick? I don’t get it. I would be proud to send my children to either.
I’ve heard rumblings that the north end of town is somehow more snooty or "affluent," or at least as affluent as you can be this far west of Hinsdale. If affluent somehow translates to "older" then maybe, but as I always say, "older" doesn’t mean better. There’s a world of difference between classic and crap. Don’t believe me? Come by some time when I’m taping over the cracks in my century-old windows I can’t afford to replace. I can think of six dozen houses on the other side of town I would swap with in a heartbeat, and I'll even throw in my one-car garage.
I’ve seen the same new construction craftsman style homes built by the same developer on both ends of town, and priced pretty much the same whether you shop at the Dominick’s on Ogden or off of 63rd. No difference.
Crime? No, you're unlikely to be pistol-whipped and held for ransom on either side of town. Weather? Nope, it’s the same here or there. People? I’ve never been able to determine an accent native to either end of town, everyone sounds the same to me. Parks? Both ends of town feature some real gems.
So what is it?
Maybe when I’ve lived here longer I’ll figure it out and I’ll see it as plainly as I saw the righteous path that opened up before the old Greek preacher. Then again, maybe it's best I’ll never be a native.