A small Midwestern town perched on a freshwater lake suggests an idyll, but everyone’s bored.
I lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin from ages 8 to 18. It’s picturesque in parts. Large, leafy trees shade the grassy hills around my high school and, though the building itself resembles a prison, the green is refreshing in the sunlight. There is water everywhere. Two lakes, Winnebago and Butte des Morts, leak into hundreds of little channels, and the Fox River winds its way through town. Winnebago is always covered — sheets of ice, blankets of algae — and zebra mussels slice your feet in the summer.
It’s a peaceful place. The Best Buy opening of 2009 was a bacchanalia. Yes, we make overalls here. Or used to, rather. Even the overalls got bored and moved away.
There’s nothing to do except drink and have sex. This explains why, four years after high school, most of my classmates have a DUI or three to their name — or worse, a child — instead of a college degree. At this, people barely blink an eye. After a while you forget that a DUI is a big deal and that children are a burden. That’s just the way it is there. Midwestern values don’t mean shit once boredom sets in.
The population hovers around 62,000, but it feels much smaller. It seemed quite nice growing up. My dad and I biked down Wiouwash Trail on weekends, stopping at sandy pockets of land on the lakeside where fish heads washed up, tinged green with algae. In high school my friends and I drove to the quarries on warm days. We launched ourselves off the crooked cliffs, screaming into the still waters. The highest rock was Snoopy, shaped like the cartoon dog’s head, but they demolished it after a kid died. In winter we went ice skating on the channel and sledding down Garbage Hill, carting plastic platters in primary colors. Once I watched a train of my friends careen sideways and smack into a pole at the bottom. No one died, so the pole stayed.
As time passed, though, the repetition grew grating, and the small-town schtick lost its charm. Towards the end of high school, I realized that drinking is the only fun to be had there. It’s not desire to drink, so much, as it is necessity. Before booze, we would sit in my friend’s basement on scratchy oatmeal-colored couches and debate what to do for hours. My boyfriend took me on dates to Target, where we strolled the aisles and played with the toys. They built a playground in the park for the children, but people sold drugs there instead. Finding alcohol was, in some ways, a relief.
But Main Street is a grim place. Downtown is dying, and its only source of lifeblood is dozens of dive bars and dollar mugs at the Distillery Pub. People grow old in those bars, sitting in their regular seats. Boys black out and get into bar fights, cracking a tooth or two and bloodying their knuckles. Girls become stout matrons in a matter of months. Not surprising, in a place where beer is so cheap.
It wasn’t until I left for college that I began to see Oshkosh this way. Despite the boredom, there’s something magnetic about the place, such that many of my classmates transferred back to the city’s university. Maybe it felt safer there because nothing ever happens in Oshkosh. But I watched as my friends, having returned or never having left, dropped out of college one by one and took up day jobs. They talk about going back to school someday, but chances seem slim. They go out every night, get black out drunk, get into fights and laugh about it the next day. It looks fun and easy, but as we grow older, I wonder where they will end up.
Last break, I went to a bar with a few friends, all girls who left town for college, to catch up over $2 pitchers. They talked about applying to graduate schools and Teach for America. I talked about the six months I spent in New York, and they wanted to hear about my loser ex-boyfriend who, the year before, had knocked up a girl of a few weeks’ acquaintance and dropped out of college to take a full-time job as a night security officer. His life felt so far away from us now. They laughed and winced appropriately and after finishing our pitchers, we walked to the bar next door.
There we ran into a few Oshkosh guys and continued the catch-up game, sitting on tall wicker stools. One friend asked a line of questions about what we were up to, how school was, and other such things. Afterwards, I asked what he had been up to lately. He shrugged and took a sip of his beer.
“Same as usual,” he said. “It’s Oshkosh.” Two words were enough.
There is a curious sundial in the town square, at the corner of Main and Algoma streets. It’s a massive silver point that juts upwards. It’s boasted to be one of the largest sundials in the nation, and is one of the more notable structures in Oshkosh. But no one likes it. At night teens loiter around it, smoking and skateboarding across the granite bench. There are petitions to have it removed, but it never will be.
As I prepare to graduate, I think about my town and the pointless sundial. No matter how much I dislike it, I can’t get rid of it. I was raised by boredom and changed by it. In some ways, I’m grateful for the experience. But I would rather die than live there. There is too much sadness in this stagnant city. So I choose to walk away freely, leaving my sad, drab town behind me.