Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Forgetting Everything You Never Had To Remember

We grew up in Gadsden. Kids in Gadsden didn’t think it a small town. We’d all seen places with more farms than car dealerships; where they had only one grocery store. Those were the small towns.

When my tenth-grade English teacher suggested we could relate to John Cougar Mellencamp’s "Small Town," we stared at him blankly. He countered, suggesting Gadsden was small compared to, say, Los Angeles. We shrugged and granted him that.

Nowadays, my parents, my brother and I all live in the Birmingham area. It's different, but I don't usually think of it as different. Again, next to L.A., Birmingham, too, is a small town. I don't think about Gadsden and Birmingham being different, except when I visit Gadsden.


One time a while back, my brother and I stopped in Gadsden on our way to Henagar—the kind of place we considered a small town when we lived in Gadsden. Our parents sent us to pick up beef from the processor—near to where the cow was born and raised. They were into eating local before that was a thing.

In Gadsden we drove through a Hardee's for breakfast. The woman at the window called my brother baby doll. Of course, she did. That wasn't surprising. What surprised me was that I had forgotten the women at fast food places in Gadsden call you baby doll.

How does that happen? How does the new thing become so normal that one forgets the old thing, when the old thing was once the only thing? It could be that we had misunderstood the old thing all along.


As a kid, I thought I was growing up in a suburb, but a city has to be urban to have suburbs. Gadsden had neighborhoods. In a collection of suburbs you find homogeneity that just doesn’t exist in neighborhoods.

In Gadsden, some folks were more country than others. We all knew that. Every day, we interacted with people along different bands of the country spectrum. Out in the county, we encountered folks who shaded more or less country, but that never caught us off guard. Because on any given day you might meet a person in Gadsden who was more country than the standard in the small towns.

Not Returning

In the suburbs, however, we’re not so versatile. We expect each other to sound like we’ve always been here. When asked, we’re sure we remember otherwise, but the din of our monotone dialect makes it easy to forget. Maybe Mellencamp understands the two sides of this coin.

No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me

Mellencamp sings "Small Town" from the perspective of someone who’s still in the small town. Why does he need to warn himself against forgetting where he came from if he’s still there? In that line, we might be hearing a sentiment truer to the songwriter than to the song, but there’s another possibility.

Just before the self-admonition against forgetting, Mellencamp—or his narrator—makes a confession.

Married an L.A. Doll and brought her to this small town
Now she's small town just like me

Somewhere in his story, the singer left the small town, and leaving did something to him—so that even after returning he has to remind himself not to forget where he came from. He needs this reminder despite the small-town ethos being so strong that his L.A. doll doesn’t flinch when the lady at Hardee’s calls her sweetheart. That’s the part I don’t know anything about.

I have not gone home again, let alone taken someone back with me. Moreover, I must have looked like a guy who wouldn’t be coming back.


I worked at a tool-and-die shop between high school and college. Near the end of the summer, a welder offered the advice John Cougar Mellencamp wasn’t there to give. Don’t forget where you came from.

Here in the suburbs—where we all sound like we’ve always been here—I know that on some level I have forgotten where I came from.

Otherwise, I’d still know my brother is a baby doll. We could hit 10 drive-throughs in Gadsden today, and he’d hear it—or the same sentiment—seven times. In Attalla, he’d go 10 for 10. That just doesn’t happen in Birmingham, in Vestavia Hills, in Hoover—usually not even Pelham. As for Los Angeles, I cannot say.

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