Our joke is that Terre Haute has one of everything. One good Indian restaurant, one good pub, one semi-hip coffee shop. Not more than that. God forbid! We are not indulgent heathens out here, you know. One is enough. You should be happy with that. We’ve told this joke, if you can even call it that, far too many times. It makes us feel like real locals to sum up this town in a witty line or two.
But understanding this place has been a constant process of bait-and-switch, of readjusting our eyes every time the light changes.
Our first week in town, we went out to that one good pub. Our waitress was adorable, the brash and busty type. Piercings. I like this edge I’ve seen developing in college-aged Midwestern girls. Sharper corners, a rougher exterior that I really approve of. She took a look at our driver’s licenses.
“Oh, you two are from Washington? I’ve always wanted to live there. Just to warn you,” and she rolled her eyes in the semi-dark, “it’s really conservative around here.”
“Oh yeah?” we said.
“Oh yeah,” she said. She crossed her arms over her chest. Waitresses always look so foxy in black. “It’s the Bible Belt, you know.”
And we nodded along with her like we did, actually, know.
We’ve had a handful of interactions like this since we’ve moved here. When people hear we are “from Washington” they seize the opportunity to launch into a tirade about how Terre Haute and the surrounding Wabash River Valley is just the most conservative/uncultured/religious/rural. It’s been enlightening to see how the western United States is perceived in the middle; it reminds me how Seattle and Portland were the destinations for our circle of friends back in Michigan, especially in those drifting times between college and whatever was supposed to come after. I just want to get out of here already, move to Portland or someplace cool was a constant mantra. I’m sure I said it a few times myself.
We try to clarify: Oh, sure, but we’re not from that part of Washington. Not the part of Washington that Midwesterners know. Not those coastal cities. We didn’t live among the drizzling rain and the Starbucks and the mountains, but the flat plain between those mountains rubbing shoulders with Mormons and dust storms. So, we say, we totally get what Terre Haute is all about.
But that didn’t seem right. Like other displaced Midwesterners, Spokane never quite felt like home to me, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on its part. It could be a hometown to brag about if I was smart enough to see it.
So we rephrase our answer: We’re not really from Washington, we’re from Michigan! We are one of you! We understand the close-minded don’t-give-a-fuck of the average Midwestern family, the unwillingness to change and praying with heads bowed at the dinner table, the churches with ridiculous signs that say things like “God answers to knee-email” and “Get Close to the Son: Avoid Burning.”
But that seems like an equally false equivalency. Here, Michigan’s too-proud underdog status would wear thin. When I mention Michigan, good old Terre Hauteans treat it like a cautionary tale.
So I try to put it this way: There’s charm here. Terre Haute feels small but cleansing too. It will be good for my psyche to drink Miller Light for a while and see How Real People Live. Sure, my students write personal essays about being born-again and yes, the local grocery store keeps their condoms locked away in a glass cabinet, but in all truth when you look up “Bible Belt” on Wikipedia, Terre Haute hovers just a few interstates north. I don’t feel like we can claim that as an easy way to describe this place where we live.
But I think I’m coming from a place of ego. Perhaps my insistence on fitting in and shedding my tourist’s eyes as soon as possible actually prevents me from seeing a place as it is. If my own identity is skewed – if people think I am from Washington and respond to me accordingly – maybe my perception of this place is skewed too. I don’t want to be seen as an outsider, so I skip the stuff that doesn’t fit and try to find the heart connection. I want to slide along these grooves in the roads and memorize my routes. I want to know this place, but if I can’t take the word of those for whom this town is an everyday bonedry reality, if I can’t take the bad with the good, I might never get there.
Then it’s time to confess: My singular hip coffee shop was once a church. Its innards have been scraped out and an espresso machine installed by the pipe organ. A faith-based addiction recovery program trains its graduates as baristas so they might make new lives for themselves. It’s like any college cafe. Mismatched furniture, radio playing low. Even the baristas, you’d never give a second look – laconic, world weary, and tattooed. But a former church keeps its inexorable churchiness. Stained glass windows at one end and a ceiling-tall bleeding crucifix at the other. And what really gets me: the faint smell of incense burned into the fabric of the place. I smell it every time I shift in my seat. Which, by the way, is an old pew, one of the few saved from the renovation to use as seating.
Maybe I should admit that I am where I am.
I take off my shoes in the pew and cross my legs underneath me. The word INIQUITY is painted in thick black letters on the crucifixion mural behind my head. I breathe in the wood smoke memory of the incense, and say a quiet prayer of belonging. It sounds a little like a bad joke.