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9/11: The View From the Midwest

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Aerial & Ground Views

Bloomington is a City of 65,000 in the central part of a state that is extremely flat, so that you can see the town's salients from very far away. Three major interstates converge here, and several rail lines. The town's almost exactly halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, and its origins involve being a big train depot. It has a smaller twin city, Normal, that's built around a university and a slightly different story. Both towns together are like 110,000.

As Midwest cities go, the only remarkable thing about Bloomington is its prosperity. It's recession-proof. Some of this is due to the county's land, which is world-class fertile and so expensive you can't even find out how much it costs. But Bloomington is also the national HQ for State Farm, which is the great dark god of consumer insurance and for all practical purposes owns the town, and because of which Bloomington's east side is all smoked-glass complexes and Build-To-Suit developments and a six-lane beltway of malls and franchises that's killing the old downtown, plus a large and ever-wider split between the town's two basic classes and cultures, so well and truly symbolized by the SUV and pickup truck,* respectively.

Winter here is a pitiless bitch, but in the warm months Bloomington's a little like a seaside community except the ocean here is corn, which grows steroidically and stretches to the earth's curve in all directions. The town itself in summer is intensely green – streets bathed in tree-shade and homes' explosive gardens and area-code-size parks and golf courses you almost need eye-protection to look at, and row upon row of broad weedless fertilized lawns all lined up flush to the sidewalk with special edging tools. (People here are deeply into lawn-care; my neighbors tend to mow about as often as they shave.) To be honest, it can be a little creepy, especially in high summer when nobody's out and all that green just sits in the heat and seethes.

Like many Midwest towns, B-N is lousy with churches: four full pages in the phone book. Everything from Unitarian to bug-eyed Pentecostal. There's even a church for agnostics. Except for church – plus I suppose your basic parades, fireworks and a couple corn festivals – there isn't much public community. Everybody pretty much has his family and neighbors and tight little circle of friends. By New York standards folks keep to themselves.** They play golf and grill out and go to mainstream movies ...

... And they watch massive, staggering amounts of TV. I'm not just talking about the kids. Something that's obvious but still crucial to keep in mind re: Bloomington and the Horror is that reality – any really felt sense of a larger world – is televisual. New York's skyline, for instance, is as recognizable here as anyplace else, but what it's recognizable from is TV. TV's also more social here than on the East Coast, where in my experience people are almost constantly leaving home to go meet other people face-to-face in public places. There don't tend to be parties or mixers per se here; what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody's house and watch something.

Here, therefore, to have a home without a TV is to become a kind of constant and Kramer-like presence in others' homes, a perpetual guest of folks who can't understand why you would choose not to have a TV but are completely respectful of your need to watch TV and offer you access to their TV in the same instinctive way they'd bend to lend a hand if you tripped in the street. This is especially true of some kind of must-see, Crisis-type situation like the 2000 election snafu or this week's Horror. All you have to do is call somebody you know and say you don't have a TV: "Well shoot, boy, get over here."

* Despite some people's impression, the native accent isn't Southern simply rural, whereas corporate transplants have no accent at all (in Mrs. Bracero's phrase, State Farm people "sound like the folks on TV").

** The native term for a conversation is visit.

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