Grit Blogs > Almost Country

Small-Town Living in a Sprawling Metropolis

A photo of Colleen NewquistAlthough I live in a huge metropolitan area, my life is remarkably small-town.

I shop at the same Jewel Food Store I worked at during high school, where my former co-worker Russ Ann, who still runs a cash register, asks about my family or says “You just missed your mother.” I stop at D&D Foods, the Italian specialty shop, where Guido pauses from making sausage to ask how my homemade mozzarella came out or to say, “You just missed your sister.” I get waited on by one of his sisters, check out at the cash register run by his mother, and pay cash or check – no credit cards taken here.

We opened our swimming pool last week, and Glenn “the pool guy,” whose father installed the cement pool 30 years ago, tells me that he and his girlfriend, who was the listing agent on our house when we bought it, are finally getting married. He tells me about the mini-farm he bought 15 miles south of here, and the chicks he’s raising. I recommend GRIT’s Guide to Backyard Chickens. He comes in, upstairs, to see my husband’s ceramic art and voice his enthusiasm for Michael following this new path. He writes out his invoice by hand and knocks $40 off. Had I not been here, he would have opened the pool in our absence and left the bill on the porch.

This past Friday night found me, my sister Sherry, and my neighbor Kathryn in Martin’s, a bar that has been in the same family for 50 years; a bar where, in its original location a half-block from my great-grandmother’s house, I spent many a happy Sunday afternoon as a kid, drinking Cokes and eating Vitner’s potato chips, playing the bowling game and the juke box, while my dad warmed a bar stool and joked with the owner and his best friend, Jimmy Martin.

This Friday it is me warming the bar stool and talking to the best friend’s son, also named Jimmy Martin, my friend and classmate from first grade until we graduated high school. He once slipped into the more-than-friend category: we were “going out” for a week when we were 10. (“Where are you going?” my mother said. “You’re 10!”)

Of the maybe 20 people in the bar, I know several from grade school, high school, or the neighborhood I grew up in. The band itself, what drew us there in the first place, is Wally World – a band my sister and I recall seeing in a local bar 25 years earlier.

Wally World at J. Martin's Tap in Steger, Illinois

I don’t know what the front man, Jeff “Wally” Walroth, does for his day job, but tonight, he is the hardest-working man in the room, attacking every song they cover with enthusiastic zeal, belting out blues-rock tunes, pounding the keyboard with Jerry Lee Lewis flair, pausing to wail on the saxophone, and even playing the flute at one point. The music is mostly ’70s era blues rock, but you could say his attitude is all country – as in the hard-working versatility that’s required for rural living. The kind of guy you’d like to have living down the road, because whatever tool you might need, whatever ingenuity you require, he’s got it.

The crowd, if you could even call it that, amounts to maybe 25 people, tops, with most seated at the bar, watching the hockey playoffs, or shooting pool. The tables in front of the band remain nearly empty, and by the end of the last set there are seven of us still listening. The band turns in an arena-worthy performance to the last note, infused with a joy that’s written all over the front man’s face. That, I suppose, is the mark of pure passion – giving something your all, even when (almost) no one’s watching.

At closing time, we head to our car, and realize that one inebriated customer, who moments earlier was attempting an unintelligible conversation with Kathryn, is now staggering toward his vehicle, keys in hand. We stop him, suggest that he let us give him a ride instead. Thankfully, even though we don’t know each other at all, he agrees, and is able to give us coherent directions to his house. He thanks us profusely as I help him find his way out the car door. “There are still good people in the world,” he says. I agree wholeheartedly.

I drive off into the night, warmed by good music and the chance to do a good deed, smiling in appreciation of this small-town life.