July 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

"Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is...do you?"
-'Ballad of a Thin Man' by Bob Dylan

Sometimes I forget that I don't live in a typical place. I drive to work and back, I do my homework for the night, and I get lost in news stories about other places and other people. But there are some moments where I'm smacked across the face by Urbana, Illinois.

Moments like this happened in a string this weekend- driving down Main Street to the sound of singing, random guitars on the sidewalk. The Sunday garage sale with a cardboard sign that "everything is free". The bluegrass music playing at the Iron Post, where people in hats danced without rhythm or concern for passersby- a twilight zone feeling that prompted Dena to remark, "This place should not exist."

There are a lot of surreal elements to this town. Where Champaign pulls off the tax-money-well-spent look, Urbana seems confused by it. If a Champaign kid plays soccer in the park district, the Urbana kid gets an early start in community theater. Champaign has the Virginia Theater, but Urbana has the IMC, as well as Krannert and everything else that comes with the U of I. Champaign would have a discussion, but Urbana would have a sit-in. Urbana is the hippie sister that Champaign usually out-classes.

If I could describe this crazy place in one word, it would probably be 'organic'- according to the dictionary, it can mean "simple, healthful, and close to nature." People here have gardens for lawns. They shop at the co-op and the farmer's market. I feel unnerved carrying a plastic bag across the Wright Street. From my little apartment, I've heard a collection of sounds- a band practice, families walking, a bonfire, a backyard party, drunks, and most recently, an opera singer. People here are so genuinely odd, so whimsically strange and beatnik, that they don't even realize they are-a sort of Emperor's New Clothes scenario in which I am supposed to pretend this is all normal.

The scariest part of this is my relationship to it. I somehow feel a little bit at home coming back to the 61801 zip code. I joked that I couldn't have blonde hair living in Urbana, and oddly enough, I don't now. I find myself walking down to the farmer's market and wondering where certain booths went since last week. I feel like it is a city in which I could be a writer and be a part of the masses instead of the odd man out. And-joy of joys-Dena and I have found ourselves as regulars when the bartender rememered us at a backwards, low-key bar that wouldn't stand a chance in downtown Champaign.

And while the Champaign-ian bits of me put down my schoolwork and cursed when the opera signer began belting out her song, the Urbana bits smiled. And listened.

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