A Guide to Towns and Cities
Small town – Between 100 and 1,500 people. No stop lights. Post office part of another commercial building, if not just a small chunk of mailboxes installed on side of road. Commercial buildings total no more than five, one of which is a gas station/convenience store. Gas station has one pump. Convenience store sells fishing gear or farm equipment, depending on surrounding area of town. One elementary school, rarely anything more. Inhabitants unsurprised if town is not on state road atlas. Walking to end of town and back barely counts as exercise. Being on first-name basis with over half of town not hyperbole. A mother grows up there, and a son finds residents still know her, thirty years after she's left.
Medium town – Between 1,500 and 10,000 people. One stop light at least, but probably no more than five. Genuine main street. Main street is called “Main Street.” Post office its own separate and dwarfish building. One Dairy Queen. (Possibly other fast food joints, but definitely the Dairy Queen.) Everything closes by six, with the exception of gas stations, maybe two bars, and the Dairy Queen. One high school, no more and no less. Graduation for high school possibly held in church. Church largest auditorium-like venue in vicinity. Inhabitants audibly excited if town is on national road atlas. Being on first-name basis with half of town just barely hyperbole. Multiple elementary schools. Baseball diamonds for a son to play while attending elementary school. One unassuming hospital for a mother to work at and take call. One doctor's room for a son to sleep in on nights without a babysitter. Sky and fields beyond town limits. (Or mountains. Or forests. Or anything but more people.) A son could bike from one end of town to the other in fifteen minutes. A son might do that often.
Big town – Between 10,000 and 40,000 people. Genuine main street has secondary offshoot main streets. Biking from one end of town to the other borders on intense workout. One block on main street that might have, one day, been part of a downtown. Part of commercial strip closes down at eight or nine, but still mostly at six. Maybe a second high school, but probably not. At least five bars though. Post office large enough to blend in with rest of commercial strip. A couple big box stores. Big box stores larger than offshoot main streets. An institution which the town centers on, like a museum, or a monument, or a small college where a son goes to begin. 24-hour culture limited to 7-Eleven, which a son frequents a lot of nights. One enormous graveyard for a son to walk into and fall in love. (The 7-Eleven probably wouldn't have cut it.) Roving cops on the lookout for sons and girls in graveyards. (What other crime is there?) Enough streets that only a person who grew up wandering them could know every single one. Everybody still knows everybody, and a mother considers these streets nice. Streets have at least ten stop lights.
(There is no designation for municipalities between 40,000 and 100,000 people. A son has never lived in such an area, and not only that, he is dismissively terrified of them.)
Small city – Between 100,000 and 500,000 people (metro). Dozens of stop lights. Post office not only large, but probably one of the most genuinely magnificent buildings around. Ten square blocks that might have, one day, been a respectable downtown. Inhabitants refer to these blocks as “downtown.” Dozens of bars that somehow represent the only thing to do, with the exception of local theatres and possibly a concert hall. A handful of high schools. Pockets of people that could be called neighborhoods, with some squinting. Riding a bike from one end of town to the other a job for amateur athlete. Too many people to run into acquaintances every day, but still too few to escape scrutiny. Small enough to keep a person on their toes. A son comes of age, leaves here, and keeps returning. A pervasive, rumbling interstate promises a link to bigger places that a mother wishes to escape to, years after escaping from her small town. Inhabitants who have never lived anywhere else think they live in a small town. Beyond 7-Eleven, 24-hour culture consists of chain diners, where a son finds himself years before he leaves and years after leaving. Some stores close at eight or nine, and many six or seven, except the Barnes & Noble, which closes at eleven, when the Barnes & Noble is always, always filled.
Medium city – Between 500,000 and 3,500,000 people (metro). Hundreds of stop lights. Central post office, far from small or magnificent, resembles ugly over-sized military bunker. A downtown worthy of the name and dozens of full-fledged neighborhoods that, on their own, bear striking resemblances to medium towns. People visiting from medium towns think they are visiting a big city. Cities forgotten, cities galloping, cities stagnant. Theatres and museums and cultural districts, some broken and some thriving and many unknown. Biking from one end of town to another done only by the many biking enthusiasts. 24-hour culture limited to eighteen-and-over titty-bars and a few scattered all-night cafes in inner areas (the same chain diners in the outer areas). A porn theater. Record shops. Cramped bookstores. Liquor stores with taped windows. Brick buildings from the '20s with painted-on advertisements for paint thinner. Industrial areas long since abandoned. Art galleries in industrial areas long since abandoned. Or maybe crack dens. Bars, bars, bars. Hole-in-the-wall punk bars, fifty-sports-TVs suburbanite bars, friendly neighborhood pool bars, wine bars (next to the abandoned industrial art galleries), dive bars, unremarkable bars. River people under bridges. Shit on the sidewalks next to skyscrapers. Fights in the 7-Eleven. Inhabitants run into someone they know once a week, if their social lives are active. Many rumbling interstates, so snake-like and pervasive that a son forgets they lead out of the city. A son leaves everything they know to live here. A son discovers drugs, drinking, a son discovers chugging bottles of cough syrup in cold ratty apartments with cracked Venetian blinds, watching art movies and tripping to the sound of rain with cats keeping a son warm as he huddles under blankets. A son discovers they love other sons, a son discovers they're no longer interested in being sons. A son enrolls in college, a son drops out. A son waits at bus stops at one in the morning, if he is lucky enough to live by one of the few routes that go that late. A mother was married to a father who did similar things, and a mother visits a son hoping he is not. A son hears those from big cities remark how this place is almost like a small town, and a son marvels at their smallness.
Big city – Between 3,500,000 people (metro) and …
Thousands and tens of thousands of stop lights. Dozens of ugly post offices. Stores close late, restaurants close later, diners don't close at all. Rumbling interstates almost everywhere. Rumbling interstates impossible to distinguish from rumbling streets. A hundred high schools. Neighborhoods scattered like small cities. Apartment buildings where nobody speaks to their neighbors. Individual blocks (not unlike small towns) where everybody speaks to their neighbors. City government has department for everything. City government makes up sizable slice of city employment. Smells of hot food follow smells of shit. Biking from one end of town to another a hard day for Olympic athlete, Olympic athlete who enjoys a face of grime and a nostril of exhaust. Biking enthusiasts have own lobbying group. Brick buildings with faded paint from the '20s too numerous to tell apart, much less remember. Bus routes that rarely ever stop, trains and subways that never stop. Suburbs of mansions, suburbs of slums. Downtown lights seen from many of them. Energy. Decay. Rebuilt decay. Overbuilt decay. A son arrives there coming from everywhere else. A son finds inhabitants believe they live in the only city that's really a city, and a son is tempted to believe them. A son looks out his blind-less bedroom window and sees bricks and dirt and bricks. A son never hears quiet. A mother arrives and seems envious of a son. Glitz. So many cramped bookstores, dive bars, abandoned industry, porn theaters, art galleries, many of them, so many, so crushingly many. Two airports, or three. Huge airports. Too many foreign languages spoken to think of counting. Too much food, culture, noise, anger, exasperation, disappointment, wealth, too much, too much, too— Never a question of whether something is available, only whether it's available ten minutes from a residence, and whether they're open this late, and whether they deliver. A son discovers liquor delivery. A son can't get over any of it. A son brings the weight of all his towns and cities with him. A mother wishes for her son's journey. A son pays to take an elevator to the top of the tallest building on a skyline famous and recognizable from whatever. A son is herded in gross humidity with chattering tourists to a skydeck, and a son looks around.
Casey Plett is from Southern Manitoba and the Pacific Northwest. She writes the column Balls Out: A Column on Being Transgendered for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. She will be teaching at Columbia University next year. She is an MFA candidate there. She likes books. She likes you. She also likes night driving, fluorescently colored tights, old buildings, and spicy things, in that order.