First Year in Charleston:
      A Survivor’s Guide

by Daiva Markelis


A

s a life-long native of Chicago, I have always viewed the rest of the state the way an eighteen year old going off to college views his parents—necessary for economic survival but about as interesting as a documentary on hog farming. It is with no little sense of life’s ironies, then, that I find myself, in a job I really like, living in a place I am ambivalent about, in that part of the state that newscasters refer to as Central Illinois, in a town surrounded by cornfields.

Nothing good has ever come from living surrounded by cornfields. As everyone knows, and as recent movies such as Signs have so convincingly shown us, cornfields are the first places aliens think of when they plan to invade the earth. This is because farmers are, overall, a nice group of people. Whereas urban dwellers are likely to whip out their Uzis at the least hint of an alien threat, farmers will do something much less menacing, such as board up their windows with flimsy pieces of wood.

Central Illinois is to Chicago as root beer is to malt liquor. People in Central Illinois (okay, at least in Charleston) say “Have a nice day” a lot. I suppose that living in small towns encourages you to be nice--there’s a good chance that you will run into the same people again and again. The woman at Huck’s gas station, where I buy the Chicago Sunday Tribune, remembers me from my first visit. I had talked to her briefly as my boyfriend folded and unfolded the various maps on the counter (an activity that would have aroused the suspicion of most gas station attendants in Chicago.) Now, every time I buy a paper, she asks whether I’ve visited the Lincoln Log Cabin and the Rockome Gardens yet, and whether or not I intend to take in the tractor pull at the Harvest Festival.

Sometimes the people you run into are your students. This can be unfortunate if you are a woman and are caught fingering the water-filled brassieres at Wal-Mart (because you are curious) by your most obnoxious freshman composition student.

Speaking of students, you can tell the ones from rural Illinois apart from the more experienced Chicago-area kids, even on the first day of class. They are quieter and more hesitant, nervously eyeing their urban counterparts as if they might steal their pencils.

I knew that life here would be an adventure from the very first day. My first phone call in Charleston was from Madame Cleo telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. I thought this was a good sign until I realized I had to call the Psychic Hotline and pay good money to find out what they were. My second phone call was also from Madame Cleo. I have lived in Chicago for most of my forty-five years, and have never received a phone call from Madame Cleo. (By the third time, though, I figured that if she really were a psychic, she’d have addressed me by my first name.)

Having survived my first year in Charleston, I offer the following advice to newcomers, especially those from large cities. Number one piece of advice: Do not let the niceness get to you. You may find yourself, as I did in the local Osco, responding to the third “Are you finding everything okay,” with “It’s none of your God-damn business.” I speak from personal experience that this will not endear you to the locals.

Another piece of advice, especially if you are from Chicago: Do not tell people in Charleston that they speak funny. It may be difficult to contain yourself. Whereas everyone knows that the proper way to pronounce “the Bears” is “da Bears,” people in Charleston will persist in calling them “the Bayers,” (as if they were aspirin tablets). “Da Bulls” (correct pronunciation) becomes “the Bolls” (incorrect.) Keep in mind what great linguists have known for years, that people are not responsible for their backwoods speech patterns.

A third piece of advice: Do not be fooled into thinking that your status as a university professional will automatically endear you to the locals. Use your position wisely. When my boyfriend was stopped for speeding at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, I told the officer that we were off to an important faculty meeting. He accepted this explanation. But not everyone takes so kindly to the university. While Eastern brings badly needed income to Charleston, it is often Eastern students who play Ja Rule full-blast at two in the morning.

Keep in mind the positive aspects: Okay, there’s no Gap, but there’s no Hooters, either. If the urge ever comes upon you to get a really great-looking tan, you’re in luck--there’s a tanning parlor on every street! No such thing as an Ozone Alert Day exists in Charleston. On a cloudless night you can see the stars, as big and white as snowballs. You can trace the constellations in the sky with your fingers, wondering at patterns you have only seen in books. (Unfortunately, this might get you to thinking about aliens, and when and where they will plan their attack.)

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