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Excerpt: 'The Death And Life Of An American Small Town'

On the surface, Oelwein would appear to be typical in every way. Driving into town from the south, you first notice the softening profile of the maples and oaks that fill out the middle distance of an otherwise flat landscape. Once you are inside the city limits, Oelwein's skyline is divided between the five-story white spire of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and, six blocks farther north, the four-story red bell tower of Grace Methodist. Between them is a jewelry store, a sporting goods shop, two banks, a florist, a movie house, and four restaurants, all housed in turn-of-the twentieth-century brick and stone buildings. Across the street from Las Flores Mexican Restaurant, there's a clothing boutique, a photography studio, and a crafts store. There are almost as many bars in Oelwein (eleven) as there are churches (thirteen). The biggest congregations are Lutheran and Catholic, owing to the two separate movements of immigrants into the county: Scandinavians and Bavarians at the end of the nineteenth century; Irish and Italians at the beginning of the twentieth. Von Tuck's Bier Haus generally sees the high-end clientele, which is likely to stop in following a lasagna supper at Leo's Italian Restaurant, the newest incarnation of a business that Frank Leo began as a grocery store in 1922, shortly after arriving from Italy. The Do Drop Inn, on the other hand, is Oelwein's seediest and most eclectic watering hole. Run by Mildred Binstock, the Do Drop, as it's known, is decorated in what Mildred terms "High Amish Kitsch," a smorgasbord of lace doilies, mismatched wooden chairs, and all manner of antique farm equipment washed in the harsh reds and soft greens of year-round Christmas lights.

Heading south on Main Street, back toward Hazleton, you'll find a Dollar General, a Kmart, and a Kum and Go gas station. For the most part, though, things in Oelwein are still owned by the same families that have owned them forever. There is no Starbucks, and there are no plans for one. This is not a town that thrives on fanfare. Luxury is not a word that comes to mind inside either of Oelwein's clothing stores, VG's and Sam's, where wool dominates the fabrics of the men's suits and the ladies' dresses alike. Practical, on the other hand, is a word that applies at nearly every turn. Even the photography studio, despite its large picture window full of high school vanity shots, has a decidedly utilitarian feel, owing in part to the long shadow cast by the wide aluminum awning — a necessary accoutrement in an area of the Midwest that sees three feet of rain and five feet of snow in a normal year.

The closest thing to opulence in Oelwein comes in the predictably reserved form of a coffee shop, the Morning Perk. There, members of Oelwein's professional class gather each morning around an antique oak dresser featuring brushed aluminum carafes of both regular and flavored coffee. Next to the carafes, a wicker basket is filled with containers of liquid creamers in hazelnut, amaretto, and cinnamon flavors — this in a state (and a region) where packages of granulated nondairy creamer are de rigueur. Their husbands off to work, the wives of Oelwein's best-known men (the mayor, the high school principal, the police chief, and the Methodist minister) linger on big couches and in stiff-backed chairs to gossip and make collages. Later, it's off to the Kokomo to have their hair and nails done.

How and where you drink your coffee speaks volumes about who you are and what you do in Oelwein. Three doors away from the Morning Perk is the Hub City Bakery, a leaner, more hardedged sibling of its sophisticate sister. Painted a dirty, aging white, and with a long, family-style folding table covered in a paper tablecloth, Hub City looks less like a café and more like the kitchen of a clapboard farm house. There is no focaccia or three-bean soup. In fact, there's not even a menu. Instead, there's a plastic case of doughnuts and a two-burner gas stove where the cook and owner fries eggs destined for cold white toast on a paper plate. Not that the old men mind as they linger at the table, layered in various forms of Carhartt: their discussions of corn prices and the relative merits and deficiencies of various herbicides are ongoing, if not interminable. A refined palate is not a prerequisite for entry at what is referred to by regulars as simply "the Bakery," though it helps to be short on appointments and long on opinions. Questioning the cook, like taking your coffee with cream, amounts to something like a breach of etiquette.

Together, the separate constituencies of Oelwein's two cafes give a sense of the pillars on which society in that town is built. Life in a small midwestern town lingers in the bars and passes weekly through the church sanctuaries. But it's rooted in the stores that line Main Street, and on the green and yellow latticework sprawl of the farms that begin just feet from where the pavement ends. The fit is symbiotic, though not always seamless. Without the revenues generated by the likes of the 480-acre Lein operation — a sheep and corn farm twelve miles north of town — Repeats Consignment Store and Van Denover Jewelry Plus would be hard-pressed to stay in business. As life in the fields and along the sidewalks goes, so goes the life of the town, and along with it, the life of the hospital, the high school, and the local Christmas pageant, for which Oelwein is known throughout at least two counties.

And yet, things are not entirely what they seem. On a sultry May evening, with the Cedar Rapids flight long gone back to Chicago, and temperatures approaching ninety degrees at dusk, pass by the Perk and Hub City on the way into Oelwein's tiny Ninth Ward. Look down at the collapsing sidewalk, or across the vacant lot at a burned-out home. At the Conoco station, just a few blocks south of Sacred Heart, a young man in a trench coat picks through the Dumpster, shaking despite the heat. Here, amid the double-wides of the Ninth Ward, among the packs of teenage boys riding, ganglike, on their Huffy bicycles, the economy and culture of Oelwein are more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small business. This is the part of Oelwein, and of the small-town United States, not visible from the plane window as the flat stretch of the country rolls by. After sundown in the Ninth Ward, the warm, nostalgic light that had bathed the nation beneath a late-afternoon transcontinental flight is gone.

Against the oppressive humidity, the night's smells begin to take shape. Mixed with the moist, organic scent of cut grass at dew point is the ether-stink of methamphetamine cooks at work in their kitchens. Main Street, just three blocks distant, feels as far away as Chicago. For life in Oelwein is not, in fact, a picture-postcard amalgamation of farms and churches and pickup trucks, Fourth of July fireworks and Nativity scenes, bake sales and Friday-night football games. Nor is life simpler or better or truer here than it is in Los Angeles or New York or Tampa or Houston. Life in the small-town United States has, though, changed considerably in the last three decades. It wasn't until 2005 — when news of the methamphetamine epidemic began flooding the national media — that people began taking notice. Overnight, the American small town and methamphetamine became synonymous. Main Street was no longer divided between Leo's and the Do Drop Inn, or between the Perk and the Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker. How this came to be — and what it tells us about who we are — is the story of this book. And this book is the story of Oelwein, Iowa.

Copyright © 2009 by Nick Reding. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA

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Nick Reding