Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Living Right Next to the State Line

I grew up in a small town in southern Wisconsin, up north of Madison. Which meant we were safely situated in the bosom of Wisconsin, and nowhere near a state line. The Illinois state line is something like an hour's drive south of Madison, so throwing in the time it would take for us to reach and then get past Madison, we were probably almost two hours from Illinois.

When I was a kid, I always viewed Illinois as something of a den of iniquity. Wisconsin was not as squeaky clean as Iowa or Minnesota, but Wisconsin was an arcadia of virtue compared to Illinois. I mean, Illinois, lottery tickets, the Daley machine, Al Capone, tommy guns, street gangs, bookies and horse racing, a general atmosphere of shiftiness and graft, and condom dispensers in men's rooms at service stations along the tollway! (This was back in the days before most states had given in to the temptations of lotteries and casinos.) I could not imagine living in the sordid state of Illinois.

In fact, even less could I imagine living near the state line. One of the many quirky ideas my brother and I came up with when we were kids was the notion of the horror of living right next to the state line. Imagine being able to see the state line right out your living room window, only a couple hundred yards away. Imagine pacing back and forth, back and forth, like a smoker deprived of his cigs; then peering nervously out the window with the thought that the state line is right over there, just across the road... There it is, just on the gravel shoulder of the road, or just slightly down into the ditch, and it's there just a stone's throw away, whether you're waking or whether you're sleeping. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. For the state line neither slumbers nor sleeps.

My brother and I used to think that living right by the state line could be enough to drive a person mad. I remember hearing or mishearing that it was illegal for a person under the age of 18 to cross a state line without parental permission: I had visions of young scofflaws who lived next to the state line, crossing back and forth in much the same the spirit as stepping on cracks on the sidewalk. Step on a crack, break your mother's back.

In fact, it seemed to me that crossing a state line was like incrementing some vast metaphysical odometer: cross over into Illinois, click, 192; cross over into Indiana, click, 193; cross over into Ohio, click, 194; cross back over into Indiana, click, 195. It was not to be done lightly, or too often. I could not imagine living next to the state line, and recklessly incrementing your state-line boundary-crossing odometer on a daily basis, click, click, click, click, click...

Now we move on to the early 1980s, when I lived for three years in Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque, you understand, is right on the state line: on the eastern edge of Iowa, right on the River. (Dubuque was where I first learned that, along the Mississippi, when you say "the River," you mean "the Mississippi.") In fact, Dubuque is in the Tri-State Area: the Illinois-Wisconsin state line, if extended west across the Mississippi, would run right through Dubuque. I remember nervously examining city maps of Dubuque, to see whether this imaginary westward extension of that state line would run right through where I was living in Dubuque. Talk about a sense of horror and foreboding...

Somewhere in that same time frame, I spent a year living out in Washington State, the Cascade Mountains of south central Washington. I lived up into the mountains, just three or four miles off the Columbia River. Yes, the Columbia River: the state line between Washington and Oregon. Once again, I lived just a few miles from the state line. I remember I used to drive over to Hood River to do shopping, because there was no sales tax in Oregon.

Then, mid 1980s, I found myself living for two years in a river town in northwest Illinois. Yes, my front door was only three blocks from the River. I couldn't see the state line from my living room window: an apartment building across the street blocked my view. But from one corner of my front yard, yes, I could see the River. And the state line.

After that, I lived various places round about, but I did not live near the state line again until I moved here to northeasternmost Iowa, seven years ago. And now I'm really living on a razor's edge again. Because, you see, the Minnesota state line runs just two cornfields to the north of me. Once again, I can't quite see it from my living room window: buildings intervene. But if I step out into my front yard, I can see right into Minnesota. Just two cornfields away.

And Wisconsin isn't far, either. I live six miles west of town; the town is right on the River; and right across the River is Wisconsin. I've been told that on a clear day, if you know where to look, you can see the bluffs on the Wisconsin side of the River from my place. I'm not convinced of that, but I do know that from my house you can easily see the plume rising from the power plant over in Genoa, Wisconsin, not too many miles from here as the crow flies.

Yes, this is another Tri-State Area. Have you ever wondered how many "Tri-State Areas" there are in the US, in all? How many radio and TV stations across the country cheerfully report, day after day after day after drip-drip-drip-Chinese-water-torture day, on "Tri-State weather"?

I have never been to the American Southwest, where four states meet and the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah state lines all come together in a single point. I've never been there, I don't think I could bear it. I don't know if out there they call it "Quad-State weather," or "Four Corners weather," or "Four Points weather," or what. I'm not sure I want to know. I remember many years ago reading a comic book story about these crooks who dumped a guy out of an airplane, aiming to land him right where those four states meet. Idea being, there'd be no way to prosecute the murder, because whose jurisdiction would it be in? Yeah, that sums up my feelings precisely. Except (criminals are always so stupid about these things, aren't they?) it turned out to be a federal case.

Well. Actually, these days, I've pretty well gotten used to living right next to the state line. I've heard of people around here who have an Iowa mailing address and a Minnesota driver's license, or vice versa. In fact, imagine someone who was born in a house that stood right on the state line. Half of the house in Iowa, half of the house in Minnesota. Which state would you put on the birth certificate? Or if this were one of those state lines that also was a time zone boundary, how would you set the clocks in the house? Clock in the living room an hour earlier than the clock in the dining room?

I can hardly imagine it. Tick, tick, tick, tick... How can you come to lunch, when it's noon in the dining room, but still only eleven o'clock in the living room? Staring, staring at that invisible state line which cuts right across the oak floorboards in your house. Pacing, pacing back and forth, like a smoker deprived of his cigs; and, without even setting foot outdoors, running up insane totals on your metaphysical state-line boundary-crossing odometer, click, click, click, click, 1,919,032... 1,919,033... 1,919,034... 1,919,035...


Anonymous Jay said...

Heh. I can tell you that one such tri-state area is vicinity of where southern and western NH meets southern and eastern VT meets northern central/western MA. Kind of the Greenfield, MA, Brattlebor, VT, Keene, NH region give or take.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006 9:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Personally, I found it unnerving to cross county lines. I mean, your in a totally different legal jurisdiction. How can that NOT be dramatic!?! What if the laws changed radically and I didn't know and was scooped off to jail.

You might have guessed, I was a relatively well-behaved child. You just never knew ...

Thursday, July 06, 2006 9:38:00 AM  

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