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O'Rourke Looks at Life in Toledo, Ohio

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Now, writer P. J. O'Rourke takes his inspiration from an island of a different sort in the middle of the United States.

Mr. P. J. O'ROURKE (Writer): I grew up in Toledo, if up is the word. Northwest Ohio is flat. There isn't much up. The land is so flat that a child from Toledo is under the impression that the direction hills go is down. Sledding is done down from street level into creek beds and road cuts. In Toledo, people grow out. Out to the suburbs. Out to the parts of America where the economy is more vigorous. And all too often out to 48-inch waistbands.

But no Toledoan ever outgrows Toledo. We're too levelheaded for that. Level being the operative term. The world of Toledo is as horizontal as the Great Plains, but without the heroic vistas. There is no horizon in Toledo. There are too many trees. Nor do those trees form the sylvan cathedrals of the north woods. Dutch Elm disease took care of that. Toledo's scenery is brushy and un-sublime.

This lack of interesting geography should be offset by an exciting mix of cultures and peoples, but it isn't. Toledo is full of Irish, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, southern Blacks and Appalachian Whites. There's a large Jewish community and a large Arab community. But no mater what races, religions or ethnic groups come to Toledo, within months they have above ground pools, riding lawn mowers and golf clubs. Toledoans are true Americans and it's almost impossible to get true Americans to be diverse. I live on the East Coast now, but I've never lost the sense of coming from the middle of nowhere. It's a good sense to have. For instance, some people on the East Coast, such as the politicians in Washington, don't seem to know the difference between coming from nowhere and heading there. Easterners visit Toledo once in a while, or more often pass though it. They remark on the featurelessness. They say it's so flat. A Toledoan would say that's so we can see you coming.

I don't mind easterners, but they think they're the best and the brightest. Well, easterners have their best and brightest and we Toledoans have ours. Their best and brightest come up with things like FEMA, the budget deficit and Iraq. Our best and brightest start a successful chain of muffler shops. I may be making Toledo sound dull, and it is. And that's a good thing. When a teenager tells you there is nothing to do around here, nothing ever happens, you know you're in the right place. Toledo is better than exciting, it's happy. Because nothing is more conducive to unhappiness than taking yourself seriously and taking yourself seriously is difficult when you're baseball team is the Mud Hens. And there's not much envy among Toledoans. No matter how successful someone gets, he's still from Toledo.

Toledo spreads out in that great leveling of lifestyles that snooty urbanites call suburban sprawl and that Toledoans call room for the Ryder mower in the garage. I'd move back to Toledo if it weren't for my children. The rest of the world does not seem to be a happy or level-headed place. And I want my kids to fit in.

LYDEN: You can read P. J. O'Rourke's full essay in "Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing up in Ohio." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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