EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. -- When I come to a place, I try to get a sense of it, learn its moods and rhythms. So I drive around the neighborhoods. If you want to understand how people live, you have to go to where
they live, and see how they've developed their homesteads. I spend hours driving down residential streets, studying architecture, looking at lawns, observing behavior. I drive the speed limit (usually 20 miles per hour) and I don't linger too long. I don't want to activate the Neighborhood Watch; my intentions are easily misunderstood.
On this day, a Midwestern January afternoon that played out beneath a concrete-colored canopy of sky, I found myself driving through the nationally-registered historic district of Leclaire
, an old settlement that spring up 120 years ago 22 miles east of St. Louis, over the Illinois border. Before it was swallowed up by the southerly-encroaching city of Edwardsville during the Great Depression, it was one of the many short-lived semi-utopian outposts found in the middle west. Led by a plumbing magnate named N.O. Nelson, this was a social experiment based on the theories of one Edme-Jean Leclaire, an economist from Paris who helped pioneer the concept of employee profit-sharing. The people of Leclaire received fair wages for fair hours, enjoyed equal housing opportunity, and the company paid for schooling and health care.
Or, to put it in alternate terms, Leclaire was a hotbed of French socialism.
Today, Leclaire is marked by lampost signs, dotted with green parks. It has its own decorative water tower
, a museum for kids, and a two-year college. It's a neighborhood of humble yet dignified middle-class housing. As I passed through Leclaire's striate grid of streets, I couldn't help noticing a big pink house on Madison Avenue -- this wasn't the one in New York that sends out advertising messages, but the place where many of them are consumed.
And there was another
pink house on Oakland Avenue. Once I saw two, it was a pattern -- there was another
on Hadley, and another
just like it two blocks over. It all brought to mind an old rock and roll song
, something about the true simplicity of the American Dream, that being content with a slice of the pie was its own reward.
Another way I attempt to figure out a place is to spend time with the people, go to where they work. Sometimes, once a month, that's accomplished by getting a haircut in a strange and distant place.
"I don't live here in town, so I can't tell you what it's like to live here," the nice lady at the Supercuts said, as she buzzed the sides of my head with the No. 3 clippers. I noted that she had more than a passing resemblance to Sarah Palin, glasses and everything. "But 99 percent of the time, people are friendly. Me, I live out near the regional airport. It's not so great out there, but the taxes are just too high in Edwardsville."
At the storefront coin-op laundromat, I fake dry-cleaned my suits with a dryer cloth. I noticed a full-color poster schedule for SIU-Edwardsville basketball on the bulletin board. While I waited, I pointed at the poster and asked the middle-aged, mildly frumpy, weary-looking woman behind the counter what the best way to the arena was. I was, after all, from out of town. She looked up from her Sudoku puzzle book.
"Go east from here, you can't miss it," she said. "But I have to warn you that they're not very good."
Edwardsville, Illinois is one of the three all-new dots on Hoops Nation's national map this season, along with Grand Forks, North Dakota and Brookings, South Dakota -- home to eponymous state Universities-of and Great West members too. SIU-Edwardsville is, for now, technically a Division I independent, but will join the Ohio Valley Conference in a couple of years.
SIUE, the only satellite of a mid-major school, already comes into the NCAA's top flight with one major distinction. It's the second largest campus in terms of acreage of all 347 D-I universities, behind only the University of Florida. According to SID Eric Hess, that's only because Florida bought more land in Gainesville recently, and thus surpassed Edwardsville in sheer size. Indeed, to drive onto the campus here is much like entering a national park. You pass between two giant stone slabs bearing the university's name, then make your way down a long, long entry road that twists and winds through a well-manicured forest.
The ballfield at SIUE is literally a field of dreams -- it's on the easternmost edge of the land, cut into a real and actual cornfield. And near the heart of campus is the Vadalabene Center; a three-story version of the basketball schedules, printed on canvas, is lashed to the road-facing side of the building, the same information found in relative miniature on the wall of the laundromat.
This 2009-10 season is the Cougars' maiden Division I voyage after making the jump from D-II, and it's been a rough road. SIUE entered this particular night with a 2-16 record, its only pair of victories coming in Des Moines earlier this season at the Drake HyVee Challenge. First, the Cougars took out the Missouri Valley-affiliated hosts, then they defeated Texas-Arlington of the Southland Conference the next day. Though they have a weekend-tourney championship trophy to show for their efforts, but they were also winless at home (0-7) and were on a 10-game losing streak against a schedule of future OVC rivals, MVC RPI bottom-trawlers, and guarantee-gaming power conference representatives.
But this was the Cougars' first real chance for a home win at the Division I level, with in-state visitors from Robert Morris. This sure was not the NEC champions from Pittsburgh
, and not even the Robert Morris (Ill.) from the NAIA that made the "Fab Four" last year
. This was a different
Robert Morris (Ill.), a school from Springfield that plays in the hyperobscure United States College Athletic Association
. I will readily admit that I'd never even heard of the USCAA before this night, of Penn State-Beaver
or Navajo Tech
. I didn't know there was a level below the NAIA, one that awards real actual national championships in multiple sports.
The RMU Eagles, who wore an exact replica of Philadelphia's American-Style Football team logo on their shabby maroon shooting shirts, topped out at 6-foot-5 and put up about eight minutes of viable resistance. But the Cougars started getting out in transition, hitting 3's over disorganized, scrambling defense, and was easily beating this undersized team off the dribble for driving layups. A crowd, several hundred strong, clapped and whooped.
Even as SIUE pulled away, leading by upwards of 30 points during the second half, hardly anybody left the gym. They wanted to stay to the end; it's been a difficult transition for the diehards, and there's been a lot of losing. There's a lot more losing to come. But the fans were just happy to witness history; it took almost three months, but the Cougars had their first win at the Division I level: a 92-71 blowout victory.
After the game was over, I resumed my efforts to connect with the citizenry, to find out what makes them tick. At the local Buffalo Wild Wings, I asked the barmaid what it's like to live in Edwardsville. She was a native, college student age but without the matching ambition; she had shoulder-length blonde hair and multiple piercings. She raised her voice over the classic rock playing on the jukebox, which many of the chain's establishments play to cover up the sure cacophony of dozens of television sets all featuring different sports broadcasts.
"Well," she began, visibly pleased that someone was taking an interest in her life, despite the punk posturing. "There's really not a lot to do here in town, but you know, we find stuff. And St. Louis is close by, so there's always that, I guess..."
Now, you may have heard of poetic license, the storyteller's lie. More than occasionally, small and insignificant contrivances are inserted into a work of non-fiction in order to fashion a narrative flow that is superior to the random anarchy of real life. The invented internal dialogue, the replacement of forgotten details for half-remembered ones, the reordering of scenes to build drama and tension... these are our victimless crimes. Writers are allowed to do this, because an understanding of the architecture of story supercedes the harmless untruth.
But none of that is applicable here, because this really happened. As the girl made her rounds around the bar, as I finished off my popcorn shrimp with Asian Zing sauce, a song from the jukebox ended and another began. A simple ascending guitar figure in big bright G, a tambourine hit, two chords. It was John Mellencamp.
Mellencamp.And there's winners and there's losers,
But they ain't no big deal.
'Cause the simple man, baby, pays for the thrills, the bills,
the pills that kill.
Oh but ain't that America for you and me
Ain't that America, somethin' to see baby
Ain't that America, home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me.