*Note: I take a while to get around to actually talking about wrestling in this article. Hopefully you suffer through my bloviating long enough to get there. The staff will reimburse you for your purchase should you feel the experience is unsatisfactory.*
“He drove in from Mexicali, no worse for wear.
Money to burn, time to kill.
But five minutes looking in his eyes
and we all knew he was broken pretty bad,
so we gave him what we had.
We cleared a space for him to sleep in and we let
the silence that’s our trademark make its presence felt.
Come on in,
we haven’t slept for weeks.
Drink some of this,
it’ll put color in your cheeks.”
–The Mountain Goats – “Color In Your Cheeks”
You grow up bored, living in the Midwest. I imagine you grow up bored living in most places, but the wide farmland and sleepy air of the rural Midwestern United States breeds a particular sort of tedium all its own, an especially empty kind of monotony.
Much of it comes from the intimacy that develops when you spend the majority of your life in the same ten square miles. You can navigate the streets like the veins in your hand: take a left at the scar from when you punched out the front door window, go past the empty lot from when the bar on the corner of Main burned down. Your neighbors have an aggressive familiarity with you and the feeling is assuredly mutual. Maybe the cops know you by name for reasons you don’t appreciate.
People in such places spend their lives searching for something better or resigning to the next to nothing that they have. They make do. Sometimes they stick around before fading away, moving on to a distant city they saw in a movie once, or maybe a town two counties over. Sometimes they just disappear altogether.
Poverty creeps in, slow at first, gaining momentum by the day. Former bedrock industries collapse, leaving behind the husks of factories and men alike. You start to see more and more boarded-up houses, closed-down apartment buildings, empty things that were once homes. That emptiness becomes routine.
Still, you may find a sense of local pride, often manifesting itself in local sports or historical figures long since dead, the ruins of their memory found in statues, monuments, murals, old buildings. Their being inhabits the space of myth; they are the modern Heracles and Cú Chulainn, fabrications of hubris and heroism, with hints of reality hidden beneath.
Greater still is the sort of affection for the spaces you occupy in small-town America. More often than not, you may develop a small affinity for local businesses, the familiar suppliers of food, textiles, goods of all kinds. These can be international chains or homegrown mom-and-pop stores. This affinity can range from semi-ironic adulation to a sort of quiet derision, an uneasy acceptance that this is what you’ve got, so you better get used to it.
Night in the Woods is a 2017 video game developed by Infinite Fall, a studio created by Alec Holowka and Scott Benson. It is a game full of charm and poignancy, speaking to universal truths as well as hyper-specific situations I know well, being the story of an unstable 20-year-old college dropout readjusting to life in her hometown. While the game is not explicitly set in the Midwest, more resembling parts of rural Appalachian Pennsylvania, it embodies the feelings and experiences I’ve had living in small-town America better than anything I’ve seen in years.
At one point, two characters from the game wander through the nearly-abandoned shopping mall in town, noting how much it has changed since their youth:
“This place used to be something.”
“I mean, it’s still *something*.”
“Nah. Just a big mostly-empty thing in a big mostly-empty parking lot.”
“Well, you work with what you have.”
It’s a small conversation, hardly one of major importance to the game, but it is one of many small conversations in Night in the Woods that hit close to home for me. It’s a conversation I’ve had before, a sentiment I’ve held for years as well as another I’ve come to understand. Even if it seems like you have nothing here in this place, in this town, you scrape by. You keep on livin’ with less.
The game’s relationship with food is also something familiar to me. The young twenty-somethings gather at a local diner to eat subpar pizza because it’s the only place to get pizza for miles around. It’s a haven of sorts, a friendly and mundane supplier of nutrition and comfort. They mourn the closure of the local pun-named pasta establishment. They anticipate what fresh restaurant may replace it, rejoicing when it turns out to be a taco joint. They know what places like this mean, what they offer.
Benson, one of the game’s creators, addressed this in a thread on Twitter:
Here's a story about NITW:
— DSA HELL CHAPTER (@bombsfall) June 4, 2017
Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, the game’s co-writer, understand what something as innocuous as a Taco Bell means to people in small-town America. They understand how enticing a new source of cheap, quasi-exotic, accessible food can be. They understand how it can act as a place of culinary safety for people looking to either get out or get by. They understand the refuge of a restaurant open late, the reassuring hum of fluorescent lighting left on all night.
I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent in the Derby City South Truck Plaza in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky or the Steak ‘n Shake in Crawfordsville, Indiana or the Top Diner in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but I can tell you how those places made me feel. They made me feel safe, sheltering me from the outside world and all that it entailed. They made me feel appreciated, supplying a friendly face or two and an opportunity to be a supportive customer. At times, they made me feel unnoticed, inconspicuous, a place to fade into the wood-paneled walls, the Formica counter tops, the peeling booths. In the hours after getting kicked out of college, after my friends were shot and killed, after miscarriages and overdoses and suicides, they made me feel okay.
Most people wouldn’t think of sports bars as a place of comfort or solitude, a place of healing. Indeed, many sports bars are themselves fertile breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, sexism, jingoism, and alcoholism. But in my experience, they can be something more.
Before the WWE Network and the rise of streaming services, my friends and I watched wrestling PPVs together. Usually, we’d rummage up a few dollars between us and purchase the PPV at someone’s house, piled onto a couch or two with bags of chips and cheap two-liter bottles of Faygo. If we were feeling especially rebellious, we’d illegally pirate the shows through a variety of shady sports streaming sites. Sometimes, though, we’d head out to the south side of town to the local Buffalo Wild Wings, or drive north to the Hooters up in Lafayette.
I don’t drink. God willing, I never will. I don’t feel comfortable in bars or clubs. I don’t like loud or crowded places too much. I tend to hate sports fans and wrestling fans alike. Believe me when I say that I get it if you hate sports bars, especially those of the disgustingly-named “breastaurant” variety. But there’s something about being with your friends crowded around a table, gorging on a variety of spicy, saucy, deep-fried bar food while watching a wrestling PPV. There’s a certain levity to it, a freedom you can only feel surround by dozens of raucous, vaguely like-minded people who are cheering on the same things you’re cheering on.
The sports bar regular is a particular sort of person. They are almost exclusively blue-collar workers: commercial printers, truck drivers, brake line manufacturers, farmers. Many are middle-aged family men. Many seek sports bars as a place to unwind and let loose after a week of hard work or a place in which to escape from the constraints of home life. Though we were only adjacent to this world, occasional visitors to its greasy shores, my friends and I understood this mindset. We knew what it meant to want an escape, to want a place to socialize with people who weren’t bosses or spouses, a place to eat and drink and yell a little at the TV.
And so we inhabited that world for a while, watching terrible WWE PPVs alongside men twice our age. I reminisced the career of Ric Flair with welders on the night he retired. It is with plumbers and custodians that I watched the rise of the Nexus. The second Summer of Punk, the last summer before I went off to college, the last true summer of my youth, was spent in sweaty, dimly-lit rooms packed with steel workers.
There’s something to be said about the relationship we had with these men. My friends and I were a varied bunch. Most of us were the descendants of German immigrants, but there were also Irish, Indian, and Mexican sons among us. We were united in our appreciation of wrestling and sports, but differed on the subjects of film and literature. One thing we all shared, though, was a lack of paternal guidance. A censually pleasing half of us came from divorced homes. My own parents divorced when I was 4 before remarrying two years later. Even among those of us with parents still together, we found our fathers to be distant, aloof, self-contained, or outright uncaring. More than our love for professional wrestling, perhaps this is what drove us to these noisy sports bars, this desire to connect with semi-anonymous father figures, to share a moment of understanding and leisure with them.
These men were the first people with whom I discussed wrestling outside of my personal friend group. These men challenged my conceptions of wrestling, urging me to return to “the stuff from the good ol’ days”. They waxed poetic about Terry Gordy and Verne Gagne, occasionally straying as recently as The Undertaker and Stone Cold. They always appreciated a good right hand and were split on the usage of low blows. They whispered in hushed voices about rumors of Dick the Bruiser being a Nazi.
An aside: The Bruiser, as he was almost always referred to, had been born 45 miles away from my hometown and grew up in Lafayette, the nearest city of any considerable size. A Purdue graduate, lineman on both the college and professional football level, and longtime focal point of Indiana’s pro wrestling market, Bruiser was a relatively massive figure in the lives of central Indiana residents in the latter half of the 20th century. What’s more, many of these residents were direct descendants of World War II veterans, for whom Nazism was an unspeakable affront. The very notion that such a local legend could, even jokingly, don the Reichsadler was the subject of much debate and the impetus behind more than a few drunken fistfights.
Truth be told, I miss those men as much as I miss the sports bars we frequented. Both still exist, but they have navigated their way out of my life. We became short-term companions out of necessity, out of a need to escape the routines and hardships of our daily existence. We were never exactly friends, but still friendly and familiar in our own way.
My friends, too, have gone away. We grew apart slowly but surely, as the bonds of youth began to fragment and fade. No longer did we spend a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week with each other. No longer did we live only a few blocks away. As time wore on, we began to change as people, and what once seemed like minor differences became unfathomable distances between us. None of us separated on what I’d call amicable terms.
You don’t always get to choose your friends. Sometimes you connect with people based on proximity, based on mutual desperation. You make do. The relationships I’ve formed in years since have ultimately been more supportive and rewarding. But it doesn’t mean the years I spent with those former friends were any less important or meaningful, even if they were just what I had to make do with. So too with the sports bars and its inhabitants who I came to know. Their solace was important to me in a time of need and I will remain grateful to them until the day I die.
With the advent of the WWE Network and the popularity of Twitter, I watch wrestling in a very different way these days. The Network and other such streaming services have opened up a legitimate way to view a wide variety of wrestling from all over the world. Twitter likewise has both opened up and centralized discussion of that wrestling, dwarfing in size the message boards I used to frequent for such things. And yet, despite being more connected than ever with wrestling and its fans, I watch it alone from my house. It’s not a bad setup, honestly, and an improvement in many ways on the way things used to be, but it lacks the humanity that I used to find in sports bars. I miss those grimy bars, with the suffocating combination of cooking oil, sweat, and cheap cologne filling the air. I miss bumping elbows with people who still had motor oil on their hands. I miss the sort of laugh you hear from three dozen middle aged men when John Cena shoves a trash can over John Laurinaitis’ head. I miss how that place and those people made me feel okay.
This article doesn’t have any sort of a conclusion, a lesson learned, a happy ending. Not everything does. Not everything should. Sometimes you just remember what once was and make do with what is. You get by with what you got.