I close my eyes and hear the sounds of a train pour through my open window. They always sound loudest in the beginning of spring, when the house has been shut tight for a whole winter. Suddenly, when the lights are off, and the windows up, I hear the sounds I forgot existed. As the occasional car passes by outside, I can hear the low clicking whirr of tires against bricks. I live on a brick street, one of only a few remaining in town.
The tracks are just a few blocks away, and trains come through a couple of times an hour, impeding traffic, earthquaking the surrounding area, casting shivers over my body with their mournful wailings. Years ago, these were passenger routes, but now only graffitied freight cars roar through. Sometimes, parked behind the red and white gate, I try to count cars. But it always seems to make me too dizzy.
I've been told that my town is the only place in the country where two state highways and a double train track all manage to converge in one intersection. That's at Fourth St. and Lincoln Highway, Routes 23 and 38. And if you follow the tracks west a while from there, past the bars and restaurants of the old downtown area, over the Pearl Street bridge by Hickey's convenience store, over the Kishwaukee River, you will end up behind The Junction.
Named for trains, The Junction is the restaurant where everyone ends up eventually. If you need to find someone, wait at the Junction. They'll show up. It's one of those all purpose restaurants with a revolving display of cakes at the front, and menu items ranging from pancakes (breakfast served all day) to seafood. They make about four kinds of fries, too, but only one's on the menu. You know you're a regular when you order cottage fries with a side of honey mustard -- you won't find either one mentioned in the beige laminated menu with the locomotive silhouetted on its cover. Similar trains coat the frosted glass partitioning smoking booths from non-smoking. And a few years ago, they even installed a model train that runs around the restaurant on a miniature track just below the ceiling.
But before you go getting the impression that weUre a town obsessed, I should probably tell you about some other local landmarks. DeKalb Illinois, home to Northern Illinois University, is also the namesake of the flying corncob signs you'll see strewn through fields from Indiana to Iowa, and likely anywhere else they grow corn. When I was little though, the reputation of NIU and the fame of the DeKalb Agriculture Institute were things that never crossed my mind. All I knew of NIU was the "castle building," complete with its turrets and gargoyles, and the lagoon.
The lagoon is a man made body of water, filled by the Kishwaukee River, that hosts a battalion of ducks and geese year round,
and is a great place for ice skating -- or just ice playing -- in the winter. It's shallow and dirty, specked with little islands bearing affectionate titles such as "Goose Poop Island," but it's the closest to a lake we've got. It's not bad to look at, and the ducks are so accustomed to stale bread handouts that by now some of them are pretty friendly. What can I say... the lagoon provided me with opportunities for frog catching and twig floating, both rites of childhood I wouldn't want to pass up.
And all I knew of corn as a child were the frightening stories of getting lost in cornfields, and the yearly ritual that is Cornfest. For three days at the end of August, the main blocks of DeKalb,
just up the brick street from my house, are closed to traffic and taken over by an array of junk food -- cotton candy, lemon shake-ups, barbequed ribs -- and attractions -- live music, stomach-wracking rides, sidewalk sales. And there is corn on the cob for everyone. Dripping with butter, salt crystals glittering in the sun, the cobs are devoured by the crowd. It never tastes quite as good when eaten at home, on something so utilitarian as a plate.