Gazing out the window of my apartment, I was blinded by the light. I could see for what felt like miles, as the lights from the towers in the distance glowed. It was those city lights I always dreamt of as a kid. Although Peoria might only symbolize the essence of boredom for most, I am from Lincoln.
In Lincoln, there’s nothing to look forward to. In fact, the future is constantly in question for most of its 15,000 citizens. Boredom is the least of their worries; instead, they wonder whether their job will still be there when they wake up, or whether a customer will finally come through their door. In fact, there are only three stable careers in Lincoln: making pizza, working at Walmart and searching through unemployment ads.
Growing up, I made the local RadioShack my second home. I would go in while my mother was shopping at the Kroger it was attached to. The big cutout of Shaquille O’Neal was always in the window to greet my return.
It was the store my father managed for nearly 30 years. Regardless of which employee was on the clock, we would take the remote-control toys on display into the parking lot to see which was the fastest. If you had asked me what I wanted to be one day, I would have said my dad’s employee at RadioShack.
But then the Super Walmart was built.
Suddenly, everything changed. Toys no longer lined the RadioShack walls; instead, they were replaced by cell phones. People stopped coming in as often. The employees I had come to know as a second family begin to leave as their commission began to fall.
Dad wasn’t coming home as often. No longer would he be able to pick me up at 4 p.m. every afternoon to hang out at work. Just like that, my home had crumbled to ash.
My grandma began to pick me up from school and daycare. She would take me home and make sure I was properly fed. She knew I had refused to eat at school and would always make sure she got food in me when picking me up, even if that meant taking me out for ice cream.
After I would usually hang out with my best friends. They would always go on and on about how lucky I was. They would tell me that I was rich due to all of the electronics my father would bring home. I didn’t understand at the time. How could I be rich? My parents were struggling with deep debt, and we barely had enough to get by. But I didn’t understand at the time that they both lived in one-parent households; ones that couldn’t hold a job long enough to ever get back on their feet.
My grandma died of cancer when I was 13, and my only option was to walk home. Whether it was freezing rain that felt like bee stings on the back of my neck or the days you could literally see the heat waves in front of me, I walked. I had become the Forrest Gump of walking.
Some days, I would walk miles just to see my dad in the RadioShack that I once loved dearly. These days, it was just to show my father how much I cared about him, and much less about playing with toys or searching for something to do. But he didn’t seem to want me there. I don’t take it as personally as I once did; it was just that he didn’t want to be there.
Just like that, there was nothing in Lincoln that made me want to be there. I began to dream of moving as far away as possible, just to never look back. I wanted to erase the town from my memory.
In 2016, I graduated and moved into the apartments at ICC. I could have accepted the scholarship I got to Lincoln College; however, my desire to leave that town behind far outweighed the money I would have saved.
Yet when I was dropped off at what would be my new home, I wanted nothing more than to go back. I called my mother and father, (yes, I was the one who called) and begged their forgiveness. I swore I would come back every chance I got.
This past weekend was only the second time I did not return home to stay with them.
In 2017, RadioShack officially closed its doors following two successive bankruptcies. Why go there when you can find everything conveniently located at your local Walmart?
In 2018, the Kroger we had always shopped at shut down as well, leaving its employees jobless, and leaving Lincoln a food desert. It just couldn’t compete with the super store located just down the street. Soon, the whole parking lot was empty as all the businesses left when they could.
Recently, one of the last blue-collar job providers in town, the local bottle factory, was announced to be closing in the coming month, leaving even more people jobless. Where may they end up? Well, the local Walmart of course!
That’s the thing about Lincoln. All that’s left is the Walmart and a college that the town sees as a burden and a bunch of broken dreams.
So why do I continue to go back every chance I get? Why do I cover the local news for the town that would much rather have me gone due to my politics – the same political beliefs that I adopted after seeing the town’s constant state of poverty and the systems that allow it to overpower them?
Because somewhere deep down, I care about them. I know what they have been through. I know how inescapable poverty is. I know that my father hates what he now does as the manager of a Dollar General. You can tell the first thing that’s on his mind when he gets off after a 12-hour shift is a bottle of alcohol. It’s much easier to wash away your sorrows than confront them. But at least he has something that the rest of the town lacks the chance to get: a job.
Sometimes, it can be easier to look away and give the town the bird as I continue down a path that not many of its residents get the chance to have. The only opportunity they now have is to tie off their arm and hope they don’t die from fentanyl.
I know that Peoria can really suck, and where you’re probably from is greater in every single way. But when I look out my sixth-floor apartment window and see the lights flickering in the distance, it reminds me of how lucky I am to have made it this far.