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  LIFE AS A LOSER #106: "REFLECTIONS ON MATTOON."  
   
   
 

 According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, this is the city of Mattoon:

Mattoon (KEY) , city (1990 pop. 18,441), Coles co., E central Ill.; inc. 1859. It is a processing, rail, and industrial center for a farming region. Among its manufactures are road-building equipment, paper and brass products, and springs. Nearby are many oil wells, a fish hatchery, and Paradise Lake. The farm and grave of Abraham Lincolnís father and stepmother are southeast of the city.

All I ever wanted to do was leave Mattoon, which is odd, considering now that Iím gone, Iím pretty much obsessed with the place. Any friend of mine, whether I met them in college, or in Los Angeles, or in New York Ö theyíve all heard all about Mattoon. Itís a fun joke to them too; Willís a dumb hick, ha ha, went to public high school, ho ho, had prom in the gymnasium, hee hee. And I play off of it, let it remain the butt of wisecracks. Itís easier that way.

My favorite piece of Mattoon trivia: We were once mentioned in a Jeopardy question, not one of those wimpy $100 jobs either. It was in the Potpourri category, double Jeopardy, $800, back when double Jeopardy didnít have absurdly high dollar amounts.

Many people believe New York is the center of this doughy rollís universe, but, in fact, rural Mattoon, Illinois is its national capital.

Folks, weíre talking about the bagel (though that's the only time I've heard it referred to as a "doughy roll"). Mattoon is the bagel capital of the world. This might seem curious, since, well, no one in Mattoon eats bagels, and I donít think weíve had a Jewish family since the turn of the 19th Century. But in 1990, Lenderís Bagels, a huge conglomerate now owned by the Kraft company, decided to move their central production facility from somewhere-I-donít-know-where (OK, maybe I should have done some research) to Mattoon. It provided us with about 1,000 new jobs, but more importantly, it placed Mattoon as the city that produced more bagels per day than any other in America.

The response was immediate, and overwhelming. Murray Lender himself came to town and made the announcement, and the mayor - who, in her time away from the office, was a cashier at the Mister Donut shop right off Charleston Avenue - proclaimed that August afternoon as Official Bagel Day in Mattoon. From then on, every August, Mattoon has hosted Bagelfest, a three-day celebration of the cityís leading industry.

It was the type of festival Charles Kuralt would have brought his camera crew to capture a slice of Americana, if anyone at CBS knew where Mattoon was. Non-stop excitement. On Friday, the carnival set up on the main drag, Broadway Avenue. There was a mini-Ferris wheel, a ridiculously dangerous Tilt-a-Whirl and a dunking booth where you could drench local celebrities (high school principal, sports columnist, guy who runs the bar over at the Eagles club). My sister once entered the Little Miss Bagelfest contest, where eight-year-old Jon Benet wannabes paraded around in sashes and had their self-esteem properly trounced.

I was not immune to the fun. This, natch, was the biggest weekend every year, the only time we could ever claim a tourist attraction. Every Bagelfest Saturday, I would awake at 6 a.m. and enter the Ride Around Mattoon For a Bagel contest, a 25-mile bike ride beyond the city limits. Halfway through, you were rewarded with a bagel. At the end, they gave you a bagel. Then you went downtown, where you got free bagels.

There was also the Bagel Buggy Contest, in which you constructed some sort of vehicle that was supposed to look like a bagel - or at least conjure the spirit of the bagel - and race it against other fervid competitors. My father and I determined we were going to win this darned thing one year, so we headed to the garage to build the perfect bagel buggy. My dad swiped an old miniature satellite dish and painted it blinding white; I grabbed an old inner tube and made it brown, the international color for Bagel. My dad slapped some wheels on it, and whammo, we had a bagel buggy. We went downtown, and I sat in the contraption while my dad pushed. We lost, though, because some cheaters who worked for the city just painted a bike brown and rode it past us. Jerks.

But Mattoon is not just Bagelfest; that is just our shining public face. Mattoon is tradition, history, complacency. We have one high school, aptly titled Mattoon High School. We have about 15 churches, all Christian, only one crazy enough to be Catholic, a religion seen as dangerous and rebellious by most of the Protestant town.

We have two drive-through liquor stores. We have a lake, Lake Mattoon, the only place Iíve ever been skinny-dipping, occupying the so-envious slot as the lone single guy with three couples. We have a big park, Peterson Park, where the high school baseball team and local American Legion team plays. Every Christmas the park district lights it up, spending half the county budget, and teenagers sneak over there to make out once the lights are shut off.

We have a police department, fire stations, a hospital we share with county rival Charleston. We have a Hardeeís, a McDonaldís, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Arbyís and a Burger King, but not a chain Burger King. We have the original Burger King, established before the Whopper was ever even imagined; because of this, no Burger King chains can be within 30 miles of city limits. I'd never been inside a Burger King until college.

We have a bar where I can find half of my graduating class on any given weeknight. We have a house cleaning service called "Rent-A-Wife." We have three houses that are rumored to be haunted. We have a crazy old lady who spray paints curses about her ex-husband on her front door. We have three trailer parks. We often are hit by tornadoes. A tornado wiped out my parentís favorite Mexican restaurant a couple of years ago. We have three Mexican restaurants. We have one Chinese restaurant, though none of the people who work there are Chinese; one might be Korean. Mattoon never seems to have noticed the difference.

We have a newspaper publisher who has been in charge for 30 years. We have a school board that once fired my scholastic bowl coach because he was gay. We have a section of town littered with crosses, "each one representing a baby killed by its mother."

We are Mattoon. We are every town, and we are only ourselves.

 

*BT*

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