There is an imaginary line - I'm not quite sure where - that divides Lawrence into two distinct zones: East and West. I felt it immediately upon arriving. Everyone knows it. But where the line between East and West sits depends on where you live. Some say it's Iowa. Others say it's Kasold. Some will even insist it's Wakarusa.
I naturally thought it was Iowa because when I was here last, I lived in the next-to-the-last room on the first floor of McCollum Hall in the wing that practically butts up against Iowa Street. I hated that dorm and am dismayed that it still dominates the skyline of Lawrence. It was, I think, the first coed dorm in the state of Kansas, and college women actually went down to breakfast in hair rollers, pajamas and slippers, oblivious to the fact that college "men" were sitting there laughing at them. Other than that, I don't remember much about the dorm except that I didn't like living on the very edge of the known world. I remember seeing pasture on the other side of Iowa Street.
That has changed.
The divide I immediately sensed goes far deeper than old vs. new. My first impressions (by no means authoritative): On the East side, which includes Old West Lawrence, people live in grand old restored Victorians and cute miniature Victorians and rundown shacks, displaying an amazing array of colors - purple, neon green, you name it. Their basements smell musty. They walk downtown. They wear sensible shoes and outrageous fashions. They volunteer for everything. They recycle. They buy local, which includes shunning Starbucks. They absolutely love Lawrence. They don't seem bothered about weeds growing in the front yard or junk on the back porch. They drive small cars or old pickups. They shop at the Merc - if they can afford it - and Checkers if they can't. They frequent intense places like Local Burger. They sleep on futons. They have lots of kids who are busy in lots of activities. They read books from the library. They ride bicycles, they sit on porches, they love to eat in little, weird, cheap restaurants. They love Zen Zero. Many are vegetarians. All of them eat a lot of nuts. And occasionally they sneak out to big boxes on Iowa to buy really cheap stuff and hope no neighbor catches them.
In West Lawrence, the homes are large and new - usually taupe with roofs the color of bark - surrounded by well-tended green lawns. Many of the houses are arranged neatly around cul-de-sacs or curving streets. The basements smell good. Architecturally, the houses often amount to a huge two- or three-car garage facing the street, with a little bitty seldom-used front door to the side like an afterthought. SUVs and minivans are abundant. They are not ashamed to drink a Starbucks, usually at a handy kiosk at the supermarket. They love to eat in expensive restaurants downtown, and also Zen Zero. They volunteer for everything. They bid at the art auction. They have master bedrooms the size of a student apartment. They absolutely love Lawrence. They shop at the Merc - sometimes. They wear outrageous shoes and sensible fashion. They read best-sellers. They have lots of kids who are busy in lots of activities. They recycle. They shop without feeling guilty at the big boxes on Iowa, which - get this - technically sit on the east side of the dividing line.
I was invited to a party in East Lawrence a few days after arriving in town. When you're new in town, best to keep your mouth shut and learn stuff. So I listened to a lot of talk about this amazing person named Elna. Clearly, everybody loved Elna. I finally asked who Elna was and learned she was not some wise, elderly beloved neighborhood woman but an acronym standing for the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association. Talk turned to schools and city politics. Someone mentioned the term "West Lawrence." The remark seemed innocuous enough, though perhaps the person rolled her eyes when she said it - I wasn't looking up at the time, too busy eating lentil bean salad. But like a thunderclap from across the room came a voice: "I don't want to hear any of this talk about West Lawrence. You know, we compost in West Lawrence."
I didn't know what composting had to do with anything. We were talking about schools, but clearly, the woman across the room had her nettles up. She was going to nip something or other in the bud. The conversation drifted in and around safe territory, but I had witnessed the battle lines. And as I listened and tried to figure out which partygoers were on what side of the great divide, I suddenly realized it was quite clear. All the West Siders had chosen to sit on the west side of the host's living room, and all the East Siders were sitting along the windows on the east side of the living room.
A few days later, while waiting for an appointment at a business office, I accidentally heard one side of a phone conversation from an office down the hall. Someone was apparently trying to cancel his membership in a country club or some other such organization, and the person on the other end of the line was trying to find out why. I heard the caller say, "No, it's not the facilities, it's the membership." When further pressed, he finally said, "Well, I don't know how to put it. It's become too Johnson County." Now I know Johnson County is east of Lawrence, yet I got the impression I'd just heard a dig at something west.
I have avoided the whole messy thing by living out in the country. I can freely graze on both sides of the fence, and that's how I'm going to keep it.