Student essay: How I became a Westerner and why it doesn't matter

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Editor's note: This is a runner-up essay from our annual student essay contest. This year's theme was "How I Became a Westerner." Learn more about student subscription offers here.

I grew up in Fircrest, Wash., population 6,497, a small suburb of Tacoma. There's a house on our street with an unkempt front yard; the neighbors despise it. The town has its own police force, but there are only one or two cops on duty at any given time. The speed limit is 25 miles an hour; if you drive 30, expect to be pulled over. Nearly 90 percent of the residents are white and fairly well-off; a country club occupies much of the town's real estate, and many residents are members. It costs somewhere around $15,000 to join, plus a monthly fee. Many retirees move to Fircrest because of the golf course. The older men inch 18 holes closer to death every day, drinking cocktails, smoking expensive cigars, getting wasted and wasting away. Meanwhile, the women play bridge.

The town has been without a grocery store since my own family left the business. My grandfather, Frank Manley, opened Manley's Fircrest grocery store in the 1950s, and enjoyed booming success. He eventually retired, leaving the store to my father, but competition from chains such as Safeway and Albertson's forced my father to sell the store. Older folks speak fondly of the old Manley's store, smiling sadly about a world that's disappeared. It's sometimes difficult for me to empathize. They flocked to chain stores like sheep, just to save a buck. They got what they wanted, and now they wish for what they had.

My father, hoping to finally put his UW art degree to work, opened Budget Signs in Tacoma. At first, he actually hand-painted signs; now it's all done with printers and vinyl. He met my mother, and they eventually moved back to Fircrest, purchasing a two-story house where they raised my older brother, my little sister and me. The American dream.

When I was a toddler, my dad and I rolled a ball back and forth to each other on the carpet. I wasn't even coordinated enough to walk, but I was fascinated by the ball, and apparently figured out the game rather easily. My dad tells me this story often, and his face lights up every time he does. I let him repeat it as often as he wants, partly for his satisfaction but mostly because when he speaks, I can see his love for me in his eyes, and (although I've never said it out loud), there's no better feeling in the world. I can only hope to be half the father to my son that he was to me. We lived in a cul-de-sac, and I met my best friend when I was six. I played basketball, baseball, football and more. Stupidity, acne, awkward dates and constant fights with my parents marred my teenage years, but we made it through, and I owe my parents a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Is any of this unique to the West? No, because location doesn't really matter. I'm deeply fond of Fircrest, but it's not because of where it is on a map; it's because of the people who surrounded me. The core of the suburban American experience is the same. Virtually all of us strive for the same thing: people to love and share our experiences with. The location of a house has no effect on a father's love for his son. Being closer to the ocean has no effect on the value of friendship and the joy of sports. Love trumps location, and my heart will always be with my family, whether we're in the West or not.

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