By Sharon DelVento
By Sharon DelVento

I  have lived in Decorah for over 20 years and I am, therefore, in a unique position: I have been here long enough to understand somewhat the ways and the lingo, but not so long as to have completely forgotten my big-city concepts and habits. So here is a primer for any of you readers who have recently moved here from Chicago, or New York, or some other big city:


1. The concept of traffic-jams. One day, Barb Hanzlik, God rest her dear soul, apologized for being late, because of, and I quote, “... the traffic-jam at the corner of Locust and College. There must’ve been eight cars backed up there!” Go ahead. Laugh. But if you stay here for a decade or so, you, too, will one day consider an eight-car back-up to be a major inconvenience.

2. Truncated phone numbers. In Chicago, you rattle off the entire number, including the area code, especially ever since the Chicago area codes splintered. (When I was a kid, the code for Chicago and all its environs was “312.”) In Decorah, because there are only two main exchanges, 382- and 387-, people will say, for example, “2-3155” (Hometown Taxi). When I first moved here, I kept thinking that people were forgetting to give me the rest of the number. “231-55 ---What?”

3. “You know. The old blah-blah store/place/lot.” People don’t say this to make you feel like an idiot or to drive you nuts. It’s only that, as in the Land of Oz, some people come and go so quickly here, that folks don’t bother learning the name of every new store or homeowner, especially if the store or house had been initially occupied by one owner for a really long time.

Sorry, new business owners. Your store will never be yours. It will be “the old Whatever store” long after your children have bequeathed it to your grandchildren or moved it to another location. Don’t let it upset you. It’s just the way we roll around here. The parking lot across from the post office is still “the lower Fareway lot,” even though Fareway hasn’t been there for two decades. It doesn’t matter that it was technically “the lower Latham lot” for a while, and is the “lower Co-op lot” now.

“The old Jewell house” is the big brick job on the northeast corner of Riverside and South Avenues. “The old Cafe D” (short for Cafe Deluxe) is the current BBQ place. “The old Co-op” is Roxy’s Quilt Shop, now. Lillesøster Butikken is where Bookends and Beans used to be, which was itself spoken of as “Dr. Baker’s old place” for its entire brief existence. There was a house where the optometrist’s parking lot is now, which some folks called “the old funeral home.”

Memories here are long, and the practice of referring to things as they were and not as they are conjures an illusion of stability in an otherwise unstable world, and lends an air of nostalgia to everything. It also helps people to place your standing, longevity-wise, in the community. It helps you, yourself, to know how long you’ve been here: if you can rattle off the names of all the incarnations of various buildings, you know you’ve been here a long time. The older the “old” by which you refer to something, the more likely it is that you’re a native.

It helps us to preserve the continuity and lineage of our buildings, like a genealogy, or the “begats” in the Bible.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of how fond people were of a place. I don’t care what moves in -– it will always be the Bargain Outlet to me. Hart’s Tea and Tarts. Vanberia. Good luck getting the former patrons of those establishments to think of them as anything else.

Buildings have pedigrees and stories, and are often pleasant reminders of people whom we know or have known. On the west side of the building sandwiched in between Mabe’s and Ruby’s, you can still see “HOLMBERG & ERICKSON” painted in big, faded white letters. 

I knew Ralph Holmberg and his darling, curly-haired dog that had jet-black, boot-button eyes, and was named – no surprise here - Buttons. That dog looked and acted like a puppy to the end of his sweet life. If I remember rightly (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), Ralph was already an elderly man when he fell off a cliff one day at Dunning’s Spring and broke a neck vertebra or two, and yet survived. They grow them tough out this way.

4. Eye contact with passersby. Make it. And smile. Say hi, even if you don’t know the person coming toward you. Don’t be afraid. No one will offer to sell you a hot watch, or open his coat and be naked, or get in your face, or ask you for spare change. If they have a clipboard, they might ask you to sign a petition, but that’s it. As for the people you do know, here’s a heads-up:

People in cars will wave at you when you’re in your car.

People in cars will wave at you when you’re on the sidewalk.

People on the sidewalk will wave at you when you’re in your car.

Even if you’re not sure who it is because the windows are tinted or because you’re trying to peer through the wrong section of your trifocals, wave anyway.


5. Oh, this is an important one. Drove me bonkers when I first moved here. When you’re driving around town, you will occasionally get behind someone who will stop in the middle of the street, and roll down a window to converse at length with the driver of the car in the oncoming lane, or with someone standing on the sidewalk. I am not kidding. This would get you killed in Chicago, either by way of an accidental rear-ending, or road rage.


Don’t get your knickers in a knot. They’re not doing it to bug you. Relax. Enjoy the scenery. If it starts getting on to five minutes, don’t stand on the horn; a light, unobtrusive “beep” will do. One may be offering condolences to the other upon a sudden death in the family. Chill. When you’ve been here long enough, you’ll do it too. I recently did it myself, before I realized what I was doing, and as I drove away, I thought, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

... to be continued ...