The road from Raleigh, where I live, to the farmland outside of Fuquay-Varina, where I was raised, cuts directly between the shopping centers and strip malls of Garner, the home of America's new Idol, Scotty McCreery.
Garner is a series of businesses connected mostly by blacktop, with a service station and a country buffet always close at hand. Indeed, from one intersection on the route to Fuquay, another town that's grown into a gridlock of corporations, it's possible to visit a Walmart, a Kmart, a McDonald's, a Lowe's and most of the other usual suburban chains within, at most, a short walk.
Garner wasn't always just an outpost. As a child, I would sit in the passenger seat of my grandmother's burgundy Buick as she drove into Raleigh, most likely to buy shoes from a man in Cameron Village named Archie or, later, to order French onion soup from a restaurant called Spinnaker's. She spoke of Garner, incorporated about 40 years before she was born, like the little town it had long been. Even when I was a kid, the Brendle's department store was a big deal for Garner. These days, it's only the forgotten anchor of a mostly empty parking lot in yet another place that's made that most American transition—from small community to commercial suburb, strewn with the carcasses of that transition.
I'd forgotten my grandmother's stories until late last month, when I was making the familiar drive from Raleigh to my parents' home. Just as I started to clear the web of chain stores, a small vinyl banner caught my eye: "Greenbrier Salon supports Scotty McCreery." A few weeks later, Teresa Butler, an employee at the salon, told me, "We were the first ones to ever have a banner in Garner." Her pride echoed over the telephone.
Over the years, I've come to think of Garner as a place to go only when you need something from a big-box retailer and a place to go through only on the way home. But that sign was likely one of hundreds, each hung carefully above business doors and in front yards or stamped on white cotton T-shirts. Said in unision, that credo—"We love you Scotty," stated thousands of ways—reimagined Garner again as a small (if temporary) community, a little town with a cause, not just a chain of chains.
On one fine sunny Saturday, Garner convened not in a Super Walmart parking lot but instead in a field, where, together, it watched a hometown high-school baseball player galvanize his rise to sudden stardom. Think of it as a post-millennial take on the old-fashioned fiddlers' conventions of the nearby hills, and suddenly, Garner might feel more like a town than an outgrowth.
Especially so close to a proper city, with its TV towers and hungry printing presses, such a hometown, homegrown spirit isn't made to last. As soon as it seemed not only that McCreery might have a chance but also that his suburb was united by his country croon, the media descended on Garner, turning the town's idol into a surefire way to sell newspapers and advertising time. The News & Observer printed several full-page posters, putting the kid on its cover almost daily; WRAL fawned as though it suddenly cared about country music or Garner or high school baseball players. McCreery became nothing more than that Lowe's near the intersection of 401 and 70—someone's reason to turn Garner's good name into a slick suburban dollar.