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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014

What's it like . . . ?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

My good friend Mel Glenn (best man at my wedding) is a retired high school English teacher in Brooklyn who has also been a published writer of "adolescent literature" for many, many years. In a fairly recent letter, he asked me what it's like to live in a small town, because he was about to start writing a novel set in a midwestern burg, and it suddenly dawned on him that, aside from visiting us in Nevada, Mo., for a week one summer, and a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, he'd lived his whole life in Brooklyn. Sure, he noted, he'd already read the standard stuff on the matter -- novels like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Twain's Tom Sawyer, Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days -- but he'd never had the chance to actually sit down and talk seriously with a friend who lived in a place of fewer than half a million folks. What about it, eh? Was it really as idyllic as it appeared in "The Waltons" and on Andy Griffith's show? Or was it, rather, like a nightmare of deprivation and violence, as he gathered from reading Capote's "In Cold Blood?" What was the true scoop?

For close to 35 years I'd taught 20th-century American literature at Cottey. Each of the anthologies I'd used contained a big segment usually known as "The Revolt from the Village." The title itself was a pretty good clue as to the nature and tone of its contents: bleak stories of the American small town as a midwestern warren of narrow-minded, nosey, intellectually stunted, clannish, and hypocritically grasping critters. Good examples would include both Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and his Babbitt, Howe's "The Story of a Country Town," (what a ruthlessly grim picture that one gives us!), and, truth to tell, many of the poems of Robert Frost.

But I knew Mel didn't want me to just rattle off a laundry list of the traditional negatives. He wanted a personal evaluation as I'd come to assemble it in the past couple of decades.

In fact, however, I'd gradually forgotten Mel's request until something happened at our voting place at noon of election day that reminded me that I hadn't yet written him about life in a small town.

I was sitting in the passenger's seat of our Subaru, lost in the lovely music of a Mozart symphony on radio station KRPS, while waiting for Ginny to return from voting, so the two of us could drive to a local restaurant and have lunch. As the end of one of the symphony's movements plunged me into temporary silence, I heard a gently rubbing sound, as if plastic-on-plastic, behind me. I whipped my head around, to witness a smiling, middle-aged man in a summer suit motioning to me to open my window. When I did, he approached me, looked me in the eye, and said, "Coming out of the church, I noticed your gas tank hinge open, the cap unscrewed. They're OK now!"

"Thanks! My wife just filled it up."

"Yeah. With gas as high as it is, you sure don't want to spill nary a drop!"

And with that he walked off to his own car, parked nearby.

Many years ago, when a Nevada police officer discovered my bike (which I'd reported missing, but then found and returned home) in my colleague Marjorie Goss's driveway, and then brought it back, once again, to my own house, my wife and I both had to look at each other and grinningly cry, "Ah, life in a small town!" But this man's small act of kindness immediately struck me as more typically "smalltown."

In a city of nearly any size these days, walking down the sidewalk, it's not wise --indeed, it's a bit suicidal --for one person to look another walking toward him, in the eye.

There must be complex sociological (racial) reasons for this -- does the look represent a challenge to one's manhood? -- but whatever the reason, it sets one person against the other. As do so many facets of urban life. In a small town, even in the early 21st century, most folks are white and Protestant. Race and religion, and the sometimes deadly antagonisms to which they always give birth, play no role in the life of the town.

And, thus, my unknown benefactor could screw my gas cap back in position, then look me square in the face, without fearing I would draw a gun and shoot him dead in the face.

To a large extent, I'm starting to think, the differences one sees between a large city and a small town depends on one's age. And the older I get, the more I value a smalltown neighbor's greeting me by name and offering to close up a gastank's cap left to flap in the breeze.