A few months ago, Mel Glenn, my professional writer friend from Brooklyn, N.Y., the "best man," some 47 years ago, at Ginny's and my wedding, had just determined to write his next novel -- an addition to the "adolescent literature" category he's been specializing in -- on the topic of "life in a small town." Many years ago, he'd come out to visit us for a week, as part of a longer trip he was making to take part in an "adolescent literature festival" at a branch of the University of Kansas. While preparing for his KU presentations, he'd stayed with Ginny and me, of course, here in Nevada.
It was nice to finally chat with him person-to-person again. Naturally, as writers, we'd corresponded by mail over the years, but it was nice, at long last, to be able to just lounge around town and around our house, relaxing and enjoying ourselves. As children of the Sixties, we played Peter Paul, and Mary, Judy Collins and, of course, Simon & Garfunkle. I soon grew accustomed to his new baldness, and he soon got used to my new fake right leg. We both remembered the spring and summer afternoons when, from his small Brooklyn backyard in Sheepshead Bay, I'd bat a softball over the fence and deep into the playground of the Lincoln High School playground, where he was waiting with his Wilson fielder's mitt. With his somewhat deteriorating eyesight and my fake leg, we just sighed at the memories.
Within a day or two of our meeting Mel Glenn up at KCI, he'd fallen a little in love with the small town of Nevada. He liked the rare quiet so important to a writer; he liked the nearness of the town square; he liked the casual friendliness of the shop owners. He liked especially, I think, the furiously quacking ducks at the lake. The first evening, just before watching the late news, he said, "Chuck, I haven't heard any police sirens since I got down here. And I've been listening intently for them. What's the story?" That night, before I fell asleep, I listened carefully, but only heard, at long intervals, the soft barking of a dog. Yes, I figured, my friend might not have fallen in love with Nevada, but he'd fallen a little in love with the IDEA of a small town.
"What's it like to live in a small town?" Mel had asked, oh so many months ago. And, boy, had I fallen down on the job of answering him.
Last week, as I was in my vividly paint-spattered work clothes, down on my hands and knees, pulling the weeds from our mildly neglected front brick walk, my aluminum walker standing beside me, I had a couple of visitors. The first, an attractive young blond woman, had been driving along north Spring in her car, presumably toward the high school, when she must've seen me down on the bricks, my walker beside me, as if I'd fallen. My freaky paint costume, too, must've intensified my appearance of alarm. She stopped her car beside our red truck parked in front of our house, got out, walked over to me, and asked if I needed any help. In my initial shock, I thought what a sight I must've been, in my paint-daubed pants. Truly, I wanted to apologize to her. But I could only explain what I was doing, and thank her immensely for stopping.
And it was then that I thought I'd just experienced one of the wonderful benefits of living in a small town. Trust. In a city, where you automatically raise a protective shield against any potential intrusions into your space, you don't stop and try to help a fellow-citizen who's obviously in trouble. In fact, in a city, you don't even look anyone in the face, for fear that person will read your glance as a personal challenge, and pull a gun or switch-blade! But here was this helpful soul, for whose offer of help I was so thankful. And I guess I was doubly grateful because my would-be helper was a woman. In the world I've grown up in, you can usually count on a man's stopping to help a person in a bind, if he happens to be passing by. But no one expects a well-dressed woman to stop and risk getting dirty or paint-spattered, especially when the victim looks to be a spastic Bowery bum. Well, as soon as I could convince this young woman that I was, indeed, okay, she got back in her car and drove away.
But I'd no sooner stopped to pet our cat Atticus, who had happened to pass by, than I heard a man's voice, "Do you need some help getting back up?"
When I looked up, I saw a tall, athletic-looking young man standing in front of me. (Well, yes, at age 68, don't all young men look "athletic" to me?) Across the street, a dark Bronco (I'm probably mistaken about the make!) stood idling, and I figured this young fellow, in passing on the way home from the high school, had seen me and drawn the same conclusions the blond young woman had. But, in this case, I was even more surprised. For at approximately 3:15 p.m., Ginny and I can daily watch a virtual stream of kids racing up Spring Street from the high school to Austin, happy to be free. And not many weeks earlier, I witnessed one driver in his polished and roaring truck speed up Spring, knock our cat Boots to the other side of Spring, slow down, look around, then drive off in a cloud of smoke. The next morning, we found our wounded four-footed animal, still alive, but doubtless a bit on the uncomfortable side, and took him to the vet, who cost us a whole big chunk of change. "Goldarn high school kids!"
But now, here was this kid, and he couldn't have been more helpful. After I persuaded him I was okay, I hustled like crazy to get my paint-spattered carcass back in the house, to avoid any further incidents. But for the rest of the day, I thought back on Mel Glenn's question, "What's it like to live in a small town?"
Well, for one thing, small-town people tend to be mighty friendly and helpful, Mel.