Tag Archives: Appalachian stereotypes

Bollards of Big Stone

Note: Jack and Wendy are headed to NYC today, so the blog may be a little off timing the next couple of days as the two country mice adjust. Meanwhile, here’s the fun doings in Big Stone Gap!

The movie being filmed in town right now is causing all sorts of reactions among the locals–mostly enthusiastic FB posts showing them hugging long-suffering Hollywood A-listers. (A big shout of thanks to Ms. Elfman for helping us adopt out 3 PAWS cats within a week by photo-cuddling them.)max and jenna

The movie buzz is good for the town – economically and intellectually. Someone asked me the other day if the movie had made locals proud, and before I could open my mouth a bookstore customer said, “We’ve always been proud of our town. We know who we are. Now we’re proud that other people are hearing about us.”

Jack and I are happy to watch the hoopla and enjoy the buzz, but it got side-splitting silly over the weekend. The movie company set up on Wood Ave (the main street through town) on Friday night. Trust us; we know from experience how hard it is to get a 15-minute parade permit for closing that street, let alone 2 whole days, so we watched with enthusiasm. 

Saturday morning bright and early some police arrived and set up cones across the road that comes off Wood toward our shop. The only one way left to thread through town went right past our bookstore, so we got a front row seat for the high jinks. (And we locked up our indoor/outdoor cats for the day, plying them with kitty candy whenever they yowled to go outside. I think they gained 10 pounds on Saturday alone.)

The  closed block-long section of Fourth Avenue holds the liquor store and post office, so when they put up the bollards (those orange cones) they blocked in some people who’d made an early start to acquisitions (of post office box mail, of course). These folk came out, glanced at the cones, and drove around them–over curbs, through a parking lot, no matter. They waved at the cops and the cops waved back.

But then people watching them drive out started using the same technique to drive in; the cops had gone by now, leaving one little “ROAD CLOSED” sign to do the dirty work. Someone knocked it down, going around it.

The cops came back about an hour later, and put up more roadblock signs, stretched across where the ineffectual bollards had been. That lasted about ten minutes.

The cops returned. They left one of their own, a young woman (she might have been twenty) who was promptly ignored by those driving around her–waving–to reach the liquor store and post office. We have often sat out on our front veranda watching locals breaking every traffic law possible as they turn at that intersection right smack in front of our bookstore, but Saturday and Sunday brought a whole new level. That poor young officer spent the next two hours shouting with increasing frustration and decreasing effect at motorists who just didn’t see why they should care that she was there. We quickly broke them down into three categories:

1) “We wanna see the stars” These were innocent groups of thrill seekers trying to see the action. Road block? Don’t think so.

2) Oblivious folk who failed to see anything different; “Hmm, who put that annoying sign there?” Both drivers and walkers fell into this category, and it was hysterical to watch them head blithely for the center of action, one block away, and be tackled by people leaping in front of them just short of the post office steps. Apparently the cameras were rolling right at the corner of the post office, and I don’t know how many shots were ruined that day by people who just didn’t notice anything unusual.

3) Our personal favorites, the drivers who considered it their God-given right to park outside the post office or ABC store, just as they always did, and complete their weekend errands. “Movie? Stuff and nonsense. Let me by, sonny.” We loved watching these people literally walk past police and film crew with outstretched arms. In one case an older woman swatted at a young man in a ball cap; we could almost hear the conversation “I don’t know you, young man, but get out of my way or I’ll call the police!” (who were about four feet away, also trying to stop her).

bollards of big stoneThe crew filmed two days, and on day two, perhaps realizing less was more, they reduced the street closure to just the Wood Avenue junction, leaving unfettered access to the ABC (which opens at 1 pm on Sundays) and limited access to the post office lobby with its rows of PO boxes.

Some people fear that this movie will encourage people to make fun of “hicks and hillbillies,” and display us, the residents of Big Stone Gap, as the same. But I think the residents of Southwest Virginia have been, are, and always will be resilient people who ignore bollards and stereotypes as we go about our business. We know who we are, and when the hoopla is over, that’s who we’ll still be.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing

Don’t Look a Gift Potato in the Eye

I was gardening out front of the shop when one of our favorite customers pulled up. IMG_4190

“H’lo, dear!” Ms. X waved a hank of fuzzy cloth. “I was yard sale-ing and found this jacket and said, ‘This looks like Wendy.’”

Hence the favorite thing. Not only does she do nice stuff like this all the time, she’s always right. I liked the pretty jacket instantly. Cost her 50 cents, which she did not want back.

Ms. X is one of many people around here who takes life by the horns that tried to gore her, and headbutts it. She and her son, both chronically ill, have no insurance; he has a crappy job. They live carefully in a house that labels them legally homeless, frugal to a fault with secondhand sales, day old baked goods, and the daily, considered creativity of what’s for supper. They don’t fish or garden for fun. But they have fun fishing and gardening.

“They’s sweet potatoes in Appalachia,” Ms. X winked as she departed, a couple of value paperbacks under one arm.

That’s not some mysterious Southern code. About every six months, in a little town two miles over, some person or persons unknown dumps produce under an abandoned gas station’s awning. Word of mouth goes out, and those as want it, go get it. Often it’s sweet potatoes, sometimes bananas. (When that happens, banana bread becomes currency and Huddle House runs a month-long “banana breakfast biscuit” special.) Rumor says once “the dump” was Hershey bars.

quick get in!I’d never availed myself of “the dump” before but my friend Elissa’s dogs LOVE sweet potato treats. Knowing she was busy helping another friend run a yard sale, in a fit of mischievous humor I grabbed a tea cozy, the back scratcher we use to turn off the kitchen light, and a role of tp. Racing to the sale field, I leaped from my car and shouted to Elissa, “QUICK, GET IN! I’LL EXPLAIN AS WE DRIVE!”

I probably should have remembered that Elissa is a news photographer. While everyone else stared, dumbfounded, with a swift flick of the wrist she held up her cell phone and snapped. And now I’m a meme on the Internet.

At the dump we got two bags for Elissa’s rescue dachshunds–who will waddle through this week in plump yam repleteness–and a bag each for friends we knew were busy. I asked Elissa, born and raised here, about the dump’s origins and she said rumor suggested some wealthy individual who’d made good elsewhere did it for his hometown. No one knows who, or why. And no one really questions. Why look a gift potato in the eye?

I imagine sweet Ms. X and her son sitting down to buttered baked yams, she saying, “…and for breakfast tomorrow there’ll be fresh sweet potato muffins.” On the counter sits a steaming potato casserole she’ll be taking to the church social.

Go by, mad world.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Don’t go Riding on that Long Santa Train

Before Andrew, our shopsitter, returned to the sophistication of the big city, Wendy’s all-girl support group (the Grammar Guerrilla Girls) decided he must experience the ultimate Appalachian tradition: The Santa Train. Since I had never seen it, I tagged along as Shelley—who drew the short straw and had to take us—trundled Andrew to one of its nearby stops, the tiny town of St. Paul.

We arrived an hour early to find the classic small-town specialties of any festivity: a car show, street food, and craft vendors. Already, people lined the track; Andrew and I goggled at the massing crowd of parents and children (many in red-and-green Christmas garb) held back with flimsy hazard tape, railroad workers patrolling with bright grins and brighter yellow uniforms.

As we had very little idea what to expect, the appearance of a juvenile clogging team in full regalia didn’t throw us off—until their teacher screamed “SHELLEY!” and grabbed our guide, introducing her through the loudspeakers as “Our Special Star Guest.” Bluegrass music then blared as feet began to fly.

Apparently, they went to school together.

A sudden electricity buzzed through the crowd, and the dancing stopped; the train was coming. Anonymous faces appeared at its windows; we later learned that it’s considered a great honor to ride the Santa Train, mostly for politicians, sponsors and country music wannabes. Invitation angling starts in February.

None of those fortunate few ever did come out to greet the locals, but as the last carriage drew level, the real celebrity emerged. The crowd surged forward, train brakes squealed, and Santa and his helpers began chucking toys, candies, wrapping paper, and clothing (mostly hats and scarves) to people who scrambled and sometimes fought over the bounty.

Children on parents’ shoulders caught soft toys mid-arc while nearby a rescue squad team had arrived, following the train. The rescue workers began flinging board games into the crowd. I glanced at Andrew; his face went white and deadpan as he watched a woman catch one side-on just inches from her face. She squealed—in delight or relief?

So, what did I make of it all?

The Santa Train is a 70 year old tradition that seems to have started as a genuine philanthropic act (you can google it) designed to give people of limited finances a leg up at Christmas. Coming as I do from a country that—like Appalachia—is often characterized as poor, unsophisticated and deserving of charity rather than investment, I found the whole thing a bit embarrassing.

Who is this train for: the people getting largesse flung at them, or those sitting inside, warm and smug at getting to ride it? And which tradition is older: giving to one’s fellow humans in a spirit of generosity, or feeling good about being better off than those poor weirdoes over the hills and far away?

And what about those lining the tracks, grinning as young’uns grabbed goods from the air—or even snatching things before kids could? While for the most part adults were protective of all the attending children, we saw some displays of poor sportsmanship.

The Santa Train reminded me of a story my academic wife tells in her guest lectures on “cultural competency” toward Appalachia:

A woman visiting family was downtown and saw some teens teasing a special needs boy their own age. One held out his palm, a nickel and dime evident.

“Which do you want, Bubba?” he asked, and Bubba replied, “The Nickel, ‘cause it’s bigger.” The boys laughed and handed it over.

The woman waited until they’d gone, then approached the victim. “Son, those boys were making fun of you. A dime is worth more than a nickel, even though it’s smaller to look at.”

The boy grinned. “Lady, I know that. But if I take the dime, they’ll stop doin’ it.”

I thought of this “joke” as Andrew and I watched adults with two and three Hefty sacks full of goods walk away, joined by children clutching their stuffed animals and mothers holding rolls of wrapping paper. All grinning.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Poor, Poor Andrew….

After a lot of unexpected interest, an NPR interview, two articles in the LA Times, a mild amount of controversy, and several thousand reprints and reblogs, our shopsitter position is filled.

Andrew Whalen, a nice lad from Gahanna, Ohio (no jokes, thank you) is a member of the film industry workforce in NYC. From a pool of more than 100, whittled down to 3 finalists, we picked him. Poor kid.

Because when we posted this on Facebook:

After much discussion and a prayer, we have asked Andrew Whalen, an Ohio native working in NYC’s film industry, to shopsit while we’re out trying to make every English-reading person in America like Wendy’s book. Big Stone Gappers please make him welcome! (And please do not take him to High Knob for a snipe hunt. Thank you.)
This is what happened:

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA