A Good Hard Smack

My husband and I went to Verybigcity, VA so he could take his citizenship exam and become an American. On the way up, we listened to the CD of 100 potential questions he would be asked about the due processes of our government. (He got 94/100; I got 89/100.)

It took us 7 hours to get to Verybigcity, 15 minutes for Jack to take his test. Congratulations, Mr. Beck; now when people ask, you can say you’re an American.

Then we got back in the car and drove to Bigcity, VA, to record a radio program about our Booking Down the Road Trip and my forthcoming book. Sarah, the show’s host, made us feel at home and asked many interesting questions: “Why did you open a used book store in the first place?” and “What’s a trailer park intellectual?” (That’s how we describe many of our customers, people who are intelligent yet didn’t get a higher education, who often have jobs that don’t require–or perhaps even value–their innate smartness and problem-solving abilities.)

The night before the show, we had a lovely dinner with a friend from Bigcity who brought along two of her friends; the five of us laughed so hard as we got to know each other that other restaurant patrons cast glances in our direction–mostly envious. Such fun we had, discovering kindred spirits through casual conversation, enjoying the moment and each other’s ideas and stories.

Taping the radio show was relaxing, Sarah being so good at her job of listening carefully and asking probing questions. As we left, she gave us a verbal list of bookshops and some arts contacts. A little Middle Eastern lunch downtown cheered and warmed us.

All the above is very pleasant; Jack gets to be American so he can vote and be voted for on issues that are important to us; I got to record a radio program about books and people and publishing things useful to humanity; we had a lovely time chatting with an old friend and making new ones; and we walked around a pretty downtown area browsing and eating great ethnic food unavailable where we live. It’s fun to visit a city.

Would it be fun to live in one? A persistent undercurrent beat against our naivety once we left the shelter of existing relationships. “You’re from where?” “You wrote about what?” “You’re who, again?”–all these questions set against some unseen yet very present assessment activity. Is this person worth my time? Can she do anything for me?

I remember a Canadian spoof news show (think Stephen Colbert) where one of the reporters went to Washington DC, and described it as the kind of place that you wanted to give a good hard smack. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m dissing Verybigcity or Bigcity, VA; both have charming architecture and people in them. It’s just that from the hotel clerk to shopkeepers to state agency directors, one gets the impression that they have better things to do than pay attention to who is in front of them. “I’m only doing this until I can [insert other work here].” “Don’t think I’m going to spend my life doing THIS” whether “this” meant direct an artistic endeavor or serve coleslaw.

Everyone seems to be assuming that any comment you might make couldn’t possibly be as important as the plans in his mind, the paperwork on her desk. A clerk at a bookstore: “Mmm, you just became a  citizen? How nice. $5.24 please.”  A waitress: “Bookshops? I don’t know. What did you want to drink?” At an arts society: “Do you have any questions?” and when I started to ask one, overtop of me, “Well, I have someone coming in a moment, so thanks for stopping.”

It’s the small town ethos, I suppose; after all, we are from Southwest Virginia, and Jack is from Someplace Else besides. We’re not interesting, or powerful, or useful and unless we become one of those things can’t have purchase on that slippery ladder of the elusive ranking scale. In SW VA, Gott Sei Dank, that’s not how we handle people. The person in front of you is the person you’re talking to, the most important moment of the moments you are having. He or she is a human, a customer, a citizen of the world who is treated with the kindness and friendliness that are our trademarks.

Don’t get the wrong idea; SW VA can be downright brutal to those who are from someplace else. And yet, in all honesty, I’m beginning to have more empathy for why we have that reputation. If a person from Smalltown goes to Bigcity and gets the intellectual condescension equivalent of “y’all ain’t from here, are ya,” it’s pretty hard to not retaliate when the opportunity arises.

And, sweet irony, being from SW VA is a serious handicap in Bigcity. We’re supposed to be the wee bit ashamed, or at least humble, about where we’re from, because clearly it isn’t powerful, or interesting, except in a quaint, “Hey, can you churn butter” kind of way.

I couldn’t be prouder to be from a place where people live in the moment; are proud of themselves and their families NOW, not for what they’re going to do next month when they REALLY get the job they deserve; honor the right of every person to have an opinion, to voice an intelligent thought; and where we listen to each other.

Because for all the power these cities exude, all the influence they bear on the rest of us, if the trade-off is living a life ranking people by what they can do for you, thank you, no. We might have missed the joy of meeting our friend’s friends if we’d played that game. We might have redirected the radio host’s questions to “this is what you NEED to ask us, dear.” (Not, I think, that she couldn’t have handled that; Sarah gave the impression of having seen everything, twice.)

How much fun, how many interesting people, Bigcity citizens must miss. How many we in Smallville miss by playing the same silly game. Wouldn’t it be nice if this mutual animosity tournament could end so none of us miss out, because my impression is that no one ever really wins a round of “you’re not from here.”

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9 Comments

Filed under small town USA, Uncategorized

9 responses to “A Good Hard Smack

  1. Susan

    Ah, Wendy, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received the comment (in the Big City) of “You don’t seem like you’re from Southwest Virginia” as though that were a compliment. I’m hearing you, girl!

  2. I really love this idea of the “trailer-park intellectual!” very neat…I’m creating a composition class right now, looking at the stereotypes of Appalachia and our culture in general. I might just have to share this new term (with your permission, of course). Let me know if you plan to write (or have already written) about the “trailer-park intellectual.” Enjoyed the post!

  3. I went to a doctor’s appointment in a [notsobigtown] in VA and everyone I came across would say where? Oh, like the book. Yes – I stepped out of the book and here I am…..yeesh….at least they knew how to read.

  4. elp6n

    Ahh yes, I too have been on the receiving end of a BigCity meets SmallTown SWVA: “You’re from where? Oh really? Well, you’re very articulate!”
    I tell that story often. It’s one of my favorites. 🙂

    A blend of BigCity mingled with SmallTown can be a nice balance. Makes one appreciate both sides.

    Congratulations Jack!
    Now, about that pledge…

  5. Tamra Igo

    I was once asked where I went to college by a northern Virginian. When I replied that I didn’t go to college, said northern Virginian exclaimed, “But you sound so educated!”
    Sigh…

  6. Jennifer Mullins

    We’re all from the same planet. That should count for something.

  7. Lee Marsh

    Enjoyed your blog, I’m a mountain boy stuck in the city. I’d add to your conclusion “no one ever really wins a round of “you’re not from here.”” It’s a game folks need to quit before they get to heaven, either in the afterlife or the one they make here. It’s not a game played well with St. Peter.

    Good luck on your book, I hope it shares all that you are bound to share. There is an essence in each of us that must get out and be shared or it hardens and decays. Here’s a poem I wrote which thought you might like.

    Essential Art: a poem by Lee Marshby Lee Marsh on Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 12:25am

    Essential Art.

    There are moments
    when the essence within
    moves

    Moments that glow
    with a radiance
    seeking expression
    finding voice
    in our art.

    Pluck of string, cut of chisel, stroke of brush
    releases essence
    to warm all
    within the field
    we walk.

  8. Eva

    Oh yeah….we forego the pepper spray when visiting BigCity and pull out a big ol can of southwest Virginia whoops@s!

    I never feel quite comfortable without a mountain at my back. How about you?

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