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.”