I was driving in to the office the other day and I realized – I’m a semi-Appalachian small town guy. I’ve known it for years, but really didn’t admit it. Huntington, a town of around 50,000 was “too big” for me to visit the west end regularly (apart from my first paycheck job at Camden Park). Louisville was a strange anomaly finding it for a seminary that would allow pets, and staying in the area because of the relative safety of knowing the landscape, but I still disliked “going downtown” especially for Jury Duty (I was in the pool for 3 cycles, but mysteriously never ended up on a jury – perhaps suggesting that because of pre-trial prejudice, I already believed the defendant should be “put under the jail after being beaten in the name of the Lord” to the judge during the screening process was a bit much (the prosecutor was willing to let me serve). But the truth is, there is just more to small-town that appeals to me than larger cities and for my sanity’s sake, I’m going to give you some reasons why.
REASONS TO CELEBRATE: In NC we had the Wooly Worm festival that featured races of the creatures up pieces of strings. This sounds incredibly ridiculous, even more that I know there are several ways to “train” your worm. You use the method of intermittent reinforcement by placing a sugar-mixture at the top of the string in random intervals to motivate the worm to climb, that way in the contest, the worm will climb seeking the sweet nectar of, well sweet nectar. This has proven to be successful in the past. Others tend to use the “non-trained” method of blowing air out of their mouths on the bottom of the worm. This motivates the worm to climb faster. This has also won rounds at the contest. Some even mix both. This kind of thing is a staple of small town festivals that are usually much more fun than parades downtown in a large city. Search “Bridge Day” or “Christmas in July” or “Daniel Boone” festivals for events I’ve experienced – and I’m looking forward to “Court Days” in my current town next fall. It’s mainly an excuse to congregate, just to hang out and see people – most happen in the fall a short time before elections too, and you haven’t seen funny until you’ve seen a Senator sitting in an open Jeep duck as six guys wearing coon-skin caps fire off their powder-loaded KY long-rifles.
CUSTOMER SERVICE: “Honey” is not an insult. If you take it as such, you should probably stick to towns large enough to feature a “big-bucks” coffee shop. Fast-food joints with better service than places that work for tips. Granted, the Megabuylowmart parking lot is always crowded, but they also have plenty of human cashiers working to scan your stuff. The special orders I use that give city-staff an excuse to condescend-face me are handled like pros. Four weeks and I’ve yet to get an order wrong at a window or counter. Everyone in the city gives Kudos to the chicken-shack “It’s my pleasure” people – but here it isn’t a matter of training, it’s a matter of raising. I’m “sir”-ed a lot, and “Ma’am” isn’t a short-cut for the b-word. Which brings up another thing. I’ve forgotten what it was like to stand at the fast-food checkout and not hear profanity in the kitchen/drive thru area. I myself am actually cursing less because I’m not surrounded by the constant cacophony of curses.
CONJESTION: My last commute was 26.5 miles. From my 2 bedroom “guitartment” to my place of work. I lived in a small town, but worked in south-central Louisville. My commute ran anywhere from 25 minutes (Sunday mornings) to an average of 1:45 on the weekdays trying to get home. On average, I spent at least 10 hours a week in the car going from my son’s school to work and back home again if I didn’t have to work extra days (which I did towards the end, sometimes upping my average into the eleven or twelve-hour a week mark. Fifty weeks a year, that’s 500 hours a year in the car. I’m fine with “alone” time, but given that people can’t seem to drive in a straight line without crashing into each other on I-71 in Kentucky from the inner beltway to the fourth exit away, it was ridiculous. It didn’t matter the weather, I saw a six-car pile-up (literally) on a clear sunny day. Now, I put D in the car, drop him at school, swing by a local place for breakfast with the gentlemen whose wives want them out of the house for at least an hour in the morning and arrive in the office – about 4 miles and 40 minutes later. Directly, my commute time is six minutes if I get both traffic lights red.
LANGUAGE: It takes more time to have a conversation, and I like that because the conversations are a lot more interesting. There is a lot more creative use of simile and metaphor. “I hate her” becomes something akin to (see, that word right there, that’s an example too) “I haven’t liked her since the third grade, now we hate each other with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.” Sure, I’ve heard “Bless his heart” more than a few times, but yesterday I heard, “Cuter than kittens” when one person showed another a picture of her granddaughter in her Halloween costume. Never heard that phrase before, but it’s pretty clear what she meant by it. “As” and “Like” is used a lot, but not, like, totally, like, as a reason to like stop in the middle of a like sentence. It’s like living in a John Prine song – apparently she is as sweet as Tupelo Honey. I’ve missed this like butter on a bald monkey (if you get that – you get a point).
SHARED PARKING: I park in a handicapped spot during the week, because I have to. Apparently the church shares it’s parking lot with the local bank (we’re “land-locked” here in wonderful downtown Mount Sterling) and the only two spaces available for church staff are handicapped. Now, on the weekends, we don’t park there because they’re needed for handicapped people to come to church… and of course, none of this is written down, you just kind of pick it up when someone lets you know, “It isn’t a problem, but just to let you know…” There’s a grace offered to new people, and they don’t assume you’re “guilty” of anything, so if you’re used to the city-defense for every activity, you’re going to have to adjust because word is going to get around that you’re “kinda Rhude” if you don’t.
A GENERAL LACK OF SIGNS, ESPECIALLY “NO” SIGNS: Back in the city, I was always kind of saddened by visiting one of the big churches that had signs everywhere saying what you couldn’t do. “No Skateboarding, No Roller Skating, No Roller Blading…” that kind of thing. When I asked other people about it, they said things about insurance rates, or problems from ten years ago, or why they were in place, but unless I asked, no one else voiced even the slightest distaste for it. In small towns, when there are signs, they tend to say things like “RESERVED FOR SHEILA’S CUSTOMERS” as opposed to “PARKING FOR SHEILA’S ONLY – VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED.”
NOT GUILTY UNTIL RUMORED NOT ENTIRELY INNOCENT: There is an accountability of an semi-Appalachian small town that isn’t usually present in a larger city. You just can’t act a fool about anything, anywhere. Like it or not, when I go somewhere, I go as a representative of the church (I’m the pastor that doesn’t dress like one already). I introduce myself as tied to the church, and most people know it already. I walked into the local cycle-shop my first week here and, because I’d spoken to a member about picking one up in the spring, Roger already knew my name and what style of bike I was considering. He also knew my circumstance, and offered help with the testing, safety course and that I already had my gear (helmet, armored pants, jacket, gloves, specific-to-style reinforced boots) and what accessories I was likely to look at (nothing more than a top-case or paniers, hand protectors and maybe a crash-bar system plus a ten buck reflective tape rim kit). For crying out loud, he even knew that my focus was visibility/safety over being able to hoon the thing. I’m already a “made” man for the church – so if my order were to be wrong, I’ve got to be as apologetic about asking for it to be made right as they are during the process of making it right. Rumors fly, accept it or be bitten in the backside by it.
HOURS OF COOPERATION: One of my favorites. The Water Company on main was closed down because of Court Days – everything was closed on Court Days while I was trying to move. 24 hour anything is a rarity, and my personal favorite is that personal issues take the lead when it comes to personnel. In the city, a couple hours late because you’re looking for childcare is a sin of epic proportion. Here? I missed an entire day to drive to my old county to vote, empty out my apartment (which I still haven’t finished) and have lunch with my girlfriend Tammy. That’s not a huge deal. And you’ve got to give as often/good as you get. I’ve already been informed by a couple members of the congregation about the weather conditions that will affect their attendance and that occasionally, the office schedule will be rearranged because of the locations/conditions of cows. The assumption is not “They’re slacking off” but “Oh, something must have come up, I’ll try again later.” And my personal favorite is a couple stores down-town that are “staffed” by elementary aged kids who get off the bus at their parent’s business and hang out for the rest of the work-day (not to mention that occasional dog that is in no way shape or form “working.”
BOOK-ISH: Here is something I didn’t expect. I’ve read more in the past three weeks than I’ve read in the past 3 years. I’ve also kept my house “clean” (depending on your standards) more often. Part of it is because I don’t want to live in a house where I have to clean for eight hours in order to have company. But the other part is that I’m not worn out by a long commute. I’m also not worn out by taking care of business. I used to keep my kindle with me, and try to grab 10-15 minutes reading here and there. Like the DMV and County Clerk’s office. Yesterday, I got my registration/car tags, my license changed, registered to vote, payed my city taxes on my house, signed a form authorizing a specific withdrawal from the bank and did it all in twelve minutes. I also walked. I spent more time on the phone with my cable company trying to get my guitartment’s service turned off than I did applying for a loan for my house in September.
Certainly, there are disadvantages to small-town living. The nearest “good Chinese” is about a 40 minute drive one-way, the nearest Mexican has yet to be located. The local big-boxes should be called “Inconvenience stores” because they only have close to what I want (which is a problem in Louisville too, only they could check inventory at another “close” store and you could travel that in less than an hour). I still haven’t found a place that stocks my favorite brand of sweet-tea and the nearest dealer for my car is about a 40 minute drive (I’m due for an oil change and a tire-rotation). But I can brew my own tea and make sure the ratio is up to my preference, and one of the guys knows a guy at the local shop. He called him about my brand-specific oil filter. They don’t have them now, but will on Tuesday, and he’s set it up to keep a back-stock of two at any given time. Why? Because my real estate agent just bought a new car, same brand as mine, and I promised to let her know they had the parts.