Phil Gulley on Small Town Living

Don’t worry about meeting new people in a small town. They’ll come around to use your possessions soon enough.
Several months ago, my wife and I decided to begin attending the Danville town board meetings. Nothing much ever happens, but it’s a good opportunity to stay current on the gossip. We have a local newspaper, The Republican, but if you want to get the dirt on people, you can’t count on Betty Bartley at the paper to shovel it. You have to wallow with the hogs in the trough.

At a recent meeting, a newcomer to our town stood to complain about a house being built next door to him. “I moved out here from the city last year to have privacy, and now there’s going to be a house right next to me,” he said, then asked the town board to close the gates, after just squeezing in himself.

If he wanted privacy, he should have stayed in the city. I’ve lived in this town 36 years and haven’t known a moment’s peace the entire time. Local teenagers raid our refrigerator, play basketball in our driveway, drink from our garden hose, and lounge on our back porch. I once woke to find a neighbor boy standing next to my bed, asking if I could come out and play. When I lived in the city, that would have bothered me. But in a small town, it seems perfectly natural, and I’ve come to think of these children as my own.

“Raid your refrigerator? Enter your house? How can they do that? Don’t you lock your door?” you might ask. “Not since 1999,” I would answer, when we accidentally locked ourselves out and had to crawl through a bedroom window to get in.

I can always tell newcomers because they lock their doors. It’s not just that we don’t lock our doors, we get upset if others latch theirs, since we depend upon unfettered access to one another’s things. Just the other day, my wife needed an egg, so I walked over to our neighbors’ to get one. They weren’t home, but I helped myself to an egg anyway, and to a piece of candy, which they keep in a dish in the cupboard above their stove. It’s a good thing I went over there, because I found my trash can in their garage, so I brought it home.

I can always tell newcomers because they lock their doors. We get upset if others lock theirs, since we depend upon unfettered access to one another’s things.

“What were you doing in their garage?” you might ask. “Looking for a pressure washer,” I would answer, since I wanted to clean my mower’s deck.

“Why would you clean the deck on your mower?” you might ask. “Because my neighbor might borrow it, and I don’t want him to think I don’t take care of my tools,” I would say. “Because this is a small town, and if word got out that I didn’t keep my tools clean, people wouldn’t borrow them.”

“Why would that be bad?” you might ask. Because it would throw a wrench into our carefully calibrated market. Our town has a micro-economy, wholly separate from Wall Street. When our nation’s economy almost collapsed in the Great Recession, our town’s fiscal arrangements, a delicate combination of bartering and borrowing, chugged merrily along.

A newcomer takes a while to learn that in a small town, you never buy something if you can borrow it from your neighbor. Or borrow it from the town. Every couple of years, I need a post-hole digger, which my neighbor doesn’t have, so I borrow the town’s tool from the garage at the park. Just so long as I remember where I got it, and just so long as Kenny White isn’t using it to set signposts.

Kenny works for the town, mowing the park, but he used to deliver mail, and knew the dirt on everyone who got love letters (and from whom), who subscribed to Playboy, who got foreclosed on, and who got a postcard from Pauletta at the town hall warning of a water shutoff if their bill wasn’t paid. I’ve tried for years to worm things out of Kenny, but he’s as tight-lipped as a priest after confession, a rare commodity in our town.

There are many things a small town has to offer: friendships, a casual pace not often found in the city, and a feeling of well-being and security no lock can provide. But if you’re looking for privacy, you’re better off in the city, where you can live next door to someone for a dozen years without ever learning their names or knowing anything about them. You won’t find that here. Those of us who live in small towns take our responsibility to be nosy very seriously. Learning all your business is our way of saying we care.