Hoofing it.

When you’re a newspaper columnist you get calls from people like this all the time. They ring you up and give you their pitch: “Hi, I’m walking/running/riding my bicycle across the country this summer, to work out my midlife crisis/raise breast-cancer awareness/attend my high-school reunion. I’ll be in your circulation area tomorrow, and if you’d like to write a story about me, well, that’d be swell.”

Sometimes you do it, sometimes you don’t, but if you don’t, chances are some other poor sap on the city desk will get stuck with it. Editors love people who do this, God knows why. Occasionally they’ll have a decent story to tell, but most of them say the same things: Wow, people sure are nice. A lady invited me into her house and gave me a piece of pie! This really is a good country after all.

(Disclaimer: Occasionally people bring a different approach to the gimmick. Figures these guys are Chicagoans.)

The guy in this story is a columnist himself, so he knows the game at something of a meta level — he’s not only giving interviews along the way, he’s writing columns about it, which are appearing in some great newspapers I’m sure you’ve all heard of, like the Bradford Era (“Your Dependable News Medium”), the Titusville Herald (“First Daily Newspaper in the Pennsylvania Oil Region”), and the Chronicle, an Independent Newspaper Since 1877. You can follow the links and read them yourself, if you want. Having scanned a few, I can give you the gist: There’s a different America out there away from the hustle and bustle of the city, a place where whittling strangers call out, “Come and set a spell,” and you know what? Small towns are really different, too. People know your name in the supermarket, and that’s worth something. And that brings us back to where America is today. Something’s gained from a modern world with so many choices – but something’s lost, too. Tell it, my brother.

It so happens I have a different reaction to most small towns. I drive through a few dying farm hamlets between Fort Wayne and Columbus, and it never fails to push a little oxygen over the dying coals of my religion: Thank you, God, for not making me live here, and also for not making me grow up here. My idea of hell is having everyone in the supermarket know my name, and while I don’t mind setting a spell, I’d rather not do it with someone who’s whittling. (Mixing a blender full of daiquiris, now, that’s different.)

So it doesn’t surprise me that these stories are an easier sell in Titusville and Fort Wayne than they might be in, say, Chicago. The dwindling numbers of Americans left in tiny towns like to flatter themselves as much as New Yorkers. I only wish we could come up with something more profound than this: Prices are also cheaper, in some cases, he says, inexplicably cheaper. In a Coke machine in these parts, prices are about 50 cents. On the East Coast, a Coke will cost $1.25 to $1.50. It baffles him.

Cletus, I hear tell that in New York City, you can pay twelve dollars for a cheeseburger.

Posted at 9:58 am in Uncategorized |

4 responses to “Hoofing it.”

  1. Lex said on June 7, 2004 at 11:00 am

    Come set a spell. We’ll mix up a mess of daiquiris. And if you come quick, we’ll still have fresh strawberries to make ’em with. (“a mess” = “lots” in Southernese)

    163 chars

  2. Maureen said on June 7, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    Last week I was talked into going to Soup Plantation with a friend. (Don’t know if it is just a West Coast thing, but SP essentially is a soup and salad bar restaurant that caters exclusively to old people and children.)

    With our assorted kids in tow, I scanned the expansive restaurant. Sat down, sighed, and reflected on the 11 years I have lived in this area. I said outloud to my friend, “I know so many people in this town.” Pause. “It’s starting to piss me off.”

    She laughed and said that is why she goes to France every year for six months. Anyway, no point to this all except to say anonymity, especially of the parental variety, is vastly underrated.

    672 chars

  3. deb said on June 7, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    i dunno, being anonymous has its drawbacks, too. i grew up in the sticks — the closest town, population 1200, was 5 miles away. going to a university with a resident student population of 18,000 was a jolt. so was moving to a burg with a population of 40,000. now, living in a major metropolitan area where i have no relatives except my own husband and children, i am thrilled to run into people i know. i am happy to see them, happy to feel like i’m part of a community again. i’m just glad they didn’t know me when i was in my 20s.

    534 chars

  4. Michael G said on June 7, 2004 at 6:12 pm

    Maybe that walking guy is gathering color for Rick Bragg.

    58 chars