A few days ago one of the local men, an old guy with what the kids around here call a “pop belly” and who keeps himself mostly busy by driving his rustbucket slowly up and down the streets of the town -- though how he pays for the gas is as much a mystery as his source of income -- came into the local breakfast cafe and announced that he’d made a list of all the houses where the lawns had been let to dry up. He zeroed in on my neighbor. “And furthermore,” he lectured, “There was a bag of garbage sitting on your empty lots for at least three days.”
My neighbor was so upset that she came straight home, cleared the bag of garbage, and mowed her lawn. “It looks a lot greener, don’t you think?” she appealed to me. She drew the line at watering since it finally rained a day or so ago and the town water supply is in VERY short supply. But why didn’t old Pop Belly pick up the garbage in his cruising around?
When she came over to express her guilt and indignation, it was hard to comfort her until she got around to criticizing someone else for THEIR transgressions against world order. And so it goes in small towns. Her tact did extend to not criticizing my yard, which is patchy at best. (I’ve tried to save my perennial borders.) At least not to my face. But after she had seen into my little office (I copied a photo for her on my computer) people around town began to remark to me about what happens to people who never do their filing. (NOT happy consequences!) What’s next? Kitchen inspection to see whether the dishes are washed? (NOT.)
My roommate from undergrad years is retiring today and sent out a triumphant mass email to everyone. She also announced she was coming to visit. She and her husband live VERY nice lives on the Gold Coast of Chicago. I’ve tried and tried to tell her what my small town life is like, but it simply doesn’t get through to her. I finally got blunt, when she said “please be frank,” and then she was crushed. How could I be so mean when everyone else was being so kind?
I wasn’t being mean. I was trying to point out that I live in a house that’s one step above camping, that I can barely afford to feed the cats and myself -- much less company -- and that if she stayed in the local bed & breakfast run by an immigrant Californian, she is likely to get all tender and confiding over a nightcap and tell the woman stuff I don’t generally want known, partly because it will soon be translated into happening now instead of fifty years ago and partly because it will simply not be understood and therefore become something much darker. For instance, I was movie buddies with a guy engaged to someone back at home and traveled all over the Chicago area with him to see daring foreign films -- Ingmar Bergman, Truffault, etc. A person from this village where there isn’t even a movie house and where the rental videos are all frat-boy barf adventures, would picture something quite different from the earnest philosophical discussions of those days and never believe sex, drugs and booze were not involved.
The Indians in this town are sealed off into a bubble. When I’m in Valier, they pretend they don’t know me. When I’m in Browning, they know all about me and hail me by my first name. I mean, the same people with the same brains are careful in different environments. One of my white friends, who married a childhood Blackfeet friend -- perfectly respectable -- found herself suddenly red-lined here. If the trend continues, the bubble will overwhelm the village and they’ll have to change their ways, but that doesn’t make them kinder. It would be a smart move if it did.
This is why small villages think they are some idyllic vestige of the past: they seal out all conscious knowledge of the town drunks, cranks and worse. It’s a high school strategy, but high school is where many people stop growing and set their rules. Since then, they have mostly worked and worked hard, but not necessarily at something they enjoyed. Usually a family business, because family pressure and expectations are even stronger than the social rules of a village. The only way to escape is to leave.
I know some people who feel this social pressure all over the United States and have emigrated to a more tolerant place that has behavioral standards more like their own -- sometimes more strict than those around here. France is good. Quebec might do.
But it’s easy to understand how one old pop-bellied crank who takes it upon himself to bully the widows in town -- esp. the ones who all their lives have considered him with contempt -- can slide into something quite a bit worse. Today I went down to the county seat and paid off some of my back taxes. I’d been delinquent long enough that they could have moved to seize my property. They didn’t, but only because they know that though I’m not well-entrenched in this county, I AM known in the state and, besides, they feel sorry for me. So they give me some slack. Same with other small bills, obligations and courtesies. Unless I run across someone who hates Bob Scriver and takes it out on me.
Norma Ashby, a popular local television hostess for many years and the driving force behind the incredibly successful C.M. Russell Auction that has built the CMRussell Museum in Great Falls, asked if I would organize a reading of her memoir. The reaction was that she was just trying to make money and be a big shot and that they had no use for that kind of behavior. Yet if Norma stops to have coffee with me at the local cafe, she is swarmed with admirers. Her husband, a banker, died not long ago so she’s not broke and she could smooth the way for Valier’s anxious chamber of commerce.
The cut green lawns that have become such a fetish here are not for the sake of the locals. When the town council endorses that lawns must be green, they always express worry over what “outsiders” will think of the town if the grass has dried out. They resent but fear the opinion of outsiders and have lively imaginations about what those dreaded critters might think or do. It never occurs to them that there is a fairly sizable group who approve of xeriscaping -- and it wouldn’t even if they knew what xeriscaping was.
My old roommate thought we would have a tender reunion and reminisce about the old days, just like the movies. I think she’s forgotten what those old days were like. She has NO idea at all what today at my house is like or what I'm like. Lawn is the least of it! What’s worse for her is that she has no idea what retirement itself will be like. No wonder she was dismayed at my reaction. She mourned, "And I've always admired your writing!" But she's never read my writing.