VALENTINE TO A SMALL TOWN
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- At the drive-thru line at my local credit union the other day, I got a fresh daisy along with my receipt.
"Why?" I yelled into the microphone, and in the mumbled response, the only two words I understood were "Joyce" and "Spring." And that cold, gray day, which happened to be my birthday, was suddenly made a great deal brighter.
More and more, as the world feels like it's spinning out of control, it's important to appreciate the good small things we have. For me, one of them is the joy of living in the Brattleboro area.
I moved to Brattleboro in 1987 with not much more than a duffel bag and a nameless cat which had become my familiar in Panama. We lived in an apartment downtown; I was paying $400 a month in rent and earning $600. Times were hard.
For me, not for the cat. Within a few months, the tellers at the bank around the corner, the Brattleboro Savings and Loan (BSL), had named her Bissel and were putting food and water out for her. She would go through an open window next door at Hospice and sit on people's laps while they grieved. She liked to go down the road to the music center and climb up the fire escape for more food. She would occasionally cross the town's heavily-trafficked main street and hang out at the library.
In time I followed her excellent example and made a life for myself here. I found my calling as a writer here. I met my beloved husband here. I learned about small-town life here.
Early on, for example, I was covering a small town outside of Brattleboro for the local paper. I was speeding back from a selectmen's meeting late one night when a policeman pulled me over. When he saw my name on the driver's license, though, he waved me on. "Keep on telling us what those bastards are up to at Town Hall," he said.
Being a local reporter wasn't always that easy. Once I wrote about the terrible pop music that the local radio stations played. A number of letter-writers agreed with me, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Then I went to a Brattleboro selectman's meeting and discovered that at the press table I had to sit between the owners of the two stations.
That's when I discovered what journalists call the "Afghanistan Effect," named long before Sept. 11, 2001. It means that the further away from things you are, the more forthrightly you can write about them. It's been easy to rail against George W. Bush - so far. It's a lot harder to write something negative about a person when you might meet them in the supermarket.
Almost every day I have a little adventure here. For example, a few weeks ago I was annoyed - at myself - because I left a rented video home on the day it was due. I brought it in the next day, but I was still grumpy.
"Here's the video of 'The Good Girl,'" I said. "It's overdue and I have to pay extra, and I'm really disgusted because the movie sucked."
I started to apologize for being rude, but the young man behind the counter quickly said, "I'm not going to charge you for the extra day. I didn't like the movie either."
I love the quirks of living in a small town. I smile every time I drive by our town's premiere Chinese restaurant, which has a sign towering over it that says TEA.
Why tea? Glad you asked. There used to be a steak restaurant there, and the sign said STEAK $5.99. Then it went out of business, and the Chinese restaurant moved in. About the same time, the town changed its signage regulations. A tall sign that can be seen from the Interstate became illegal. This one, however, was grandfathered, and the owner of the property, a well-known town rogue, wouldn't take it down.
But the new restaurant owners were unhappy. People were coming in for a $5.99 steak and they didn't serve a $5.99 steak. What to do? Well, one night the owner went up on a ladder and took away some of the letters. In the morning the sign was offering tea, which the Chinese restaurant definitely serves. Everyone was happy - except maybe the planning commission.
I like living in a place where I know the stories, a place where the teller gives me a flower every now and then. I like living in a real community with a real downtown that Wal-Mart couldn't kill. This place could be precious and full of itself, but somehow it isn't. This is a place where hippies, woodchucks, yuppies, neo-hippies, skate punks and the occasional mental patient happily co-exist, and where the main parking lot is called Harmony.
This is a town that supports a variety of ethnic foods, multiple independent bookstores, and, on a freezing night, can draw hundreds of people downtown to examine the newest art. It's a town where the local paper's op-ed page would give Bill O'Reilly and Anne Coulter a heart attack.
Two rivers run through this place, along with a great deal of heart and spirit. Happy Valentine's Day, Brattleboro area.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.