Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Town

There is no end to the sudden interest people take in me when they see me getting out of the black Land Rover I drive which is still tagged with Alaska license plates. Locals stop me in parking lots or on the sidewalks to ask me if I know Sarah Palin, if I think she'll make a run for the presidency in the next elections, or to tell me how much they love our governor. My favorite waitress at Friendly's always wants to know the temperature and weather in Anchorage on that particular day. . .and why, "seeing as how you're from the arctic and all," I always act as if I'm about to freeze half to death here in the east. I think the post office clerk is growing suspicious of all those fragrant boxes I mail out to Alaska every week. When he asks me now if there is "anything fragile, liquid, or perishable" in the packages, he always asks me twice, as if I might be a bit "slow." Last Monday, he looked me straight in the eye and suggested that food is perishable, even fruits like lemons and limes and peaches. I assured him I'd heard that before too but, no, there wasn't any food in the boxes. And then, when he had his back to me – ostensibly to place the boxes into the bin - I saw him sniff the box. Trust is a hard-won commodity in this town.

At the small rural open-air farm market a few miles up the road from where I live, the women who work there have seen me often enough now to no longer act as if I might be dangerously pathological – though the obvious "disconnect" between my far-north license plates and my lingering Alabama accent still baffles them. Last fall, three of them corralled me at the cucumber bin to ask me about that gigantic Alaskan squash they saw a few years back in the local newspapers: the blue-ribbon squash from the Tanana Valley Fair. Specifically, they wanted to know if we Alaskans use manure as a fertilizer. . .and they pronounced it "mah-nyoor" much to my delight. They scoffed openly when I said it probably wasn't the fertilizer so much as the good long hours of summer daylight that contributed to such a beast of a squash. Clearly, they think I am toying with them and now they feel obliged to mess with me too: when I comment on how red and fat the tomatoes are this year, they smile wryly and say,
Yes, we've had some good daylight lately.

All in good fun.

And though the players at the Lebanon Bingo Hall don't yet know that I've recently moved here from Alaska, they watch me with a kind of growing interest now too because, three times out of the four times I have gone there to play Bingo with my daughter-in-law Jenny, I have won the drawing for the Tasty Meat Tray. They aren't sure what kind of black magic I am employing in order to win so many meat platters, and they keep their distance for the most part, but I think they are starting to sort of tolerate me now because they're pretty certain that weird magic doesn't work as well for the big cash winnings as it does for the meat platters. The first time my number was pulled, I thought the drawing monitor was just pulling my leg about me going to the refrigerated case in the back of the room and choosing the "tasty meat tray" I wanted (out of the three to be given away that evening in drawings). When I asked if she was serious about the prize being a tray of uncooked meats, she looked at me with what my grandmother Fleecy would have called
disdain and told me the Tasty Meat Trays were no joking matter.

No, Ma'am.

For the first time in my life, I haven't quite managed to stay safely "under the radar," to blend in, to move easily among the locals as if I've lived here for many, many years - though no one here yet knows that I am a professor who teaches in Alaska or that I am a writer with two published books, desperately working on another. To them, I am someone who obsessively scribbles things down on whatever is at hand. To them, I am a rather odd but ordinary-looking newcomer slogging about town and the rural countryside in jeans and boots and baggy sweaters which are fraying at the sleeves. My straight, thin hair is inevitably flying about in the infamously-wicked Pennsylvania wind despite the toothy banana clip and the super hold hair spray I liberally apply each morning. To most of the good people of this town, I am a middle-aged woman in big glasses at the grocery store squinting at the price labels and checking her newspaper coupons for a few cents off of whatever she's buying that day, the clumsy woman who juggles cardboard boxes - and not very well - each morning as she tries to move the newest stack of boxes from the car to the post office counter. Once, I swore loudly when the door - which isn't one of those new-fangled automatic doors in modern buildings - slammed me hard in the backside sending the stack of boxes scattering over the speckled linoleum floor. I fear, if I don't stop swearing when something doesn't go my way, I will soon be a woman with a reputation for having a filthy mouth.

I could be a lot like everyone else here in this small town except for the odd diphthongs of my speech and the lingering Southern proclivities I still have that give me away as a newcomer to town: things like squeezing the produce at the local market (rude, rude, rude in their books) and hauling my flea-market finds around in a recyclable "green" bag which, as the clerk pointed out loudly, is a flowered bag and isn't green at all so why in God's name would someone have put the word GREEN on it?

I am learning, in this small town life, to love the odd character of an old farmhouse even as I work to restore it, nudging it towards respectability again with fresh paint and wallpaper. I am learning that the cheap climbing roses from Ollie's Bargain Outlet cover a multitude of sins when it comes to landscaping around a summer porch where old concrete steps were buried in place decades ago, and that prim white trellises hold even the wildest of roses in check. I am learning which local "greasy spoons" will let me linger over a cup of coffee, who will let me stay a while to read or scribble without getting all huffy about the booth space I'm taking up. I am learning the waitresses' names and listening to stories about their children and grandchildren, about the pit bulldog that chews through every good sofa that comes through the door, about the old Pontiac that died in place after 30 years and the fake Christmas tree that nearly burned the house down this winter. I am also learning from them who the stingy tippers are among their regulars and pleased to hear I am
not on that list.

In other words, I am learning to let my hair down now, windy or not, to keep my lips zipped lest all that loose hair blow into my mouth, to get to the door fast as I can when the UPS guy rings the bell, even if it means I'm wearing my polka-dot socks and my sauce-stained apron, because it could be days before he can get back to redeliver whatever-it-is that he's trying to deliver. I'm learning to go casual, to go "mental" as one of the elderly women from the Palmyra Interfaith Assisted Living Home said in my direction last week in the bank. According to her, I ought to put on a little make-up and have my hair done. She has a theory: that a lot of smart women retire to small towns like this where they immediately "go mental." And going mental here seems to be loosely connected to one's coiffure and make-up and attire. In my new hometown, I am clearly going a little "mental." Or, at least, going in that general direction.