Small Town Living Lacks Anonymity

by Leonard Bishop                    

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Everything has been written about before–but to the innocent( the ignorant, to0), the trite can be original. Living in a small town like  Herington  is causing me to worry about my family, and I’m beginning to doubt the integrity of my character. I’m becoming a hypocrite, a phony. Unless you commit yourself to living as a hermit or recluse, you cannot be alone.

I no longer miss the variety of entertainments of a Metropolis–the hotels, arcades, ethnic restaurants, libraries, or other environments where you can be guaranteed to find a crowd of people. What I miss about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, is a facility for becoming so anonymous that to become noticed you have to shriek for attention. In Herington there is no place to hide. Wherever I am there is always someone there to recognize me and demand that I nod and recall their name. I cannot be myself: forgetful, preoccupied, involved in my unsocial occupation of writing. I cannot walk the streets waving my arms, and gesturing dramatically and talking aloud as I work out a scene in a novel. The people would believe I have gone lunatic. In San Francisco, lunatics are part of the landscape. If I were to behave naturally, my wife’s life would become intolerable. People would look at Celia and shake their heads with pity. Because she is loved by so many, some people would light candles for her. My daughter Kiersten would be shunned as though scales were falling from her eyes. My son Luke would be abandoned by his friends as their parents warned them about the transference of demented genes.

I always have a notebook and a ballpoint pen with me. It is a writer’s equipment. It is neither inconsiderate nor peculiar when I suddenly brake the car and stop in the Main Street to jot down an idea, a line of dialogue. Inspiration is fragile and fleeting. When Heringtoners see me driving they quickly changed to another street.

There are traditional small-town social prerequisites which I do not always understand or choose to obey.  I wake at about 6 AM. Whatever clothes my hands touch are the clothes I wear. If my shoes don’t match, if I haven’t noticed that an eyeglass lens is missing, or that I’m munching my toothbrush, I don’t panic. But I am fed up with having to stand before Celia to be inspected before I leave the house. I recall the second day I was in Herington and she warned me,” You will not buy your clothes at garage sales. You may be wearing my best friend’s husband’s underwear.”  How could they know that?

To avoid being judged as lewd and degenerate I have had to threaten my big-city friends to not write me dirty jokes on pornographic postcards. The postman always has that “Tsk-tsk-for-shame!” Look when I get my mail.

Whatever community entertainment is produced is done by amateurs and unforgivable sacrilege is committed if you even look like you think someone’s youngster has a voice like an asthmatic cat licking rusty nails. A professor at Kansas State( Joel Cleimanhaga)  advised me on how to handle someone who asks,”How do you like  my daughter’s performance?” My reply is either,” She did it again,” or to gush,” Incredible,” and drift away.

There is a social caste system to which I will never belong because there’s no category for me. The upper-echelon is comprised of doctors, dentists, and bankers. Next are self-made millionaires who hide their money. Then the high potentates of the Masonic Lodge and other odd fellow organizations, the people who own businesses, then the educators  with college degrees. My values and priorities have been tumbled and reversed. In San Francisco, doctors plead with you to socialize with them. Dentists are rarely invited to parties. Bankers are treated as though afflicted with an oozy disease. Masons, Lions, Shriners, Kiwanis, are beer-drinking loafing card players to be avoided.

Everyone requires a smile or you are deemed a snob or a closet child molester. Since all I can say is,” Nice day, huh?” And,” Might rain, heh?” people believe I’m a frustrated weatherman. If I happen to be deep in thought when someone greets me, and I’m not aware of them, all week long in the supermarkets I am treated like a leper. I have lost most of my identity because I am known as” Celia’s husband–Bud Welch’s son-in-law.” Everyone has a dossier of rumors on everyone else. Fifteen years ago, when the wind blew a mode of dust in Fred’s eye and the minister’s wife passed him, she assumed he winked at her and friend Fred is still known as an incurable sex maniac.

After one week of living in Herington I complain to Celia,” These people are impolite, and barbarians,” because they just call on you. There is no preparatory phone call to know if you’re busy. They just come by to visit. At least 10 women know that I have ugly legs and think I’m a nudist because  I open my door in my underwear.

This” don’t-make-waves” culture is destroying me. I get the feeling that though Celia loves me, she wants to keep me hidden. Only under torture will Kiersten admit that I’m her father. Even little Luke has asked me to walk half a block behind him on the way to school. Now I can understand why Martin Luther wrote: “Who knows if I break wind in Wittenberg they might smell it in Rome.”

(first published  Sunday, December 16, 1984 the Manhattan Mercury)

© 1984 Leonard Bishop

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