Between the Lines: Small-town life is a cut above

Ken Jenks is the physician’s assistant at a medical clinic in Nucla, Colo.
Jenks, who appears in a compelling “New Yorker” profile of Nucla’s druggist, Don Colcord, grew up in Salt Lake City. But he’s become a connoisseur of small towns.
Living in a small town, he says, means giving people more latitude.
In high-desert country that knows the ravages of methamphetamine usage, for example, Jenks finds that he needs to have “a working relationship” with local meth addicts. And so he treats their drug-related health problems in strict confidence.
“Someday I might be on the side of the road, and the person who pulls me out is going to be a meth user,” Jenks explains. “The circle is much tighter.”
So it is with the towns of Addison County.
For those of us trying to adhere to the KISS (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) rule, cities may be places to make a living, see a dance performance, or shop for items we can’t get locally — but they are no place to live.
In a world that’s largely too urban and crowded for comfort, we’ve chosen small-town life.
In the bargain, though, we’ve given up a fair degree of privacy.
I trust the cashiers who know what I buy at the store, the office help who see my medical records, and those who handle my small local business transactions — and I believe they are discreet about the details. But I know they have a window into my somewhat private affairs.
Yet I happily make this potential sacrifice of anonymity, in exchange for the ordinary sense of common purpose that comes from being in all this together.
Even business transactions sometimes feel cozy, perhaps in a small way even intimate. If I go somewhere else to do my banking or call an out-of-town lawyer to get a legal question answered, that’s one fewer face-to-face interaction, one less chunk of money that stays in the community.
Though I might I pay a small financial premium for those services by doing them locally, I get more in return: the abiding sense of a community that works.
Another advantage: If you’ve got to get something done around here — investigate a car problem or paint a kitchen; get the plumbing fixed or find a babysitter — you’re likely to know the right person to do it, or to have a friend who knows the right person.
Well, maybe it’s not always easy to find a babysitter.
Nonetheless, I’m consistently amazed by the high degree of professionalism around us. Because so many people have chosen to live here when they could reside in some suburb and make a lot more money, the quality of work from trades people, bakers, attorneys, physicians and chefs is well above average.
So is the generosity of the churches and the commitment to good schools, even as church membership ages and school taxes rise.
Not all small towns are friendly places, of course.
But in the 40 years since Vermont has opened up to the outside world, it’s full of villages where making friends isn’t much more complicated than showing up regularly at school activities; striking up a conversation about the weather with the stranger waiting in line with you for a cup of coffee; shopping at the same grocery market or co-op; or volunteering for one of the many civic opportunities.
As the standard wisdom goes about making a trip to the co-op, don’t expect to get in and out within five minutes. You’re sure to see a friend with whom you want to chat. Five minutes quickly becomes 20.
The bonds can be even tighter in our small mountain towns. When it snows two feet or floods a foot, your neighbors can be your lifeline. Just ask anybody in Hancock, Granville or Lincoln who lived through Irene.
The downside of this 360-degree familiarity, say the cynics, is that everybody knows everybody else’s business. There are times when it feels like being in a fishbowl.
As an acquaintance muses about her local dating activity, when she and her date are spotted in one evening by several friends at different places, “Sometimes I feel like I have a GPS on my back.”
But Ken Jenks, the Nucla physician’s assistant, asserts there is less gossip than one would think in small towns: People already know so much about one another.
I believe that some of these small-town advantages are heightened for those of us who didn’t grow up here — who came by choice and without the baggage of a childhood and adolescence lived within the fishbowl.
After all, it’s a bit harder to see someone with unbiased and accepting eyes when you’ve known him since second grade; when her family’s reputation precedes her; or if his father’s drinking once ruined your high school prom.
Whether we are true locals or immigrants, we’ve learned the value of an extra measure of circumspection in our everyday dealings.
Flip somebody off when they cut in front of us at a four-way stop, for example, and we’re likely to see that person sitting next to us at the football game come Friday night.
“Maybe I can describe it this way,” Ken Jenks told Peter Hessler, the “New Yorker” writer. “I like to play chess. I moved to a small town, and nobody played chess there, but one guy challenged me to checkers. I always thought it was kind of a simple game, but I accepted. And he beat me nine or 10 games in a row.
“That’s sort of like living in a small town,” Jenks said. “It’s a simpler game, but it’s played to a higher level.”
Gregory Dennis grew up in a small town and hopes to die in one. His column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://middleburyvt.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected].

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