Monday, May 27, 2013

Small Town Stories and Demographics

Not as though you needed reminding how living in a relatively small town plays out, nor indeed how living in a small town more closely replicates fiction.  Nevertheless, living in a small town reminded you about fiction to the point where you were almost unable to enjoy a rather sumptuous Memorial Day party at which a great many of the guests were known to you because the atmosphere crackled with many of the elements of story.

The atmosphere was, in fact, so crackling that you were edging toward the exit, your car valet card already in your hand, before you were stopped by someone who was not your dean at the university but who nevertheless told you you were on for two courses in the Fall quarter, a conversation that took the edge off your departure and in the process made the prospect of a beer seem attractive.

You have lived in this small town over half your life.  Let's say 53 percent.  This is enough for you to have become aware of the profound changes in the city of your birth as well as your adopted city.  Some of the individuals you know from this adopted small town are individuals with whom you have a history of thirty or, dare you say it, forty years.  You are able to wax nostalgia relative to two places, a fact that takes you beyond time and into a kind of collective awareness of how things--you know, things--change.

Having reached such a stage, you have in common a friend, Fred Klein, whose ninetieth birthday is today and how you and some of those present at this evening's gathering know him from the days when the BEA (Book Exhibit of America) was the ABA (American Bookseller's Association) Convention, where publishers traditionally gather over this weekend to display their Fall list.  This year's BEA is at the Javitts' Convention Center in New York.

When the BEA was the ABA, it was held at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C., thus another form of nostalgia for things Washingtonian such as Harvey's Restaurant, where one could get a superb diamondback terrapin soup.  But not any more because there is no Harvey's any more.

You can discuss with friends you've known for at least thirty years--and indeed would discuss such things with Fred, were he here instead of New York (where people you know have in large measure stopped going because it isn't the same any more, either, only not in the same way Los Angeles is not the same or Santa Barbara stands vulnerable to becoming.

After all, what is now D'Angelo's Bakery on Gutierrez Street, used to be a roller skating rink, and one used to be able to see respectable Spanish language movies at the nearby theater on lower State Street.) that you have stopped thinking in terms of age because you know the secret of keeping yourself thrown into projects that matter to you to the point where you are not coping with hobbies in any sense of the way a retired person would be coping with time.

A number of you are looking toward the northeast, where traces of a fire manifest themselves on the horizon, sending a steady dusting of ash, dropping from the sky like miniature parachutists.  One in your group watches such an ash, spidery and long, appear to decide which of two sleeves it will fall upon, then plucks the ash, drops it to the lawn, then brushes at the sleeve of a person he seems to have wanted to touch all along.

Each of you in the group is thinking about where he or she might have been during the last fire, where you were evacuated from your home on Hot Springs Road.  A fire such as this, from the Sage Hill Campground, while by no means as virulent as the last significant fire, is still enough of a subtext for those watching its traces to be yanked back in memory to a time of another fire, which is in an ironic way, a nostalgia for famous fires of the past and a kind of gallows humor reflection on how modern fires are lacking some of the gravitas of past fires, and you reflect how this fire appears to have originated in China, to take advantage of cheaper labor costs.

There are, to be sure, individuals present at this gathering you do not know and variously introduce yourself or are introduced to.  Such is the nature of small towns that when one individual you do not recognize asks someone if you are a poet, they are promptly shown the three past poets laureate of this small town in mitigation, then shown other poets before being told in no uncertain terms that you are not a poet.  This is not meant with any noticeable rancor, only a good, small town sense of neatness.  Conspicuous adjectives attached to you are short story writer, reviewer, essayist, teacher, novelist. But not poet.

This being a small town, there are tides of gossip ebbing and flowing, some of it rancorous as only gossip in a small town can be rancorous, which brings up a topic of conversation (total gossip in nature) relative to the agendas of a few persons present at this party and a few persons not present.

This is the last day of a holiday weekend, commemorating Memorial Day.  You have had at least three conversations with other persons in which you agree to take up topics related to the agendas of others in more, shall we say small town modes, knowing you are not at all likely to have these conversations, which would not make anyone comfortable or, most important, better informed.

These are the seedlings and gardening tools of story, but these elements take significance only because of your vision of them.  Vast quantities of food and drink have been prepared for this party, which uniformed serving persons have been at responsible and agreeable efforts to circulate.  Rivalries, crossed purposes, secrets, and unflattering opinions have been shuffled and sorted, alluded to or, in one case where you held your tongue, kept in its carrying valise, like a cat being given a trip to the vet.

Some of the vast amounts of food and wine and beer will find their way to homes of the serving staff, where newer stories will begin forming and where, in the writing of this, you've made a toasted cheese sandwich to go with one of the bottles of ale residing in your refrigerator on this day in late spring in this small, small town.

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