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Small Town Business

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Growing up in and around a city, I learned what I knew about small town life from television and books. It always seem so bucolic to me, serene and white picket-fenced, kids rode bikes everywhere and had tree houses. Me, I was mugged three times before I was eight. My entire third grade class was robbed by a teenage gang on our field trip to Grant’s Tomb. I had my bicycle taken, my lunch money, you name it! So to me, those images of quiet rural life always sounded like paradise. That’s one of the reasons I ended up in Vermont. I didn’t want to raise a child as I had been raised, with fear and a prey’s sixth sense. What I had never considered, however, was the more invasive part of small town living.

At one of my first jobs in Stowe — a business that was chock full of ski bums and bunnies, most under the age of 30 (either chronologically or emotionally) — I was shocked one morning to overhear someone ribbing my boss. “Hey Karen (not her real name). I saw Mitch’s car in your driveway this morning… so, you guys seeing each other or what?” It was inconceivable to me; not only did people bother to recognize your car (a skill I still haven’t mastered) but just by driving by, they knew who you were sleeping with! Yuck! The worst was how the news spread like a flame on a late-autumn corn field. I mean, in New York City, if you have a bad date, odds are good you will never have to see that person again, and if Karen chose to sleep with every bartender on the east side probably no one would know. And more to the point, no one would care.

Two years later I had just left the doctor’s office having found out I was pregnant, when I stopped by Bear Pond Books to pick up a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. As I waited to pay, I cracked the book, too excited to wait until I got to the car. Within seconds I heard a voice to my left. “Oh Ann, how nice to see you! What are you readi… Oh no! Are you pregnant?” she shrieked. Now this was an acquaintance, mind you, my husband didn’t even know yet!

A good friend of mine who is dating a commitment allergic man had a similar experience, almost in the exact same spot as she read He’s Just Not That Into You and a friend walked by. “It’s for my cousin,” she yelped, knowing the clichéd excuse only made her look guiltier.

And then there was my sister. When she started dating again after her divorce, she wanted to purchase some condoms but was afraid to do so at our neighborhood pharmacy for obvious reasons. So I took her on a field trip to Burlington. But always the mischievous little sister — even then at 30 — I ran ahead, held up a box of Trojans and yelled across the store, “The condoms are over here, Sis!”

But it’s not all bad, this small town experience. When I had my baby the women at our bank sent me a card signed by all of them. I was always shocked they even remembered my name. The few times I’ve had car trouble, people stop. They really stop. AND they’re not planning on mugging you. Odds are good you might know them. And we watch out for each other, keeping an eye on the neighbors' house when they are on vacation or bringing back their truant Labrador when he wanders down the street. And it’s safe. Really. I know, I know, there are drug problems and crime everywhere, but trust me, I spent the most formative grammar school years on the upper west side, and whatever Vermont can dish up is nothing compared to what I saw. Besides, how likely is it that my son’s fourth grade class will get mugged outside the Fairbanks Museum?

So I’ve learned to love asking after my pharmacist's house-building project and visiting with other parents at my son’s hockey games. And if something good or bad happens, that neighbors will find out and either support or congratulate me. After years of apartment living, where you didn’t know the neighbor's name, but you knew what time he went to the bathroom each night, I was ready for some more amiable interaction. At least in a small town it is more personal and you take the good with the bad. I had always wondered what it would be like to be part of a community; any living we did outside of the city never lasted long, so now I’m relishing these connections that I lacked in my youth.

And by the way, if you saw me buy that bodice-ripping romance paperback at the bookstore the other day, I was buying it for a friend. Really.

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About Ann Hagman Cardinal