I’ve lived in four houses my entire life, all within the same county in PA: the two that are the farthest apart are separated by only 18 minutes, on a good driving day. I’ve been eating at my favorite local restaurants at least once a week for as long as I can remember, minus the time I spent away at college. I have a category of people in my life who are “mill customers:” I don’t know their names, but I know they have been buying at our family feed mill since before I was born, and I know them on sight. My family doctor went to school with my mom; they even traded homework in an alley before school in the morning (Mom did the English, and he did the math). I’m a small-town girl, and I’ve decided there are 12 signs you’re from a small town, too.
1. Everybody knows your name.
Well, they may not know your first name, but they know that you are so-and-so’s daughter or son or so-and-so’s granddaughter or grandson and you look just like her or him.
2. When you hear a train coming, you know at least two alternate routes you can take to avoid the train all together.
That first whistle is just a warning. You know you have exactly 90 seconds to turn around, head down a side street, and jump the tracks because the lights are flashing but there aren’t any bars coming down across that crossing. And you feel a little bit like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit while you do it.
3. You hear “mom ‘n’ them” on a regular basis.
Okay. Maybe this is just a colloquialism from my particular small town, but it’s something you hear regularly around here. If it’s unfamiliar to you, picture this: you’re standing in line at a store, and you hear the people beside you say they had to pick up some Pepsi for “mom ‘n’ them;” you ask somebody to come for dinner this weekend, but they say they can’t because they’re going to be with “mom ‘n’ them.” It’s absolutely horrible. I’ve never said it. But it’s a part of the vernacular around here.
4. You don’t know street names because you reference everything by “where so-and-so used to live” or “where such-and-such store used to be.”
I hate it when people from out of town ask me for directions, because I have no idea what the streets are called around here. It’s only been 33 years; don’t judge me. I’m always fascinated by the college kids’ ability to deliver pizzas in this small town. I’ll bet not one of them knows where the old Kmart even used to be, but they’re successfully delivering pizzas nonetheless.
5. You know where everybody’s grandparents live.
Part of growing up around here meant spending time at your friends’ grandparents’ houses, not just your friends’ houses. Whether it was Sunday visits or trick-or-treating or just to drop off a clean casserole dish, you visited grandparents almost as much as you visited friends. The nice part was, you had a whole group of grandparents you weren’t related to but who still treated you like one of their own.
6. People have their own booths and tables and barstools in the restaurants and bars, and you know people are going to catch hell if they’re sitting in them on the “wrong night.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s the local family restaurants or the local dive bars: you can guarantee people will show up and immediately get pissed off if somebody else is in “their seat.” I’ve seen people march over to poor, unsuspecting patrons and tell them to get out of their seat. I’ve also seen people sit and pout while staring at the offending ignorant eaters because they didn’t have the guts to confront them. There even are a couple of waitresses in town who are nice enough to warn people about sitting in certain spots on certain nights.
7. If you can’t find somebody, you know which restaurant to find them in on a Friday night.
There is a whole culture of diners who eat in certain places on Friday nights. These people make up the majority of the people in #6 who have “their spots.” I’ve heard my parents say they weren’t going to call so-and-so because they just knew they’d see them at dinner that night. They didn’t have dinner plans together, and they weren’t going to eat together; they just knew they’d be there having dinner. In their spot.
8. Your mother and grandmother refer to all of the girls within five years of your age by their maiden names, and it doesn’t sound weird to you.
We’ve been to the weddings. We’ve seen the pictures of the ones we weren’t invited to attend. Everyone around here knows when one of “the kids” gets married. But, even though the majority of the girls take their husbands’ names, your mother and grandmother never get the memo or take notice of the new address labels on the thank-you notes and Christmas cards. You will forever go by your maiden name to those mothers and grandmothers, no matter what.
9. You see your friends’ parents and they still treat you like you’re twelve.
This probably has a lot to do with #8, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a wonderful development with some of the best families around, and those moms and dads watched out for us when we rode our bikes and played flashlight tag. I don’t know for sure, but whatever the reason, when I bump into those same moms and dads now, they look shocked to see that I’m old enough to be married with children (even though their kids are, too) and they still use that tone of voice they used when I was in elementary school. How are yoooou? What have you been up toooo?
10. You hear certain last names and know they’re trouble.
Right or wrong, fair or not, people are branded in a small town. Certain names and places carry stigmas, even if the current generation is made up of college graduates and success stories. It seems like the oldest generation in town is the most guilty of doing the labeling, and there is a subset of teaching families who shares the blame, but certain last names earn people the ire of many community members. And, the people who are the targets of the ridicule are aware of it and perpetuate it: “Oh, we’re not part of that clan. Our last name is spelled differently.” I’ve even heard people change the pronunciation of their last name, just to disassociate themselves from the rest of the clan.
11. You can list every sport the kids in certain families played.
Small towns like to cheer on their kids, and certain families are known for raising football players, basketball players, soccer players, baseball/softball players, and even 4-Hers. If a kid chooses not to participate in a sport that made his or her family famous, everybody wonders what’s wrong with him or her. It’s like the town expects people to follow suit and not break tradition; when it happens, they’re not sure how to handle it. On the other hand, when a new generation of a family begins, everybody starts purchasing sporting gear in the “family sport” for the new arrival. Baseball gloves for newborns are common baby shower gifts around here.
12. You expect to be able to park for five hours on one quarter.
There are some perks to being from a small town. You’re practically guaranteed a parking spot, and when you get one, you know you can spend the better part of the day parked in town on a single quarter. It’s funny when we go out of town and are expected to pay more than that for parking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain about parking fees in the surrounding communities because we are spoiled here.
I’d like to be able to say that my small town is exactly as I remember it from my childhood, but it’s not. I described my dilapidated memories of some of the places that made up my childhood in an earlier post, and after I did that, I realized that even though things don’t look the same, they often still feel the same. Some days, that’s a comfort; other days, it’s not. I don’t know if I want our boys to be able to write a list like this thirty years from now. There are some advantages to this small-town life, but I often wonder about the things I missed out on by living in a big city or going out West somewhere. The hardest part is realizing that our boys are going to have to make that decision for themselves some day, and I can’t handle thinking that my small town may not be their small town. What the Hell?