Last week I was on a pretty well-received double podcast, talking about what it’s like growing up in a small town. Like most small town stories, the longer we talked, the weirder it got … and even after the recording, I realized that these areas have a lot more strange traits that sound like the goddamn Twilight Zone to people who have never lived here. No, seriously.
#5. Given Enough Time, You Will Be On The Front Page Of The Newspaper
I feel sorry for small town newspaper reporters. Every once in a great while, something scandalous happens and provides them with an easy piece of content for that day. Like maybe the mayor gets busted for his third DUI and a brick of weed, or a teacher gets arrested for masturbating in his car at a stoplight. Well, I say “maybe,” but both of those things genuinely happened in the town I grew up in. The point is, we get at most three or four of those types of stories per year. The other 361 days are pure filler.
When you’re stretching for content, anything becomes news. The prom queen doesn’t just make the front page … she is the front page. The whole front page. The same thing happens for the homecoming queen. This is going to sound like a joke, but when I was a kid, I was on the front page of the newspaper because I found a big mushroom. My brother made the front page for catching a big fish. My dad was on it for growing a huge tomato… four times.
Here’s a photo of my local newspaper. These people are on the front page because they’re unloading boxes for a charity. It takes up half of the front page:
It’s actually harder to find someone who hasn’t been on the front page of the newspaper, than to find people who have. When you take away the “front page” modifier and just talk about being in the newspaper as a whole, virtually everyone makes that list. Because in every small town paper I’ve ever seen, there is a section devoted to crimes. And when I say “crimes,” I mean all crimes, from meth labs to jaywalking. If you get a ticket for driving 40mph in a 30mph zone, you’re in the next day’s paper.
I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years back in the late 90s, and when I told my new friends about this, they called bullshit. I had to have one of my hometown friends mail me one of their newspapers so I didn’t look insane.
“Oh, Christ, my reputation is RUINED!”
But it goes even further. Are you getting married? You’re taking up half of page three with your announcement. You started a small business? There will be an entire article about it on page two. In the town I currently live in, I haven’t told many people what I do for a living because they’d consider that a form of “celebrity” and there would be a spread on me within days. That’s not paranoia — there are sections of our paper devoted to an old woman who documents her day. As in, “My grandson came over today. He ate beans and hotdogs for lunch. We did some gardening. Earl fixed my water heater, and said I shouldn’t need a new one for a couple of years.”
Again, not a joke. That’s absolutely real.
If your local school wins a sports championship, that’s definitely going to make the front page of the newspaper, but I saved that example because that one gets even weirder…
#4. Sports Victories Go On The Town’s Sign Forever
Drive through the South and Midwest long enough, and you’ll start to see signs like:
BONERTOPOLIS: Population 872 — 1996 Girls’ Jr. High Volleyball Regional Champions
You’re not ready for this level of fame, kid.
The town’s name is obviously made up (though when I finally build my own town, that’s what I’m calling it), but the rest of that information is not. If your local sports teams — and by that, I mean junior high and high school — wins any sort of championship, your town will honor you by putting that information on the road sign. And that shit stays there forever.
Your town becomes known for that, even if the championship was 30 years ago. My original hometown had won four state championships: two in the 1970s and two more in the 1980s. For each year, a picture of the team was blown up to 10 feet wide and hung side by side on the gymnasium’s wall. Those four, massive, black-and-white photos loomed over everyone while we played dodge ball in PE. Judging us. Condemning us.
Except Tony. That guy was a fucking prodigy.
Remember the show Married… With Children? Al Bundy was a former high school football star, and in several episodes, he’s treated like a god by some old friends who remember the big game. Everyone else kind of rolls their eyes at his old “glory days” stories, but there are a handful of people who still revere him. Take that small group and expand it to the whole town, and that’s what Midwestern and Southern small towns are like.
The difference between real small-town sports heroes and Al Bundy is that if you take advantage of that minor stardom, you can make a very good living from it. I know several members of those old teams who used their names as advertising and started very successful businesses. When everyone in town knows your name, advertising your business is barely necessary.
GET that shit out of my FACE, son! This is MY house!
Remember the high school basketball hero from Parks And Recreation? In a small town, that guy isn’t satirical. He’s absolutely real.
#3. You Can Gauge Someone’s Wealth By Their Truck’s Tires
I mentioned earlier that I once lived in Los Angeles. I actually lived in quite a few big cities before settling down in my current small town. One thing I always found weird was that in a city, you can easily tell someone’s wealth by what they drive … but it’s not how you think. Obviously, if someone owns a Porsche or Ferrari, they’re either rich or a GTA character. It goes a bit further than that, though.
Both middle-class and rich people can afford a mid-range sports car like a Mustang or a Charger. But rich people will typically have 1) the decked out version, and 2) theirs will be cleaner. Not just because they can afford to have it cleaned more often, but because they are much more likely to own a garage, so birds aren’t shitting on it all day. Obviously, all of that is a very loose rule of thumb, but you get where I’m going with it.
Definitely under $40k a year.
Yes, we do have luxury and sports cars here, but everyone typically knows, “Damn, that’s a sweet Mercedes. Oh, yeah, that’s the doctor’s car.” In a small town, especially in the Midwest and South, the majority of vehicles are trucks. And though “luxury” trucks do exist, you won’t find many here, because trucks are used for work and utility. So most of the traffic is Silverados, F150s, and Rams. Each with a bigass dog in the bed. At this point, I’m pretty sure the dogs come with the trucks, whether you want one or not.
So here’s my point: Since all of the trucks basically look the same, and most of them are in the same general price range, the only way to tell someone’s financial status is to look at the tires. If you see a jacked-up truck with a huge lift kit (those raise it up, kind of like a monster truck) and gigantic tires, you know the person makes a pretty damn good living. Or at least their parents do.
He could buy you and your ugly kids.
That’s because those bigass tires can cost a couple thousand dollars for a set. No, seriously, here’s one type of “muddin'” tire for $550 each. That’s not counting the rims. Add in a fancy set of those, and you can easily double that price. That lift kit I mentioned? Tack on another $1400. Want a badass exhaust system? Here’s another $1500. There are 18-year-old kids in my town who have more money wrapped up in tires and accessories than I do in my entire car. But because we all dress basically the same way in this area (jeans, t-shirts, baseball hats), the only way you’d ever know they had money is by seeing that truck.
#2. Directions Are… Weird
I mentioned on that bigass podcast that giving directions in a small town is pretty weird for people who’ve never lived in one. Since everyone knows everyone else (even if they don’t know you, they’re familiar with you), directions often boil down to, “You know where Chad Nickelback lives, right? I’m right across the street from him.”
Even if you don’t know the exact person, you know the place by the stories associated with them:
“You know James Countryfuck, right?”
“Hmmmmm… I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, ya do. He’s got that bigass Rottweiler that killed Susan Thunderfist’s cat back in October. The big green house that had the fire back in 2010?”
“OOOOOHHHH, yeah, I know the place.”
“I know it a little too well, actually…”
I don’t think that’s all that shocking to people who live in cities, though. I mean, we’ve seen movies with stuff like that in them. What I find really weird is that we often give directions in relation to where things USED to be. As in, “You know where the Dairy Queen used to be? It’s two blocks down from there.”
There are two reasons for that. The first is that businesses often appear and disappear in a matter of years. Fast-food restaurants tend to stick around, but local mom and pop stores go out of business lightning fast. Any business that sticks around long enough to commit to memory becomes a landmark. Then when that landmark disappears, the only way you know to describe it is in relation to what it used to be. “Remember the old dildo factory that’s now a church? My house is down that road.”
The plastic dongs that once filled these halls still haunt me.
The second reason is oddly because of the 911 system. That didn’t make its way into a lot of rural areas until the mid 1980s. Before that, all of the many, many dirt and gravel roads were not marked or named. If you called the police or fire department or just gave directions to a friend, it was done in that same way, just to get them to the road that leads to your house. The streets in town were named, obviously, but a large part of the town’s residents lived in the country.
Once the 911 system was implemented, the roads had to be named in order to give better (actual) directions. Otherwise, half of the emergency calls would be, “OK, now you’re gonna turn off of the highway where Benny Farmshovel’s old cattle farm used to be. Then you’re gonna drive about six miles until you see the old junk yard.” We just never got over that method of giving directions, so we still do it.
#1. The “Friendliness” Can Get Imposing And Outright Creepy
Let me tell you a story about a high-school kid who got a dildo stuck in his ass.
The story goes that a guy I went to high school with bought a dildo for his girlfriend. She told him she wouldn’t use it until he did. So he took one for the team and used it. All of it. And then some. After a very extended effort to remove it himself, he realized it wasn’t going to come out without some medical assistance. So he drove himself to the emergency room, had it removed, and nobody ever spoke of it again.
Until four minutes later when every single person on the hospital staff spoke of it again. And again. And again. They went home and told their spouses. Their spouses told their friends. Their friends told everyone at every bar. Eventually, everyone in town knew about it — and when I say “eventually,” I mean “by sundown.”
“Papa, tell us again of Dildo Teen’s demise.”
In a small town, you are not anonymous. If you’ve ever sold so much as a single joint, everyone knows you as “the drug dealer.” If you’re a teenage girl who bought a pregnancy test, you are now “the high school slut,” even if you’ve only had sex once. It doesn’t even matter if your story is “juicy” or not. One of my friends went to the only proper restaurant in town and had a salad. The next day, one of his teachers asked him if he was on a diet. Because she knew the waiter, and somewhere in the middle of bullshit small talk, his name came up, and the waiter mentioned he only ordered a salad.
But, hey, maybe you don’t go out that much. Maybe you don’t have a “thing” for them to label you as. You’re not the “child molester” or “7am mowing guy.” You just keep to yourself and only go out of the house when you have to. Yeah, now you’re the most famous person in town, because nobody knows anything about you. You’re mysterious. You’re “the creepy guy who never comes out of his house.”
No matter what your house looks like, they see it like this.
Have you ever seen Gilmore Girls? The way the citizens of that town operate is way closer to truth than parody.
It’s not just gossip, though. Since you often only have one or two grocery stores, you end up on a first-name basis with every cashier. Buying food becomes a social event… which may sound pleasant at first, until you’re standing in line, waiting to pay for your ice cream, and the four people in front of you all start conversations with the girl behind the counter.
“Hi, Nancy! How are the kids?”
“Oh, they’re getting huuuuuge! Jason is in football this year. And last week, you won’t believe what he did at the family reunion. You know how my uncle Barry only has one leg, right? Well, Jason was play-wrestling with him like they do, and…”
“Man, FUCK yo kids!”
Every. Single. Customer. They still keep talking, even after they’ve paid. If you interrupt them, you’re the asshole, because they were just being friendly. You’re the impatient dickhead who can’t wait two extra minutes for them to wrap up their conversation. By the time you get to the front of the line, you’re not buying ice cream, you’re buying a bad milkshake.
Don’t get me wrong — I love it here. It’s quiet and simple. It’s relaxing. But to my friends who live in large cities, it’s the fucking Twilight Zone. Still, I love the look on their faces when they have to have an emergency dildo removal while they’re visiting, and the cashier asks them about it the next day. It’s why I live here.