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The Pros & Cons of Nosy Neighbors

As I mentioned in my first post, my brother’s recent retirement and subsequent settling in Montana got me to thinking about why, or why not, a person might choose to live in a small Montana community. My sister-in-law wasn’t sure she could live in a small town, 100 miles from everything.
And she’s not the only one. Small towns across Montana are drying up as our young people grow up and make tracks for greener pastures: better jobs, social and cultural opportunities, the chance to marry someone who is not a cousin…, and privacy.

It is a well-known fact of small-town life: You know your neighbors and they know you (or they soon will). And they know your business.

This is not for everyone.

I remember a few years ago I was working as a cashier at the local grocery store. A young man I didn’t recognize kept showing up, and after the third or fourth day I asked him if he was new in town, where he was from, and what had brought him to Forsyth. After the third question, I noticed that he was becoming very uncomfortable, so I welcomed him to town and wished him a good evening. After that, he avoided my lane for a long time…  I started making up stories in my head about him being in the Witness Protection Program or on the lam; Heaven only knows what he thought.

To me, it was just normal friendly banter, to him it was very awkward and intrusive. He is still around and has presumably realized by now that I am no crazier than the next small-town person, and I have heard him chat with customers in a very friendly and familiar way. I still don’t know what brought him to Forsyth, and that’s OK.My inquisitiveness only goes so far as someone is willing to share, and I think that’s true of most Montanans. Maybe his is on the lam, and if someone came to me looking for him, I would probably offer to give him a message rather than tell them where he works.

Nosy neighbors are inconvenient, but they help to keep us honest.

I think anyone who was ever a kid in a very small town at some time harbored an abiding wish to ‘get out of here’. When I was about 13, a convenience store owner called the cops on me for attempted shoplifting. I had tried to lift a bottle of wine and thought better of it (I chickened out), but he called the cops and I got my first ride in the back of a police cruiser. Since I hadn’t actually taken anything, no charges were pressed and they didn’t call my parents. I just got a scare and long lecture.

A couple of weeks later, some helpful neighbor told my mom about my ride of shame, but Mom didn’t believe it because a) she still thought I was a pretty good kid, and b) I was safely at home with her on the night in question. The neighbor had gotten the date wrong.

As a young teen, I could see only that our neighbor was being nosy and gossipy and trying to ‘get me into trouble’. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see this interference for what it was: the original social safety net. If I had gotten into a little more trouble then, I might never have had another ride in a cop car.

There is a reason that small town America doesn’t have huge gang problem. Our neighbors would tell on us and we’d get grounded.

What really makes this truth a Pro is that we know and care about our neighbors, even the ones we don’t really like. We bring meals to the sick and grieving, offer rides, drop by to chat. We will notice if something is wrong and will help if we can.
Furthermore, while grudges and feuds are not unknown, but they are very impractical in tiny communities. So we tend to apologize when we’re wrong, compromise when we must. If we want to be happy, we learn to accept the good with the bad.
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Why I Want To Write About Small Towns

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities
All my friends are so small town
My parents live in the same small town
My job is so small town
Provides little opportunity.
– John Mellencamp, 1985.
I don’t know whether or not Mellencamp’s iconic song is autobiographical, but it certainly has a ring of truth to it. As a life-long denizen of small-town Montana, I have a love-hate relationship with these sometimes baffling and tight-knit communities.
Wherever I travel I encounter people who are fascinated with the idea of visiting Montana, but horrified by the idea of living in a “city” of fewer than 2000 people. However, I didn’t appreciate just how intimidating (or just unappealing?) small town life appeared to townies until my brother Jim retired from the Army and proposed moving his family to Montana. His wife Sarah gamely agreed to the venture, but balked at the notion of actually settling in our little town of Forsyth. A confirmed techie, I gather her main objection was to living a hundred miles from a Best Buy, but the Walmart Question (how far is to the nearest one?) is more common. They compromised and moved to Billings, which boasts one Best Buy and two Walmarts.
That got me thinking about how city life and rural life differ in 21st century America (i.e., the age of Amazon and the Internet), and how living in Montana differs from living anywhere else in the country or the world. I admittedly have very little experience with living elsewhere, so I would welcome specific questions you may have about living and working in Montana.