I grew up in a small town. Any trip to the grocery, the post office, or the bank was a social occasion because one knew most of the people working there and the other customers. It seemed to me that my parents knew everybody, and everybody seemed to know which family I belonged to, even if they didn’t know which of Bob and Fern’s kids I happened to be. Because of that, I also knew that my friends and I would never get away with a damn thing.
Over time, the orange and avocado groves that had been the economic core of the community were yanked out and replaced by new tract house developments filled with new families. A supermarket came in, then second and third branch of the bank. New church congregations split off from the old. Two new freeways pushed through, and two more high schools were built. By the time I was in middle school, that little agricultural town had merged with the general earth-tone-stucco suburban sprawl that characterizes Greater Los Angeles. We still ran into people we knew, and my parents still heard about any my mischief I got into before I got home, but the easy, familiar conviviality of the place seemed to have been lost.
Two years ago, when I retired, my husband and I moved out of the LA Megalopolis to a small town. It took us a little while to adjust, or re-adjust, to the pace of ordinary daily transactions. Bank tellers and market clerks think nothing of finishing a conversation with a customer after a transaction is finished, even when there are people waiting in line. As often as not, the people in line will join the discussion. Rarely does anyone get huffy about how long all this chit-chat takes because it is an important element in the quality of life here.
Case in Point: Recently, we went to the post office to mail a copy of the manuscript for my next mystery, Disturbing the Dark, to a blurber. There were maybe four people in line and several others filling out address labels or selecting shipping boxes. The general conversation among the group was about the freak rain we’d had the day before, and speculation about El Niño mounting to anything. A man walked in, leaned against the end of the counter and, addressing the room, asked, “What’s the best way to get rats out of the garage?” He didn’t stand in line or have any postal business to transact, he just seemed to come in for a consultation among the locals. So, D-Con, though effective, was ruled out as too stinky and too dangerous for buzzards and cats who might find the corpse. Instead, “Put peanut butter in a trap and put the trap next to the wall where you saw the rat.” “Go over to Scott’s hardware and get on of those sticky traps, and put that next to the wall. They always go to the wall.” That one brought a comment, “Then close the garage door, because after they get stuck it still takes a while for them to die.” The man with a problem nodded a sort of thanks to the assembled, and left.
A woman walked in and took her place in line. Seeing her, the counter agent called over her shoulder, “Sue, Marva’s here.” A second postal clerk walked up from the back room and set a box with ventilation holes on the counter. She said, “Marva, your peepers came in this morning. They’re making so much noise they probably need water.” The woman at the end of the line, obviously Marva, stepped forward to claim her shipment of baby chickens, and no one in line complained that she was cutting in. Some transactions take priority.
In the meantime, the customer at the counter wanted to know how she could rent a postal box without using her legal name or home address. The USPS requires both, she was told. My husband suggested that she rent a box from the private mailbox place across the road. She said that was too expensive. Hell, she was a self-published author and earned little enough as it was. She’d held an online give-away contest and now she needed to send copies of the book to the winners, but the last thing she wanted was for any of her readers to find out her legal name and where she could be found. Clutching my manuscript to my chest, I asked her what she wrote. Erotica was the answer.
Though there was a general silence as people gave this fresh-faced young woman a new looking over, Paul laughed. And then he explained why. One of my books had a scene involving handcuffs. I thought the bit was funnier than it was sexy, but it seemed to touch a particular chord with some readers. I started getting handcuffs in the mail: fuzzy leopard-print covered toys, miniatures dangling from earrings, and so on. Fortunately, all of it was sent originally to my publisher, who forwarded it to me, so no one knocked on my door. But we understood why the woman wanted a buffer between herself and her readers. The postal clerk suggested that she could just leave off the return address altogether. Risking that a book might go astray was better than having some drooling horndog come climbing over the back fence in the middle of the night. The assembled agreed.
All problems thus addressed, we went on to the diner down the road for lunch.