I watched August: Osage County last night, which I really enjoyed. There’s a part in the movie (not a spoiler) where Julia Roberts is talking about a police officer who she sees during her return trip back home, and tells her daughter about how she went to prom with that guy, years ago, and what it was like. And now, there they are, so many years later. I realized the irony here, since I used to date the cousin of the (former) police chief of my hometown. Small towns are still small, even when you don’t live there anymore. Sometimes I see a notice posted in a group about my hometown on Facebook about someone or other who has died. More often than not, it’s a last name I know – I went to school with the person’s child, or that person used to practice with my dentist or pediatrician or whatever. I knew it was small when I lived there, but I didn’t realize how small.
Cleveland, where I have spent almost all of my life since graduating college in 1991, is of course much bigger. But the circles I run in are relatively small and tight; when you meet someone knew, it’s likely that you know several other people in common, if they are people in the food world or the theater world. I’ve had enough jobs here that I know a lot of people in different professions as well – I know a lot of lawyers and people who work with them, I know a lot of graphics people, stuff like that.
I went for a drink at a bar/restaurant I like last week. I don’t have the money to go out as much as I would like, but this particular evening, I needed the night out, and happy hour prices are my friend. Plus I had somewhere near downtown to be at 7, so going home first would have been a big waste of gas and time. The bartenders at this place are always pleasant but they don’t really know me personally. I enjoyed my drink and my food and was on my way and the manager called me by name and said it was nice to see me. It’s this kind of personal attention, this additional touch that really means a lot. I don’t go every week, but she knows who I am, and so does the chef, who always comes to say hi if he’s not in the kitchen. It makes you feel like a valued guest and is such a small but smart thing to do. That’s why I go back there, and to my favorite places like that, again and again. I might not go to Lola for lunch every week any longer, but when I go in, the bartenders know who I am and what I prefer to drink, and are always happy to see me. It’s my community, and I enjoy having a place in it.
Sometimes the overlap is uncomfortably tight and you have to figure out how to navigate it. You see someone out who did something terrible, and you try not to see them. Or you leave, if they can’t easily be avoided, your heart in your throat and palms sweaty. Or a friend of yours gets involved with someone you used to date, and you don’t know what the decorum is when in a group conversation that includes both of them. Do you let on that you know what she knows? Do you take Miss Manners’ high road and pretend it’s all new to you and you know nothing about what he (or she) is really like? One time I ran into a guy in a bar who I hadn’t seen for many, many years. The last time I saw him was when we were getting intimate for the first (and last) time. I had disrobed, and he looked at my body, a road map of angry scars from all the surgery I’ve had, and said “I can’t do this.” I got dressed and left. What’s the proper thing when you encounter a person in a bar 10 years after that? “So, how are things going for you? How about those Browns?” Sometimes you just wish you’d never see some people again, but the city is too small for that, so you deal. And sometimes, inexplicably, people think they’ve seen you some place you never were, with people you don’t know, and they don’t believe you when you say you weren’t there, because it’s a small town and they were sure it was you, even if it really wasn’t, you were at home doing laundry, not dancing on a bar or whatever. That’s what a bad reputation gets you, I guess. Nobody ever thinks they saw me at church, or at a soup kitchen.
Sometimes the small is good. I might not know you personally, but we know a lot of the same people, and if a mutual friend of ours is sick, I will shoot you a private message to let you know. Sometimes, someone you don’t know, or don’t know very well, offers you their spare crock pot or blender for free because they never use it and yours just broke. This is what a community feels like, and that’s a great feeling.