Tractors Drive Themselves: One Man’s Return to the Farm
2012 Column Contest Winner
Matthew James called his bank the other day. A woman answered and said, “Well hi, Matt. How’s your mom been?” This is both comforting and disconcerting. That is his life now. After 15 years away, a writer returns to the corn farm where he grew up and the small-town life that most of America left behind. He might be the only person with tickets to see Louis C.K. in San Francisco who doesn’t know how he’s getting there. And by “there,” he means an airport.
Small Town Living.
Heard a fantastic story the other day. You could call it a rumor. That’s probably fair. Let’s call it a rumor. I wasn’t there. I don’t know for sure that the mayor’s daughter got the quarterback pregnant. It sounded believable at the time.
Here is the thing I am remembering about small town life: It’s not that more people gossip, or that people gossip more, or that more people do things worth gossiping about. No, it’s that everyone knows everyone else. What I’m saying is, gossip is obviously fun. But gossip about people you know, is a medicinal high.
Even though I have been away from my hometown in southwest Kansas for the better part of 17 years and I have only been back a few months, I knew the people involved in this rumor. Sorry, ALLEGEDLY involved. And I can’t even tell you anonymous details of the actual story because everyone would know who I’m talking about and I have no idea if it’s even true. I don’t know the people personally, but I know OF them. Everyone in a small town is a “remember that time” or a “she’s related to” from identification. Small towns don’t need the Kevin Bacon phenomenon. Everyone is one degree apart, usually less.
I started to repeat this truly great rumor the other day at the dentist’s office, but decided against it as the words were about to blast out. My hometown has 3,000 people and only one dentist, so if I said—or wrote on a national web site—that I was talking about it at the dentist, then everyone in my town would know exactly where I was sitting and exactly who was listening. This is terrifying. One of the great things about city life is that your stupidity and family drama remains in relative obscurity. In my experience, people in cities don’t know as many neighbors. They’re more cautious with strangers. They can go to the bank and not see a single friend, relative, enemy, acquaintance, co-worker, former classmate, former friend, former enemy, former co-worker, or the most feared animal of the accidentally bumped-into kingdom, the former relative. (You are correct, in cities it isn’t “the” bank it’s “a” bank, because there are options. My hometown doesn’t need options, because its bank is amazing. Thank you again for the loans in ‘94, ’96, ’99, ’06-’08 and 2010. All wise investments that are sure to pay off some day.)
The urban and rural lifestyles in America are never more in contrast than at election time, but I’ve been away a long time and so it strikes me hardest in front of the bank. On one hand, I have this overwhelming sense of freedom. I can park instantly, park for free, leave the doors unlocked, leave the keys in the ignition, leave the car running, leave a child in the car with a loaded hand gun, and absolutely nothing bad will happen. Perhaps someone will cook meth in the back seat while I’m gone but he will clean up after himself and probably check the safety on my baby’s gun. If my accelerator got jammed somehow, I could call the bank and ask someone to walk out to the curb and hand me a deposit slip as I coasted by. Then I could flip a U-turn at the end of Main Street like I used to in high school and hand it back with the endorsed check on my way back. “AH-HAH!” I can hear you thinking, but wouldn’t my driver’s side window be facing the wrong side of the street on the way back? Well the bank person would cross the street. Duh. You act like this is their first imaginary stuck accelerator scenario my banker has ever handled.
I am of course exaggerating. They wouldn’t make me fill out my own deposit slip.
And on the other hand, I have this other bank-related thought: Pretty much everyone who works there knows the answers to my online security questions. I don’t mean they have access to them. I mean they know them. What is your paternal grandmother’s first name? In what city were you born? Who was your first girlfriend? So how do I deter identity theft? By keeping my account balance and credit score as low as possible.
It’s not suffocating. That’s too dramatic. It’s simply a level of privacy that’s unavailable in a small town. Sometimes the only thing you want is to see a friendly face. Other times, you’d only like to think about a novel you’re reading. Or maybe you’d like to vote for a sheriff who doesn’t know about your personal best of five speeding tickets in a year. Or take a piano lesson from someone whose daughter you didn’t take to two proms. Or apply for a job where the interviewer doesn’t already have a pretty good grasp on your medical, financial and romantic history. When a professional athlete talks about a fresh start, small town folks understand the sentiment.
At least I think they do. Maybe I’m just sensitive because I’d gotten used to something different.
I’ll tell you what I can get used to. Being number “2” at the DMV. That’s right. I went to the DMV last week and the first thing I saw was a footstool. And on that stool was a crate. And in that crate was a yellow wooden box. And on top of that yellow box was a sign that said TAKE A NUMBER YOU WILL BE SERVED WHEN YOUR NUMBER IS CALLED. Dangling from the front of the yellow box by a nail, reinforced with string and packaging tape, were handwritten, numbered cards. The front card had a “2” on it. I wanted to hug this little pile of homemade Americana and never let go. I took a picture. Do you know how many hours I’ve spent in DMVs with 250 other sweating pissed-off people listening to a computerized intercom voice say, “Next up, D-75, at window No. 11” and realized I was still in the get-a-number line? Which is the one you get in right before the ‘Oops You Were in the Wrong Line and Didn’t Need a Number at All’ line and then the ’You’re an Idiot Who Didn’t See the Obvious Sign Accidentally Turned Around but Clearly Written in Portuguese and Now You DO Need a Number Just to Be Allowed to Return to Your Bed and Start the Day Over’ line.
But I was the only customer in this DMV. The. Only. One. It was some eerie scene out of I Am Legend where only me and this DMV worker survived and he still decided to come in to work despite all his relatives and the rest of humanity being brutally killed, and I apparently still wanted a legal Kansas driver’s license in case the zombies got really serious about traffic violations. NO. 2! Hallelujah! Zero-minute wait! I didn’t even bother taking the number and strolled to the counter like a no-talent celebrity at a nightclub opening, the only small difference being there was no one there to see it. No matter, it was a triumphant moment. Until of course my proof of residence was deemed pathetic and I spent two days tracking down the right paperwork and returned the next week only to be rejected again, this time as dreaded number 13. It was, as it turns out, still a DMV. Think of it as a national chain of horror-themed amusement parks. The experience needs to be universal.
I truly am appreciating a lot of small things. One day I drove a farm truck to the mechanic and took running clothes with me, thinking I might have time for a few miles while they worked on it. I changed in the waiting room bathroom. What I didn’t think about is what I would do with my work clothes or phone or wallet while running. I went to the manager, looking about as out of place as you’d expect someone in shorty-shorts to look in a mechanic’s waiting room, practically pleading for help or an idea. “Just put them behind my desk,” he said, motioning at his office. What? No speech about company liability? No ‘it might get stolen’ or ‘we can’t be responsible for’ excuses? This stranger was just going to put my belongings behind his desk and that would be the end of it? Huh?
That’s really weird. I could get used to this. In fact, I probably will get used to this. And then completely take it for granted.
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