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How Friendly Folk Forget Small-Town Ways

By JOHN GOULD / December 16, 1994



Small-town country living was folksy; everybody knew everybody, and strangers were quickly brought into the membership. When I brought my city-gal bride to the back country of Maine, now so long ago, she was leery of settling in to become a native, but such were the manners of those days that she soon was the proud president of the prestigious Shining Light Club, the neighborhood ladies' witan that outranked the Mayflower Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution combined.

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As I remember, the tide turned when I took her into Heistermann's meat market and grocery, the store where she would trade. I was mass-introducing her to the tradespeople of our main street, and here stood Fritz and Karl Heistermann, brothers, eager to meet the bride. Fritz had come from Essen, Germany, and opened a butcher shop. Just before the war, he had asked Karl to come to America to stand as best man at his wedding, and as the war developed it was impossible for Karl to go home. So he lived his life in Maine, married in time to his own Annie - a Maine-born Bavarian - and as partner operated the grocery side of his brother's store. It was the place to shop.

I began the introductions, but the formalities ended as I watched my bride disappear into the cold box on the arm of Fritz. She came out completely informed on the several purposes of sausages, and all other information relating to buying, preparing, and eating the delicacies of his department. Karl took over, and she was similarly instructed in Feinkost. I dangled my bonnet and plume. But after three visits to the Heistermann store, my stranger lady knew everybody in town, knew all about shopping for meats and groceries, and could answer Fritz when he'd bow and say, ``Gut morgen, Missus Goult! Luffly vetter, oont vut can I find for you ziss beautiful day?''

Other small-town stores in those times had similar folksiness, and people shopped pleasantly. The cheese cabinet was invaluable. The great wheel of Cheddar needed assessment and approval. ``How's the cheese this week?'' she'd ask Karl, and before Karl could reply, every customer in the store would tell her: ``It's not so sharp as I like. My Frank says it's the best in months. You may not like it, so you better take a taste. Needs more aging.''

I think this basic introduction to our one-time small-town grocery market serves my wife well as she goes to the great one-stop super store with its bland differences. She has learned first names, and I see few customers first-naming either clerks or customers. We've even found Jo Wile, who was an automatic nonentity attached to the electronic checkout system and had been trained to say, ``Paper bags or plastic?'' Jo became a human being for us when we found she could handle the long-unused Heistermann talk.

Years ago, I roused our daughter from bed at gray daylight, and because it was her 16th birthday, she and Daddy rode from Maine down to Boston in the pickup - her first visit to the city. We got to Sullivan Square in Charlestown at commuter time, found a place to leave the truck, and climbed the steps to the elevated, which would shortly become the subway. Strangers to Boston are daily delighted to be told that if you want to go to Winter Street you go upstairs to the subway and get off at Summer Street.

So we had this visit to Boston, and about the folks riding to work she said, ``They look as if they are all mad at everybody! They don't speak. They don't smile. They're not looking at anything. What do you think one of them would do if I said hello?''

``Probably be tickled pink and you couldn't get away. I think it goes with cities. I suggest you not try it, and just make believe we're in Rome.'' This disinterest, or uninterest, bothered the lass for quite a time, and for years she'd wonder out loud why city people acted like that.

The day after Halloween, this year, I went to the big impersonal grocery place with my wife, and while she selected I watched, and I realized that the development of these monster grocery stations has made our friendly country folks embrace the ways of the urbanite. People were looking straight ahead. They were not smiling, and in total they were not acting the way people acted around the cheese case in the gracious and chummy days of old. I seemed to hear a 16-year-old saying, ``What would they do if I said hello?''

There was a young woman on a settee, looking as if she were a bit annoyed that her husband was late in coming for her. She had a hand on her shopping cart. She was not looking about; she was not poised to speak to anybody and expected nobody to speak to her. I did not know her. I smiled to have this opportunity. I stepped over and stood before her. I said, ``Oh! I'm so glad to see you got home safe and sound!''

She turned to look at me, her face without any expression. If I expected her to show that she was about to signal the police, she didn't show it. She was as blank as a squash pie.

So I said, ``Didn't I see you fly over my barn on your broom last night?''

I'd like to think about this some more, but my guess is that city people will, if rightly enticed, act not all that much unlike their pumpkin-patch peers out in the chummy sticks. This young woman, accosted by an old geezer she never saw before, completely lost her detachment. She smiled, and said, ``Oh! Was that you?''

That's the whole story.