Brenda heard about Joan, who saw me go to Robin's

Daughter of a journalist, I rolled like a tumbleweed up and down the East Coast, pausing for an eight-year intermission in that city most filled with transients, Washington, D.C. Even then I chafed at the captivity. It was, I thought darkly, time to move.

Though I enjoyed the moves at the time - well, most of them - their imprint left its mark. And so it was that, as an adult, I drifted closer and closer to one-stop living and small-town life, settling finally in a sleepy town nestled alongside the Hudson River.

I've lived here nearly 14 years now. My children jump-started their educations in local schools, learned how to swim at a nearby pool, and made many friends along the way. To them, small-town living is all they know. To me, it is a daily marvel of interconnectedness, at times a madcap existence made up of coincidence and incident, of benign nosiness and close camaraderie.

The neighborhood tag sale is a case in point. Each fall, a few blocks from my house, the town turns out for a marathon yard sale. We wedge our cars into non- existent parking spots along skinny roads and wander for a few hours from house to garage to yard. If we emerge with a bargain, it is a good day. But mostly we are drawn to each other.

The last time I went to that yard sale, I ran into my boss. A Briton by birth, she cut her adult teeth on the sophistication that is Manhattan. Small-town life - and a neighborhood tag sale - is completely foreign to her. "Lean into it," I advised - and so she did, stopping to chat with my old friend Becky, eventually returning to her car with Becky's castoff lamp.

Meanwhile, I stood in the street, catching up with Brenda. The owner of the house behind us meandered out to greet us, two shutters clutched firmly in his grip. He wanted to know which one we preferred, the red one or the blue one. I smelled trouble, and saw his wife's eyes tracking us closely. We demurred. Pressed further, Brenda and I relented: the blue one was ever so much better.

He looked crestfallen and his wife, jubilant. He had, he sighed, just finished painting nearly all of them red. He and I have exchanged mischievous smiles ever since - and the shutters have remained unabashedly crimson.

I bought only one item that day, a hand-smocked dress for my eldest daughter. Two days later I was paid a visit by another friend in town. She had in her possession the blouse that matched the dress, she said. I was dumfounded, since I knew she hadn't been at the yard sale. How did she know I was the one who had bought the dress?

Simple, she said: I'd been seen talking to Brenda, who knew I'd been at Joan's, and Joan had seen me emerge from Robin's with the prize in question. I was impressed. So this was small-town life!

I like the fact that I can wander into town with an hour on my hands and spend it as I will, talking to half a dozen people I know. I like the fact that I can watch my neighbors' kids grow from small to tall and know all the stages in between. I enjoy greeting, by name, each shopkeeper, and I like knowing that my presence there is truly welcome.

But if I ever get squirrelly, Manhattan and its own brand of anonymity are just an express train away. And then I can always return, refreshed, to my little aquarium by the river.

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