Town and country

That summer I learned one of the cardinal rules of the carpenter's trade: that you don't take over someone else's finish-work. We were a small crew, four or five at most, working for a contractor in a small New Hampshire town. Like all eager builders, he was something of a juggler: having more jobs than he had hands, he kept several of them up in the air while he moved us around underneath. One day we'd all be framing in a new house; the next day we'd be off separately, some building cedar closets and others putting in a kitchen; then we'd get back together on a dry day to roof a barn. On rough work, we shifted around a lot, completing projects someone else had begun a few days before. But once you were onto something ticklish, like casing up a window or running molding around a ceiling, you knew it was yours to come back to. If you'd begun it level, square, and true, it was yours to finish up and delight in. If you'd started out all cockeyed, however, nobody was going to bail you out.

The rest of the crew were local men, some of them real Yankee old-timers who had hardly ever been south of Concord. But they had a world-class sense of standards. And they took special pride in their finish-work. When they got something exactly right--the joints fitted so smoothly that you could hardly see them--they had a special expression for it. ''B'gawsh!'' they'd exclaim, standing back, hammer in hand, to admire their work, ''Jest like New Yawk!''

To me, a smalltown boy who found himself living in a student-grade New York apartment during the nine months of the university term, it was a stunning expression. It seemed to me that I'd seen some of the worst carpentry of my life in that city: baseboards so ill-fitted that you could lose a golf ball behind them, kitchen cabinets whose doors hung perpetually and unashamedly ajar, window-frames that looked to have been installed with a bulldozer. To be sure, my Yankee workmates delivered their phrase slightly tongue-in-cheek. But only slightly. For it was also a statement of genuine approbation. To those who had never been there, Manhattan stood as a paragon of quality. Surely, they must have reasoned, a city so elegant in fashion and wit must also excel in the one standard by which they measured excellence: finish-work. To say of their country skills that they approximated city class, then, was to pay them the highest praise.

I thought of these things the other day when a longtime friend and his family visited us in Boston. Don, who also grew up as a lover of the countryside, had roomed with me in New York. I have an abiding recollection of him lighting a match one winter morning in our kitchen only to have the wind, whistling in around the ill-fitted window sash, blow it out. Something in those years blew out his ardor for urban life, too: he now lives in a farmhouse twenty country miles from his job in Portland, Maine.

Like most Mainers, he has an ingrained (and not unjustified) suspicion of everything south of Kittery. So we were honored that he came for a visit--actually spent the night in a city apartment. Getting up early the next day, he went out for a Sunday paper and read it eagerly. And then, with characteristically casual profundity, he said something which exactly assessed the difference between urban and rural life. ''When I'm in Maine,'' he told my wife, ''I don't think much about the world. But I put my neighbor's horse back in the barn when it gets out during a snowstorm. When I'm in Boston, I read all about events in Great Britain and the rest of the world. But on my way to buy a paper I step over drunks in the street.''

The more I thought about it, the more his remark confirmed for me something I have long suspected: that the differences between the urban and rural experience are so vast that the English language simply can't do them justice. Eskimos, they say, have dozens of words for snow, describing everything from great damp flakes to tiny hard pellets. We have just one: snow. Limited by our vocabulary, we don't really bother to distinguish one kind from another. So, too, we have only one word--life--to describe such vastly different modes of existence. Yet it may be that country and city ''living'' are as wholly distinct from one another as walking and running or sleeping and waking - and that they really need two separate words to describe them.

There are, of course, partisans of one or the other view who insist that theirs is the only genuine ''life.'' For the most part, they miss the mark. Talking about the excitement of neon lights, or the peacefulness of moss-covered logs, they ignore the one thing that makes the greatest difference: people. For in nothing else are these two ways of living more distinct than in the density of and response to humanity. It is, finally, the way we deal with our neighbors that makes us either city or country folk. And each way is something of a paradox. City folks, it seems, love crowds but are suspicious of individuals: jammed elbow to elbow in a lunch hour marketplace, they chart a wide berth around a single derelict on a park bench. Country dwellers see it another way: going miles out of their way to haul a stranger out of a muddy ditch, they get all in a swivet when the ten-man circus arrives each spring and ''folks from away'' come and park all over the town common.

The other day Don and I found ourselves in just such a city crowd. Milling around, crushing up to pizza-counters and ice-cream stands, clogged almost to stopping among the many little shops, they had all, apparently, come by their own volition. And as we watched, a strange fact struck us: that most people are essentially gregarious. Most people like being with people. To our country mentalities, that seemed a shocking recognition. In so many ways, we realized, we had bent our efforts to escape from crowds, to discover and relish solitude as though there were no higher goal. And here were all those people willfully pursuing a precisely opposite course.

The most surprising thing, though, was the fact that there we were in the midst of them. I guess, in the long run, we're both growing more tolerant--both getting more willing to admit that there is something else to ''life'' beyond what we had always thought. It may take us a while to feel wholly comfortable with it. And I don't suppose anyone else can force us into it. Our mental casements were started back in the country days, after all; and as I say, you don't take over someone else's finish-work.

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