Saying bye-bye to the boondocks

THE Vermont country store in question stands at the center of town, the way a country store should. You're on the outskirts of town one minute, and you're in front of this gray clapboard building the next - well, it's really closer to a nanosecond. Like the placards in a '60s demonstration, hand-lettered signs assault the eye with messages that cannot possibly be absorbed, even at the advised 25 miles per hour. ``Native lettuce.'' ``Save your receipts! $5 free groceries when you reach $100.'' ``Sale on T-shirts - two for the price of one while the supply lasts.''

One more slow blink, and you're past the store - past the town - climbing another set of green hills to the next town with the next country store. This is timeless New England the way the tourists want it, like Thornton Wilder's ``Our Town'' under glass, including the white church on the green, its steeple looking, as Wilder once said, like a particularly tall vanilla ice cream cone.

If you choose to stop along the grassy edge of Main Street - no sidewalks here - the ``Our Town'' stage setting still holds up under closer scrutiny. The country store has a porch with railing. Push back the punched-in screen door and the country-store smell - practically patented - meets you: a blend of smoked meats, penny candy, and wooden floors, with maybe a whiff of leather work gloves thrown in.

The proprietor, as a proprietor should, stands behind a well-grooved wooden counter, with a lock of hair slanting across his forehead in the ageless style of Will Rogers. He wears a faded plaid shirt that looks as if it could serve - and maybe has - all year around.

In the tradition of country store proprietors he keeps a shrewd twinkle in his eyes and delivers his words sparingly in a sort of clipped mumble directed toward the floor, so you can never be sure if he's actually talking to you.

In short, he is all set to stroll before a camera and do a commercial for natural-ingredients bread.

But hold on just a sec, as folks used to say. Things are not as they seem, even in Vermont country stores. Upstairs, in an old grain and feed loft, there are - if the signs out front are to be believed - thousands and thousands of videos for sale and rent at incredible prices.

During a quiet moment in his emporium the proprietor describes his life away from this working stage. He has bought a new home - an old farmhouse surrounded by an abandoned pasture and a stand of pine trees. When he leaves the store, he downs the trees - some 50 in all - with a power saw and turns over the soil to grow ... what? A suburban lawn! Five acres of it, which he trims into the night, riding a mowing machine with headlights.

The old country ``Yup!'' is being replaced by the new country yuppie.

What we have here is a time warp. The stage setting may remain in place, the characters may still look as if they're playing their old parts, but the script has changed from ``Our Town.''

Well-to-do retirees descend from their mountain condos in Jaguars and Mercedeses. The country store has a delicatessen, complete with gourmet cheeses, waiting for them.

In antiques shops, customers quote Woody Allen jokes.

Just a half-hour ride away a pornography ring got raided - big-city tabloid stuff.

Drugs have not detoured around Vermont, any more than they have skipped other places.

The simple life no longer exists - if it ever did - at least not as a guarantee promised by a special place.

Rural Eden is a fictional conspiracy. In the '80s, ``Our Town'' has been replaced by ``Prairie Home Companion,'' a fantasy world charmingly cultivated by a sophisticated man who now lives in New York City and extends to his audience his privilege of feeling both sophisticated and nostalgic at the same time.

``Country'' is a word that goes with the latest taste in music, twanging about the wide-open spaces from your car radio while you sit in bumper-to-bumper city traffic.

Every summer vacation we city slickers project upon our country cousins the burden of our neglected values. If they don't represent the opposite of Wall Street inside dealers and Washington's sleazy operators, who does?

Even in country stores the truth is out. The game has gotten to be a matter of life style rather than a way of life, and that makes all the difference.

The city slickers are on their own. There is no saving remnant in the mountains and the wilderness, waiting to redeem the pure heart of America - the frontier dream. The hicks have gone - and how we miss them!

A Wednesday and Friday column

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