A while back, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was winding down, I had to go downlake to use the telephone. We still don’t have phones in our little mountain town — at least most of us don’t, due to geography and technology and politics — though they are inching closer, and some neighbors have figured out how to make Skype work despite slow satellite upload speeds, and the days of taking expensive two-night trips (because of the winter boat schedule) just to talk on the phone will soon be over, and I’ll be none the sadder. But those days aren’t over yet, so I had to go to town.
I checked into a spare clean motel on the main street, a mile or so from the fancy lakeside resorts, a place that offers a lower rate for locals and has a microwave and a fridge in the room, an old-style TV and a functioning land line. Usually in winter, the motel is packed with contractors, but this time the place was empty, only one car besides mine in the lot. I tried a few calls without luck. One interviewee hung up on me straight away. Then I sat on the bed to watch protestors pack up their tents in distant cities, and I felt sorry for them and sorry for myself and sorry for the whole damned complicated mess we’re in.
Then I told myself: get out.
The hairdresser, a woman in her sixties, squeezed me in for a trim. A year ago, she sold her salon to her niece, a former rodeo queen in her early twenties who’s been cutting my hair since she was a teenager. Now she’s a business owner. The rodeo queen’s husband bought the Radio Shack downtown where I stopped to buy a camera since we lost ours while pressing cider last fall. The pharmacist refilled my prescription before I reached the window. The hardware store clerk showed me a coupon for batteries — no limit — and even I don’t know her name and she does not know mine, she recognized me and figured, rightly, that we in the uplake town can always use batteries. At the natural food store, I ran into the guy who raises our grass-fed beef, a guy who ditched the big city to return home and help his dad run his orchard. We met several years ago at a workshop where he read Rumi and wept. Since then, he’s started a CSA and a fruit stand, and he’s married and had a daughter, now a toddler, who drags him from the store and back out into the sun.
A profile in The New Yorker of an Occupy Wall Street participant floored me. The guy was a kind of everyman who had seeped into solitariness. Sometimes I fear this could happen to any of us; it could easily happen to me. Our town is so small, my desk space even smaller. The guy in the article hopped a bus from Seattle to New York to find connection and purpose in the protests. But maybe we don’t have to go so far. Once I wrote a book about community, the close-knit kind. Maybe just as crucial are larger circles, the people you know but whose names you don’t know, the ones you never see outside of the work place. The point is obvious, I suppose, but also dire. The hairdresser said they’d had few appointments the week before Thanksgiving. Unheard of. The motel desk clerk was awaiting a tourist busload with uncharacteristic eagerness. The cameras at Walmart — yes, I stopped to check — were thirty bucks cheaper than downtown. Walmarts all over America had opened at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, and there’d been a fight and an arrest in the bigger town just forty miles away. The stakes seem so high, and the changes inevitable, but I want to believe we are the bosses of it, at least a little of it.
So I spent a few hundred dollars in town — batteries and bike tubes, asthma drugs and avocados, some gadgets at the kitchen store. Afterwards I walked across the street to order tacos — topped with fresh cilantro — from the trailer next to the car wash, and I sat alone and content on a plastic chair watching workday traffic pass on the main street, eating with greasy fingers, thinking: this is not so complicated.