Do you know what’s really bad about small towns in my area of Appalachia? The limited collective memory of the people who live here. People who grow up here get put into boxes young and they can never move out of those boxes. If you’d done anything as a teenager or young adult that broke the moral code then that is the label you carry to your grave with you.
It doesn’t matter where you go or how you grow. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to break out of that little box. Your intelligence, hard work, personal growth is all inconsequential. What you did when you were 17 years is all anyone needs to know about you. Find a new friend outside of your social category? Someone will come a long to remind everyone involved why it’s just not a good idea.
There is no anonymity in a small town. You can not go unnoticed. The more different you are the more everyone knows about you. Every interaction you’ve ever had will be scrutinized: how does this person know that person? Ok, then that person is related to that person through this person who everyone know did this thing when he was 17. Oh, my.
It’s almost a caste system. There are some untouchables in certain small towns. The extra-weird weirdos. No one will even be seen being kind to them. When someone passes them on the street they look straight down at their feet. If they can’t see them then they can’t be real. Outcasts, these people. Untouchable.
If you choose to remain in the town after you get out of high school, well, you’d better just remember your place in the system. Yes, go to school, better yourself. Get a decent job and raise a nice family. All of that. But never forget that you are only allowed friends within your box and that your children can only be friends within that box. Non-conformity will not be tolerated by anyone who wants to live without derision. No, no, I can’t be friends. What will the neighbors think?
There’s a certain amount of safety in living in a big city. No one knows your history. No one knows which box you should’ve fit in. No one has the memory to judge you by. You get to make a new impression. You can be in the box or outside of it. There are enough people exactly like you for you to form your own social group – away from the constraints of the tight-knit culture of a small town. Not a conventional person? In a non-conventional relationship? It’s much, much easier to say “who the fuck cares?” when you are surrounded by people in your support group. People who accept you and all of your quirks.
The constraints of that kind of social system1 make me crazy. I’ve said many times “This place sucks my soul.” And it’s true. I was much happier amongst other weirdos like me. I tend to remember the bad things that happen2, but I loved living in a city. I loved my awkward group of friends. I loved the memories we made together. I didn’t grow up there, but they didn’t care. Some of them didn’t grow up there either. They didn’t give a shit if I went to church. Non-conventional relationships were all part of our lifestyle. We didn’t make decide to ridicule someone because they fell in love with someone outside of our social norms. Welcome to the fold, new blood.
I could use some of that big city anonymity right about now.