Recently Rural: A Memoir
by Eugene Havens
Land of confusion
I had fallen for one stereotype of rural America: it was an easier life for being simpler. A housing shortage put an end to that notion. I also heard rural people were sweet and friendly, salt of the earth, a breath of fresh air. I wanted to believe it. I hoped there were some idyllic dreams left in the world.
It didn’t fit human nature. Expecting a group to be a particular way wasn’t fair. Rural people were individuals. Might they be sweeter and friendlier on average? I would run into the worst one at the start. As time went on, I watched the rural landscape through a filter of niceness and saltness of earth. I met a lot of nice people, and yet I would confess not to seeing a huge difference between city and country. What I found was a group of self-interested people trying to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. It was wholly expected of human beings, how everyone was everywhere.
Rural America might have been nicer and sweeter back in the day. Had I gotten there too late? The internet corrupted something good about rural life was my initial theory. I was old enough to remember the advent of cable television. Even at a young age, I understood culture watchers who called it a sewer pipe into your home. Before cable TV, you could block out the influence of edgy culture if you so desired. The internet only added a level of sophistication to the deleterious effects of modern life. You could click on it.
How could an idyllic town survive the daily information barrage of worldly misery? We were all aware of the callousness and fear the internet spread through every computer screen. The internet told you society was on the verge of collapse. You had to strike first. No smiles. No quarter. If the internet had spoiled rural life, it wouldn’t be a surprise. The world was becoming a single location–the internet–with different views out of the office window.
Or, was a drop-off in rural friendliness my fault, the influence of immigrating city folk? People like me were moving to small towns. Maybe we unsweetened the pot. One example I noticed, it was routine in a small town for drivers to show etiquette. You rarely heard a car horn, but maybe once per year. You saw drivers dutifully slow down for yellow stoplights. It was refreshing to see the restraint. But it seemed to change. Over the years, I began to notice more cars racing brazenly through a yellow light as it turned red. It was a city thing to do. They came here from somewhere else, like I did.
The first person I met in rural America seemed to be of a polite, friendly sort. He was so laid back that it became somewhat of a problem. Gil was the managing agent of the rental house we were advised to find before arriving in town. Iris and I chose a house on Gil’s website. I called him, and we met on the phone. From his slow delivery and laughter at his own jokes, I pictured him to be in his sixties. I imagined he wore a red flannel shirt.
“The house looks great from the pictures you posted,” I said, laying on the charm. A smart renter showed enthusiasm and jumped on something fast. “I can mail you an application and a deposit check today if that works.”
“We’re putting the finishing touches on the house. Your timing is perfect.” What he meant is we could wait until we got there to sign the papers. I began to understand his plan. Gil wanted us, literally and actually, to move into the house without signed paperwork. We could come to see him the following day. I offered once again to get it in writing. He wouldn’t hear of touching paperwork beforehand. He liked to take care of things locally.
Was it a sign that country friendliness was alive and well, or was this something else? We wouldn’t be arriving in town for weeks yet. Gil was turning down money and a faxed-in application. He told me he was glad to hold the house. A handshake deal over the phone was good enough for him. “We’re casual around here.” Who wouldn’t enjoy hearing it?
As a lifelong renter, I followed the rules in a religious way. It reduced the potential for problems in a sensitive business arrangement. Where you lived was the most important thing. After renting for two decades in major cities, I faced nothing in the way of lawsuits or eviction requests. The management side was distant but fair. The law might have favored the landlord, but it protected your rights as well. I had never been asked to move into a place without paying. I began to doubt this arrangement, and yet Gil’s managing company had come recommended locally. In a tight market, he had a house.
Gil explained how he would leave a key for us to get in. His plan to reduce hassle was itself a hassle. I gave up.
It was the way rural America did things, I guessed. I didn’t believe he would give the house to someone else. “Sure, thanks,” I said, finally. “See you then.”
From my days of living in New York, I held onto a city mentality, which became a kind of inner voice. It was a set of survival skills, a way to focus on the essentials, basically, to cut the crap. “What are you doing?” my New York self said. “This is nuts.”
We drove a truck’s worth of furniture and belongings to the rental house a few weeks later. I watched us unload the truck and move in without signed paperwork. It was putting the cart before the horse, to use a rural-friendly expression.
Maybe I needed a city detox. “Come see me when you get here,” Gil had said cheerily. He was selective in his choice of renters, he said. Local people had filled him in on who we were. He wasn’t worried about a thing. It seemed he hadn’t heard a word I said about wanting to be buttoned up. In scarce housing markets, you didn’t have a choice of who you dealt with. Scarcity begat drama, begat self-importance, apparently, no matter where you found yourself. Maybe Gil liked to play the role of gatekeeper. Maybe he basked in his importance to the process, and taking an application cut it short too fast.
As a selling point for leaving the city, Iris told me rural living would be easier. It wasn’t a benefit for me, a long-suffering writer. My type didn’t expect life ever to be easier. We hoped life would show meaning once in a while and the unavoidable sacrifices would add up to something someday. It was a goal on my best day, anyway. The day I went to see Gil? I wanted it to be easier.
Traffic light photo Carlos Alberto Gómez Iñiguez.