Where you live in a small town is somebody’s recollection

 

"I’m living on Nutting Street now," a friend told me last week. "You know where that is?"

"Of course not!" I responded. "This is a small town! Nobody remembers the names of streets!"

When I lived in the city, I knew the old saw that rural people give directions using landmarks that no longer exist ("Go past the old Jones place, then turn left where the big red barn used to be…"). Little did I know that I would come to live that philosophy, or that the transformation would happen so quickly.

Shortly after I arrived in my small town 13 years ago, I had the misfortune of riding to a party in a car with an arguing couple (it turned out they were on the verge of breaking up). He, of course, kept driving in circles without stopping to ask for directions. She, meanwhile, kept saying, "It’s near the hospital" and "Aren’t we getting too far from the hospital?" and "Well, the last time I went it was easy because we stayed close to the hospital…"

But what I found funny was that the argument didn’t involve the street address. Neither said, "You don’t even remember what street it’s on?" or "You didn’t even bring the address?" In a small town, nobody uses street addresses. They just know what a house looks like, what it’s near, or who used to live there. In this case, the sparring couple eventually stumbled across a familiar-looking house, and decided it had to be the party because they recognized several cars parked in front of it.

When my friends Dave and Sue moved to town, people would ask where they lived and they would give a street address. That would get a blank stare. Then they’d say, "It’s Joan C’s old house," and people would say, "Oh, sure!"

Joan, meanwhile, had downsized after her kids moved away. "You know Eleanor’s Beauty Shop?" she asked me, in describing her new house.

"Sure!" I said. The sign for the long-closed shop had been taken down three years previously.

"Across the street," she said.

"You bought Betty’s house? Or the one next door?"

She said it was Betty’s house, and I congratulated her: "That’s a nice place." But there was another person in the conversation who still didn’t know the location we were talking about. Joan had to explain it another way.

"You know the Mary Kay house?" she said. A few years previously it had been painted lavender. Rumors — untrue, I believe — circulated that the owner sold Mary Kay cosmetics, and the paint job was a giant advertisement. A tenant even posted a Mary Kay sticker on the door.

"OK."

"Two houses south," Joan said. The transaction was complete: both of us now knew exactly where Joan’s new house was. And not once had we discussed a street name, cross street, or number.

I usually tell people that I live "two blocks behind the movie theater." But sometimes I forget and say I live "on Haggin."

The usual response: "Which one is that?"

I then have to say, "The one by the creek," and they understand.

Once, near the post office, a driver flagged me down and said in confusion, "We were supposed to go to a yellow house at the corner of Hauser and 13th." There were no yellow houses in sight.

Puzzled, I asked, "Who are you looking for?"

They were looking for my upstairs tenant. They were visiting from out of town, so she’d had to give directions using street names. But she was so unfamiliar with the street names (even though — or perhaps I should say because — she was born here) that after six months in the apartment she still thought she lived on Hauser rather than Haggin.

Part of the problem may be those street names, most of which commemorate railroad barons. Our town no longer even has a railroad. But I think even renaming the streets ("Creekside Avenue"?) would fail. The problem is not so much the streets’ names as the very idea of street names.

In larger communities, grids of streets and collections of cul-de-sacs go on endlessly, with little but names to quickly distinguish them. But our town has big features (the creek, the mountains, the hospital) that provide a more natural guide than any street sign.

Too, in the small town, the people have uniquely interwoven histories. We encounter our fellow residents in many different settings, with many different types of connections. It’s not surprising that I would know all the parties involved on both sides of Joan’s move. And so to phrase a house’s location in terms of those people is like a celebration of those interrelationships.

"So where is Nutting Street?" I asked the friend who’d moved there.

"It’s under the hill around the corner from Jeff and Betsy," he said, and I smiled. I now had a mental map of where he lived, and it was peopled by my friends.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He knows most everybody in Red Lodge, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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