It just doesn’t always heart me back.
The man rapping his knuckles against my car window had no teeth. He wore unbuttoned flannel over a filthy shirt and baggy trousers, which were held aloft over his pot belly by a pair of suspenders; his scruffy beard betrayed a recent snack. It was broad daylight in a busy grocery store parking lot, a populous outpost in Vermont’s rural Upper Valley, but sweet Jebus, who was this unfortunate little man? I cracked the window a hair.
“I can see by your license plate you’re not from around here,” he said through speech almost incomprehensible to me (it might have been the absence of teeth, to be fair).
He was right. I still had temporary tags from the North Carolina dealer where I had only just bought the car. I nodded and said nothing.
“You made an illegal left turn back there,” he went on.
I turned and looked over my shoulder back towards Route 5, whence I had come.
“You’re supposed to use the special turnaround lane on the right when you turn into this parking lot,” he lectured. “I almost hit you.”
I thanked him and closed the window and waited ‘til he was gone to get out of the car.
I’d had boots on the ground in Vermont for just a few days. I knew exactly nobody in my tiny new community, saved from abject solitude by my Clarence-the-Canine, still getting the lay of the land. And only days before that a humorless cashier at the local convenient mart had rapped my proverbial knuckles when I placed my plastic shopping basket on the counter so she could reach it. Because I had the nerve to assume she would remove the sundries to punch them in the cash register and bag them, like every other convenience mart cashier on the planet does. I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she felt inclined to teach me: “You wanna empty your basket?” she snapped.
I could wave off her unfriendliness easily enough. (Note to self: watch out—this one bites.)
But the bearded man’s behavior suggested a collective bad mood in those parts; he really rattled my cage. Maybe the failed economy here had worn everybody down, just as it had in other parts of the country, and I was arriving at the worst possible moment. Pushing the bockety cart up and down the aisles of the little grocery store trapped in a time warp, I felt nerves well up and spill over into anger, trying hard to push back tears: cheeky jerk, following me into the parking lot to make a point.
Then I softened some. Maybe he was trying to be genuinely helpful.
Still, had he plowed into me from behind on a stretch of highway where posted speed limits were pretty dang low, it would have been his fault and he knew it, even if I were cited for an illegal left turn. Nah, he was annoyed by an out-of-towner impeding his way and had to take me down. The diatribe could have been worse. I blew away what was left of the wispy cloud of charity as it evaporated in front of me.
In retelling this story a couple of times over the intervening four years I’ve lived here, I’ve discovered some folks refuse to consider you a true Vermonter unless you can name local family going back three generations. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the population that lies across the state’s borders, although it’s harder to pin down: some really do eschew change, or outside influence—call it progress, if you wish—fewer embrace it. Some shout it from the rooftops Vermont style, with spirited leave-us-alone slogans celebrating the “old” ways splattered on barn siding.
For all its delectable offerings, I’ve often felt Vermont is an underserved state in many ways, but when it shutters itself to outside influences must also own that and suffer the consequences; our notoriously failed healthcare exchange is a perfect example. It is one thing to love the beauty of the land, or to be a farmer, or to enjoy whatever imagined lifestyle attracted you to these parts, quite another to be provincial, to stubbornly resist change even if it has the potential to make life better—a resistance that worms its way right to the top of our government here in the Green Mountain State.
But you could also call it snobbery: it reminds me of a thing called the Twelve Year Club, a society at a prep school I attended in Memphis where membership was granted during your senior year, but only if you’d been there from crib nursery. I have about as much chance of being a “true” Vermonter as measured by these impossible standards as I did earning a spot in that ridiculous society.
Still, here I am with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, paying my taxes and trying like heck to fit in. Last I checked, as a bonafide American I can live in any of these fifty states, even without a gene pool that precedes me. (Take that, angry little man.) But I don’t mean to just live here, to take up real estate: I want to make positive contributions, as much as I want my own life to mean something.
Meanwhile I’m left with the disquieting notion that newcomers to my erstwhile city of Knoxville, Tennessee could ever have felt unwelcome on my watch—did they? Was my demeanor ever untoward? Did I ever make a person or family feel left out? There were certainly opportunities for bad behavior—in my neighborhood, at church, at any of the schools my son attended, even at the small ballet school I founded in 2006. Shame on me if I did: exclusivity can be divisive and disenfranchising.
Four years past the Parking Lot Incident, and I’m still not really what you’d call “settled” in my new potting soil—disturbed, transplanted, and placed in freshly aerated dirt to be sure, I just have not taken root. It’s possible I’m in the wrong pot, which makes me a little gun-shy of making close connections, HCB being one notable exception. Meanwhile, I hope to remember to show some heart and welcome new folks who may in fact be scared down to their socks and hoping for a fresh start.
Kinda like the first people who arrived here looking for a new home many generations ago must have felt.