First Names and Other Casual Intimacies that Define Community

Sep 2, 2014

Recently I experienced a week of small disasters. Over the course of seven days I lost a pair of reading glasses, my computer froze up, I accidentally ran the lawn mower over the garden hose, lost my checkbook, a headlight went out on my car, and, to cap it all, the back part of a molar fell out. As usually happens in these cases, all of these mishaps were fairly soon righted. The two most pressing losses – my glasses and my tooth – were replaced promptly, in part because, as a long-term customer, I’m known personally to both John, my optician, and Herb, my dentist. John put in a rush order for my glasses, saying “I'll get them done as fast as I can,” and I had them in two days. When I called my dentist, Herb’s secretary said to come in at 5, even though that’s when the office officially closes. In fifteen minutes I had a temporary crown.

The point is, my “bad week” turned out to be a positive one, for it made me aware for a number of local business people I am not merely an anonymous customer, but a personal acquaintance, and that this adds to my quality of life here. Besides John and Herb, there is Lisa, Linda and Taryn at the local bank; Dave and Charlie at the car garage; Deb and Scott at the computer shop. Jane and Jean at the bookstore, Doug, Andrew, and Peter at the used book store; Charlie and Jason at the hardware store; Roger at the barber shop; Janice at the brokerage; Sarah and Roxanne at the market; and Kevin at the liquor store – just to name a few. I’m sure most of you can easily come up with lists of your own.

Some of these professional acquaintances have, over the years, become genuine social friends, but that’s not the point. And it’s not just that, in a small town like ours, business owners and their employees “know your name.” What’s important is that there is a genuine warmth that comes from familiarity, from taking the time, when you go in to deposit a check or get an oil change or look for book, to ask about their daughter’s soccer team, their tomatoes, how a sore arm is healing, or how the fishing is going or their upcoming choral concert - to engage in small talk, banter or even innocent flirtation – all while retaining a strictly professional relationship.

They may - as my  recent experience reminded me - go out of their way to accommodate you, do a little something “extra" for you, or make a suggestion based on knowing your personal preferences – such as recommending a book you hadn’t even asked for, or offering you a free comb or a donut.

It’s a small thing, I know, but an important one nonetheless. The casual, peripheral intimacy that comes from daily interactions with local merchants and mechanics, brokers and barbers, tellers and opticians, grease the social wheels and make a small but palpable addition to my sense of living in a genuine community.