A large part of Vermont’s economy depends on visits by people from other places. Her summers are bucolic, her fall foliage is legendary and, in winter, skiers flock to her slopes from miles around (spring is a tortuous slog through mud and black flies, better left unmentioned). After half the state was turned inside-out and strewn about the countryside by Tropical Storm Irene, I beat the drum as best I could and encouraged people to visit and maybe spend a little cash to help get us going again and, after what has been a mild, brown start to winter, I am happy to welcome our first real snow and the economic shot in the arm that comes with it.
There are perhaps four permanent residences on our hill, but there are twice that many second homes and vacation get aways. Some of those houses are rented out, short term, to people who come to ski at one of the nearby resorts. This weekend, every unfamiliar vehicle going up and down our road has had New Jersey plates.
Our road is not much, by most anyone’s standards. Mud in the spring, bumpy, rutted dirt in summer and fall, I think it is actually at its best in winter, when it is covered with a nice, hard layer of packed snow and ice, topped by a sprinkling of sand.
When this particular group of people from New Jersey is here, there is also a sprinkling of litter.
Come on, man.
They’re kind of wearing out their welcome. Maybe one cup doesn’t make a difference along a road in New Jersey, what with everyone throwing trash out their windows, but around here it sticks out like a sore thumb. So do they.
What follows was originally posted as a three-parter but, inspired by the love I feel today toward the residents of the Garden State, I have dusted it off, changed the formatting, and cleaned it up, presenting it now, as a gift to the Chamber of Commerce.
Knowing I don’t exactly blend in when out of my element, I try to be forgiving of others when I know I am seeing them out of context.
I once ordered a cup of coffee from a vendor in Boston and when the man asked “Regular?” I said “Yes”, preferring my coffee black. When I tasted the sweet, creamy concoction he was passing off as coffee, I spit it on the ground and sputtered “What the heck!”
The man said I had asked for regular and that’s what he gave me. He said that if I wanted my coffee black I should have said so. I said something about how I guessed it depended on where one was from but he set me straight on that, too, reminding me that it depended more on where one was, not from. Then he charged me another two-fifty for a cup of black coffee which was so nasty I had to add cream and sugar.
I could hear the coffee man telling another customer all about me as I sat on a nearby bench, and word spread around the park that the rube rolling a cigarette thought regular coffee was black. I kept my good nature as best I could but I don’t know what would have happened if the friend for whom I was waiting had not faked being sick and left work early to find me. A small crowd had gathered by the time he got there and things could have gone either way.
I have met some great people and had wonderful times when visiting big cities but I can not live in them. I prefer a more rural existence, to the point that it is not even a town I live outside of, it is a village. Don’t tell anyone, but we don’t even have a cop. We do, however, have a small gas station/market with good coffee always brewing and, over the course of a day, pretty much everyone who lives here will pass through. Located near four ski areas, it is a good bet a lot of people not from here will pass through, too. They do not exactly blend in when out of their element, either, and sometimes it is hard to be as forgiving as I might like.
I was at the market getting gas for the chainsaw last week and ran into my friend, Larry, who was waiting for a sandwich to be made. We both had time to kill so we stepped back to the coffee urns to have a cup and a chat, and that is when we saw our mutual friend, Dave, who joined us.
We more or less just stood there, sipping our coffee and not saying much, but it was a comfortable silence as we watched the comings and goings of all the skiers, and we were happy for our friend, Arthur, who owns the market, because business was good. So good that the locals had to wait for their sandwiches and Larry was mighty relieved when Arthur finally hollered out, “Larry! Lunch!”
Without a word, the three of us tossed our empty cups in the trash and headed for the front of the store. Before we could get there, though, we were stopped by a man we could tell was not from around here. The man asked which one of us was Larry. Larry replied that he was and Dave and I nodded in agreement. The man then turned and hollered to his friends in front of the beer cooler, “Hey, you guys! It’s Larry, his brother, Darryl, and his other brother, Darryl!”
Darn you, Bob Newhart!
Still smarting at having been mocked by a man from somewhere else who, based solely on an old television show, made a very broad-based assumption about us, Larry, Dave and I were having coffee and donuts together the other morning. We mostly agreed it was wrong to lump people into categories based solely on appearance and location and that if a person were going to do such a thing it would be best to not do it out loud, especially if you are on their turf. At least wait until they have left the room.
Arthur, the man who owns our little village’s little market, heard Larry lamenting what had happened and offered up a little encouragement.
He said, “Oh, shut up, will you?
“Just look at you! You have coffee dripping from your cookie duster and donut creme in your chin whiskers. You’re wearing at least three patterns of plaid, your boots are untied and you’ve had that stupid orange hat on so long your hair is growing through the weave. Your clothes are stained with gas, grease and who-knows-what, you smell like chainsaws, wet wool and fire, there are more patches on your pants than original fabric and you have four pairs of gloves sticking out of your jacket pockets. All three of you!
“Sure,” Larry shot back, “but that guy came in here and ran his mouth. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Besides, the guys on that TV show were surprisingly cultured. We are a misunderstood demographic. We’re not just a bunch of rustics, no matter how we look.”
“Yes you are,” said Arthur as he turned back to his post at the register.
The bell above the door gave a little tinkle and a man walked in. Dave whispered loudly, “He’s not from around here. Look, he’s shivering!”
It wasn’t easy, holding in the laughter until the man went back outside, but we managed. Even Arthur laughed along but he warned us not to get carried away. We decided, right then and there, that if we were going to play the not-from-around-here-game there would be some boundaries. There was to be no speculating as to the personalities, intelligence or lifestyles of our victims. That would just not be nice.
The parking lot in front of and around the side of the market held the usual mix of snowmobiles, pickup trucks with plow rigs, and cars that were so covered with winter mud, salt and grime that there was no possible way they could be from anywhere other than Vermont, so it was slim pickings for a while. But, as the wind blew and the clouds came in, people started leaving the slopes and traffic began to pick up.
Tinkle, tinkle went the bell.
“Not from around here. His shoes have tassels.” went one of us.
“That one has a thousand dollars worth of ski passes from five states hanging off his coat.”
“That one looks scared.”
And so it went for a while until boredom threatened to set in. It was just too easy, picking out people who are not from around here. They are just so … different. There was one guy at one point we could not figure out but Arthur saved us as he walked by and whispered, “His boots are tied and he doesn’t smell like wood smoke.”
Two points to the man in the apron.
But our little game soon lost its appeal. There was no challenge to it, given our pledge to be nice, and we were going to have to start getting personal if there was to be any fun at all. Eventually, we decided we should each probably get back to what we should have been doing in the first place and were grabbing one more cup for the road when the bell tinkled again and we all turned to look.
It was a man wearing a thin, nylon windbreaker, chinos, and supple leather shoes. I know the shoes were supple leather because I saw them as his feet shot up and his ass went down on the slippery floor. It also helped that one of them came off and flopped to rest right at Larry’s feet so he could pick it up and let us feel of the suppleness before handing it back to the man. The man did not even look up as he did not say thank you. He simply held the shoe with his left hand, pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his windbreaker with his right and limped to the back of the market.
Sensing more than a little potential for amusement, Larry, Dave and I settled back to our stations in front of the community bulletin board and waited for the show to begin.
Now, this story is already funny because the man fell on the slippery floor as he attempted to keep his balance after stumbling over the tall yellow sandwich board which said in large red letters “DANGER! WET FLOOR!” The illustration on the sign must have been drawn by a keen observer because the man adopted the exact same posture as the sign’s little stick figure just prior to impact.
This story is also funny because everyone knows cell phones don’t work in this neck of the woods. Everyone, that is, except for the ungrateful man carrying one shoe to the back of the store. He was limping, and the storekeeper, Arthur, was a little concerned, but once the man had his shoe on the limping stopped.
The limping stopped but the man appeared to be having tremors. Then he began to curse and we thought he had Tourette’s and we felt bad, but when he turned toward us we could see he was repeatedly squeezing his phone with his thumb while he cursed, and the tremors seemed to be some sort of body English to help electronic transmissions get where they are going. But the man’s phone was not transmitting. It wasn’t receiving, either, and as he walked to the front of the store he held the phone high above his head and squinted at it.
He squeezed the phone with his thumb while pointing it north. He squeezed it with his thumb while pointing it south. He squeezed it and pointed it at the window behind the cash register and he squeezed it and pointed it at the beer cooler. He did just about everything but spin in circles while squeezing that phone with his thumb before holding it in front of his face and shouting, “Gah!” at it.
Then he looked at Arthur and growled, “What the hell kind of backwater is this?”
Arthur said nothing in reply.
“Don’t you people have cell phones here?”
Arthur calmly replied, “No.”
“Because there’s no reception here.”
The man turned to Larry and Dave, but did not really look at them. “How do you get anything done without a cell phone?”
Larry tried to explain that everyone knows he’s been skidding logs over above Peavey’s Flat and when he’s not there he’s here at the market drinking coffee. He’s not hard to find. Neither is Dave, who tried to explain that he doesn’t like talking on the phone at home and has no desire to carry one around even if the darn things did work around here.
When Arthur tried to be helpful and told the man about the pay phone outside, around the corner of the building, the man looked to be on the verge of apoplexy. He sputtered and shook and began the whole squeezing his phone with his thumb thing again. “I’m just trying to call my wife!”
Then the man spotted Arthur’s phone behind the register and said, “Let me use that!”
“There’s no long distance service on this phone. You’ll have to use the pay phone.”
The man’s tone changed from rage to sarcasm and his voice dripped as he asked Arthur, “And just what makes you so sure it’s a long distance call?”
For a brief second, I thought about telling the man how we knew, but Arthur had already un-cradled the phone and was handing him the receiver. The man was obviously of an age to remember such things but he stared, dumbfounded, at the tightly coiled, slightly kinked cord that stretched across the counter. Arthur’s finger was poised above the numbers on his end as he said, “Okay, fine. What’s the number?”
“Two oh one …”
“That’s freakin’ New Jersey! You’re trying to call your wife in New Jersey! Go use the freakin’ pay phone!”
“But,” protested the man, “my wife is not in New Jersey!”
“Oh, yeah? Then where is she?”
The man pointed out the window behind the register and shouted, “She’s right out there in the car!”
Larry, Darryl and Darryl are starting to look like freakin’ geniuses.