June 23, 2003

Local Color

I don't know if it is a hypothesis that would stand up to scrutiny, but we were remarking in my 'Appalachian Writing and Culture' workshop earlier this month that modern times and changes in cities and towns and culture seems to be wiping out the 'characters' that small to medium towns tended to engender. Back in the days of sidewalks and front porches and town squares. You know. I'd be willing to bet that the town where you grew up had at least one of these notable, conspicuous oddballs. People who marched to the sound of a different drummer, heard voices we didn't, dressed to please themselves, kept 100 cats, wore tin foil hats...

When I was little, we were warned to run inside when the neighborhood oddballs walked down the sidewalk. Alice and Joe. They would walk past our house, usually about a half-block apart, but always talking as if they were in a crowd of enthusiastic listeners. We always tried to hear what they were saying, but were afraid to get too close, not knowing just what Alice might say. Would she offer us some candy? This would be a sure sign of imminent perversion and threat! Everybody knew they were 'dope fiends'. That's what neighborhood parents told us, so we reluctantly kept our distance. Well maybe they were (whatever a dope fiend is). They lived a few blocks away in an alley apartment. A bunch of us went up there once and peeked in their window, not knowing if 'dope fiends' ate little children. It was deliciously exciting. If they were there, their audience of listeners must not have been, because it was dark and silent.

In the small town not far from here where my kids did a good bit of their growing up, there was a character who, it was widely believed, lived in a dumpster, and his unkempt and subterranean appearance seemed to support that notion. He was known locally as "Coaldust Jones". I never saw him in anything other than overalls, and maybe that's all he could find that could comfortably cover a belly rotund and massive enough for its own zip code.

Coaldust... or locally, "th' Dust"... fancied himself destined to become a Nashville guitar picker, and local fund raising events would spotlight him playing and caterwauling an agonizingly bad bluegrass tune. The crowds ate it up, and he interpreted their wild whoops as proof he was Opry-bound, but in truth, his kudos were sadly derisive and mocking. It made me uncomfortable to watch. But he seemed to revel playing the fool and was preadapted by nature and nurture for the part. Coaldust found him a sad little gal (maybe she lived in a culvert, I don't remember) who agreed to marry him. It was an occasion of such import to marry off the local character that his wedding service was broadcast on the local AM radio station. When the ceremony was over, the radio personality was pleased to announce to Coaldust and Mrs. Dust that a benefactor had offered to send them for dinner anywhere they wanted to go. They went to Hardees. It was sad, really.

So. Tell us about your town character. If you've written about him or her, send us the link. If you don't have a weblog, send me your story and I'll post it here on Wednesday giving you the byline, however you want it to read. There have got to be a million of these stories out there. Tell us a few of 'em, won't you?

Are 'characters' disappearing? Have more of them ended up in shelters, sheltered workshops, or met dead-ends more noxious than 'dope'? Are we so much more cocooned in our houses without front porches and shopping malls that contain our modern sidewalks that we don't notice them? Or all we all becoming 'characters' so the old-fashioned eccentrics don't stand out? Hmmm. I wonder.

Posted by fred1st at June 23, 2003 04:37 AM | TrackBack

A little different slant: Back in the little town where I started the growing up process, it is only in retrospect that I know anyone as "different." They were just Old Joe, Mrs. Jones, or Olivia, back then. Regardless of what they were, since I'd known them all of my life I thought they were just the way they were supposed to be. It was only later that I started noting "oddness". What spice the "odd" ones have added to my life (as they seem to have added to yours.)

Posted by: Cop Car at June 23, 2003 07:46 AM

Oooooh! An assignment! (Better get busy)

Posted by: Da Goddess at June 26, 2003 02:33 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?