Smallville, by Martha Thomases
The media narrative for the last week has been about “small town values.” According to several speeches made during and after the Republican convention, they are the party of these values, and Democrats are not.
What are these small town values? Among those traits cited are safety (you can leave your door unlocked), church, and concern for your neighbors.
To me, the quintessential small town is Smallville, and Clark Kent is its quintessential citizen. He helped his parents on their farm, and worked in their store. He made friends that lasted for his entire life. And as soon as he learned what he could, he left for the big city.
For Clark, Smallville is a place where he could make his mistakes. He could count on his family. When he felt confident in himself and his abilities, he went to Metropolis, so he could share his gifts with the most people possible.
Bart Allen learned how to use his speed in a relatively small town as well. Again, it was a place where he could learn to make mistakes without a lot of witnesses.
I grew up in a large small town. Youngstown, Ohio, had a population at that time of about 100,000 people. We did not lock out doors at night. In the summer, we shopped at farm stands that were just a few miles away from our home. Not only did I know my neighbors, but I hid under their sinks when we played hide-and-seek. Not only did we go to synagogue on Friday and Sunday School on, well, Sunday, but the rabbi’s son used to walk me to kindergarten.
I went to high school in a small town. There were 300 students in my graduating class. Many of the friends I made there remain my friends today, nearly 40 years later (Hi, Swayze! Hi, Randy! Hi, Patience!). We’re scattered around the world, but we still keep in touch.
I went to college in a small town. The student population was close to half the population. I knew the local shopkeepers, the kids in the park, and the guy who delivered the comic books to the newsstand.
In all these cases, I couldn’t wait to get out.
A small town is lovely if you are part of the majority. The kids who are popular in high school, the cheerleaders and the quarterbacks, have every reason to stay. The kids who are close to their extended families and friends have reason to stay. They have good memories and a support system already in place. They are comfortable with the expectations of their neighbors.
For the rest of us, the opportunity to go someplace and reinvent ourselves a real attraction. No one in the big city ever saw you wet your pants in kindergarten, or fall on your face at the prom. You can find other people who are gay, or who share your interest in playing chess, or who want to play soccer.
If you’re ambitious, you can set high goals in the city, but if you’re arrogant, you get put in your place. It’s almost impossible to be the most successful person in New York. There will always be someone with more money, more social standing or more art. There is always someone more beautiful, and more intelligent. The conventional categories are impossible to top, so you find your own category.
The thing about living in a big city is that, really, it’s not that much different from living in a small town. I know my neighbors. I know my butcher, and the people at the pasta store and the cheese store. When my son was in school, I was part of the PTA. We take care of each other’s pets, we volunteer, we work together. As you read this on Saturday, my husband is helping to run the Sidewalk Sale for the block association.
Seven years ago, the rest of the country saw New York’s allegedly small town values. They saw people helping each other through the horrors of September 11, for weeks afterwards. We held each other’s hands. We gave food and clothing and blood. We were all Americans, with American values.
We have values in the big city. We don’t do this.
Martha Thomases, ComicMix’ Media Goddess, would like a front porch.