I find myself often dreaming of leaving the area I grew up in in search of a new Mayberry. I assume that most of my readers are familiar with that fictional North Carolina town made famous by The Andy Griffin Show. It’s a small town where the people all know each other and are kind and considerate of each other, where there’s no crime, no traffic.
I grew up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, ten miles from its largest city, Charlotte, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Though I was born in Charlotte at its Memorial Hospital in 1965, I was raised in Huntersville, North Carolina. Well, we had a Huntersville address, but we actually considered ourselves citizens of Long Creek. Huntersville was a town about five miles from my home. I’ve described my idyllic childhood in Long Creek in a previous blog entitled Mayberry, so I won’t rehash the details here. Suffice it to say that the only time in my fifty-six years of life that I have lived more than twenty miles from my childhood home was freshman year at Appalachian State University (ASU), which I attended for only one semester before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to be closer to home while I finished my college education. The one hundred miles separating ASU from Long Creek was just too far from home for me.
Up until recently, when I talked about leaving the area, I mainly gave as reasons the physical changes that have occurred over the last decade or so. Our gem of an area that is just two hours from the Blue Ridge Mountains and four hours from the beaches of North and South Carolina has been discovered by thousands of transplants. The mostly rural area I grew up in is now congested with neighborhoods where four houses are crammed in on every acre, apartment complexes, condos. A twelve mile trip from our business in Huntersville to our home in Denver took about fifteen to twenty minutes when we moved into our home in 1998. By 2019, it often took an hour or more to travel the same twelve miles at five o’clock in the evening. Stores crowded onto every possible lot zoned for business, all in service of those thousands of new customers. I no longer recognize my hometown.
Lately I have come to realize that, even more than the physical landscape, the personality, the values of our area have changed. Raised in the rural South, I was taught to value integrity, to take responsibility for my actions and inactions, to be kind to others, to be honest, to be considerate, to be polite, to respect my elders. I learned lessons like: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all; Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.
I grew up with kids who learned those same lessons from parents who had learned them at their parents’ knees. People opened doors for others, said please, thank you, yes, ma’am and no, sir. These values were as much a part of our daily lives as breathing. In the time and place were I grew up it seemed like everyone knew each other. We were all family, friends, friends of friends, neighbors. When that is the case, your reputation proceeds you. We wanted to be respected, liked, accepted and included. Following the rules our parents taught us was the best way to ensure that we were.
I suppose I knew things were not quite so idyllic everywhere. I remember times like the Saturday that Dad took me and my brother, Curtis, to a Kmart in Charlotte to spend some money in their toy department that we had earned doing chores. As each of us agonized over trying to get the most bang for our buck, Dad finished up whatever shopping he needed to do and waited for us at the front of the store. I went through the line first, paid for the Barbie doll and accessories I had decided on, and joined Dad. A few minutes later, Dad noticed the clerk seemed to be arguing with Curtis. He walked over to see what the problem was. When asked, Curtis said, “She is trying to give me back change for a twenty. I only gave her ten dollars!” The clerk insisted he was wrong. My dad told her, “Ma’am, what he is saying is correct. I only gave him a ten.” She accepted the excess change back from my brother, then said, “I can’t believe your son didn’t just take that extra money and walk out of here!” My dad said, “That would be stealing and we have taught our children that stealing is wrong.” She seemed floored not to have been taken advantage of by a ten year old boy. His honesty was shocking to her. To us it was just how things were supposed to be.
Sheltered as I was by my fortunate locale, great parents, good neighbors, engaged teachers, and longtime friends I went out into the world expecting more of the same. At nineteen years old, I joined my father in business when he opened up a printshop in 1984. Our first clients were friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood. They told their friends about us and our business grew almost exclusively through referrals. Our kindness, honesty, integrity and fairness meant our customers could confidently recommend us and our services to their friends and business associates. We were fortunate and our business grew from a backyard operation to a thriving neighborhood shop in the heart of Huntersville.
I must say that we are still blessed with many clients, thirty-seven years later, who are good people. However, we find ourselves more and more often dealing with people who either never learned the lessons we live by or who have forgotten them. Recently I picked up the phone about 8:01AM on a Monday morning and in the singsong voice I have always used said, “Hello, CRC?” A gruff voice on the other end asked, “Do you print thirty-six by twenty-four blue prints?” I said, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t. Our largest sheet size is eleven by seventeen.” Before I could add that I had a client I could send him to that does do large blueprints, he snapped, “Jesus! I thought I called a real printer!” and hung up on me. Times being what they are, it took me about two seconds to look at the caller ID and Google the caller’s number. A few seconds later, I was on his large construction company’s website. I found out he was a Senior Project Manager. On their website, the mission statement hailed, “We will distinguish ourselves as professionals in every way.” His resumé on LinkedIn said he was “able to represent a company in a professional and eloquent manner” and had “outstanding communication and interpersonal skills.” Had that not been total bullshit, had he been polite and patient, I would have given him the lead he needed and he would have had his blueprints. Instead, frustrated and hateful, he was no farther along than when he dialed my number and I was angry and bitter, my day ruined. I heard that Yankee accent for the rest of the day, barking in my ear, “Jesus! I thought I called a real printer!” I doubted Jesus and this guy were acquainted, much less on a first name basis.
And it’s not just at work that I encounter rude, unkind people these days. I wrote about one such encounter in my blog Miniature Golf Face, about the time a woman nearly ran me down with her cart in Walmart, then, instead of apologizing, spat out, “You don’t have to give me that hateful look!” Again at Walmart, just a few weeks ago, this time in the parking lot, I arrived at a four way stop at the same time as a woman who was to my right. Raising my hand up close to the windshield so that she could see me, I smiled and motioned for her to proceed through the intersection. She was, after all, to the right of me and had the right of way. She just sat there, staring at me. I motioned again for her to go. The next thing I knew she was rolling down her window. Clearly incensed, she yelled at me, “Stop waiving your fucking arm at me!” in a New Jersey accent, poked me the bird, then sped through the intersection, nearly taking out a guy who had pulled up while she was hanging out the window screaming at me. I followed her all the way to our neighborhood thinking about how lucky she was that she had picked a nice Southern lady to scream at like that. Had it been another person as tightly wound as she apparently was, she might’ve been pulled out of her car at that first stoplight. As it was, I found myself stewing over the incident all evening. I’m not sure why I cared. In the words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does“, but I was again angry and bitter.
Instead of holding doors, these transplants kick it into another gear to get in front of someone else in the checkout line. They turn their heads when you wave at them as you are driving through a neighborhood. They refuse to stop one car length back to let someone else out into the road in front of them like driving is some competitive sport. They let their kids disrupt everyone around them in restaurants and stores. They check their Facebook in dark theaters mid-movie. Please and thank yous are so rare I find myself surprised to hear them now. The past year, during the pandemic, things have been even worse. People’s true colors have been flown like flags as they hoarded toilet paper and food, ignored safety rules, and let basic human kindnesses go by the wayside.
I’ve found myself thinking that I don’t want to even go out into the world at all anymore. Always an introvert, I’ve reached new heights over the last few years. Other than my home, the only places I feel happy any more are towns like Harmony, the small farming community where my dad grew up, or Kings Mountain, which we visited this weekend, where the owner of an antique store spoke to us like old friends and the teenage boy at the register at Loves Fish Box called me ma’am and smiled as he welcomed us as first time customers and said he hoped we would be back. I feel at home when we are in Elkin, or Blowing Rock or West Jefferson on a weekday, where shopkeepers ask about our interests in their town and treat us like guests in their home. I love quiet Holden Beach or the Outer Banks in winter. I fell in love with Southwest Harbor, the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, in Maine and with Campobello Island in Nova Scotia. Natural beauty and human kindness are the things that strum the chords of my heart now. I grew up with those things in Huntersville, in Long Creek. I’m searching for the next Mayberry and living for the day I can call it home.