Unfolding the Map
We enter a new state with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), Alabama, and make a quick stop in Alexander City to spend the night. The course of a conversation there will send him to the epicenter of the American Civil Rights Movement, Selma. We'll stop along with him. If you wish to see where we currently rest, click on the thumbnail at right for an interactive map. If you have any comments about this or your own literary journeys, please feel free to leave one.
"The woman was an authority. Whatever there was, she knew it. Her face, pallid like a partly boiled potato, looked as if carved out with a paring knife. She was a matron of note in Alexander City. Two other women, dark in eighteen-hole tans, sat with her on a bench alongside the tennis courts, while their daughters took lessons under the lights. The discussion on the bench was Tupperware. The potato had just said, 'for a shower gift, you can't do better than a Pak-N-Stor.' Another explained how her eldest had received an upright freezer full of nesting food containers from the Walkers.
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 2
Alexander City, Alabama
Every town has one, at least if you want to believe the movies or television. It's usually someone who has access to everything that has happened to everyone in the town because of his or her ability to inhabit many different social circles, or his or her way to get access to what is usually privileged information. It could be the town barber or hairdresser, the corner grocer, the trash man, the babysitter to many different families, the local banker. It could be a fortune teller, or the wise woman or man that everyone goes to for advice.
Sometimes these people are motivated to do good things for people. Mr. Oleson in Little House on the Prairie was one of those grocers who had the best interests of people at heart, even though he occasionally was swayed by his shrewish wife to use his knowledge for something hurtful. Sometimes the person might be motivated by pure evil; Mr. Potter, the banker in It's a Wonderful Life, used his knowledge of the pulse of the town to try to run George Bailey and the Building and Loan out of business, and then get his revenge on George Bailey.
Many times, however, the motivations of the town gossip, know-it-all, maven or patron, whatever you want to call them, are more complex. Marie Laveau, the Creole fortune teller used her influence with the Creole, Black and white populations of New Orleans to build her reputation and power, simply through the force of knowing, through her many networks, who was sleeping with who, who had committed what crime, and other good tidbits of information. She could tell a mean fortune with that kind of knowledge, and she was not a woman to be trifled with. In fiction, Yente in Fiddler on the Roof was another of these people whose motivations were good. In keeping with the tradition of her village, she knew the situation of everyone in the village so that she could arrange matches. Unfortunately, sometimes the matches, though practical, went against the true feelings of those she tried to pair up.
That being said, that person in the town who knows everything has a role. They can be loved and admired and eagerly sought out for their advice and knowledge, acting as an unofficial counselor or therapist. They can be avoided or warily sidestepped, and the person who is avoiding them can try to keep their business as private as possible.
I think of the town gossip as a sort of pre-computer combination of Google, Facebook and Match.com. The town gossip, like Google, has all the information one needs to know at hand. Using such a tool of knowledge, there is usually a price. One price might be privacy, as once a person's needs become known to the town gossip, their business might be made public. Like Facebook, the town gossip makes their opinions known and encourages the opinions of others, so that a conversation becomes sort of like a town Facebook "Wall." Like Match.com, a town gossip will know who is looking for what, and may under certain conditions bring people together.
I wonder if, in these days of 24 hour online information, the town gossip is disappearing? If we can arrange dates, broadcast our thoughts, and look up all the information on anything we need on the internet, does anyone under 60 years old really listen to such people any more. Do the town gossips sit lonely in the town square, remembering a time past when they were needed and wanted and hoping that someone will listen to them, seek their advice, or ask for their help?
If you want to know more about Alexander City
Next up: Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville, Alabama