Familiar faces

Familiar face? More like "one a mother could barely love".
Familiar face? More like “one a mother could barely love”.

Last night at work I posted a story about a car crash in a small town in the paper’s circulation area in which at least three people were injured. It was later confirmed that one person, a young woman, had died in the accident.

As I sat at my desk, the comments of sympathy and tribute came pouring in through the site for me to moderate. Now, car accidents and indeed fatalities haven’t been uncommon in my nearly three months here, but this one seemed a little different.

The story generated huge amounts of traffic and the comments, which were rolling in by the dozens, almost all appeared to come from people who knew the victim or the family. It stunned me to realize that it was as if the whole town had logged in to read the news at once. As I discovered this morning, the town in question had just over 900 residents at the last census, so my sad hunch was probably right.

This tragic story seems to have triggered a culture shock for me that I perhaps could never have anticipated: how amplified everything is in a community this size, be it good or bad news. Up until now, all I’d really experienced was the positive side of being a member of a small community. (And please, make no mistake when you read the following paragraphs: I’m certainly not comparing my “familiarity” in public houses in Augusta with last night’s tragedy.)

For contrast, I come from a sprawling city of over two million people. Now I know that not huge by many standards, especially given the running joke in Brisbane that everyone knows everyone, but it’s certainly large enough that for the average person, it’s not difficult to maintain anonymity of some sort. Even working for a national news organization for six years, and helping to write sports coverage that thousands of people read daily, I never had any form of “media profile” outside of my own Facebook self-promotion.

Outside the office wasn’t any different. I bought groceries at the same store from the same cashiers for nearly four years, several days a week, and I knew faces but there was never any two-way familiarity. I spent many quiet weeknights with a book at the bar of my favorite haunt, Archive, but the innkeeper and I were never on a first-name basis (although I tried my hardest to be).

But even in a short space of time here, that’s done a complete 180. For the first time in my career, I’ve had complete strangers tell me in public that they liked what I wrote in the paper two weekends ago. The first was a chap I was sitting next to at the bar Sunday night, and the second just 12 hours later was a woman I see at the gym frequently. She came into the empty studio I was stretching in and when she excused herself, I thought she was going to ask me if I’d be much longer so she could use the room. Instead she asked me if I write for the paper, and then told me she’d seen me get out of the Outback in the parking lot and put two and two together. Then, the next day as I was climbing into the car to head to work, the mail carrier saw me and said “must be nice not to have to walk anymore!” She’d either read the column or, more likely, seen me hoofing it up and down Sewall Street for two months.

And just as much as I was a face in the crowd outside the office in Australia, the opposite applies in Augusta. Before my chance interaction with a reader Sunday night, the bartender (whom I hadn’t seen since the day of the AFC Championship game, when my first column hit newsstands) resumed a conversation that we’d been last time. The three bartenders at my regular Friday night spot in Hallowell know by my first name, and vice versa, and rarely even have to ask me what I want to drink (or whether I want another). And, when I sat at a table with a friendat Augusta’s Downtown Diner, the waitress remembered my inability to say no to coffee top-ups and my usual preference for a counter seat, and we were familiar enough for me to be able to notice she had a new hairdo without sounding like a creep about it.

But bad news can travel just as fast – as I realized in the case of the fatal car accident last night – and that’s something that plays on my mind a lot too. I try to be a good, honest and polite guy regardless of whom I’m interacting with, because that’s the way I was raised, and because you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as the shitty old analogy goes. But like I said – the impact one’s actions can have on the world around them is magnified when the community is smaller. The last thing I would want to do is put someone offside, offend or hurt anyone anywhere, let alone in a place where it’s highly likely I’ll bump into them at the grocery store.

Overall it feels good to be recognized and acknowledged for my work outside of the office, if not very surreal, and it feels even better to be familiar to those semi-strangers I interact with on a regular basis. But it’s good to keep in the back of my head that it’s a smaller pond here, and the less ripples I make, the better. For everyone.

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