Most of y’all know I was born and raised in White County. I love my hometown, and I missed it during the years I was gone. I left in 2005 for grad school, in Illinois, and returned, in 2011, with a Minnesotan-raised wife. Soon after we got here, we were sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse we were renting, watching the occasional cars go by. Every driver waved at us, and I waved back. “Who was that?” my wife would ask, and I’d usually respond, “I have no idea.” Because that’s just what we do here. It’s what we have always done. Often it is not a full-handed wave, but one or two fingers lifted in greeting from the steering wheel, or sometimes a nod of the head.
I remember, 20 years ago, when I would leave my White County home and drive to Crossville to clean a couple of stores in the mornings, then drive to Jamestown to clean another (and then head to Cookeville to attend class at Tech). I noticed the difference then. When I left Sparta and got to Crossville - which is much bigger and has a significant num-ber of retirees from outside the South - the waves stopped. Then, when I left Crossville and started getting closer to Jamestown, they would re-sume.
I had a little culture shock moving to the Midwest in 2005 - even though, as a young man, I had briefly lived in New York City and South Florida. I think this is because I had expected people to be rude in those other places; some New Yorkers are even proud of it (and a lot of Florid-ians are retired New Yorkers). But the Midwest? They’re proud of how polite they are… but it didn’t seem that way to me, or to most of the fel-low transplanted Southerners I ran into there. I remember the weird stares I got from strangers when I waved to them, or simply made eye contact and nodded, as we passed on the sidewalk. Even people I knew seemed irritated when I passed them on the street and felt socially obli-gated to chat with them for just a moment, because I was slowing them down. I remember how surprised I was when people walking ahead of me let doors slam in my face, or when teen-aged store workers - when I gave them my credit card - called me by my first name instead of mister or sir. So, where friendliness was concerned, I was glad to get back home.
But I have noticed a change in the last few years. No one waves from their car anymore, even when I wave at them first (which I make a con-scious effort to do). Salespeople and vendors seem less friendly, more impersonal. Students who’ve worked for years as servers tell me even, they have noticed customers becoming ruder than they used to be - in-cluding older people. This breaks my heart. I think there are a lot of fac-tors at work. For four years, we had a president who made it acceptable (even preferable) to be coarse, rude, profane, and ugly -some people now perceive that as a sign of strength. We’ve also had a lot of people move in, many because they like our friendly, laid-back atmosphere - but they don’t know or participate in our customs which make it that way. That’s especially sad, because - welcome as they are -some are unknowingly helping to change that atmosphere into what they left. Having been there, I recognize it happening.
This is NOT me discouraging new people from moving into our area, nor am I casting a wide net - I could list dozens and dozens of newer folks from other regions who are wonderful people and excellent additions. What I AM saying is that maybe all of us - whether we are from here or not - should return to those friendly traditions.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history profes-sor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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