I dislike forming opinions about people based on where they live but sometimes things happen that stir in me a desire to make such a judgment even as I shame myself for doing so. In this case, it’s the observation that people in small towns can be friendlier than those in the city.
With that said, take these two experiences as mere studies in contrast — a big contrast.
Yesterday, my car died — kaput, while moving and with my foot on the gas — as I was driving on busy JFK Boulevard in North Little Rock about 5:45 p.m. Fortunately, I was able to steer the car into a strip mall parking lot, where the car ended up sitting cockeyed in front of a dry-cleaning store.
I pulled out my cell phone and called AAA for a tow, then went into the dry-cleaning shop and apologized to the two young women at the counter for blocking the entrance, assuring them that a tow truck would be there in about an hour.
What do you think they said?
Nothing. Not one word. Not a smile. They looked at me with pained expressions, then nodded slightly. That was it. I didn’t expect much, maybe a murmur of sympathy. But nothing?
The weather was lovely so I went outside and sat on the sidewalk. People came and went from the dry-cleaners and busy take-out pizza joint next door. Some looked at me curiously but never nodded or spoke or smiled at me. Most acted as if I wasn’t there. The manager of the bank where I do business — and who knows me by name — waved from other side of the parking lot as he got into his truck to leave for the day. I guess it didn’t strike him as curious that my car was parked haphazardly and I was sitting on the sidewalk.
After I had been sitting there for about 30 minutes, a woman approached.
“Ma’am,” she said, “you wouldn’t happen to have any pliers in your car, would you?” When I said no, she walked away.
That was it — the only person who spoke to me until the tow truck arrived.
Contrast that with an earlier experience in smalltown Arkansas.
On a Saturday in August a few years ago, my mother and I were returning to Little Rock from Nimrod. When we got to Perryville, Mom wanted to stop at the Dollar General Store so we pulled up in front of the door, parked and went in. After a few minutes, I returned to the car to check on our two dogs, who we had left in their carriers in the back seat. I thought I’d take them for a walk while Mom shopped.
The girls — Ashley and Simone
That’s when I saw the keys on the front seat. The doors were locked and Mom didn’t have a spare. But not to worry. I knew the sheriff’s office was only a couple of blocks away, so I called and asked if they had a slim jim, a metal strip that slides into a car door to pop the lock. They didn’t and the deputy informed me that the town’s one locksmith was on vacation.
Next, I called AAA and was told they’d send someone from Morrilton. A few minutes later, the AAA dispatcher called back. Seems the wrecker service in Morrilton refused to drive the all of 10 miles to Perryville, but she was going to try to reach someone in Conway.
That made us little anxious. Conway is more than 30 miles from Perryville and, like I said, we had our dogs with us. Fortunately, the day was overcast and a rare 72 degrees for August. I remember that clearly because otherwise we would have never left the dogs in the car for even a couple of minutes.
I asked the nice lady at AAA to please tell the folks in Conway that we had dogs in the car. She assured me she would.
While I was on the phone, several people drove up to the store. They all spoke to my mom on the way in. One man waited with her until I got off the phone. He wanted to make sure someone was coming for us; the store was closing soon and he didn’t want to leave us stranded. He gave us his phone number and said to call if AAA let us down. He and his wife would be happy to have us over for dinner, he said. We could even spend the night if necessary.
After he left, other folks approached us. Every last one of them asked if we needed assistance. Would we like a soft drink? Would we like a place to sit? Did we want them to call someone? Were we sure we’d be alright? How were the dogs? What kind of dogs were they? And so on.
No one seemed to be in a hurry. No one avoided making eye contact. If we hadn’t been stressed about the dogs in the car, it would have been a pleasant experience.
Then the car folks from Conway showed up in a wrecker. The whole family came — mom, dad, 9-year-old son, newborn baby. They piled out of the car and gathered around. The woman, holding the baby against her shoulder, grinned, showing us her few teeth, and said, “When we heard there was two dogs locked in the car, we had ta come. We just had ta.”
Her husband, a worn looking fellow also shy a few teeth, smiled broadly and assured us it was no trouble for them to drive the 32 miles from Conway to unlock our car. They didn’t mind at all. Not a bit. Perryville was out of the area for which they were contracted with AAA, but that was no problem.
“Shame on them people in Morrilton,” the woman said. “They shouldn’t ‘uv left y’all here.”
“Yeah, shame,” her husband agreed, working a tool into the space between the window and the door to pop the lock. As he worked, he looked into the car and asked, “Where’re them dogs?”
I pointed to Simone and Ashley in their softsided carriers on the back seat. “They’re in suitcases?” the man said.
The woman told us they had to see the dogs before they could leave so we took them out of their carriers. She, her husband and her son fussed over the girls and petted them, gushing about their cuteness and wanting to know all about them. Then our family of rescuers left, happy because we and the dogs were OK.
You know what? Those people had the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen.