Does this happen everywhere or is it just a small town thing? You see someone around over and over again and you think to yourself, they seem kind of cool. Why don’t I know them? Like, really, why don’t I know them? There are only about 15,000 people in the whole town and fewer than that who live downtown, which is where I see them over and over again. It’s not hard to know people in a place like this. Why don’t I know them? And then, of course, the inevitable question for me—is it something about me? Am I not cool enough to know these people?
Maybe it’s a small-town phenomenon. Certainly, in small towns people stick out more easily. You notice the woman who dresses like she lives in Paris and rides her bike around town everywhere. You can catalog every single person who seems the least bit “out of place.” There might be fewer of them than there would be in a city, but per capita, you get your fair share of oddballs. Enough that you start to wonder if “out of place” is even the right expression. Maybe weird people fit right in.
How do people find each other? As a sociologist, I find questions like these fascinating. Clearly a lot of people know each other from their jobs. There’s a whole network of people who work at the college and know each other that way. But with a town this small, you can convince yourself that you really should intersect at least in some way with all the networks that are out there. Small communities are supposed to be all about homogeneity, right? Everyone is like everyone else.
Only, it’s not at all true. There was a restaurant downtown a few years back. It was my family’s favorite restaurant. It was the favorite restaurant of all my friends and a lot of the people who work at the college. When I went to this restaurant, it seemed like everyone I knew was there at one point or another. There were also some people I didn’t know, but eventually, they became my friends, too. It was that kind of place—a place that brings people together.
Then one day I was talking to a friend who lives out in the country. Her children went to a different high school and she was friends with some of those people. They live in the next town over, sure, but not that far away. These people had NEVER EVEN HEARD OF THIS RESTAURANT! Like, didn’t even know it existed. They lived less than 15 miles away and they may as well have been from another planet. Everyone is like everyone else, my ass!
I grew up in a town where everyone pretty much knew everyone else. As the place suburbanized, the influx of people out-paced that assumption. But I was on the tail edge of that turnover. We still knew most of the newcomers and we sure as hell still knew all the people who’d been born and raised there.
Now I’m a newcomer and I know that’s reflected in my own networks. Most of the people I know are not from Madison. That’s how it goes. If you grow up in a place, you arrive in adulthood with a full dance card of friends. It might be hard to find the motivation to add new ones. And as the long-time folks in the town where I grew up pointed out, newcomers are already more mobile. You might be less likely to invest your time in them because you assume they’re eventually going to leave.
Sociologists who study community also talk about how open different places are. Is it easy to jump into what’s going on in a new community and get involved? Is it easy to make friends and join a bowling league, if that’s your thing? Madison has always seemed pretty accessible to me. There’s a sort of excitement when new people show up. Who’s that? What might they bring to the table? From my admittedly white, middle class, straight and cisgender perspective, it’s always seemed fairly easy to connect with people. No doubt, it’s probably harder depending on the list of identities you bring to the table.
But, no, even in a small town like this, everyone is not like everyone else. People lead parallel lives and sometimes they don’t intersect at all. I find this comforting. The world will try to tell you that small towns are boring, but I don’t think so. There’s a depth there if you have the time to look closely enough. The town looks at first like a boring bucket of muddy creek water. But with a microscope, it comes alive. There’s so much to see. Who is that person and what’s their story? And why don’t I know them?