WASHINGTON – We’ve heard much these past few years about “small town values,” most recently iterated and personified by Sarah Palin.
When politicians speak of small town values, we know what they mean. Generally, they are invoking family, faith and flag – coincidentally the subtitle of Palin’s next book, “America By Heart.” In the politician’s world, small towns are where “real Americans” live, as opposed to all those other people – the vast majority of Americans – who live in urban areas.
As someone who grew up in a small town (and left as soon as possible) and who recently has chosen to live in a small town (though lately in absentia), I’ve given this a lot of thought. Despite all my implicit exposure to small town values, I never really understood what they were until I moved to Olive Street, a three-block-long street in the nation’s capital.
Lots of familiar people have lived on Olive Street. Mary Jo Kopechne lived across the street and down a few doors. Julia Child lived two blocks down. Olive Street made brief appearances in the movies “Burn After Reading” and “Wedding Crashers.”
One could say that my arrival here four years ago was providential. I was a day away from moving into an apartment in Dupont Circle when, passing through Georgetown, I decided to take one quick turn around the nearest block – just to see. And, voila. A small town house was for rent, and the people who were to become my neighbors and extended family were on the sidewalk. It was cocktail hour.
Who could resist?
Thus I came to be wedged between Jack and Craig on one side and Meaghan on the other. Jack and Craig have lived on Olive Street the longest – the span of their 25 years together in what can only be described as the most small-town-values union I’ve ever witnessed. Meaghan, a widow, soon thereafter went to Guatemala to adopt Josephina, who, now bilingual and a determined tricyclist, has become the block’s child. Not long ago, Meaghan married Nigel, who added Reagan and Drew to our neighborhood brood.
There are other beloved neighbors – Molly, Susan, John. And then there are dogs Teddy and Maggie; Zoe the three-legged cat; Bella, the cat who single-handedly has managed to solve our back alley’s rat problem; and assorted others, including Ollie, the five-pound blind poodle I adopted a year ago. In our time together, we Olive Streeters have celebrated one wedding, two funerals (dogs Jake and Beezie), Jack and Craig’s 25th anniversary, a couple of blizzards, a Pulitzer Prize and now, my departure. I am leaving in a few days for a much bigger town – New York City – to begin a new adventure.
Sorting through the clutter that gathers unbidden in the corners of one’s life got me thinking about the meaning of this little speck on Google’s Earth. I’ve left a lot of towns and cities here and there, but I’ve never felt as sad. The obvious reason is that I am leaving friends, but more than that, I leave behind a history of daily expressions of what it means to be human: The night a friend died and Jack and Craig took me in; the dozens of times I knocked on their door to say, “I’m hungry and out of food,” knowing they would say, “You’re in luck!”
The daily conversations with Meaghan over our shared garden wall. The delightful Josephina, who slips scribbled notes through my mail slot or goes to the refrigerator for coconut water I keep on hand for her. The sound of Craig dragging everyone’s garbage cans to the curb, until one day a careless motorist hit him crossing the street. The block has gone to pot since he’s been on crutches.
So goes life in the city. But if those aren’t small town values, I don’t know what we’re talking about. All the inferences one has drawn from reading the foregoing are meant to be taken to heart. Families come in many configurations. And small town values have nothing to do with small towns.
Josephina, having grown up on a street where she is universally beloved, where a gay couple is the most stabilizing presence in any of our lives, where wine and laughter and dogs and patience and kindness are her daily diet, is the luckiest child I know.
And so am I for having lived here. Hasta luego, Olive Street.
Kathleen Parker, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.