We’ve lived in Alpine now for 8 months. Hard to believe it’s almost been a year. I’m slowly getting used to it. Slowly. It’s so quiet here. Except for the train that rolls through town several times a day. It honks and toots and wails. I don’t mind it anymore. When we first arrived here back in April, I cursed that blaring, echoing horn when it woke me up at 3 a.m. on our first night. “Are you serious?” I hissed, bolting up in bed. Bret mumbled something about how I’d get used to it and then fell back to sleep. I quietly wept and whispered that we’d moved to hell. Lo and behold, Bret was right. Now, I sleep through that train. And during the day, I welcome its blaring, proud cry because it helps break up the long stretches of quiet in this town. That kind of quiet can easily unnerve a city girl like me.
Mostly, I’m adjusting though. I like that it only takes me 3 minutes to get to the grocery store and parking is usually hassle-free. They also don’t have parking meters anywhere in the city limits so parking is not just hassle-free, it’s actually free. I guess there aren’t that many people clamoring to get into those spots. I also like the sense of community I feel here. People know each other. I’ve gone to potlucks with almost all of my neighbors and I see many of the same faces at the grocery store. I don’t know everyone in town but I do feel like people generally keep an eye out for each other.
Admittedly, there are some small town rituals I’m still struggling to adopt.
For example, strangers wave at us. Perfect strangers. We’re driving down the street, let’s say, on our way home and a perfectly normal-looking man or woman in a perfectly normal-looking car passes us on the opposite side of the road, smiles, and waves. Bret always waves back and nods his head while I sit there, at once fascinated and uncomfortable. Why us? I wonder. Why is that person waving at us? Does she wave at everyone?
Bret grew up in the sticks outside Tucson so this kind of behavior is normal to him. “It’s just the way it is in a small town, babe,” he tells me, waving at an elderly man walking his overweight beagle. The man waves back. I half-expect the beagle to wave back too. “Do they wave at every single person they see?” I inquire. Bret shrugs, “Maybe. Or maybe just people they pass on the road.”
I tried to imagine people doing that in Los Angeles. LA is a city of 13 million people. Freeways twist and turn like giant, concrete snakes and there’s less walking and more driving there. I spent a good portion of my life in my car when I lived in LA. I actually thought of it as my little apartment on wheels. I always made sure my car was stocked with snacks, makeup, a hairbrush, bottled water, an emergency first aid kit, a cell phone charger, road flares, and books and magazines in case I ever got stuck waiting somewhere. This was normal. Now that I live in a small town, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not so normal to spend that much time in one’s car; common in Los Angeles, perhaps, but not especially healthy.
As for the waving? I don’t think anyone ever waved at me in LA. When I would occasionally take my dog, Ruby, for a hike in Runyon Canyon, people smiled and said hi as they passed me on the trail. Sometimes I would be the one to initiate the greeting if I were feeling especially friendly that day. Sometimes the stranger and I would stop and commiserate about our dogs for a minute or so. It always felt so nice. So connected.
But waving at random people on the street? No way. People kept to themselves. Didn’t make eye contact. Didn’t engage. It’s a crowded place, Los Angeles. It’s hard enough to make it to your destination in under 30 minutes no matter where you’re going. So, there’s no time for waving. The thousands of other people on the road are a hazard at worst, a nuisance at best. Why on earth would one engage in waving at one of them, let alone all of them? Who has that kind of time or patience aside from a parade float queen?
The only time I ever saw a driver in LA personally interact with another driver was to curse him out for violating the rules of the road. I once saw two old men in tennis whites get into a fistfight over a parking spot in Old Town Pasadena. Occasionally you’ll see someone pause to let another person cut in front on a crowded freeway or intersection. And you can almost hear the collective “Awwww” from the other drivers on the road because it’s such a rare and wonderful event. But nobody waves at each other. Not for the hell of it. Not to say hi. Not to acknowledge each other’s existence. It never occurred to me to wave at anyone I didn’t know. It didn’t matter that we were sharing the same air, the same road, and the same city for, quite possibly, years. What happens to the human psyche in a society where we cease to have the time or interest enough to offer a simple hello? Do we become more suspicious? Cautious? Do we lose awareness of ourselves as part of a bigger community? Do our own needs become more important above all else? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that the more time that passes here and the more people wave at me, the more a part of the community I feel. The more I sense that my actions affect the lives of those around me. I’m understanding in a much more profound way than I ever understood living in Los Angeles that not only do I matter, but the people in my community matter too.
I still can’t bring myself to wave at strangers, though. I mean, I can reciprocate when someone waves at me first. I’m not a complete asshole. I wave back. I smile. I pretend not to feel totally and utterly awkward. I just haven’t reached the place where I feel comfortable initiating the wave. I never know quite when to wave and to whom. If the Sheriff drives by am I obliged to wave? What about a group of kids walking along the street? Do I wave at them or would that seem creepy? What if seven cars pass me on my way to the grocery store? Am I supposed to wave at all seven, or can I wave at one or two and the others will understand?
If we stay in Alpine long enough I suppose I’ll eventually feel comfortable waving at strangers. Maybe it’ll become second nature. We have this one neighbor named Shirley. She’s about 80 years old with short white hair and she’s just about the nicest person you’ve ever met. Full of energy too. She bounds around, smiling and waving at passersby whenever she’s outside weeding her front yard. She’s 80 and she weeds her own yard! I don’t even weed my yard and I’m 37. Shirley is an inspiration to me. She makes waving at strangers look so natural, so effortless, so un-awkward. I think it all comes from the fact that she doesn’t care how she looks. The kindness just emanates from her and it doesn’t occur to her to think about herself in those moments, let alone how she appears. Why should she? She’s downright lovely. And more importantly, it doesn’t matter. Kindness is beautiful.
So, for all the complaints I have about Alpine (too small, not enough decent restaurants, lack of an ocean), living here is slowly turning me into a nicer person, a humbler person, a person who can see the beauty in strangers stopping to say hello.
Happy Holidays! With love and a wave from West Texas.