Albuquerque is a pretty large town. It certainly qualifies as a city, especially in a state with a total population of around 2 million people. But there was always a small-town feeling about it, especially for the first couple of years I lived there. My world was limited to the University campus. Places to drink beer while I worked on my own writing or coffee while I graded student papers ranked priority on the social radar, so I didn’t tend to venture very far. But even after I graduated, I discovered that this small-town feel was legitimate. There were surprising little nooks, shops, and parks strewn about the city, around which various neighborhoods seemed to gather themselves.
Because I come from a small town that got big in a hurry, this impression of community was appealing to me. During the last half of the 90s, Roswell was one of the fastest growing towns in America. My mother would say that’s because everyone wants the small town, so they rush in, and end up spoiling just the thing they came for. But even while it was experiencing its growing pains, there were recognizable markers of small-town status, one of which was the run-down Krispy Kreme shop on Highway 9, bracketed by the old police station and the Roswell Presbyterian Church cemetery–a place of mossy headstones, the shade of ancient, spreading trees, and ants. Lots of ants.
Remind me to tell you about my one-woman archaeological survey of that cemetery some other time.
Anyway, I can remember trotting across the busy highway early in the morning before class to snag some freshly made doughnuts and coffee that wasn’t too shabby. It was part of a ritual that made going to class a worthwhile endeavor. A few years ago, perhaps as many as five or six now, they stopped making the doughnuts on premises. Big mistake. On days when an early morning restlessness drove me from the house and out into the darkness, I’d drive along, not quite knowing where I was headed. 4 a.m.–and then, the sign would flicker on, advertising doughnuts that were “Hot and Fresh.” Now, they’re the same ones that get delivered to QT and Racetrack gas station pastry cases. There’s nothing special about them. They come from a central bakery location somewhere in Atlanta. Blah!
Perhaps my point in choosing Krispy Kreme for my story is exemplary. They’ve opened up a store on the corner of Highway 9 and Mansell Rd. It looks like a cloned stucco nightmare you can see in any suburban settlement, anywhere in America. There’s no character, no flavor, no sense of specialness about it. There’s no history in it. When I returned to my beloved big Small Town, while I had expected it to change, I hadn’t expected it to evaporate, leaving no traces. True, they’ve put in old-fashioned black lamp posts and brick sidewalks along Highway 9. All the historic houses and Canton Street are still intact. The mossy headstones in the two big historic graveyards still evince the feeling of peaceful afternoon snoring beneath the spreading branches of elderly oaks. But there is a hardness, a hollowness to it all, now, as if the town had been excoriated.
Perhaps you will say that it’s better this way, that it was inevitable, that progress will out. But I want to take issue with that, here and now. What’s wrong with the old way of doing things? I’m not against improving a situation or changing an antiquated mindset that does more harm than good. But what about when progress is just shorthand for shoddy craftsmanship and impersonal, industrialized products? Why do I need to visit a building that looks like it could be anywhere–just one of a million other suburban shopping centers that have taken over in the name of progress–and be waited upon by people who know nothing about the product, don’t care about it, and couldn’t care less about me, however friendly they might seem?
To me, this is a big part of what I call the Concrete Stain. It’s the pall of standardization and homogenization that suburbia takes on when it consumes small towns that were once more rural. It is the loss of quality, of character, and–perhaps most crucially–of care in the daily business of life. We don’t stop to chat while we wait for our car to be serviced, our order to be filled, or our lunch to be prepared, because we don’t know the people waiting on us, who don’t wish to really be known for 8 dollars an hour. Perhaps I wouldn’t either.
But it seems to me that there is a correlation between this mass-production spirit–this standardized appearance and company policy of attitude, this erasure of small, less-efficient businesses in favor of chain restaurants and shopping malls filled with shops that put on a facade of what they have just finished driving out of business–and the feeling that no one really knows each other anymore. Perhaps it is simply a natural consequence of an expanding population–you can be on intimate terms with no more than 50 individuals. 200 is the limit for casual acquaintance with any substance. Beyond that, everyone is a stranger whose face may be vaguely recognizable, but your brain doesn’t have room to keep the pertinent details ready to hand. That’s just one of the limitations of the human brain. We can fool ourselves into thinking we know thousands of people, but we haven’t really changed all that much since we lived in small communities. Go ahead, scratch the surface of your Friends List. How many of them are actually friends? How many are strangers with whom you might share an interest in something for five minutes?
So, in the end, this post wasn’t really about doughnuts, although, there’s nothing quite like a fresh one made by someone you know, and can watch wash their hands before handling it. It’s about quality, kinship, community, and pride of production–and my town is going the way of the doughnut, it would seem. No longer so hot, no longer very fresh, and certainly no longer local, small-scale, made by someone whose name I know without the benefit of a name tag. Because I know them. I make them coffee, serve their dinner, work on their car, teach their children, bag their groceries or live down the street.