You’re Welcome in My Home Town and Never Lost
Originally written in June 2006. I have since sold that old pickup truck and I miss it.
I don’t know when it happened, but somehow I’ve become the traffic concierge in my town. I guess it is because I look like a local should look. People make so many baseless assumptions and they make them in an instant, with one glance, at a traffic light.
I live in Alabama. Now you’ve already made many assumptions about me, not based on facts, but based on your own prejudices. The county I live in is not isolated in the backwoods and laced together with dirt roads. There are half a million people in my area and enough high tech jobs to give Silicon Valley a run for its money. But the image of the typical Alabamian is obviously etched in people’s minds. Let’s examine some of the key attributes of what constitutes the typical Alabamian.
They drive a pick-up truck
Ok, you’ve got me on that one. I drive a 1988 Isuzu pick-up with a bent rear bumper, a few other dents, and no air conditioning. The lack of AC in my old junker is important as you will shortly see.
They chew tobacco
Now I don’t chew tobacco, but I do smoke a pipe and a corn cob pipe just adds to the stereotype. I don’t use corn cob pipes for the charm. I do it because they’re cheap and disposable. Unfortunately, it plays right into the stereotype.
They’re overall-wearing farmers
I’m not even close on this one. I don’t own a single pair of overalls and the closest thing I’ve done to farming is plant a few tomatoes in the back yard. My wardrobe consists mainly of business casual with a few suits for the big occasions.
I don’t know when it happened, but I do know that broken air conditioner is the primary reason I’ve become the traffic concierge. With the windows down, I’m an open target at red lights around town. My first encounter happened on my way to work one morning. The radio news was interrupted by a woman’s voice shouting over the car engines. “Excuse me! Excuse me! Do you know where the Greyhound is?” was coming from the lane next to me. It took me a second to realize she was looking for the bus station. Really, who calls it “the Greyhound?” No one around here, that’s for sure. So she must be from out of town, way out of town.
Raised to be polite, gentile, helpful…you know, the typical Southern gentleman…I gave the woman quick directions to the bus station. As I pulled away, a realization slowly came to me; that women thought I looked like I knew where the bus station was. What gave her that impression? The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. The fact that I actually know started to bother me even more. Of course, I’ve lived here 25 years and know a lot about my town. Still, she took one look and within two seconds, decided that I looked like a local and, furthermore, I looked like I knew where the bus station is. That darn air conditioner has a secondary contribution to the situation. With the window down, my hair tends to get a little disheveled during the drive to work.
My second encounter came a few weeks later. Both my daughters recently moved out and I made many trips, hauling furniture and boxes in my old beater to their new apartments. Nothing says “Jed Clampett” like a 20-year-old pickup with a mattress in the bed. During one of these trips, I was again accosted by a very well dress woman driving a BMW. In this day and age, you would assume that a luxury vehicle like that would come with a GPS navigation system, which I’m pretty sure it does. She, however, seeing my window down, decided to confirm the directions she had with a local.
I’m not sure how to deal with my de-facto status as the town concierge. Since I’m not the type of person to be openly cruel to anyone, I’ve taken my new job in stride. As long as they are polite, I’ll continue to be helpful. But I have plans for the first person to demand directions. You know the type. They think you owe them something just because they ask with an attitude. The person who pulls up beside me at the traffic light and gives me attitude while requesting my assistance is in for a surprise. They’ll end up in the worst part of town and they’ll deserve it. The one stereotype that is absolutely dead on is that Southerners are polite. We expect politeness in return. When dealing with any group of people, there are some basic assumptions that hold true.
Courtesy is never misplaced
“Please” and “thank you” are never the wrong words to say and will get you through some very tough situations. Rudeness will only be met with rudeness. This is true in face-to-face interactions and phone conversations.
Accents indicate nothing
Other than the region of the country where you were raised, your accent tells nothing about you. The fact that someone doesn’t pronounce words exactly like you is no indication of their level of education or their ability to think rationally. The next time someone uses the work “y’all” in conversation with you, don’t automatically dismiss everything that comes after.
Driving is a community affair
You are not the only person on the road. The other drivers are not out there just to get in your way and frustrate your attempts to get where you are going. In fact, some of us are out there to help you. Courtesy comes in to play here, too. Use a turn signal for cheese sake! We can’t read your mind.
I’m tempted to get my AC fixed, but I actually enjoy the human interaction. We think that we become invisible when in our cars, but my new role has taught me one thing: there are still people in those tin cans. They’re not morons, idiots, maniacs, or any other label that we shout out the window in frustration. They are people just like me. We all have the same basic needs and sometimes depend on the kindness of strangers to get us where we’re going. The next time someone asks you for directions, be kind. It might be me visiting your home town and testing you. You might be the next chosen franchise owner in my growing traffic concierge business.