Recently I heard a man grouse, "Communities aren't communities anymore. People don't join together like they used to."
I listened as he reminisced about childhood summers in Brooklyn, evenings where everyone visited on porches and stoops, and the kids played kick the can in the street. I listened because you don't learn anything from talking. I also listened because it sounded wonderful.
When he returned to the present his smile dissolved like a summer evening.
"Today," he said with a stamp of finality, "people come home from work, the garage door automatically goes up, and they disappear into their homes."
Anyone can see the gaping flaw in this argument. Who in California has room in their garage for a car?
I jest. But I still disagree. I believe community is alive and well in our towns.
I have enjoyed the sort of Norman Rockwell gatherings of which my Brooklyn friend spoke, and there is profound magic in them. Once while traveling to write a book, I visited the tiny island of Ocracoke, North Carolina. I visited in winter when, regarding people, the island is even tinier: at the time of my visit, some 700 residents in all. But you don't have to be a big town to be grand; and while I was visiting, the grand town of Ocracoke hosted a grand music festival (officially the Ocracoke Music and Storytelling Festival). Although it was a bitter cold winter's night, the Festival was heavily attended. When I arrived, a long line of people stood on the wooden walkway leading into the community center, blowing gobbets of steam into the frigid night. Five minutes later, we were told all the seats had been sold, though tickets were still being sold to those who didn't mind standing. An elderly gentleman in front of me harrumphed and turned away. "I ain't standin'," he said to no one in particular. "I've seen the damn show fifteen times already."
I went in and stood, and within the confines of a nondescript community center magic unfolded. Musicians took the stage, playing and singing in duets, in quartets and on their own, and they were shockingly good, but Uncle Jule stole the show. Uncle Jule came up on stage and sat on a stool, hands folded neatly in his lap, a brown ball cap pulled low on his head. A man named Martin Garrish strummed a guitar beside him.
"Jule is a vet from World War II," Martin told the crowd, most of whom likely knew this. "He was in the Navy. He said this was the most played song on the jukebox."
Jule didn't move, but as Martin began to strum a voice issued from between the brown ball cap and a red check shirt. "'There's a star-spangled banner waving somewhere'," crooned Uncle Jule, "'in a distant land so maaaany miles away... There's a star-spangled banner waving somewhere, and that's where I want to go when I die'."
When Jule finished singing, there was only the sound of Martin strumming. Each chord drifted through the room, delicate and clear. No one moved. The silence continued until the vibration of Martin's last chord faded away, and then the audience erupted.
It was the loveliest rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" I have ever heard.
And, yes, people told stories, too. My favorite involved Cleveland Gaskins. Cle, as he was known to his friends, died in 1963, but earlier in his life he took a fancy to some toilet paper he saw advertised in a friend's Sears, Roebuck catalog. Cle couldn't read or write, but he had a daughter who could, so he had her pen a short missive. "Dear Sears, Roebuck. I would like to buy a dozen rolls of toilet paper. Please send the toilet paper to my home on Ocracoke. Sincerely, Cleveland Gaskins." Cle put the note and the money on the mail boat. The days spilled along, and no package came. Finally a letter arrived from Sears, Roebuck. "Dear Mr. Gaskins. We don't sell toilet paper by the dozen. Please consult our catalog for the quantities we offer." Cle wasted no time crafting his response. "Dear Sears, Roebuck. I recently ordered a dozen rolls of toilet paper. Instead I got a letter telling me to order directly from the catalog. Gentleman, I can assure you, if I had one of your catalogs, I wouldn't need your damn toilet paper."
That story alone was worth the price of admission. Happily the book I was writing -- an exploration of our country's hidden corners -- turned out to be largely about community, which I can tell you is still alive and thriving in this country of ours, despite what you might hear to the contrary. And gatherings like the Ocracoke Music and Storytelling Festival have not gone the way of manual garage doors.
I can continue to say this with certainty because on a recent Tuesday here in Ventura, my lovely wife Kathy and I attended the inaugural Foothill Food Truck Fest at Poinsettia Pavilion. It was a worthy event for several reasons. For one thing, part of the proceeds will go to help refurbish our Poinsettia Pavilion, a grand old dame of a building that has been hosting community events since 1957 and, with all due respect, like many grand old dames needs a bit of a face lift (the event will continue on each first Tuesday of the month). Also, Poinsettia Pavilion sits high up on one of our hillsides. The view -- across our palm-graced town, out to the Pacific Ocean, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island and horizon beyond -- takes a backseat to none.
With full disclosure in mind, I confess I did not attend the Food Truck Festival for selfless charity alone. Many of the trucks in attendance served foodstuffs of which I have always been fond -- barbecue ribs and hamburgers and franks -- but with just the right amount of social responsibility (locally raised beef) and fancy pants garnish (franks topped with basil-habanero aioli and sliced apples) to make it socially acceptable to eat them.
But the event wasn't really about the fundraising or the food (although both were great): it was about the people. They showed up alone and in families, groups of girlfriends and couples of all ages happily enjoying a mid-week date, all admiring the view, wandering between the trucks and then wandering into the Pavilion to eat and listen to music provided by the Ventura Jazz Orchestra Sextet. Some people danced. Most of the dancers were older couples who moved about the floor with a fluidity and understated flair that may one day be gone from this world. My favorite dancer, however, was a seven-year-old young lady who bounced about with a missing-tooth grin, arms swaying overhead like a happy puppet.
Later I had the honor of briefly (for she moved equally butterfly-like off the dance floor) meeting the young dancer, who was breathlessly excited about everything, from dancing to turning eight.
When I complimented her on her dancing, she blurted, "It's easy for me! I've done all kind of dancing. I've taken ballet, hip hop and... (this was drowned out by a crescendo from the band). She paused to grimace. "I hurt my back doing ballet. But that was years ago."
She was full of pep and vinegar. Cleveland Gaskins would have loved her.
Those people who weren't dancing sat at round tables and noshed on frankfurters, barbecue sandwiches, and garlic fries. Beneath the music ran a steady hubbub of conversation, interspersed with table to table waves. Folks entered the ballroom with their plates, stopping at table after table until finally arriving at their seat, their food now cold. Our town numbers over 100,000, but it is still a small town on many happy fronts.
Kathy and I will be back on the next first Tuesday of the month, and not just because we didn't get any of The Underground Gourmet Food Truck's garlic fries (they sold out). We have attended weddings at Poinsettia Pavilion, and film festivals and, my personal favorite, Cotillions, where we watched young boys make the hard decision of giving the lady a cookie first; a fine lesson to carry through life. It is a nondescript building in need of an overhaul, and it is a part of the weave of our lives.
When the evening ended, Kathy and I walked to our car. But we stood together for a moment holding hands and looking out over our town, fallen now to darkness, a gathering of lights twinkling before a literal sea of darkness.
It was beautiful, our town beneath the stars.