It might surprise you to know that, even as someone who’s moved halfway across the world to start a new chapter of his life in his late 20s, I’m a creature of habit.
I grew up a voracious reader, and I still love to bury my nose in a good book, but I’d say 60 percent of the time I’m turning the pages of something I’ve read many times before. That list of repeated reads contains a lot of Stephen King, but that’s a story for another column.
With that groundwork laid, it’s timely for me to note that I’ve been binge-watching the mid-2000s TV series “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix lately. In case you’re not familiar with it, the series is inspired by Pulitzer prize-winner H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book of the same name, which follows the highs and lows of a high school football team’s state championship-winning season in west Texas in the late 1980s.
Incidentally, months before I was contacted by the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, I was offered a job in Midland, Texas, which neighbors the city that “Friday Night Lights” is set in. But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, I’d watched the TV series in its entirety a couple of years ago but I switched it on again last weekend, for some white noise while I did some menial chores, and got sucked back in.
But unlike my last viewing, this time around I felt like I could relate to the characters’ lives in a small American city, from hearing my editor say “Go Rams!” automatically any time anyone mentions Cony High School (Go Rams!), to the general feeling that everybody knows everybody.
Case in point: A couple of months ago at work, I posted a story to the Web about a car crash in the newspaper’s circulation area in which at least three people were injured. It was later confirmed that one person, a young woman, had died in the accident.
As I sat at my desk, the comments of sympathy and tribute came pouring in through the site for me to moderate. Now, car accidents and indeed fatalities certainly haven’t been uncommon in my time here, but this one seemed a little different.
The story generated huge amounts of traffic and the comments, which were rolling in by the dozens, almost all appeared to come from people who knew the victim or the family. It stunned me to realize that it was as if the whole town had logged in to read the news at once. When I later checked up on the population of the town in question, my sad hunch was confirmed.
That tragic story was my first experience of an actual culture shock that I perhaps could never have anticipated: how amplified everything is in a community this size, be it good or bad news. Up until now, all I’d really experienced was the positive side of being a member of a small community. (And please, make no mistake when you read the following paragraphs: I’m certainly not comparing my “familiarity” in public houses in Augusta with the aforementioned tragedy.)
For contrast, I come from Brisbane, a sprawling Australia east coast city of more than two million people. Now I know that’s not huge by many standards, especially given the running joke in Brisbane that everyone knows everyone, but it’s certainly large enough that for the average person, it’s not difficult to maintain anonymity of some sort.
My last job before joining the newspapers here in central Maine was as a Web editor and writer for Australia’s largest broadcaster. From 2009 to 2013 I covered a lot of cricket (Australia’s answer to baseball in a “national pastime” sense) and rugby league and our website — for the content, not for my personal efforts — had an enormous readership. But even working for a national news organization for six years, and helping to write sports coverage that thousands of people read daily, I never had any form of “media profile” outside of my own Facebook self-promotion.
Outside the office wasn’t any different. I bought groceries at the same store from the same cashiers for nearly four years, several days a week, and I knew their faces, but there was never any two-way familiarity. I spent many quiet weeknights with a book at the bar of my favorite haunt, but the innkeeper and I were never on a first-name basis (although I tried my hardest to be).
Even in a short space of time here, though, that’s done a complete 180. For the first time in my career, I’ve had complete strangers tell me in public that they enjoy my columns, and I say that with not boastfulness but absolute surprise. A couple of times it’s happened at the gym (which is brave, given I’m at my absolute worst presentation-wise in that environment), but for the most part this recognition and subsequent complimenting has come while I’m at the bar, three beers deep.
They say the key to comedy is timing, and the most recent incident was absolutely perfectly timed. I was having a beer in Hallowell with a new friend a couple of weekends ago, the day my last column hit the newsstand. She asked me what exactly I do at the newspaper, and as I was halfway through explaining that I scribble a column every couple of weeks, a reader approached our table, excused herself, and asked me if I write for the KJ. I couldn’t help but laugh, and while I do find it a little bit embarrassing — it’s not like I’m famous, I’m just lucky the paper needed something, anything, to fill some white space — I’m immensely flattered by the acknowledgment.
Also, right around the time I finally got my license and got on the road, as I was climbing into the car to head to work one day, the mail carrier saw me and said “it must be nice not to have to walk anymore!” She’d either read the column or, more likely, seen me hoofing it up and down Sewall Street for two months.
And just as much as I was a face in the crowd outside the office in Australia, the opposite applies in Augusta. The three bartenders at my regular Friday night spot in Hallowell know me by my first name, and vice versa, and rarely even have to ask me what I want to drink (or whether I want another). And, when I sat at a table with a friend at Augusta’s Downtown Diner, the waitress remembered my inability to say no to coffee top-ups and my usual preference for a counter seat, and we were familiar enough for me to be able to notice she had a new hairdo without sounding like a creep about it.
But bad news can travel just as fast — as I realized in the case of the fatal car accident I mentioned earlier — and that’s something that plays on my mind a lot too. I try to be a good, honest and polite guy regardless of whom I’m interacting with, because that’s the way I was raised, and because you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as the old adage goes.
But like I said — the impact one’s actions can have on the world around them is magnified when the community is smaller. The last thing I would want to do is put someone offside, offend or hurt anyone anywhere, let alone in a place where it’s highly likely I’ll bump into them at the grocery store.
Overall it feels good to be recognized and acknowledged outside of the office for my work, if not very surreal, and it feels even better to be familiar to those semi-strangers I interact with on a regular basis. But it’s good to keep in the back of my head that it’s a smaller pond here, and the less ripples I make, the better.
In any case, if you see me out and about, propping up a pint glass or pushing a grocery cart, don’t be shy about saying “G’day.” It’s a huge compliment coming from you all.
Adrian Crawford is a Web editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email him at [email protected]. Maine Walkabout is published the first and third Sundays of each month. More of his adventures in Vacationland can be found at www.crawfinusa.com.