Small Town Loyalties

I’ve had an excavator parked by the barn for two weeks. A friend is going to do a job a few doors down, and ours is a dangerous stretch of highway to try to pull over a trailer and unload heavy equipment. As I am quite lucky to have turn-around space, over the years I have let various guys park big machines in my fields. So many of these men have done favors for me, it’s satisfying to be able to do a favor in return.

This is the warm upside of feeling connected in a rural town. The worrying downside is that I feel responsible to so many people. The other day I saw in the grocery store the wife of someone who has worked for me in the past. She mentioned that he looked forward to working for me again sometime soon. All afternoon as I mucked the barn I turned over ideas how I could afford to hire him to help me with small projects.

*    *    *

It’s not just individuals. We have three lumberyards in our village and surrounding towns. Four, actually, but luckily I don’t know anyone from the fourth. I say luckily because I struggle sometimes, knowing that in this terrible economy each of these yards wants my business, as small as it may be. Will I call Jay and Paul over here? Will I call Malcolm and Dave over there? Or will I just call Jason and Tom right here in the village?

Sometimes I make the decision purely based on price. In that scenario, the tiny lumberyard in the center of town is almost guaranteed to lose. It’s closest but invariably the most expensive. They just don’t have the capacity for volume. Still, after a few years most of the men there recognize me, smile, and say, “How’s it goin’?” When I telephone, Jason greets me by name and asks, “What can I do you for?” They will almost always sent out their delivery boy with even just a couple of treated 2x12s. Once they kindly rushed a dozen rods of rebar down the road to the rental place so a friend there could cut them for me in the half hour before the concrete truck showed up.

At the big yard over in the next hamlet west, Malcolm and I always seem to discuss religion and politics. We have completely opposing political views. He seems amazed that a Christian could be a Democrat. But we are always friendly and joking. He found me a great deal on my windows for the garage, and after a trial by fire, Chris in the kitchen department and I have become old comrades in arms.

Meanwhile, two villages to the east, Jay gives me a good rate on bagged pine shavings. He also alerted me to the new New York state law that feed and building materials used for livestock destined for human consumption are not taxed. Moreover, the brand of feed he stocks is $1 a bag cheaper and his assistant Paul will have the yard’s trucks deliver it to me in passing.

I’m not an idiot. I know all these men are salesmen. But I appreciate friendliness and I also know that times are tough.

Recently Paul stopped by the farm to drop off some grain that had been accidentally left off an order. He sent me an email the next day:

“Garage looks good—hadn’t seen it since you put the siding up.  What project are you working on now?  Saw the excavator there…”

This was an easy message to decode.

“Hadn’t seen it since you put the siding up.” You didn’t buy the bevel clapboard siding from us.

“What project are you working on now?” I hope you’re going to come to us for the new materials.

I typed an immediate reply. I explained about the visiting excavator, and added: “The siding just put up was pre-purchased with the garage kit in 2009 and stored since then. My next project will be in spring, when I hope to put an addition on my barn. I will get the lumber from you.”

This seems like a fair promise. It’s a barn addition and their store educated me about the tax-free status of livestock-related materials. Still, I think I will need to call Jason for the roofing and Malcolm for the stain and incidentals.

*    *   *

Meanwhile, the man who parked the excavator took ten minutes one day and turned over my manure pile. The pile had become enormous, low and wide. Now it’s consolidated and heaped so high over my head it’s practically a geological feature.

The wheel of favors keeps turning.

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