A couple of nights ago I was at a dinner for long-time friend Whitney Smith, who’s leaving Toronto to live on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Part way through, Whitney leaned over and said he wanted some advice about how to live in a small community. He was asking because he’s an urban Toronto native, and I grew up in a small town, Prince George, B.C.—even if it isn’t so small today, and I haven’t lived there for a very long time. Still, it felt like a question I could answer, and not just because I can’t resist answering questions. Small communities have some unique rules of engagement, and if you’ve grown up with them, you never forget them.
So after a moment’s thought, I told Whitney that the most important thing he needed to know about small communities is to practice reciprocity, and then an example from my own neighbourhood here in Toronto. Early last week while I was out shoveling my elderly next-door neighbours walk, the 80 year old woman who lives in house beyond theirs waved me over. She’s a widow, and lives, as many Italian widows do, with her son, his wife, and two daughters. Everyone simply calls her “Signora”, a term of respect that’s accorded to her by her seniority among the other widows. She’s a robust, cheerful woman who shows up for everyone’s tomato and pepper-preserving sessions in the early fall, but makes her own with her family and never seems to need help.
She doesn’t speak a word of English, but she and I seldom have trouble communicating, provided that I do whatever she wants. On this occasion, she waved a $50 bill at me, and made it clear she needed salt for her walkway. Now, this was a bit of a problem for two reasons. The first was that it had been snowing heavily, and I wasn’t planning to take my old Honda Accord for a spin in it, figuring I’d be lucky to get it out of the alley, and luckier still if I got it back in the garage without getting hopelessly stuck. The second was that I don’t use salt as a melter. It’s hard on the sidewalks, pollutes Lake Ontario as runoff, and has a nasty propensity for getting in the garden and toxifying the soil. I’ll use the non-polluting melters available when the occasion calls for it, but I use them sparingly, because they’re expensive, and I suspect aren’t as environmentally friendly as advertised.
But that isn’t how reciprocity works, as I learned it. What matters is what you’ve been asked for, not what you’d like to do when you’re morally comfortable, the weather is good, and you don’t have something self-important to do. The Signora wanted salt, and I wasn’t at liberty to impose myself on her needs. In taking the $50 bill, I was accepting responsibility on her terms, not mine. If she’d asked me for shotgun shells, I’d have probably tried to get those, too, even though I don’t own a gun and object to private firearm ownership.
So I took my car out, got stuck twice trying to get it out of the alley, drove up to Bloor Street and picked up three 20 kilo bags of road salt at Wiener’s Hardware. I had to block traffic in front of her house while I pulled the bags out of the trunk and deposited them on her front porch. Then I got stuck again in the alley trying to get the car back in the garage. Job done, I went back into the house, put $35 in an envelope (the salt cost $18 with taxes, but elderly Italian women don’t calculate tax) and waited for the payback I knew was coming.
I hadn’t gotten it quite right. She phoned me about an hour later, and I deciphered that she wanted to see me. It turned out she hadn’t realized the salt was on the porch, and when I walked up the street, buzzed her doorbell, showed showed her that the salt was there, and handed her the change. She took the change, and ordered me to bring the salt inside the house. I did that cheerfully enough, and didn’t wonder where her son was. This was our transaction, and in her mind, I was obliged to do it right.
The payback came the next day. Another phone call, incomprehensible as the earlier exchanges, but I knew what to do. I put my boots on, ambled up the street and rang her doorbell. This time, I had to haul two of the bags of salt down to the basement. But when I’d done that, there was a cake waiting for me, freshly baked and still warm. My neighbours know I like Italian cakes and pastries because they contain a lot less sugar than the fattening Anglo equivalents I grew up with.
Now, these reciprocal transactions aren’t a big deal, although sometimes they can be a time-consuming pain in the ass. They work in a modest sort of way, to keep people connected, and that, along with mutual help, is what it’s for. Where I live now, there are about 80-100 of these transactions over an average year. That’s more than I recall in Prince George, but then most of my neighbours here are elderly, and need help, and who knows how often the reciprocals sailed over my head when I was younger. I’m happy with the way things are because I wouldn’t know nearly as much about Italian cuisine if my elderly neighbours didn’t occasionally need my practical skills.
What was it that Mao-Tse-Tung once said? “The basis of revolution is mutual help, not despair or hatred of others.” I’ve never wanted to live in a communist society, least of all Mao’s China, but I like living by this system more than being middle-class and Anglo normally allows. I’d prefer to have a few more refusal options when the help asked for isn’t strictly practical, but on this sort of thing, I’m prepared to go the whole nine yard. It’s better to share the skills we have than the messes we make, if only because middle class people are rarely prepared to share their messes until they’re rancid, or there’s a hurricane.
The trick here is this: What goes around really ought to come around, and in small communities, things come around more frequently and faster. Partly this is because life is a little more precarious and practical, but that isn’t the whole story. Moving things around is a good thing for its own sake. And rural people and immigrants have a better sense of this than most. It creates community, distributes information, skills and sometimes wealth, and it wards off boredom and isolation. The Signora could have easily gotten her son to get the salt, but I admire her for getting me to do it. She wanted the salt, but—I think this is often part of it—It’s winter, she doesn’t get out much, and she probably had a small hankering to bake a cake that wouldn’t be taken for granted. Such are the small politicals most of us don’t pay enough attention to, particularly not if we’re obsessed with the loathsome goals of middle-class life—which is to have enough money and property that we don’t have to talk to or deal with our fellow human beings. That’s why this kind of reciprocality isn’t the Madame Bovary strain practiced by the upwardly mobile, where they hold dinner parties so that can count coup on their friend and amass social capital by one-upping everyone in the vulgarity department. This is reciprocality grounded in necessity and mutual help, which is the real basis for social life.
Small town reciprocity may be more work and more entangling than the Madame Bovary syndrome, and it’s infinitely more messy than high-security isolation. But practiced accurately, it’s a better way to go. I’m lucky enough to get it simply by walking down Euclid Avenue, and that’s why I like living in downtown Toronto so much. If Whitney wants to go all the way to the Queen Charlotte Islands for it, so be it. The Queen Charlottes may be seven hours out of Vancouver, but they’re not that different than downtown Toronto.
1327 w. February 2, 2004