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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: A town of our own

by Philip Martin | May 30, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

There's only one good thing about a small town

You know that you want to get out.

-- Lou Reed, "Small Town"

Some people like to go on about small-town values.

They talk about how people in small towns help their neighbors and raise each others' kids. About how small-town people are bonded by their proximity to each other, about how, by seeing each other every day, they begin to understand each other. They develop a kind of empathy that people who live in tall buildings and ride subways can't acquire.

Growing up in a small town, you can feel you are part of a tribe. You can feel like you have a place in the community, a role you are meant to play. It comes down to being understood and accepted for who you are, whether you're Andy Taylor or Otis the town drunk.

A lot of this is true. But we are not all born for the same sort of life. Some children will look around a small town and see nothing for them. In the best case, they will see only well-meaning people who cannot understand what it is like for them.

This is not the fault of the small town--exceptional people require things that most of us don't, things that governments and schools cannot be expected to anticipate, much less provide. To be exceptional is to be lonely, to feel outside the orbits of home and community that other people take for granted.

We all need these orbits of home and community, no matter where we physically live.

When I once worked in a small town, I hired a high school kid to take pictures for the newspapers I was running. I hired him because he had a decent portfolio and his own Nikon F-3 and other exquisite gear. I did not hire him for the sake of diversity or because I thought I might be helping a budding artist. I needed someone to shoot girls' soccer games and take pictures of the smiling guys in sportcoats whose businesses had exceeded their United Way goals or delivered a four-figure check to Easter Seal.

I knew he was gay before he did, but that didn't enter into the calculus.

He spoke with a soft country lisp and imagined himself more sophisticated than his dull classmates. He jutted his hips and pointed his chin and dyed his hair blue-black. He bought colorful shirts and Jordache jeans from T.J. Maxx. He talked about his fabulous girlfriend, who no one ever saw; he said she lived a few towns over and was going to go to Baylor in the fall.

Most people in the newspaper office accepted him as he was. We had an old sports editor who rolled his eyes at him, but he rolled his eyes at everyone, especially at me, his nominal boss.

There was a sweet older lady who typed up the letters to the editor who thought he was a darling, dashing young man, and a wised-up ad executive in her 30s who teased him with risque invitations, but otherwise he came and went in the office without a lot of fuss. He was a serious kid with a real eye and the sense to pay attention to details and faces in the periphery of the frame.

I liked him in the offhand way that one might like someone else's puppy. He seemed to be sweet, a little lost perhaps, but no more so than most people on the cusp of adulthood. Mostly he seemed to be one of the employees I didn't have to think much about; he'd turn in his assignments and a little more, always vying for his own space in the newspaper, a page where he could lay out four or five of his photos. I encouraged him, gave him books to read, and told him about Weegee and Robert Capo and Gerda Taro.

He had more ambition than a lot of the kids that lived in that part of east Texas. He wanted out and I thought that was a good sign; it was a grim little cattle town without a movie theater. Most of the kids got married right out of high school and settled down blocks from their parents' houses, sometimes in a trailer out back.

As far as I could tell, he had no real friends his own age, save for one Goth girl I sometimes saw sitting in his car while he was taking pictures of children playing in the park. But he never seemed less than enthusiastic to go to work; it was not my business to see after him.

I was hopeful that he'd get on a bus and go to Dallas or Houston, anywhere they didn't know him. I hoped he'd go to college, and be able to find work with his camera.

I can only imagine that he thought of me the way most young people think of their bosses. I don't pretend to have any insight beyond what I saw of him in the office. He came in and did his job and his photos were serviceable. After a few months I was able to get him a small raise, and when it came through he left a nice note in my mailbox, along with a photo he had taken of me at my desk one evening when I didn't realize he was there.

Then one evening he got out of town. He drove to Shreveport, to a bar that someone had told him about. It was the wrong bar for him. He had not had much experience with bars or with drinking men. He might have said something they didn't think funny.

In the parking lot they beat him and took his money and his camera. One of them burned him with a cigarette. They broke his arm and cracked his nose.

I went to see him in the hospital. I sat at his bedside and said awkward things.

We hushed it up as best we could around the office, though everybody knew. He told some folks that he had been burning trash and an aerosol can exploded; that was a good enough cover story for those who wanted to think that was what must have happened.

I loaned him a camera and he stuck around the summer after he graduated, but in the autumn he was gone. He sent me a postcard from Dallas, said he'd found a place to live and wanted to know if he could use me as a reference. No one ever called to ask about him, but I didn't think anything about that.

Our arc bends toward tolerance, to understanding that we are all strange and fragile creatures with desires we neither understand or question. But until we achieve that understanding, we all need to find our own community, our own small town, where we might be known and accepted for who we are.

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