In Your Neighborhood

Rediscovering the value of small town life

Making the transition from COVID refugee status

Photo by Toby Simon

Small town life often revolves around the town hall in Wellfleet, Mass., where conversations and services provide a sense of connection in a post-Covid world.

By Toby Simon
Posted 4/8/24
A reflection on how becoming COVID refugees changed our lives for the better.
How do we need to redefine our sense of neighborhood and community, in the post-COVID world we inhabit? Will Providence Mayor Smiley’s attempt to undo the bike pathways along South Main Street prove to be an unforced error, a fatal political mistake? Will kindness emerge in a post-COVID world into a political force that makes the hostile behaviors of the former President an electoral liability?
How we re-learn to communicate with each other in a post-COVID world is a work in progress. Years ago, when I lived in Montague Center, in a house built as a worker residence for the Montague Boot and Shoe Factory, its frame built with chestnut, the cheapest wood available because of the blight, two older residents living on the street would greet each other each summer morning and shout at each other across the narrow elbow-shaped street. Mr. Morse and Mr. Graves were both hard of hearing, so they would share the important news with each other in loud voices: the Red Sox score, the latest weather report, and an update on any gossip worthy of repeating. It was my morning version of talk radio.
The front door to my house had no lock, and time was kept by the booming sound of the clock on the Congregational church off the town green, which clanged on the hour and the half-hour. The only problem was between 12 and 2, when the clock would clang once on the half-hour and the hour. You would have to guess what time it was.
Post-COVID, we are at the point in preserving our democracy where we have to guess what time it is. It requires a different kind of listening, a different kind of relationship building, a different kind of trust in each other. Are you listening?

WELLFLEET, Mass. – Exactly four years ago my husband Peter and I became COVID refugees. We left Rhode Island. Although Peter had grown up there, our family returned 43 years ago for Peter to complete his residency in pediatrics. Our third child was born at the old Lying-In Hospital, making him a true Rhode Islander, unlike his siblings and parents.

About three days into the COVID lock-down, Peter suggested we go to Wellfleet. It seemed like a safer place to be, with fewer people and where we’d be able to spend time outside without crowds.

Peter’s parents and my mother had long histories with Wellfleet, each having rented homes for many years and then subsequently buying there in 1968.

Wellfleet has an especially strong pull for Peter and me. In the summer of 1966, we both had finished our sophomore year of college, lived with our parents, and had summer jobs in town. A mutual friend introduced us and within a rather short period of time, we fell in love.

Year-round living.  
So, without over-thinking the decision, we packed a few winter things and left our home in Providence for Wellfleet, thinking it was a temporary passage of time.

For the past four years, I’ve lost track of how often people have asked us what it’s like to live year round in Wellfleet. It’s definitely a small town nine months of the year as the winter population of 3,000 swells to 25,000 in the summer months.

In the off-season, the majority of shops, stores and restaurants on Main Street Wellfleet close down. The local market place, liquor store, lumbar yard and hardware store remain open. Oh, and one art gallery is open four days a week.

“It’s definitely different” was my pat answer, followed by, “But we really love it.”

There are plenty of “tells” that the off-season is upon us. People often walk their dogs in their pajamas. Cars pull up to the curb in the wrong direction on Main Street. Many daily routines require a drive to nearby Provincetown or Orleans. The local market gives a small discount to local residents. And you can take a left turn on to Route 6 with ease. With each restaurant opening in March or April, there’s excitement. When one of the town’s favorite restaurants, PJs, opens in early May, nearly everyone shows up and sees people they haven’t seen in months. A festive event, it’s become almost as popular as the July 4th parade.

A state of mind  
During the first two years of living here, it was really hard to tell what small town life was like because of COVID. We were in a locked-down state of mind. We didn’t do much or go anywhere but we were able to take beautiful walks along the beach and hikes in the National Seashore.

We also had one grown son, his wife and toddler living with us for five months so we could provide childcare. Our daughter escaped New York City often during the first year and a half so she and her daughters could have respite from the constant barrage of ambulances, police cars and scary news as well as the paucity of outdoor space.

As life resumed to a somewhat normal state, I started to recognize some of the perks of living in a small town. I think it started with visits to doctors where everyone who worked in the offices was kind. They smiled and were attentive. No one was brusque. No one looked unhappy.

The local bank was unbelievably helpful; the car mechanic was extremely accommodating, and even the tax assessor was kind as she explained why the taxes on our cottage had skyrocketed.

Peter and I have found plenty to keep us busy, some work with town government for Peter and some teaching for me. We also have a new community of friends – of all ages –  who are absolutely wonderful. Making new friends in your seventies was not on our Bingo card.

Fluent in small town talk. 
Then this week, something pretty amazing happened. I was leaving for the Rhode Island airport one morning last week to pick up my son and his two little girls who were flying in from D.C. to spend the long Easter weekend with us.

We always install the infant car seats in anticipation of their visits. This time Peter installed one of the seats, which was fairly easy to do but had a harder time with the second seat. [One needs a Ph.D. in engineering to install these things]. Peter suggested I stop at our local fire department to get some help on my way out of town.

When I got to the local Fire Department, the deputy told me that the Police Department now handles car seats. The departments are next to each other so it wouldn’t have been a big deal for me to go there, but the deputy said he’d call over to find out who I needed to see.

It turned out that the police officer with the car seat responsibilities was on a detail about 3 miles down the main thoroughfare on Route 6, which was also en route to Rhode Island. When I arrived at the designated spot, Police Officer Matt McGue was waiting for me, in the pouring rain. He asked some pertinent questions about the toddler who would be in the seat and then found the serial number of the car seat we couldn’t install.

“Well, this one has expired,” said Officer McGue. Damn, I thought, maybe I can just figure out how to get this thing installed myself so I can get going to the airport. Surely my son knew how to install the seat.

“Let me run back to the station. We have a truck full of car seats. I’ll take your outdated one and return with a new one. It won’t take long.” And off he went.

Ten minutes later the officer was in the back seat of our car, installing a brand new car seat. He even knew just how tight or loose the straps should be for our granddaughter. 

He asked what time the flight was getting in, all while attaching a backward-facing seat. And, then assured me when he finished, that I was good to go and would be there in plenty of time.

As I drove to Rhode Island, the encounter with our local Police and Fire departments stayed on my mind. I found myself smiling as I thought about it. And, I wondered: Would I  have ever received the same attentive treatment in a city?

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.


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