“You won’t believe the story I’m about to tell you!”
Out to dinner with another couple, we listened rapt as our friend shared her news.
“Our daughter’s good friend’s father is going to jail for tax fraud. I feel so bad for his wife and kids even though he’s guilty. We just found out last week. And today, it came out in the local paper. Everyone in town knows.”
Finishing our meal, we lamented, surmised and judged. The over-extended, overdone house would need to be sold. Divorce was already in the works, with the soon-to-be ex-wife working eHarmony and JDate hard and fast. Kids whispering in school hallways and over Facebook.
One man’s fate, though self inflicted, was now being hung out to dry from the corner newsstand to the far reaches of the Web. All there in black and white, and being read all over. Pixilated and published for public consumption and consideration.
And I was about to become one of those inquiring minds. Arriving home, I grabbed my Kindle, tapping deep into this man’s plight. There it was in courthouse images and information overload. This small-town guy just became big news. And he was now everyone’s business.
“Did you see it?” My wife called from the other room.
“I did. Looks like he’s going away for a while. Years. He’s only in his 40s. I feel bad, although he did plead guilty.”
As I contemplated this man’s future life in the land of Oz (the TV show, not the over-the-rainbow place), I paused to consider not only his impending sentence but the punishing, penetrating commentary that would imprison him now that the word was out. Because in the quaint town-hall communities where everyone and everything can be public knowledge, every offense is front door and center hall exposed from dawn to dusk.
Main Street altercation over a parking spot? In the paper. Leaving your sick third-grader in the car while you run into CVS for children’s Motrin? On the Web. Wearing white shoes after Labor Day? Social ostracism.
Over the years, first in ink and now online, I thought I had seen and read it all: soccer moms and dads in domestic disturbances; unshaven mug shots due to inebriated head bobbing and lane-to-lane weaving; teenagers gone wild. Nothing is off limits and everything’s fit for print. It’s a free-for-all in our local free press.
Our town’s paper is a window into the soul of every resident, both good and bad. For every charitable act, sports upset or local musical production, there are an equal number of low-level crimes and misdemeanors. While most are not committed by our town’s residents, there are those situations where the face and name are all too familiar.
But it’s not just the Sunday papers spreading the good word on bad behavior. Local “patches” and town-run sites mean it’s all available 24/7, and long after tomorrow’s trash collection. One indiscretion generates judgmental nodding and backhanded murmurs well past the expiration date. You’re never yesterday’s news when Google’s in town.
The worse thing is that the public record stigma may follow you from school to field, store to store. “Old friends” with whom you’ve dined and wined may suddenly go left even when you have gone right. Invitations are less forthcoming for you or your kids.
But others, less judgmental, find ways to cushion the slings and arrows of slip-sliding neighbors. Shoulder squeezes at school concerts. Black humor jokes deflecting the pink elephant in the room. And just for good measure, a simple wave or hello when others are watching.
Though I may live in a quaint New England town, there are no stockades next to the local Starbucks. No dunking stool, just a Dunkin’ Donuts. No scarlet “A” branding for all to see (though I do see lots of designer brands from head to toe).
Instead, there’s just the perpetual newsfeed that broadcasts the latest neighborhood “no-no.” It buzzes through the neighborhood bushes, producing biting comments and stinging retorts. More importantly, it allows us to click on someone else’s misdeeds so we can artfully deflect attention away from our own trials and tribulations.
It’s hard enough to face the music and pay the piper. But having to face your neighbors may be more than you bargained for.