Last weekend in Jonesborough Tennessee, confirmed my belief in the niceness of Americans. My husband and I attended the National Storytelling Festival, which had over 10,000 visitors in 1999 and probably double that now. The people were scary nice. Being a northener, I was on guard and expecting someone to pick my pocket while being distracted by the nice person. When people ask “how ya’ll doing”, they really want to know and wait for an answer. All weekend we were honeyed, darlinged, and sweathearted everywhere we went. Even policemen would look you in the eye and say hello. The festival gatekeepers apologized when asking to see your ticket… as if anyone would attempt to sneak into what was described as “the biggest nerdfest in the country”. Even though the town was packed, no one was in a rush. It was like Pleasantville, USA. You could ask a stranger for directions, and it would turn into a conversation that lasted a little longer than desired, because we were northerners and hadn’t adjusted to the pace of small town life.
While attending one of the shows, I stepped on lots of toes on the way to my seat, but everyone was embarrassingly nice and helpful. I experienced this again on a day-trip to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which bills itself as “the countries first spa”. I will admit there seems to be more niceness in the small towns than in the cities, but that’s just a function of size.
The grandest display of niceness was found at the Cranberry Thistle Café and Coffee House with great country music in Jonesborough, TN, population 4,100. Coming from the big city of Washington, DC with a population of 600,000, I am used to making reservations at popular restaurants, but I know that if I don’t show up on time, then 10 to 15 minutes after the reserved time, I will lose my reservation. Not so in small town America. They have this idea that if you reserve a time, then you intend on showing up. At the Cranberry Thistle, they actually put your name on a card that is placed on a table reserved just for you. They were more concerned with serving their customers, even those too rude to cancel, than they were with following the standard restaurant rules about turning the tables as frequently as possible.
We saw people get turned away, because tables were reserved. We also saw those tables sit empty for the entire hour that we were there. From a business perspective, this makes no sense at all, but from a southern perspective, you made a commitment to show up and they committed to keeping a table for you. On Sunday afternoon, our third visit in three days, they were supposed to close at 2pm, but the last festival event was just letting out so they stayed open to accommodate the late comers. In the big city, they would have barred the door, because the staff wanted to go home.
Americans are all nice, but just a little nicer in the small towns.