My mother-in-law and I were discussing small-town life. She’s originally from Inverness, Scotland, which used to be smaller than it is now, and I grew up in Buckhorn, a town of 10,000 in Southern Illinois. We agreed it’s a common misconception that everyone knows everyone else in a small town, but we also agreed there are certain characters that everyone does know, who help forge the common identity of place. In Inverness, it was street-dweller Forty Pockets, named for the layers of clothing he wore, no matter the weather.
In Buckhorn we had Jimmy Finny. One myth in the town said he was the victim of bad acid in the ‘60s, but the reality, I think, was that he was mentally handicapped from birth. One leg was shorter than the other, so he had a tremendous limp, but he made his rounds every day, miles and miles, stopping to talk in small businesses, backyards, hospital wards, and funeral homes. He always held a little red transistor radio to his ear for the latest news. Whenever he appeared, grinning hugely, the long fringe of hair around the back of his sunburned head sweaty from exertion, the first thing he did was ask loudly in a voice like Jimmy Cagney’s, “Did you hear who died?”
The cliché is that small towns are especially intolerant, but Jimmy and others with disabilities were integral to community life in a way I suspect they wouldn’t have been in a city. A superstitious few thought of him as the harbinger of death and turned corners to evade him, and the grocer might glance to see if customers were distracted by Jimmy recounting the details of an especially grisly car wreck, but usually he was made to feel welcome wherever he went. (I always felt pretty happy to see him and hear for myself that it wasn’t my name he was announcing to the neighbors.) Jimmy reminded us of each others’ presence, our bonds, even in passing. His death roll was personal and communal, in a way that Fox News’s will never be.
I have a small obsession with how we live as if all the people we’ve ever known, or have known of, don’t exist. Think about it: Out there somewhere is Tommy Byers, with whom you dug a hole in his dirt-floored garage in Fourth grade. You planned to dig all the way to China but gave up when the hole was just waist-deep, which apparently was enough to bend the connecting rods on his dad’s Chevy when he drove unsuspectingly into it. Why don’t you know of Tommy’s days and ways since then?
What about your old teachers? Those cousins you saw only once a year? Your old lovers and roommates and coworkers? They’re all here on the same little planet, each living an entire life and you living yours as if the other didn’t exist.
And how can we be so heartless as to forget former celebrities? Occasionally the OJs and Robert Blakes and Phil Spectors get our attention by killing somebody and emerging for trial, but does Wayne Newton make a sound in Vegas if you’re not there to hear him? Is Mr. T comfortable? Making it? Lonely? What about poor Huey Lewis? We took everything that man had to give, and when we no longer cared about being “Hip to be Square,” we tossed him out like yesterday’s news.
Don Ho , showman and singer of “Tiny Bubbles” (turn up your sound) died two weeks ago. Notice of his passing was buried in other bad news, including the death of the better-known David Halberstam a week later. I remember watching Ho’s variety show in the mid-‘70s and thinking he was the Waikiki Wayne Newton. At my age, that wasn’t good. But Don Ho’s death moved me, in part because I was bothered at not thinking of him for so long.
If the world were as truly small as they say, we’d have a friend like Jimmy Finny to come around and remind us of community. I realize now I don’t even know if he’s still alive. How could I not know?