August 23, 2013

Bowen Craig: So this is progress? No thanks

America’s always been big on progress. Whatever the newest thing is, we love it.

Tennis shoes that light up when you walk? Let’s try that.

Cars with seat warmers? Sure it’s Georgia, and it never gets cold enough to need rump-warmed seating, but it’s so cool.

Although I’m about to trash the idea, I have to admit that this attitude toward the future has served us well many times in the past. The railroad, the airplane, the space shuttle, Pixie Sticks. These are all wonderful inventions which we’ve used to change the face of the world. However, until it hits us in the collective face, we rarely notice what we lose with each new piece of “progress” until well after we’ve moved on to the next new thing.

Netflix is so new and so convenient that we’re just now coming to regret the death of local movie rental stores, now that even the Blockbusters have gone the way of the Woolly Mammoth. I miss the local rental place in that mini-mall on Thornton Avenue, the one in the same complex as Gondolier’s Pizza. You knew the people who worked there. I’m not entirely sure that Netflix doesn’t only employ robots. It can’t be confirmed. Even a chain like Movie Gallery employed a few locals. How does Redbox help the local economy? And it’s not just a movie rental phenomenon. It took a while before we all realized that the mass oxen suicides of the early 20th century stemmed from the oxen feeling depressed and useless against the might of the Model T.

Dalton may be an industrial center of the world, but it’s still a small town at heart. We’ve managed to retain that small town feel, that nearly indescribable warm feeling of belonging and friendliness that you simply don’t find in large metropolitan areas. It’s one of the things I cherish about Dalton. But, I worry that it’s going the way of the Stegosaurus (by that I mean extinct — we’re not growing spiky tails, at least not yet). So many of the little things that make small town America, specifically our small town, great seem to be vanishing.

But, they don’t have to be sacrificed on the altar of false progress. We don’t have to start suing our neighbors for keeping their Christmas lights up until March just to keep up with some abstract notion of keeping up with the Joneses in Atlanta. Yes, The Georgia Aquarium is amazing, but I miss the down-to-earth, so-bad-that-it’s-good putt-putt course at The Pizza Deli. Or if that analogy doesn’t work for you, yes, The High Museum does occasionally have world-class exhibits, but you can’t buy wooden rubber band shooting guns at The High. You can, though, at the Creative Arts Guild yearly Festival. Man, I miss wounding my little brother with a locally-made, well-crafted homemade toy. It’s small town American tradition.

The Green Spot has allowed customers to keep charge accounts based largely on the honor system since its inception. Having, in a previous era, a meat man whom everybody knew simply as “Cowboy,” having the same comfortable layout with the same groceries for the same price in the same aisle for decades is a good thing. Walmart has nothing on The Green Spot.

The Walmart grocery bullies cities into changing laws to let them come in and kill The Green Spots of the world. But, what we’ve largely forgotten, due to convenience and the overpowering allure of seemingly lower prices (though not on as many items as we all think), is that we’re the ones in charge. We, the people who buy the groceries, can choose to shop at The Green Spot instead of a large supermarket chain. We, the people who eat the meat loaf, can choose to eat at Parker’s instead of Golden Corral. Although civic pride is one good reason not to eat at Golden Corral, it’s in good company.

I’ve got a surgeon friend who sends thank you notes to Golden Corral every year for keeping his tummy-tucking business in the black. If so many of us didn’t take the phrase “All You Can Eat” as a challenge, we might not have a childhood obesity epidemic. I’m a big fan of Parker’s. And, yes, I will admit that they do serve generous portions, but the meal sizes are within the range of what a human should eat at one sitting as opposed to the chain restaurant mentality of serving us more food at one meal than a colonial family of six ate in a day.

It’s patriotic to buy local. That’s gotten lost in a haze of political propaganda and advertising. Buying locally-made products isn’t a conservative idea or a liberal idea. It’s an American idea. Compared to shopping at Walmart, buying anything from a store where you know the owner is the very essence of patriotism. What kills me (and after this article comes out, might actually kill me — they are more powerful than most South American guerilla groups) is the fact that the particular behemoth chain store once was a patriotic entity. Sam Walton used to mandate that all of the products sold in his stores be made in the USA. Once he died, that idea died with him. Read the label on any product you see in Walmart. I’ll bet you $10 that it doesn’t say, “Made in Tunnel Hill.”

It’s not even all that more expensive to shop locally. But since everyone, myself included, for the last 30 years has followed the pulsating neon lies of advertisements into the chain stores, we’ve lost far too many great local shops.

I got my first nice set of clothes from Garmany’s, the upscale men’s clothing store which is sadly no longer with us. They’d “measure you up” and show you some options for a Sunday suit once you’d grown out of your last one. The same two guys who’d measured you three years ago for your first blazer were there to pull out the tape measure when you came back after that growth spurt. They sold the same stuff as J.C. Penney. It’s not as if Abercrombie & Fitch makes dress socks that raise your IQ or khakis that are guaranteed to attract supermodels.

It’s the same stuff.

The only difference is that, under the vanishing small town system, you knew the man or woman to whom your money was going. You knew the people. You knew their wives. You knew their poodles. That matters. That’s the legacy of small town America that we need to guard against losing.

That’s neighborly behavior.

That’s patriotism.

Bowen Craig is a former Dalton resident now living in Athens. He wonders how many people remember flying down the water slide at Catfish Mountain.

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