The residents of small-town mid-Missouri insist on telling you this again and again: Despite rumors to the contrary, they do lock their doors at night, if for no other reason than they’d rather you not encourage people to make unwelcome visits.
After all, beneath the veneer of that homespun cliché, their reality isn’t much different from people in Columbia. One morning in March, USA Today told us that even if only 11 percent of people in rural areas have been touched by violent crime, that’s just 2 percent less than in so-called suburban areas.
But put that paper aside and talk about what safety really means. You’ll find out it’s about more than the body. It’s about the soul as well. It’s a psychological thing made real by knowing that, day in and day out, the people who were there for you yesterday will most likely be there tomorrow.
Stand in Studio A at KREL on the corner of Buchanan and Oak streets. Listen to Jeff Shackleford and you’ll quickly understand that Jeff makes his home of California, Mo., a safe place.
Jeff is KREL’s owner and host of “Jeff in the Morning.” His timing is as constant as the morning star. If he is forced to deviate, some people’s days just get completely out of whack. People forget to eat breakfast when Jeff takes time off.
But Jeff doesn’t go away much, and that’s good because there’s always a lot to report. (And breakfast is the most important meal of the day.) At the top of the hour, he tells his listeners everything a well-informed Californian needs to know: The water supply is on the fritz, or a tornado may be heading their way. Today he’s talking about trash pickup during the city’s spring cleanup: “They will not pick up microwaves, bricks, rocks or ovens.” Good to know.
But Jeff also will tell people what they’d like to know. Between spinning country songs from modern CDs and old vinyl albums, he covers about everything from local birthdays and school carnivals to deaths and funerals. Eight late Californians are remembered today, and the newscast clocks in at 17 minutes. If it happens, it’s on KREL.
Now you’re in Centralia, where George Ritchie also offers his own kind of safe haven, one from wacky wiring, busted beams and the occasional temperamental toilet. As owner and operator of Ritchie Bros. Hardware since 1964, George doesn’t sell as many items as the big box stores down in Columbia. You’d think he’d have been Wal-Mart-ed out of existence by now. But ask George what he has that Wal-Mart never will: “I can sell stuff and solve problems,” he says. “I can help.”
Garrison Keillor once observed that “you should think twice before you get the Calvin Klein glasses from Vanity Vision in the … mall. Calvin Klein isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and he isn’t going to teach your children about redemption by grace. You couldn’t find Calvin Klein to save your life.”
You can always find George. Safety is also about feeling stable in a chaotic world, and a few miles northwest in Moberly, Maslow would have enjoyed Gary Kribbs’ Medicine Shoppe. Gary and his predecessors have been making ham salad sandwiches and cherry Cokes in the same location since 1911. He sent someone to the store six times to get the finish on his new cabinets to match the finish on the old. Those two glass Rx signs over the doors to the backroom? One’s a replacement, but since they’re so perfectly matched you’d never guess which is which. Gary doesn’t know either.
Sit down at the soda fountain. A sense of security wraps you like a warm blanket. A friend of Gary’s is at the counter and he’s absolutely content, a simple ham salad sandwich in his hand, a sandwich just like the ones he has been eating here for hundreds of days spanning four decades.
Looking around his shop, Gary says such feelings are pretty simple, really: “For a moment in time, he had his comfort zone back again. If the memories established something good in your life, you want to revisit it.”
Without safety, prosperity is impossible, wrote Emma Goldman: “The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society,” she said. That’s pretty hard to argue with when, for five minutes, Valhalla is just a slurp and a sandwich away.
What a contrast to a visit to Celebration, The Walt Disney Co.’s $2.5 billion New Urbanist community in Florida. Gazing around, you could see how Disney hoped to recreate that sense of security. But Celebration is only eight years old; in 32 years it will just be starting to catch up with George at the hardware store. Celebration has yet to build a soda fountain. All the cherry Cokes come pre-made in plastic bottles.
You get depressed when you think no one there will ever meet Bill Reid Jr.
On this cold, gray afternoon in Moberly, Bill is where he’s spent much of his adult life: inside Duval and Reid, a men’s clothing store. He’s ringing up a sale on the brass 1890 National cash register. It didn’t come with the store, but Bill and his dad bought it 20 years ago because it seemed more in the spirit of the place. They know it’s never overcharged someone’s credit card by a factor of three.
Like George at the hardware store, Bill doesn’t offer the enormous selection that the department stores do. Who cares?
You’ll never really feel safe in a department store. Yeah, yeah, no one’s going to mug you in Dillard’s. But do you know anyone there you could call for help ahead of time? Ever meet anyone you could trust to help your son find the perfect tuxedo? And you’ll never think of a soul who will let you bring the check by later.
But in Moberly, you know Bill.
He’s the man you trust with your elderly father who needs new pants but can’t put them on by himself in the dressing room. He won’t ask you for help.
But he will ask Bill.
Bill has taken care of your father’s clothes for decades. Now Bill takes care of his dignity. Perhaps this is why small towns and people like Bill survive in a world that seems set on pronouncing them dead.
It’s not about whether or not you can leave a door unlocked; it’s about what happens behind those doors. On Main Street in small-town mid-Missouri, it’s still OK to put the boys and men you love in someone else’s care.