Just this past weekend I moved 45 miles west to a tiny town, Culbertson, Montana, to avoid the exorbitant cost of living in Williston. Well, it’s still rather exorbitant, but not nearly so much.
Anyway, I have found the past week delightfully entertaining as I have come to explore my new home. For example, I had to call a few places to arrange utilities, and never once was I put on hold (unless you count when I called the Culbertson Propane service and the lady placed the phone down on her desk while she asked someone a question), and neither was I transferred to another department. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve had a few encounters that would be considered “small town-isms” (like how every person I meet, when I tell them my address, knows exactly where I live). But one particular outing really brought home exactly the kind of place I have moved to.
I was informed that I must visit the town hall in order to pay a deposit on my city water account. Setting aside the modern conveniences of GPS and the Internet, I decided that finding the town hall should be easy. There are about two streets that would be considered “main” streets and no stoplights to speak of. Downtown itself is not difficult to run into, and the absence of traffic allowed me to inch slowly along as I tried to spot a building grandiose enough to be the town hall.
By chance, and not because of any ornateness on its part, I caught sight of a one-story, tan building with plain black letters: “TOWN HALL.” I quickly adjusted my thinking that town halls should be the most impressive structure in a town and accepted that this building was erected for utilitarian purposes, not impressive displays. How practical, I mused to myself as I pulled into a parallel parking spot. I was the only person parked on the nearly empty street, and I left my car running since it looked like there wouldn’t be waiting in line involved.
Once inside the single glass door, I was confronted with a wall and a door to either side of me. A single brown placard hung on each door: to my left, “SENIOR CITIZEN CENTER” and to my right, “TOWN CLERK.” I opened the door to my right and entered a small room with filing cabinets and two desks. A woman sat at each desk looking busy. As I glanced from one to the other, unsure of how I should announce myself, one said, “Can we help you?”
“I need to pay a deposit on my water account?” I asked, assuming that one of the women would definitely be helping me, but still feeling disbelief that I should be able to walk into one room in a building and be helped by the first person I saw. There were no other doors in the room other than the one I came through, and besides the two women, I was the only one there.
“Sure!” the one on the left said, a thin woman that looked like she’d probably be quite tall if she were to stand up. I moved to the chair in front of her desk. “You called the other day, didn’t you?” she asked. Hmm, well I guess they don’t get many phone calls.
“Yes,” I replied. “You told me I needed to come in and pay a deposit.”
“Yes, Rachel Kelly, right? Okay, so what’s your address again?”
“220 5th Street West,” I replied.
“Ah yes, and who are you renting from again?”
“Thaaat’s right. Let me see if I can find your account number.” She pulled out a small collection of stapled papers, perhaps five or six pages thick and began thumbing through them. She had a computer, but it remained untouched for the duration of my visit. The screen was black in hibernation mode, indicating it hadn’t been used in a while. I wondered what other daily tasks she handled and if any of them required a computer.
“So you live over in that duplex behind the school?” the other woman asked from the desk on the other side of the small room. She had obviously been listening in and smiled at me warmly. “When did you move here?”
“This past Saturday,” I replied, marveling at the antiquated efforts of the woman before me. They keep their records on paper? I marveled to myself, wanting to giggle at the unbelievable quaintness. Having lived in LA county, the comparison of government buildings and service felt akin to time travel. I glanced around the room which had wood paneled walls that I knew were popular in the late seventies. There was a bird’s eye view of the town on one wall and several city plan layouts. Papers litter nearly every wall surface, but mostly I noted the aged nature of the place, how it smelled sort of comfortable and settled with it’s industrial carpet that was probably original to the building. The desks were both brown lacquered metal and a folding table behind me had stacks of papers and flyers and forms of every sort. I got the impression that this was the town center, full service and the place one would go for any kind of town business.
“Here it is,” the woman in front of me said.
“So you take checks?” I asked, already having been told they don’t accept credit cards, hence the personal visit.
She replied in the affirmative, to my relief, (at that point I would not have been surprised if they told me these things were cash-only), and while I made out the check to the City of Culbertson for the amount of fifty dollars, she wrote something down, then pulled out a massive ledger, about two feet long by three feet wide, and placed some kind of oversized carbon copy receipt book on top of it which she aligned with the grid lines of the massive ledger. She wrote my name and the amount and signed it, tearing off the receipt and handing it to me. Once we completed our transaction, I began to ask questions about the trash service and the postal service (the USPS doesn’t deliver mail to each home here). She answered pleasantly and informed me afterward that should I have any questions about anything, I should call her. I knew she was serious about that. I wish I had asked her name, because if I spot her in town, she’ll probably remember mine.
I walked out of the building with the flimsy receipt in my hand, proof that I now belonged to this infinitesimal corner of the globe in some respect. People know where I live. The secretary at the school hugged me when I brought my kids in to register. And the lady across the street watches my goings and comings with interest from her living room window. I’ve been sucked into the fabric of small-town living. And it’s delightful!