Talk of the Town

From a January, 1958 article by Colbert Smith:

One could well write a whole series of articles about the wintering gossip places for the residents of an Island town. They are legion, these places where people seem just to meet, exchange a few words, and pass on to their everyday pursuits.

There’s the post office, which is a natural place for gossip, for that is where people receive news, in cards and letters, of the achievements, misfortunes and illnesses of their friends and relatives and sometimes their enemies. Many people read their mail in the post office, unable to wait until they return to their homes, and thereby are veritable mines of freshly available and impartible information. Their neighbors, checking their own mail, are the targets.

There’s the drugstore, and church (before and after services), and the barbershop. But all of these places serve in their function as gossip centers pretty much all year round.

The only gossip center that exists as such solely in the winter time, the only place that undergoes a sort of metamorphosis with the change of seasons, is the local coffee shop. The buzz of talk seems to abet the steam from the coffee urns in the frosting of the windows. In the summer, these coffee shops are merely restaurants, crowded by summer visitors eating breakfast until noon, lunch until suppertime and dinner until closing time. Year-round residents seldom enter them, either because they cannot get in, or they are too busy, or both. The bustle and the clacking of dishes and strange voices are not conducive to a comfortably consumed cup of coffee and idle — idle in the strictest sense of the word — chatter. When the summer people leave, the daily workload of the townspeople diminishes appreciably. They can afford the time to gossip. There will be space where a body can sit in warmth, sip coffee, and chat with friends for a few minutes. The waitresses too have an easier workload and an easier state of mind. Having been enormously polite all summer uttering pretty little “sirs” and “ma’ams” they can afford to be themselves. Now they indulge in bantering and reciprocate insults.

It is here that organized gossip can be said to prevail. It is here that coffee drinkers come in overlapping shifts, and it is possible for one item of gossip to ride, as if on a chain conveyer, all through the day, so that a person coming in for a cup of coffee just before closing time in the early evening may hear the same story that was related for the first time that morning, but more often an unreasonable facsimile thereof.

Gossip does not necessarily carry with it malicious intent. Heaven knows, though, that plenty of malicious gossip is broadcast over the land, and the Island is the producer of its share, because all of the towns on the Island are small, and small towns lend themselves more readily to both plain and malicious gossip than do large ones: It is easier to keep up with everybody’s business.

Malicious or not, most Islanders decry gossip — usually in the same breath that comes just after the one they have used to pass along some choice item themselves. The mystifying thing is that they decry it when they know they could not get along without it. A world without gossip would be not only ghastly, but also ghostly, for in a hypothetical world where two people could not talk about a third person it can be assumed that the dominant animal would no longer be man.

Frequently a stranger to the Island becomes upset if he stays long enough to have some bit of gossip that was said about him return full cycle to his ears (usually through an acquaintance who prefaces his remarks by, “I just thought you ought to know that they are saying that you . . . .”}

The stranger, upset sometimes to the point of panic, often fails to realize that he had been found interesting enough — or perhaps arresting enough — to some Islanders at least to be talked about. Furthermore, if there is something mystifying in the stranger’s character, he will find that his actual deeds have not only been talked about but also embellished, sometimes to the extent that truth seems to have taken wing, never to return.

There are two ways for a stranger to respond when he finds out he has been gossiped about (there is a third and wrong way, which is to take offense.) The first way is to greet the gossip laughingly, as a tale full of sound and fury told by a you-know-what and signifying nothing.

The second way is to feel somewhat complimented that he has aroused enough interest in his neighbors to cause comment; it could be much worse not to be thought of and talked about at all. Islanders, in general, know the rules of the game (the chief winter sport.) Like the muscles in the legs of a basketball player, or those in the racket arm of a tennis player, the proper muscles in the defense mechanisms of Islanders have been specifically developed to meet the rigors of the gossip competition.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner