RealSmallTowns is honored to have Matt Voz sign on as a contributor to The Secret Sauce! Matt is the administrator and teacher of many classes at the Youth Initiative High School — the first High School in the United States to be elected into the prestigious Ashoka Changemakers Network. A talented writer with a penchant for metaphor, Matt’s voice will add welcomed texture to the stories of The Secret Sauce. —Sheila Sherwin
The other night, after the Netflix had run its course my wife and I woke up and got ready to go to bed. Part of that process is taking our little, walnut-bladdered Chihuahua out for the 26th and final time for the day so she can void her bowels and bladder, and root through the evening’s compost. This particular night I had downed too much caffeine-free Coke during our crime documentary, and my own bladder was near to bursting. The dog, enchanted by the tepid mashed potatoes uneaten at dinner, refused to come back to the door and, despite being encircled by at least three neighbors not more than 50 feet away, an inappropriate idea worked its way from my bladder to my brain. “It’s dark,” I thought, “and 1 o’clock in the morning. I’m standing right next to this tree.” So, yeah, I started peeing.
In a small town it’s as quiet as an enchanted forest at 1 o’clock in the morning and I was immediately alarmed that I was going to wake the neighbors with the unbelievably loud splashing of my urine on the grassless dirt beneath the tree. Suddenly mortified by the admittedly questionable decision to urinate in public when my bathroom was literally 10 yards away, yet in no position to arrest the powerful stream of digested Coca-Cola flowing from my body, I shifted my stream further up the tree hoping to dilute the force, and thus the sound, of my ear-splitting piss. Finally finished with what seemed an interminable ordeal I grabbed the dog out of the compost pile and, alone but ashamed, I shuffled back into the privacy of my own home.
Had I just existed in the realm of the public and the private simultaneously? And did anyone see me?
The dichotomy between that which is public and that which is private is an exquisitely modern and quintessentially urban fabrication. In centuries past, when masturbation was as much a sin as murder, no one begged for God’s forgiveness on the grounds that some transgressions were committed in the cloister of one’s “personal” life. In these days of yore, before the freeway and the electric light and child labor laws, life looked more like a heap of unsorted, unfolded laundry than a chest of drawers filled with neatly paired socks, and crisply ironed shirts. Certainly there were secrets buried in the hearts of men and women, and in the generations of the family, and even sometimes within the tattered fabric of whole communities. But they were secrets, and their very ineffability ensured that they remained illegitimate, sordid, and impossibly intimate.
Privacy is something entirely different. It is a shared agreement between members of a group or culture to turn away from certain aspects of another’s daily life in order that one might more freely enjoy their own. That divorce, that drinking problem, that time you fell asleep at work and lost your job, that time I thought I saw you through the sex shop window when I was going to get ice cream late at night: none of these things are secret, they are simply private, willfully unknown, not forgiven but deliberately unseen.
But as much as privacy is a license or an act of forgiveness it also constitutes an abandonment. Privacy becomes a way to let others suffer quietly. Homelessness is a private matter, so is domestic abuse, and mental illness, and unemployment.
Having spent my entire childhood and much of my life in the small towns of the upper Midwest I am very familiar with the sanctimonious lamentations surrounding gossip and the proverbial “rumor” mill (as a teenager in a town of 5,000 people it was generally understood that I was a homosexual with an opiate habit, both of which were not actually true but certainly fun alter egos). Confused by the bourgeois bifurcation between public and private life many small-town citizens (most of them urban imports) are very quick to point out the unfortunate human instinct to engage in gossip. What they are less likely to identify is the uncanny and perhaps counterintuitive human need to be the object of the gossip we supposedly so despise. Living with small town gossip is like sleeping under a heavy duvet, occasionally it gets a little too hot but when you’re naked and alone on a cold winter’s night it’s the only thing between you and the soul-death of solitude.
Gossip is the bitter elixir that washes away the anomie from the compartmentalized life of the modern man but, of course, the difference between a medicine and a poison is in the dose. It may sound as though I am advocating some Orwellian dystopia of panopticons, wives in common, and progressive taxation. This is not the case. In fact, I am regarded by most in my small community as a “private” person, though I think perhaps this is a polite substitute for “someone who is boring and doesn’t like people all that much”.
It’s true that I avoid the grocery store, the café, the library (and really most public events) to ensure that my shopping or dining or refueling experience is as efficient and painless as possible. Yet as “private” as I might be, that doesn’t stop the people in my small community from knowing my business (or rather some rough approximation of my business). Certainly, I could chafe under this yoke of public surveillance or I could see it for what it really is: a community that cares about the actions of its members, an irrefutable example that what I do in the world makes an impact on the lives of other people (however small), an anecdote to the frigid isolation of the post-industrial, post-ethnic, post-Christian urban landscape. In the sleek metropoles of our nation “privacy” is a bourgeois cleaver dissecting our lives and sorting it into the brisket of public life and the rump steak of privacy, increasing the loneliness of both portions. Yet in the little hamlets and backwaters of rural America there is no shopping mall or cubicle or chat room in which to hide. Here privacy, not actually being possible, is relegated to an idiosyncratic personality trait that, ironically, everyone knows about.