Chan Lowe | A newcomer's view: What makes Berkshires so special

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PITTSFIELD — I had been living in the Berkshires less than a year and had been trying to figure out why my sense of belonging to a community — of being "home" — already outstripped over three decades of living in South Florida.

Standing in a gritty, inner-city supermarket — a place where hundreds of tough choices have to be made every day — I was finally able to put my finger on it.

At checkout, a small, birdlike woman was running the show. Normally, a customer would expect a scripted greeting — and let's face it, when you process hundreds of shoppers a day, things can get a little mechanical.

But the checker gave me an intense look and said softly, "How are you today?" I was so taken aback that I responded, "You sound as if you really care!"

With a hint of reproach in her voice, she said, "Of course! I care about all my customers." And I suddenly felt like I'd been included as a member of an extended family, all of us having this woman's benevolent oversight in common. When I used my loyalty card, my name popped up on her screen, and now she always calls me "Mr. Chan."

Spontaneous aid

Of course, I'm speaking generally, but that exchange characterizes something that is lacking where I came from. If we pay attention, we become aware of concern for fellow community members reflected daily in small acts all around us. Other incidents I've observed: Thanks to spiking fuel prices, some poor guy stretches it just a little too far and runs out of gas in the middle of the street. Several motorists pull over spontaneously, get out and help him push his car to the pump. Somebody else offers an elderly woman struggling with an armload of groceries a ride home. The individuals involved may be strangers, but they have something in common. They all live here, they all slog uphill and they all experience suffering one way or another. People pay it forward all day long.

I was floored when I became aware of the array of nonprofit organizations that exist to collectively help Berkshirites in need: senior support groups, shelters for battered spouses, drug recovery centers, an outreach to isolated folks in the hill towns to help them feel more connected. They're all chronically short of resources, but there's a surfeit of dedication that takes up a good portion of the financial slack.

Collective destiny

Town Meeting is a proud tradition so ingrained and central to the Western Massachusetts character that letter-writers to the newspaper invariably use upper case when referring to it. I used to think Norman Rockwell's depiction of the working man standing up and saying his piece in the Four Freedoms was a smarmy hearkening to an America that never existed; but Town Meetings convene as reliably as daffodils bloom in May. Where else do people voluntarily place their collective destiny in one another's hands? In this case, Mr. Rockwell was more of a reporter than a novelist.

It could be that folks who can trace their Berkshires roots back through generations feel a special kinship; it could be that shared adversity in some cases — or the choice to make a second home here in others — creates a binding sense of community participation and mutual obligation.

I'm not sure the reasons matter. I have come to learn, however, that despite all our problems, here in the Berkshires we're rich in ways others would envy.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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