Essay by Steve Mandell
Community – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
WE ONCE LEARNED MORE about a town from one good piece of gossip than from a year of polite conversation. Few things revealed more about a town than the last two or three rumors to have made the rounds down Main Street or through the town hall. Gossip exposed our fears, disclosed our prejudices, and generally revealed our collective dark sides. But it also illuminated whatever creativity and imagination existed below the surface.
During long and otherwise dull winters, gossip was the fuel that heated social interaction in the West. Eccentricities of townsfolk were fertile ground. So too were their marital difficulties. The arrival of a newcomer was an especially lip-smacking occasion for the scandal-starved. Gossip would not only lubricate everyday conversation, but also boost commerce. It was an excuse for an extra round of drinks at the local saloon or a dinner among friends who might have little else to say to each other.
Sadly, the quality of gossip is declining in the West. Growth has brought so many newcomers that even the busiest busy-body can not keep up. And the national media have raised the scandal bar to such dizzying heights that almost any local scandal is a yawner compared to what comes into our homes each day.
Today, what local rumors exist seem strained and self-conscious. Our towns, immersed in image-management, are too often caught up in a Woody Allenesque attention to superficial impressions and self-analysis. A recent case in point can be seen in Grand Junction, Colorado.
The latest rumor there to receive front-page attention from the town’s newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, was fueled by a hoax which had Grand Junction officials believing the town was about to be named a finalist in a U.S.A. Today spread about the worst examples of sportsmanship in college towns across America.
Someone claiming to be a U.S.A. Today reporter telephoned Grand Junction’s Mesa College, informed them of the coming story and said she would attend and cover a soccer match that coming Sunday. Word spread quickly through town. Initial reaction fluctuated between a chest-pounding “WE BE BAD!” pride and a frenzied fear about lost tourism revenue.
It wasn’t long before the Executive Director of the town’s Visitor and Convention Bureau was on the case. Armed with gift basket and press kit, she set off in search of the reporter, certain that with a small sample of gift goodies and press clippings attesting to the town’s character, Grand Junction’s reputation could be salvaged.
For a while, the vis-con director may have hovered on the edge of desperation as, one after another, hotels in town reported they held no reservations in the reporter’s name. Finally, when someone at the college contacted U.S.A. Today directly, the paper confirmed that there was no reporter by that name. Neither was there a story planned about the country’s worst college towns. While some were relieved to hear it was a hoax, others regretted the lack of national attention.
Publicity is publicity, after all. Just get the name of the town right.
THE CRAVING FOR CELEBRITY STATUS is today’s most popular avenue for local gossip. Grand Junction’s other well-known rumor of the last few years had Goldie Hawn secretly moving there to raise her child in a “normal” town.
There were Goldie sightings every few weeks, mostly in the supermarket.
Some stories provided intimate details of her shopping basket. Word had it that a particular brand of cookies showed a robust sales increase among Grand Junction’s more refined hostesses because they were “Goldie’s brand.” This should not surprise. After all, Bruno Magli shoes enjoyed a 35% sales increase during the O.J. Simpson trial.
When it comes to gossip in the West, we ought to be able to do better.
Ancient Rome was so plagued by rumors that the authorities appointed public rumor wardens. Known as deletores, their job was to go among the people and report the buzz back to the imperial palace. Added to their job description was the practice of spreading rumors from the palace back to the public.
Unfortunately, the deletores were unable to prevent Nero from getting saddled with the rumor of fiddling while Rome burned.
But the idea of appointing a rumor warden was probably just an idea ahead of its time. Local rumor wardens in the West could be just the thing to put the creativity back in our gossip and get us talking again. If shopping malls and national chains threaten to homogenize the West, are we no less threatened by a national media that homogenize our conversation?
Steve Mandell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He is a former steelworker, reporter, and advertising executive who now resides in Cederedge, Colorado.
High Country News