Let me give you some facts. Then form your image.
The couple is in their sixties. They are retired. By dress and bearing, they are above middle class, but it is hard to tell how far above. He is a long time representative in the state legislature. Maybe even had been Speaker of the House. In South Dakota. He made his living as a lawyer. Not in for whatever passes for a metropolis out there, but in Spearfish, which, the woman maintains, has a population of 12,000. In the western part of state, near Wyoming. She was in education. Asked if she had been a school teacher, she was quick to say, “And principal.”
From these facts, what assumptions would you make about them? I had a friend who was raised in a Dakota, but for the life of me, I don’t remember which one. Is there really a difference? I do remember him telling me that some Dakota relative of his raised turkeys. When he was about the size of the birds, nasty creatures he assured me, they scared him mightily, and he would sprint through the yard to get to the safety of the farmhouse. This couple, however, was definitely from that lower Dakota and did not raise turkeys.
The images, or shall we say the prejudices, I might have had from this information would, however, have to have been not so much tempered as shattered by additional factors. I was in my local bar in December a few years having a beer and potato fritters when this couple sat down next to me at the bar. I was quite confident from their look that they were not from the neighborhood, but they seemed perfectly relaxed as they ordered a beer, a glass of wine, and a pretzel. The bartender said something, and they replied, “South Dakota,” and that brought me into the conversation.
When asked what they were doing in a neighborhood bar in not the trendiest part of Brooklyn, they gave a multi-part answer. Most of their retired friends from South Dakota were Arizona snowbirds; they wanted something different. The couple had moved to a garden apartment in an Upper Westside townhouse and now sought to do something in New York every day. They were in my area to go to the Irondale, a non-traditional theater carved from a reclaimed Sunday School auditorium connected to a historic church. They were going to see the Nutcracker Rouge, which was described as a “Baroque Burlesque Confection.” I knew little about it except that it was quite raunchy. I don’t know about you, but my stereotypes of a small-town South Dakota lawyer/politician and principal did not include retirement to Manhattan much less attending a nearly naked Nutcracker in an obscure performance space in Brooklyn. I try to think of myself as open, but sometimes when I am surprised by somebody, I realize how much baggage I unconsciously carry in making quick assumptions about others.
And what would be your images when you hear of Spearfish, South Dakota? I certainly was not surprised that some later, quick research disclosed that it was over 90% white, but I was surprised by its climate. I jumped to the conclusion that it would be bitterly cold for the winter; in fact, the high temperatures average near forty degrees in January and February. Spearfish, however, is known more for some unusual weather. On the morning of January 22, 1943, the temperature was minus four Fahrenheit. A Chinook wind blew and within two minutes, the temperature was a plus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That two-minute temperature swing is the world record. Hey, what world records does your town hold? The woman, Katie, told me that the temperature continued to rise into the fifties that morning. Then the warm wind dissipated, and the temperatures dropped to below zero in the next half hour. This plunge, a bit more gradual but greater than the earlier rise, was still so rapid that windows cracked.
The South Dakota couple, Jim I think his name was, was interesting, charming, and amusing. Right after they left, I felt as if I had made a mistake. I should have gotten their contact information so that I could have invited them to dinner. And perhaps see if I would find other prejudices of mine I was not aware of.