I went to college and graduate school in Chicago, but for six years after that my wife and I lived in Lee County, Virginia, the poorest county in the state, the westernmost tip of the state, tucked between the eastern tips of Kentucky and Tennessee. After I'd lived way back in the country for three or four years, I went to Ed's Grocery and Tru-Value Hardware on a shopping expedition. While there, I thought of getting a hat to keep the sun off my face and ears. I asked the clerk where there was a mirror I could use to try it on. She paused a moment, "There's a mirror over the fruit and vegetables, and one on the side of the sunglasses' rack."

As she started to ring up my merchandise, the clerk said, not in an unfriendly way, "You're not from around here, are you?"

"No," I said. That corner of the mountains isn't a tourist or industrial center, so most people there are from there. I didn't have any illusion that I blended in, but I was curious, "What tipped you off?"

"You wanted to see the hat on you before you bought it. Folks from around here don't."

I'm sure there are folks from there who'll study a business or fancy-dress outfit, but a Tru-Value straw hat for farm or garden work? Who cared?

I proved my stranger status doubly -- didn't get the hat because it didn't suit me.

When I told the story recently at Athens' Spaghetti Store, a young woman who grew up in a small town in Georgia told the same story from the other side. She had been a watch salesperson for a while, and customers were always asking for a bigger mirror. Had to see what it looked like on them full length. One lady told her, "Ask me what time it is," then studied herself cocking her wrist with the watch. The former salesclerk told me she thought, "Lady, it's just a watch."