Once, while I was traveling on Vancouver Island in Canada, I took an embarrassingly touristy bus tour. The woman next to me was a big haired, loud floral print wearing Texan, and she was so forcefully friendly, she overcame my Yankee reserve and we chatted a bit. Turned out she had traveled extensively in New England.
As we rode through the countryside, the bus driver pointed out the many tiny farm stands by the side of the road. “Nobody tends them–you just buy your veggies and leave the money in a box. It’s all on the honor system. I hear that’s not something you see a lot in the states.” My Texan friend leaned in close to me (another thing we Yankees find discomfiting) and whispered, “Must look like home to you though; everyone sells things like that in New England!”
I haven’t been out of New England all that much in my life, so it had not occurred to me that roadside economies are not universal, or even particularly common. Since moving to New Hampshire though, I seem to have found the roadside economy perfected. When talking to friends and family only as far away as eastern Massachusetts, they look at me incredulously when I tell them we sell eggs by the side of the road. “You just SIT there, all day?” they usually ask. No, I tell them. We leave the eggs out in a cooler with a plastic bottle in it for the money and a sign reading “Fresh Eggs, $3/dozen.” Just like everyone else in this town, it sometimes seems. No one has ever stolen the money, or the eggs.
But it’s not just eggs. Our favorite “bike shop” is the front yard of some people a couple towns over in Brentwood. They’re right on busy Route 125, and they have rows and rows of bike racks filled with their merchandise. From $15 tricycles to a really nice Cannondale mountain bike for $80, you just leave your money in a little red box and take your new-to-you bike home. There is a lock on the cash box, however. The honor system only goes so far.
Sometimes, there are misunderstandings. A couple of weeks ago, our neighbor down the road put up a big piece of wood on which he had scrawled (in red spray paint) “Whoever took my pallets please bring them back.” Pallets are almost universally considered to be up for grabs when out at the roadside, so the theft was understandable. Sure enough, two days later, the pallets were lying in his driveway and the wood now read, “Thanks.”
I often wonder how much of my temperament is inborn, and how much was shaped by my regional upbringing. We don’t have a reputation for friendliness here, and I have known many New Englanders who were unnerved by the open and chatty cultures in other parts of the country. I’m not a misanthrope; in fact, I love the company of other people, under the right circumstances. But this roadside economy seems to me to reflect what I love about New England; we trust you intrinsically, but we’re happy not to have to talk to you.