Here's the most Chicago thing I've ever seen: I was driving down Lake Shore Drive, traffic at a near standstill, and in the lane next to mine, a truck was trying to steamroll a small car in front of it: riding its bumper, slamming the horn—general dick moves. I could see the truck driver's face. He was angry, yelling. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but it's fair to assume it was not nice. What did he want the smaller car to do? What did he think his honking, his middle finger, his rage would accomplish? Finally, the woman in the car had enough. Smack-dab in the thick of the clogged four-lane expressway, she turned off her engine and got out, closing the driver's-side door behind her. Slowly she lit a cigarette and leaned back in the sunshine, puffing luxuriously while cars inched past and the guy in the truck lost his mind, laying on the horn and gunning his engine. She turned to him with a big, dazzling smile—and waved.
The wave, I've learned, can mean many things. We wave each other into traffic. We wave folks through at crosswalks. We wave thanks after somebody lets us pass. Sometimes we roll down our windows and stick our hands into the frozen winter air to make sure the person behind us knows we're grateful. I've always considered it part of our midwestern niceness, the seemingly small things we do to help each other, to coexist together in this beautiful, complicated city, to know that, as Emerson wrote, "even one life has breathed easier because you have lived."
Do you think that's silly, sentimental? I don't mind. Sentimental is midwestern nice too.
I was raised midwestern nice. Please and Thank you. Great to meet you! How can I help? My mom taught fourth grade in small-town southeast Michigan, and there was one rule in her class: We say and do nice things. Sometimes, when I go back to visit, I run into her former students, long grown, at the bank or the grocery store or the lone coffee shop. "You're Ms. Stielstra's daughter!" they say, excited. They tell me about their accomplishments in the hopes that she'll be proud of the person they've become. "The thing I remember most," they always say, "—she taught me to be nice."
I'm thinking about what it means to be nice, midwestern or otherwise. When do we learn it, what does it look like, what, more specifically, are the policies that help people not only breathe easier but breathe, period?
Chicagoans are midwestern nice—to a point. We'll welcome you, unless you're being a dick. We'll say, "Thanks for coming!" and then get back to work. We are the city that works. We are also the city that celebrates. I keep returning to that woman on Lake Shore Drive, pulling up the memory like a video on demand. She leans back against her car, smoking with one hand, waving with the other. What she means, I've decided, is this: You go on and pass. I don't want your rage. It's a gorgeous day and I have this cigarette and we're stuck here, so for the next five minutes, I choose joy. For five minutes, at least, I'll stand in the sun. v
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