Maintaining Midwestern Goodness in the Big City

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my local Duane Reade/Walgreens — DuaneGreens? — this week trying to suss out exactly how and why the transition between the two merged pharmacies is working in the effect of Balance Rewards.  So far, so good — but there have been a few jukes and flukes.

Yesterday, I was talking to a kind, young, Duane Reade store manager in person about the online Walgreens real rewards number vs. the virtual number printed on the card in my hand, when he suddenly went all sotto voce on me in the midst of an urban mass of customers standing in line and wandering the aisles.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

That question came out of the left field blue — because we were talking about computers, not neighborhoods — so I paused and then answered him in the only context I knew: “I’m from around here.  Jersey City.  I live right over there.”  I pointed my finger in an arc away from my body.

The manager shook his head.  “No,” he reiterated, with a stronger intention, but still sotto voce, “Where are you FROM?”

“Oh,” I answered, finally understanding he wanted to know where I was born, and I replied, “I’m from Nebraska.  I moved here 20 years ago.”

“I knew it!” he whispered, “You’re not from around here, either.  You’re different.  You’re polite.  You don’t yell or curse me out.  You’re quiet.”

I smiled.  I understood what he meant.  The lovely Janna and I were raised in the Midwest and we always try to be naturally friendly and positive and we tend to smile too much with strangers.  Those behavioral artifacts are commonplace in Nebraska and Iowa and not necessarily so much in and around the East Coast.

In fact, I remember a few years ago walking down the hallway of a Rutgers University building, smiling to myself and thinking on my own, when a colleague passed me in the opposite direction and growled, “What are you so happy about?”  That sort of purposeful, negative, meanness took me aback and disappointed me as I reflexively wiped the smile from my face.  The nasty won that day.

I have learned over the years that sometimes it best not to smile on the street or in the aisles of higher academe because unhappy people are not interested in seeing your contentedness.  It can be hard to hang on to your goodness in the Big City — but what other choice do you have?  To behave like everyone else?  To become mean and unhappy and emotionally predatory?  If that’s the urban expectation, then I refuse to bend to intentional cruelty.  I’ll keep smiling — if only on the inside, sometimes — and being friendly, thanks.

The Walgreens manager leaned in to me and whispered, “We’re the same.  I’m from India.  I don’t fit in here, either.”

With that, we both smiled, knowing we were one against the angry tide — and we each likely found some private sadness at the same moment that there weren’t more of us in our immediate world — but we also knew we at least now knew each other and we could not deny we still had the ability to recognize in kind goodness in others.