On the Suspicious Friendliness of People in the Midwest

The strangeness began in the Illinois IKEA.

My boyfriend and I were there, of course, because a week ago we had moved into our new place in Chicago, and where do you go in the first week of a new residence? The nearest IKEA. We were wondering whether a bookcase was too wide for the bedroom when the guy standing next to us spoke up. “This one’s a really great shelf, isn’t it?” he asked. He was young, bearded, wearing a leather jacket. Too thin and with a nice face. I thought, what’s with this guy?

“Yeah, these shelves are great. I’m going to deck out my whole living room with them. And then —” he bent close, letting us in on his great idea. “I’m going to put a really big bookshelf in the middle of the room. Like a divider.”

We agreed: that would be pretty cool. “Okay, see ya,” he said, and wandered off. We both looked at each other.

“What was that all about? Did he want something from us?” we asked each other.

The thing is, I’m from Boston. And the only other city I’ve lived in is New York. In Boston, for half the year you don’t see anyone’s faces. Everyone’s hurrying about with their parkas zipped up to their chins, jay-walking and yeah, who’s gonna stop me? People are crass and loud-mouthed. They’re salt-of-the-earth types. I grew up marinating in that salt. Then add that to living in New York for a few years. There, you get the crassness and the loud-mouthery, coupled with hurry and impatience. The nerve of some people to walk slowly on the street. Keep going, dammit. Don’t look up at the guy catcalling you. Give him the thousand-yard stare. Don’t have time for your problems or your scary wierdness. Someone’s preaching on the subway? Stare right through him. Push your way to the only seat left and don’t look back.

Whenever I encounter altruistic politeness, my impulse is to be suspicious of it, in fact. What’s that guy’s problem? What does he want from me? In places like New York and Boston, if a stranger is nice to you, it’s probably because he either wants something from you, or he wants to do something to you. One of the first days I arrived in New York, a guy chatted me up on the street for a few minutes, welcoming me to the city. Before I knew it, I had bought a hat and brochure that would benefit the Hari Krishna temple. It happened so fast that I was too embarrassed to refuse.

And don’t get me wrong; there’s something I love about that worldview. New England gave me a wariness of emotional display. There was something unseemly about wearing your heart on your sleeve, something uncouth about just putting it all out there. It’s an old Puritan suspicion of too much happiness. And New York added the slight edge of hardness you need not to be taken advantage of. My boyfriend and I noticed that whenever we are in a foreign city or near a touristy site, it’s always he who is asked by strangers to take their photo. I’ve never been asked. I wondered why that was; did I not look trustworthy enough? “It’s your New York stare,” my boyfriend explained. “When you’re out in public you put on this don’t-mess-with-me face.”

And in an odd way, I’m proud of the don’t-mess-with-me face. It was hard won. I arrived in New York soft and naive, red-cheeked and wide-eyed. But New York changes you; New York teaches you things. If you want to make it, you learn to walk fast and not give a damn.

So it’s been pretty disconcerting to arrive in the Midwest and be confronted by all this unabashed Midwest courtesy and and kindness. In every store I visit, people greet you, ask how you’re doing and seem to genuinely want to know. There are strangers who strike up conversations in check-out lines, at the post office. People are holding doors for me and not grumbling about it. Strangers laugh to each other about the relative cuteness of their pets. I’m constantly disarmed, wary, suspicious. I feel a little like a wild dog suddenly dropped in a puppy pen. What are these creatures? Why are they so cuddly? What do they want from me?

It’s going to take some time to adjust. I never realized how hard and crusty my exterior shell had become; there’s the stiff-upper-lip of New England, coupled with the veneer of indifference that New York can add. I don’t know if I fully want to let go of these things. Then I’ll be soft and weak again, naive, open to manipulation. I’m proud of how threat, how the dirtiness, the bigness, the danger of the city doesn’t faze me. But I’m charmed as well by the sweetness I see in the Midwest.