NICENESS AND SMILES ALL AROUND

The other day I was on my way to a friend’s. I was driving down the road minding my own business and somebody honked at me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, unless you call enjoying the majestic mountain views a crime, and to be honest there were a lot of cars on this four-lane divided highway. The honk could’ve been intended for anyone, who knows? But it was close enough to me and loud enough to my ears that I felt it personally in every fiber of my being.

I was startled!

We don’t honk much here. I hardly ever hear it which is why I even mention it.  As a matter of fact, we’re about the most courteous drivers I’ve seen. And I grew up in New York City, so learned from and was “trained” on some of the most aggressive roads in the nation if not the world. I also lived in Los Angeles, and there the traffic and driving conditions are must worse in reality than even depicted on TV. I tell you no lie! On my twenty-one mile commute each day across the San Fernando Valley, which never took less than an hour, I’d see more people doing more things in more cars- I could tell you stories. Helicopters flying overhead looking down and reporting on everything, fires burning on mountains, cars and people stranded on the side of the road doing God knows what- all quite dramatic! So ten years ago when I moved here to “the south”, I remember the culture shock and my laughing and saying “egads” at the tameness of the driving. What gives here? I mean everyone letting everyone in with the waving of the hand? Geesh. Well maybe I didn’t say “egads”, but didn’t these people have somewhere to be? When locals went on about traffic and bad drivers, as locals everywhere seem to do, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

Honk honk!

I felt violated. We don’t DO that. But my reaction gave me pause. Had I finally gone soft? Or had I finally become, gasp, “southern”?

That’s rhetorical.

Standing in line at the grocery store isn’t boring. It’s often the highlight of my day! Don’t read too much into that. When I’m out and about I just happen to have a keen, hyper-vigilant, observational and engaged kind of thing going on. I really get the most out of it, and what’s the matter with that? It’s from growing up young on the streets of New York- that’s how you do it. But in the grocery stores here in this neck of the woods, more often than not, no one’s in a hurry. What gives? Conversations break out like we’ve all the time in the world. About anything! Although it being grocery store talk it only goes so far. When I first moved here it all seemed nothing but hokey. Don’t you people have places to be? Complete your transaction! I’ve said before how these southerners smile and say hi and share niceties when they see you on the street, how strangers too willingly let their guard down in the first five minutes, and how drivers stop their cars just about anywhere to let a pedestrian pushing a baby carriage cross the street.

I mean really.

Well it is the law that pedestrians have the right-of-way, and crosswalks are designated that once they step off the sidewalk, cars must yield.  The fact people do it is what’s funny. Like they’re even glad to. Walking or driving downtown during lunchtime is a whole sociological study in southern politeness.

Just don’t get too close.

I’m gonna miss Mayor Koch. You heard he died? Well maybe you don’t know or care that he was the mayor of New York in the late seventies when things sucked there big time. And although it’d be hard to pick one word to describe him, “colorful” immediately comes to mind. BRASH too. Larger than life. BOLD. Outspoken for sure. I was only a teenager when he was mayor, but he was a central character at apparently an impressionable time- I mean I’m here in the dark in my flannel pajama bottoms talking about it, right? But when I heard the news, it felt almost appropriate to shed a tear. One of respect. You know that kind of moment? Like that would’ve been the decent and right thing to do.  I wondered why his death gave me such pause, I mean being we live in times where we have to sift through so much information and news twenty-four seven, making snap decisions on what to pay attention to or discard, including regular R.I.P. notices of public people. And all those funny cats!  What was my take on it? I tossed it all around and landed on one word:

MENSCH: A person of integrity and honor.

He was that. And would honk. And probably be impatient in line at the grocery store too. If he saw you walking on the street he might say hello, but unless there was something specific you needed to talk about, he’d move right along. We know it’s a pretty day, see? This guy has places to be! But if you needed him in your corner for real? I’ve no doubt he’d shoot his fat mouth off for you and go down on the mat til the end too. Even if he got beaten to a bloody pulp. With GUSTO. You never had to question where you stood with the guy.

Well except on the homosexual thing.

But a mensch. I’m sure I’m idealizing him the way we do when people die. We want to right? And if you knew the mayor, you’d know he was indeed one of the most flawed. But that was part of his charm and he wore it on his sleeve, loudly. I don’t know, maybe I just feel the need to idealize someone in these times when it’s hard to idealize many. For this I strongly believe the idea of the niceness and smiles all around here where I live is a good thing. I wholeheartedly embrace it.  It’s a part of who I am now anyway and I’m pretty good at it if I do say so myself. Just don’t HONK! Well again, that doesn’t happen much. But the whole lifestyle is a very nice bubble. The culture around “these parts” as they say quite pleasant. Southern charm:  not very rough and tumble or scrappy or seedy or varied or challenging and all around pretty soft. Gets me feeling all junk yard dog. But it’s rubbed off. And mostly makes me wanna shake people.

Figuratively of course.

And not in a bad way. With love, right? (mostly). I want to always want to aspire to be a God’s-honest-truth kinda guy. I sense the God’s honest beneath the surface and am itching for it come out. What else are we here for if not that? That’s honorable right? Let’s get to the point! Let’s play the crescendo! The fact that I even have an itch is what’s the matter.

With a mensch you don’t have to scratch.niceness

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17 thoughts on “NICENESS AND SMILES ALL AROUND

  1. I remember Ed Koch, the Mayor. It’s funny that of all the words you’ve used to describe him you picked mensch. What I remember of what I saw or read of him in those days left me with the impression thst he had real principles. He wouldn’t stand for injustice. He was a champion of the underdog. He certainly wasn’t shy about making his opinions known. He was more than willing to out-shout thise who disagreed. He got things done…

    Definitely mensch-like qualities.

    By the way if you want to hear honking go to India.

    • I can’t take honking! Obviously. 🙂 But I’d rather “real” honking that feigned kindness or surfacy friendships which I guess is my point. To me integrity is that kind of forthrightness that Koch had, not kindness for kindness sake, you know. Thanks for the comment I hate this piece of writing I’m feeling WAY redundant at the moment. Time for something spacey and esoteric! 🙂

  2. When I moved to Minnesota, all I kept hearing about was “Minnesota Nice”. Not in cars. Good grief, we have some of the most aggressive, bird-flipping and honking drivers around!

    • In Minnesota you have aggressive drivers? Wow I never woulda thought it. Here if I’m third in line at a red light that’s not normal. Of course we have “rush” hours but it’s so tame again that it’s laughable.

      • In the metro area, we have a poorly developed public transportation system and urban sprawl like nobody’s business. Combine that with some high speed limits and weird carpool lanes and it’s a recipe for bad behavior..

  3. I can relate to this, but for different reasons. I grew up in the Midwest (Chicago)where strangers chit-chat in the grocery store, the bank, etc. When I moved to Florida, people looked at me like I had 3 heads when I tried chatting in line at the store. They didn’t even say ‘hello’ when we went by them on a walk with the dog, god forbid share a smile. The driving, though, was more aggressive in Chicago. However, it has become much more populated over the years, and the driving has gotten more aggressive since I first moved (Ack, over 20 years ago). Thanks for sharing this, and your startled expression from that honk. RIP Mayor Koch.

    • I went up to Jersey (where I’m from) for my brother’s wedding a few months ago and quickly adjusted to the crazy roads, crowds and attitude. I don’t know why I didn’t have a prob with it. I was glad to come back to the niceness here though of course. 🙂 And I do have a fondness for my grocery stores and friendly public around here. I write about them in my stories and they’re my characters so I guess it’s obvious (now that I think about it).

      I’m growing into a soft old man. 🙂

  4. Interesting your ‘take’ on customs in different parts of the country. When I moved back to rural Indiana for high school, (the county in which I’d lived my 1st. 12 years), I noticed, ‘speech-wise’, such difference from junior high friends in New Mexico, (who voiced shock when I inadvertently slipped in a cuss word – My mother was a Sunday School teacher!).  Then, when I was a college freshman, my Atlanta via Dallas roommate frequently remarked she could tell I was ‘small-town’. NPR “New Dimensions” this past week had posted “A Tribute to Michael”. Thinking it was to recognize his & his wife’s 40 years of broadcasting, when I got around to reading it, I was shocked to learn that co-Founder Michael Toms had died. To me, he was “Larger Than Life” in the interviews & ideas he weekly presented – A true Mensch!!

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  5. I have to thank you for using the word ‘egad’:-) Haven’t come across that since performing restoration comedy at college…great word! I don’t like honking either, but luckily we’re pretty courteous drivers here too, in the Scottish Highlands. The last time I honked it was to try to get some chickens to move off the road!

    • Oh geez yeh the chickens across the road honking might be about it around here haha Egads! It sounded good at the time I had to use it! It seemed appropriate for my initial reaction to the whole tameness after what I went through on the Los Angeles freeways. 🙂

  6. What a lovely meandering journey that was — from the car’s honk, to southern “softeness,” to northern “hardness,” to to Ed Kotch, to your place as truth teller (which all poets are). Nicely done, man. Nicely done.

  7. This is a really interesting piece, Pete. 🙂 I love people watching, you can learn a lot about folk from how they treat one another on the roads (!) and by how they relate to one another in the shops! 🙂

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