Small Town Habits.

May 28, 2011

What’s it like moving from a town of 10,000 people, where I’m confident that I’d recognize a good fourth of the population, to a city of 2.6 million, where I know just about ten or so?  Well.  It gets a little dicey, especially when it comes down to all of those warm, friendly habits I learned while living in Wyoming.  I’ve had to flip my head around here, because this ain’t the old west, partner.

After being asked about where I grew up, I get a lot of blank, puzzled stares when I say that I went on a lot of hikes, rode the occasional horse, shot clays with a shotgun, went snowboarding, worked for a meat processing plant, floated the river, helped bale hay a couple of times, and cleared a potato field.  I also went camping (summer and winter) and could identify scat left behind from most mammals.

“Yeah, but, like, did you do normal stuff too?” a coworker asked me.

“Nope,” I said.  I hocked back and spat onto the floor.  (Okay, I didn’t do that, but I should have.)

While I was never the cowboy-like adolescent that our fine state of Wyoming breeds, I definitely had a soft spot for nature and love for a simpler way of living.  I never realized how many outdoorsy skills I had until I realized how badly I needed them out here.  My sense of direction, while flipped on its head when surrounded by skyscrapers, is surprisingly intact as I emerge from the underground Red Line train into the bright lights of the city.  My balance aboard a train is near flawless; as I bend my knees and treat the moving car like a snowboard, I have no need to hold onto the rail.  And my sense of smell, though raped by the daily foul stench of sewage, fuel and mildew, can lead me to fresher air and delicious foods.

Yes, it seems that a country boy can indeed live in the city.  However, as my biology adjusts, my head cannot swing the fact that I am not home.  Here are a few small town habits I can’t seem to shake, and their big cities realities that put me in my place.  I have encountered all of these things.

  1. A Honking Car
    Small Town:  Someone you know is trying to get your attention!  Turn and wave!
    Big City:  You are about to die.  Be alert, and move.
  2.  A Big Black Shadow
    Small Town: Probably a moose or other large mammal.  Change your path.
    Big City:  A harmless Sedan. Keep walking.
  3.  Someone is Lying on the Sidewalk
    Small Town:  Possibly injured citizen.  Observe and assist if necessary.
    Big City:  Possibly dead citizen.  Keep walking.
  4.   A Yellow Lab Takes an Interest In You
    Small Town:  “Hello pup!  Hi, is this your dog?”  “Sure is!”   “Aw, what’s his name?”  “Dingo!”
    Big City:  “Hello pup!  Hi, is this your dog?”  Owner yanks him away and keeps walking.
  5. Filling up Your Water Bottle from the Tap in Front of Strangers
    Small Town:  No reaction.
    Big City:  “What are you doing?!  You drink that?!”  (Seriously.)
  6. A Strange Man Asks You ‘A Quick Question’
    Small Town:  Politely listen and assist if possible.
    Big City:  He wants money, so ignore everything said until you say “no” to make him go away.
  7.  “Would You Like Topping on Your Popcorn?”
    Small Town:  “It’s real butter?  Heck yes!”
    Big City:  Always, always, always, for the sake of your bowels, “No.”
  8.  Manners
    Small Town:  In abundance.
    Big City:  Impossible to find.
Jackson Red Line Stop < Jackson, Wyoming
There is a Jackson stop on the Red Line and it drop you off down by Millennium Park.  I’ve gotten off there quite a few times (there’s also a Wilson stop way north of there).  The first few times, I hardly made the connection because the two Jacksons were so asymmetric.  But now every time I see the name I wish that the underground station was a little bit more like home.I don’t want to shit all over Chicago, because it’s not a horrible place by any means.  Everyone tells me that New York is much worse, and that Chicago is overwhelmingly a nicer city.  That makes me laugh (which, I only do in private, because apparently laughing in public makes you look crazy), because in my experiences so far, from people at work to random strangers, I haven’t encountered too many people possessing that oft-quoted “midwestern charm”.  Everyone is too scared of each other to be nice.
So above all things of Jackson that I do miss (and I won’t lie and say I don’t miss it), I miss the people.  The sense of community and the familiar faces.  It’s hard living in a city of a couple million people and feeling lonely because there’s no one you recognize.  My worst habit of all is seeing a stranger and initially thinking that it’s someone I know.  It happens a whole lot, but, it’s proven that all these little habits will dissolve over time.
Soon I’ll stop glancing towards honking cars and petting strange dogs, I’ll ignore more homeless people and develop a resistance to bad smells.  I’ll walk home with a little more and a less fear as the days trudge on.  In Wyoming I was sensitive to my surroundings.  Ultimately, as I continue living in Chicago, I’ll become more and more desensitized.  Because that’s what the city wants.  To it, I’m just another number.  Another tally in the population.  Another person to pull taxes from.  Another person taking the train.  Another person walking down Michigan Avenue pretending that the buildings don’t blow my mind every time I walk passed them.  The moment I start acting differently, the moment I decide that I’m going to continue living out the small town attitude I have grown accustomed to, the city will turn on me and I’ll be either robbed, or thought insane, or worse.
But I’m not willing to fall prey just yet.  I may still be new here, but I’m not just another number.  Just you wait, Chicago.  I still have some tricks up these flannel sleeves.

3 Responses to “Small Town Habits.”

  1. Sara Moulton said

    Hi Andy, I have been thinking about you the last couple of days and I thought that I would say Hi on your blog cause I have lost your phone number. It is funny how your moving to a big city has paralleled my own move to Denver. I just wish I could write as well as you to be able to express my feelings. The feelings of lonliness, oh god what am I doing, the desire to win and make a home in this new city. I hope to talk to you soon! Sara

  2. So I just stumbled upon your blog and want to offer an encouraging word. I moved to Chicago about a year ago and had similar feelings. I’m from St. Louis, which is definitely not as small as your hometown, but still has the whole small-enough-to-recognize-faces thing going for it. I’d always heard that Chicago has that friendly Midwest thing happening. And I guess it does, compared to other big cities. It took me a while to find a place here. And honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve totally found it yet. Despite that though, you’ll start feeling more and more like this is your city once you take ownership of it. I started volunteering and going to neighborhood stuff, fairs and things. I greet people (and dogs) in my neighborhood when I’m out and about, I drink water from the tap, and I (try to be) polite. Maybe if we do our small part and decide we want Chicago to be a welcoming and friendly place, it’ll make a difference. You’d be surprised how many people you can find that are willing to say hi or lend a helping hand. Hope your Chicago experience turns around! Summer is coming so, if nothing else, it’ll be great to get outside…

  3. Big City Girl said

    Since you’re new to the big city, your observations perhaps seem more colored by an us/them dichotomy. People in the big city are not just a number. What you may not realize yet is that you have to put in a little more effort to make or find your community. It’s not ready-made like it is in Jackson. And, shockingly, people can and do have manners, care about other people (even homeless strangers), and possess charm. You’ll only be ready to see that though when you stop comparing everything to what you’ve only ever known. Good luck. ** From a New Yorker.

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