Smile Politely

A townie’s tale

Being born and raised in Champaign-Urbana was no glamorous experience. I had a modest childhood, the daughter of a divorced social worker and lapsed engineer. My younger brother and I spent our younger years in a medley of different homes and apartments across town and both attended your standard Champaign public schools. By age 16, I was driving and began to realize that there were ways to get out, 57 North for one.

downtownBy 18, I was crazed to escape and I knew college was my big ticket.  I was your typical young adult; I had stars in my eyes and an indestructible, romanticized idea of moving off to the big city and frequenting a college campus that had absolutely no resemblance to the U of I whatsoever. I ignored what was realistic for my family’s income and decided a private art school in Chicago was my destination.

Being a daddy’s girl, he wasn’t too hard to convince. Being selfish, I took the money and ran. I set out for Chicago in a borrowed van with my drummer boyfriend and only what would fit in the tiny apartment we had secured. I kissed my friends goodbye, convinced that I wouldn’t miss them so much; I would see them at holidays. I was ready to make some city friends.

Once in the city, I found a job at a gourmet grocery. I got a CTA pass. I went to my school’s orientation. The drummer boyfriend and I toured Millennium Park. It all seemed so perfect for that first month. I chatted with a few friends from home here and there, but I mostly busied myself with work. School started in September and I thought that I had it made. My first day of classes I made the hour long commute to downtown. I stood in front of the building where my first art class would be, and suddenly it wasn’t so great. The comfort I had grown up with wandering the streets of downtown Champaign was completely absent. The kids around me were some weird new hipster, big city hybrid — unfriendly and relentless. Cars where everywhere, and noise, SO much noise.

I panicked. Suddenly my romantic, blockbuster-movie idea of Chicago was smashed. People kept bumping into me and carrying on. I asked for directions and was ignored. This was no small town with familiar faces. All those big city stereotypes I was convinced were bullshit? Well, they all applied. Chicago was relentless from there on. School and work consumed me. I lost touch with friends and family back home. The drummer and I split, and suddenly I was on my own. There was no time for new friends, only time for obligations. Insomnia set in after awhile, but stubborn pride kept me there, and it kept me there for the three longest years of my life.

On December 9, 2008, I came home for my birthday, and honestly, I was a nervous wreck. I thought for sure my old friends had written me off after going so long without contact. I walked into my favorite local bar, Mike ‘N Molly’s, just before midnight, and there they were, the people that had always loved me the most. I was welcomed into open arms like I had never left. No one needed to know why Chicago didn’t work out for me, no one judged me, it was like I never left. That night, I decided it was time to come home for a while, and two months later I did.

We all love to hate Champaign, and it sure can be a bad trap for some. I used to judge people so harshly, the people who were always at such and such bar, in the same stool, the same day every week. And the friends who were always trying to quit this or that bad habit, but never did. The people who hated their jobs, but went every day. I used to think the pace here was too slow, too boring for me, but now all I see is people who are either content with where they are, or are like me — just needing a good dose of the comforts of home before starting their next journey.

In a town this size, you get to learn faces. You get to be hugged by a tight-knit community of people who just want to live happily. I spent so long yearning to get out, hoping it would teach me something I couldn’t learn here, and I suppose in a way it did. I learned to appreciate where I come from, no matter how plain it may seem at times. I learned that what makes Champaign so great are the people who settle here and make an impression in whatever way they can. I used to shudder when I was called a “townie”.  Well, screw it — I’m a townie and that’s just fine.

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