Smile Politely

Saying Hello, Saying Thank You

Less than three years ago, I didn’t think much of Champaign-Urbana-that is, I didn’t think about it much at all. I’d grown up about an hour south of the cities, on my parents’ farm, mostly lying in the grass with a book, or piecing art together in my upstairs bedroom-your average environment in which a touchy-feely liberal artsy girl would flourish. Flourish I did, Punky Brewster wardrobe, Tori Amos mix tapes and all, and in the summer of 2005, I was just piecing together my summer plans when I was asked by a family friend to house-sit his 1950s place at the border of Hessel Park. I moved into the house in early June with a pink thrift-store suitcase full of dresses, expecting a lazy summer of tennis at the park and ice cream from Jarling’s across the street. Champaign-Urbana was just another stop on my great journey of finding Where I Want To Be and What Will Make Me Happy, this surely beautiful place where everyone knows your name and has something to share.

My tennis racket stayed in the closet all summer, and ice cream was devoured, but never with anyone I would have expected. I ended up spending the summer discovering downtown Champaign, the beer gardens piping music and the cafes staffed with quickly-familiar faces. What I got was a summer of surprise and excitement, staying up all night liquor-hazy and half in love. I got bikini dance parties, a crash course on C-U local legends (although everyone I met that summer was a legend in my book), and rare, honest conversation with people I’d just met. What I got was a treasure map marked with friends I hadn’t met yet, music I hadn’t heard, a place that I hadn’t recognized yet as my home.

The night before I was to return to school, three hours away in Even-Middler-of-Nowhere, Illinois, I walked downtown and ended up at Cowboy Monkey. The doorman recognized me, smiling as he stamped my hand. When I stepped inside, the first girl I saw was a fellow student in a Biology class I was taking at Parkland that summer; we’d barely spoken outside of our various lectures and labs, but that night she swiveled around in her chair and opened her arms, smiling, saying my name. I sat cross-legged at the bar and watched the tide of people come in and out: grinning, leaning in to speak, lighting cigarettes, holding out their hands to catch condensation dripping from their glasses. Bands dismounted the stage into this sea of people, people who could shake their hands and say hello, say thank you. Art was hung on the walls, signed with names I recognized. The tiny white lights strung all over downtown Champaign swayed and sparkled in the wet breeze. The music swelled, filled up the space, and I started to cry, just watching it all, because I realized that I was home already, that I didn’t want to leave. My whole life, I had been filled with wanderlust and restlessness, always looking out the window and under every rug, searching for the next better place, and now here I was, an hour from my parents’ farm, taking what was shared, in love with all the little lights of downtown.

I live downtown now, sharing a home with the boy who shuffled me from bar to bar and face to face that summer. I still write and publish a zine that was reinstated due to the inspiration I gathered from this community, all the music and words and art it has to share. I still walk around predictably starry-eyed and touchy-feely, open to every light that’s brave enough to be lit, and this is where I’ll gather them together, reflect them to you so that we can all say hello and thank you, so that we can all know each other’s names.

Photo Courtesy of Elisabeth Cox

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