Smile Politely

Walking and waving in C-U

I walked my son to school earlier this week. It was one of those bright, sunshiny mornings that clears out worries of depression and war and pandemic, and makes everyone glad just to be alive and present in the world.

This is probably what accounts for no fewer than three people merrily honking and waving at us as they drove past. The first was a good friend on her way to work, the second a long-time babysitter (who even rolled down the window to yell at us — ah, the enthusiasm of youth) and the third was the mom of one of my kid’s friends. This isn’t terribly unusual, as it did not even include a friend from church who uses this route to work and often waves at us along the way.

The purpose of this article is not to impress you with how popular I am. If you are impressed by this, you need to get out more. Or live with three children all going different directions, plus a wife that seems to know half the town.

No, the purpose here is to contrast this with my experience living in the Baltimore-Washington area in the late 1980s. I knew a lot of people then too, but that region contains such a vast sea of humanity that it is very rare to run into people you know in public. It happened to me exactly once in the five years I lived there.

I remember it clearly, because it was so unusual — I saw some guy I barely knew from work shopping at the Laurel Mall. We were both astounded that such a thing could happen. In fact, given that this year I saw two C-U families I knew at Epcot during spring break, the math indicates that it is twice as hard to find someone you know in Baltimore or Washington over a five year period as to find someone you know at Epcot in a single day. Finding someone in Maryland is like randomly putting your hand into a beach of sand and coming out with a ring you lost last year

And yet, after almost 20 years of living in Champaign-Urbana, I can’t proverbially swing a proverbially dead cat without running into someone I know at the Farmer’s Market or Krannert or the library. Granted, this data sample may be skewed, since the same people all go to these same places. But still. It’s become so natural that I hardly think about it anymore.

I was surprised when we met a new family in town last year, and they remarked how creepy it was to run into people around town that they had just met, after being here for only a month. They came from a big city, and liked the anonymity. Their desire for anonymity wasn’t because they like to do unspeakable things outside the scrutiny of the law. They are just private people and don’t want to feel the eyes of the world watching them for every little thing.

Obviously, there’s a balance between nosiness and anonymity that a community needs to maintain. People often escape the oppression of small towns because everyone is too involved in everyone else’s business. And yet, people escape the anonymity of the big city too, because neighborly support is a primordial human need.

Last week my 12 year-old daughter and her friend said they were going to ride their bikes around the block. I told them to be back by 5:00. It was not a huge surprise to me that 5:00 came and went, without daughter and friend checking in. At 5:15, I went to the garage, where their bikes were sitting. So, I hop on my bike, and go around the block, thinking they are must be walking rather than riding. Still no daughter or friend to be found. I ride my bike down the street to where the paperboy lives, since my daughter often lies in wait for him to deliver papers, with heart-shaped bubbles popping around her head. Still no daughter or friend.

Now it is 5:30, and I’m starting to get a little worried. I get in the car and start driving around the neighborhood and to nearby parks. Still no daughter or friend.

Finally, I knock on the house of my neighbor, a tattooed, ex-marine who rides a Harley. We often chat across the street, where he sometimes relates the latest story about his alcoholic ex-wife calling the cops on him for no good reason. We also speculate about our neighbors, such as which ones might have a problem with the gay couple down the street. “Live and let live” is his motto. We decide no one on our block would have a problem with it, but we aren’t too sure about the next block down.

I ask if he’s seen my daughter, who sometimes plays basketball with his son (minus the heart-shaped bubbles popping around her head). My neighbor hadn’t seen her, but he immediately picked up that I’m a little worried. “Hang on, let me get my car keys,” he says, before I can protest not to bother himself. I get the sense that he’s seen a few unspeakable things in life and that nothing like that is going to happen to a neighborhood girl on his watch, if he can help it.

We drive around the neighborhood, and sure enough, there’s my daughter and her friend, emerging from the playground at Holy Cross, happy as clams, my daughter having no inkling that this will be her last few moments of freedom for the next week. I find my neighbor and thank him profusely for being such a good neighbor.

Small towns can often be confining, but there’s nothing like a neighbor dropping everything to search for your daughter. Yes, accountability can sometimes be oppressive, but support and accountability are just opposite sides of the same coin, the yin/yang of community.

If on my walk to school, a tree branch had fallen on my head, my son would have had the aid of three or four people he knew within minutes. If I had been dragging him down the street and slapping him around, I’d have three or four people asking me what I thought I was doing. If I had been slapping my daughter around for no good reason, my ex-Marine neighbor would probably kick the shit out of me. Deservedly so.

Anonymity may be freeing, but freedom is not an unadulterated good. Just read the comments on this or any other internet site and note how the anonymous responses are far more aggressive and inappropriate than those with real people behind them. Too often, freedom means not being accountable to anyone, which is bad for everyone.

For my tastes, Champaign-Urbana is just about the right size and balance between support and accountability.  Not so small that people feel the need to pick through your trash or raise their eyebrows at what you check out from the library. Not so big that everyone seems like an anonymous stranger, or that you can get away with whatever you want, because no one is paying attention.

So, the simple act of walking and waving can be more than just good exercise. If done correctly, it can be a public ritual, symbolizing the richness of community. If done incorrectly (say, with your middle finger extended), it means you might be more comfortable in the anonymity of the big city. I think I’ll try to keep my walking and waving focused on that rich community thing.

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