Kirsten's Fan Club
Lately, my day job (the one that pays me) has had me running
all over the Midwest raising money for a (very worthy, of
course) conservative cause. Chicago’s Midway Airport has
become like a second home to me—thanks in no small part to the
FREQUENT 4-to-6-hour delays I spend there courtesy of a certain
airline’s spectacularly chaotic (read: incompetent)
operations. (I’m not naming any names, but its initials spell
"A-T-A." Do you think I’ll get ‘randomly’
searched for that little slam when I fly home to D.C. tomorrow?)
As many of you have noticed and written to me about, a direct
result of my frequent travel has been that I haven’t been able
to write nearly as often as I would like to. (However, since
last call at the F terminal watering hole is an absurd 7:30 PM,
I think I’ll just write my column there—I mean the terminal,
not the bar—from now on.)
Anyway, my latest taste of America’s heartland is Illinois,
where I am writing from now. I thought I’d do a little
something different this week and share with you some of my
impressions of this place.
A little background is needed here—I grew up in Southern
California, attended college there, and then moved straight to
Washington, D.C.. I’m a city girl at heart, and always have
been. I don’t have anything against so-called ‘flyover
country’—in fact, I usually leave here wishing the Midwest
was closer to D.C. so I could just live here and commute. I love
the Midwest. So any gentle ribbing it is about to receive is
given out of affection, not snobbery . . . .
I arrived in Ottawa after nightfall, so I didn’t notice
until this morning that the great expanse of darkness
surrounding my hotel on three sides last night was a cornfield.
I kid you not. Imagine my surprise as a bona fide City Girl to
look outside my window a little after dawn to find thousands of
cornstalks lined up battalion-style no more than 10 feet from my
bed. First thought: Wasn’t there a horror movie about this?
Second thought: Wow, the sky really looks gorgeous backing
all that corn. Note to fussy reporters complaining about
August in ‘boring, cultureless’ Crawford, TX: A pristine
field and an open sky are infinitely preferable before your
first cup of coffee than noisy neighbors and honking horns. So
kindly just take a bag of Starbucks and a good book from home
and shut up already.
Ottawa is a small town of maybe 20,000 people about an hour
outside Chicago. Ottawa’s residents seem largely devoted to
the art of purchasing and maintaining automobiles. In my short
drive through the main business district, I saw two car
dealerships, an Auto Zone, a Jiffy Lube, a Napa Auto Parts (or
was it a Meineke Tire and Muffler Store?), something called
"Auto Max," four independent car service centers, and
no less than 8 gas stations, most with their own service bays—all
in a three block radius.
Checkout at the hotel was at 11 AM, and I had time to kill
before a 1 PM meeting, so I took off looking for an early lunch.
By 11:30 AM, the line going into the McDonald’s drive-thru was
backed up halfway down the block, but there didn’t appear to
be a restaurant offering healthy food for miles. Come to think
of it, the whole state of Illinois smells a little like fried
food—really good, tasty fried food, but fried food
nonetheless. For normal people, this might sound something like
nirvana, but for a naturally curvy girl trying to make her way
in the reed-thin world of female conservative commentary, it was
a dietary crisis of epic proportions.
I saw a Kroger grocery store across the street and breathed a
sigh of relief. I ran in and grabbed some rice cakes and a
yogurt (I know, yuck). At the counter, I was greeted by a
checker who looked me up and down, looked at the rice cakes, and
then said in a sincere deadpan, "Caramel, my
favorite." I still can’t figure out whether she was
serious, or whether she was mocking me in that polite Midwestern
way—smile, nod, and agree with the crazy East Coast girl in
her silly, impractical outfit. She’s not from around here,
Ottawa is certainly not without charm. The town has a nice
little old downtown area that could pass for a circa 1950s Main
Street movie set, with all the Mom-and-Pop shops, marquee
theaters and "walk, don’t drive" setup. I saw a day
spa and a little Thai café that didn’t look too scary, plus a
quiet, pretty little park where I wrote the opening paragraphs
of this column.
This park overlooked three gorgeous old churches (one of
which played "Kumbaya" in its entirety on the bells
while I was typing). The park’s trees shaded me from the 90+
degree heat, and the air, though humid, did not have the
eye-searing ‘quality’ of D.C.’s on a similarly hot day.
The best part of visiting Ottawa, of course, was the people.
It’s the same all over the Midwest, really. The
above-mentioned Kroger checkout-girl was helping an elderly
customer when I walked up. I couldn’t even get annoyed as I
waited more than five minutes for this young woman to finish her
conversation with the frail, silver-haired lady in front of me.
I was too busy marveling at the depth of knowledge the checker
had about this aging woman’s life. She asked about grandkids,
health problems, air conditioning issues . . . yet it was clear
that the two only knew each other by way of the grocery checkout
This is the kind of place where asking for directions prompts
a 15-minute inquiry as to your background, your family, your
reason for visiting. It’s not that Midwesterners are nosy—well,
maybe a little—but they just genuinely seem to care.
Tonight, I am in Chicago. Despite my frequent campouts at
Midway Airport (and, in my Forbes days, O’Hare), I’ve never
really spent time in the city. I expected it to be more like the
East Coast in its manner and pace, and it is, to a certain
degree. But the Nice People still abound.
I picked up a copy of Chicago magazine because of the
cover story on Singles in the City (for obvious reasons, I have
interest in such articles), and wound up reading it cover to
cover. There’s a feature in the July issue about the area’s
‘most eligible’ singles, both male and female. Usually,
these kinds of stories are just excuses for beautiful,
successful people to show off what they’ve got, and this story
was not so different—except for the criteria used to determine
"success" and "beauty." Among the girls
(ages 24-41), there wasn’t a size 2 in sight. (I don’t think
they actually offer "2" as a size here. God bless
these people.) All were healthy, radiant, naturally beautiful
women (and by that, I mean beautiful in a natural way, not that
they naturally look like Heidi Klum). The guys (25-35) were
certainly attractive, but only two of them were the
beefcake/soap star types we’re used to seeing deified in the
media. Not everyone was a high-profile lawyer or TV star (though
some were). There was a podiatrist, a personal trainer, a
firefighter, an IT administrator . . . normal people, who
somehow seemed that much cooler for not being the ego-driven,
publicity-hungry sociopaths that seem a bit more prevalent on
the other side of the Appalachians.
I soon realized that the whole magazine was similar in its
blessed normalcy—and therein lies the appeal of the entire
Midwest. Every time I visit, I feel like I’m in on some
massive inside joke, in which the whole region is conspiring to
hide a wonderful secret from the rest of the country. Allow my
loose lips to sink their ship: The Midwest is not boring.
Midwesterners are not boring. Even the sleepier towns have
opportunity for entertainment and yes, culture. It’s a great
place for family (Case in point: Grandville, MI posts signs all
over town saying things like "Grandville values faith,
family, responsibility, caring, and commitment."), yet even
the hippest single person can find something fun to do here.
Next time my fellow city slickers feel the need to bash
"America’s Heartland," I hope they’ll book a
flight, instead . . . but take it from me—fly United.
Kirsten's Fan Club
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