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, anyway.
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 line.
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.
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