My mom took me grocery shopping the day I got back from Door County in late July. We navigated the aisles of the Jewel-Osco around busy Sunday shoppers; I was relieved to finally be back in the city; she picked up food with exasperation and a furrowed brow I’ve come to find endearing.
“I don’t understand how you two enjoy this city,” she said with a frown. “People are so rude.”

A lot of things had changed in my life just two months prior: I went from a 34-woman house on a busy Greek street to a basement apartment on a quiet Andersonville one-way. All my time was no longer spent in the ugly black box known as Meredith on the Drake campus, but instead…an ugly black box on a business campus in a Chicago suburb. And during the month of May, I shifted from full-time student to full-time working stiff.

But although I was no longer mastering the ins and outs of AP style or figuring out how to obtain court records — skills that will likely serve me in the future — I learned a lot this summer as not a Drake student, but as a resident of a new place and as a real live grown-up.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Lawrence and Ashland avenues, Chicago

Our Lady of Lourdes, Chicago

I figured out very quickly, for example, that the rear two cars of the Metra are off the platform at Clybourn, which translates into Move up. You can’t get off the train if you’re back there, stupid. I learned to appreciate the beauty of blonde brick. I came to always have cash if I was going to be leaving Andersonville, Ravenswood or Lincoln Square, because public transit is generally not card-friendly.

I discovered that men who are perfect on paper are not necessarily perfect in the real world and that sometimes throwing away the entire notepad itself is the easiest and safest thing to do. I learned that friendship comes in unexpected people, from unexpected places and at unexpected times…but to take it when and where you can get it. (Sometimes you’ll even get waffle fries out of it.)

Most importantly, I found that being kind goes a long way. I found that wearing a smile, using your manners, being friendlier than the average human on an average day, has a big effect on a person, even (or especially) a passerby, someone waiting for the train beside you, a barista that’s looking particularly haggard, a stranger of interest you wouldn’t normally have the courage to speak to. I found that Chicago — but anyplace, really — becomes a lot smaller and a lot less intimidating when you become the best version of yourself and are able to experience the place in its friendliest, truest, realest state.

While my Metra savvy and penchant for previously unattractive architecture don’t hold the same value in Des Moines that they do in my city of choice, I’m glad to find that I’ve brought my smile back to Iowa. I took it to the pharmacy last night. That went well.

I get why my mother doesn’t understand why I enjoy the city. Chicago — any city, in fact — can be cold and dirty and unfriendly. Nobody likes that. If I had spent the summer with a knitted brow, people probably would have shoved past me too.

But I am a firm believer that if you love a city it will love you back, and if you’re friendly to its inhabitants they will return that favor. Start with a smile. Start at the grocery store.

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