Many beliefs are related to perceptions. In this week’s This I Believe Rhode Island essay, Julia Meylor Simpson takes issue with a perception about those of us who live here in the northeast.
My essay was one of the first chosen for this radio essay program on the local NPR station.
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“No wonder you’re so nice. You didn’t grow up here.”
“Midwesterners are such good people.”
“Easterners are all pushy and difficult.”
I’ve heard that same litany for twenty-eight years. It started when my zip code went from beginning with a five to a zero: from Iowa to New Jersey, and then Rhode Island for the past 21 years.
And, frankly, I’m tired of it.
My annoyance with Midwestern stereotypes by Easterners began years ago when I worked on a newspaper in South Jersey. One of the first anecdotes I heard came from a much older reporter, and it went like this: “I learned three things about guys from Iowa in the service—they all join the Navy, they all like popcorn, and they’re all nice.”
Of course, I could have tried to dissuade him right then and there. I knew plenty of Iowans in military drab green, a few more that hated picking hulls out of their teeth, and some rude creeps one town over back in high school. However, my father’s smiling face came to mind too quickly—a WWII Navy veteran, a connoisseur of Jolly Time popcorn, and a truly nice guy.
So why should I get all bent out of shape over a comment about affable Iowans? Shouldn’t I be pleased that my home state has such a benign reputation?
Well, being typecast as “nice” really isn’t the problem. What I still can’t fathom is why Easterners, especially Rhode Islanders, want to preserve their mystique as distant and reserved. Why don’t they want to be seen as “nice”?
After all, I know this pretense is all a sham. In fact, some of the nicest people I’ve known for almost half my life say “Americ-er” instead of “America,” share my late-found love for iced coffee, and weave through the throngs politely on July nights at Waterfire.
So, again, where are these nasty Rhode Islanders hiding out?
They weren’t my next-door neighbors who took care of my mail while away or who plied my daughters with ice cream cones.
Or local librarians who offered poems and favorite books, or my daughters’ teachers at the neighborhood elementary school who gave out hugs and called home with concerns
They aren’t co-workers who share anniversaries and baby showers and favorite recipes.
I still can’t find them in the coffee shop where employees know customers’ orders by heart or local restaurants where everyone is “Hon.”
Or at the high school track where an elderly gentleman walks every good morning in summer with headphones blaring operas, and who makes sure to nod his head and wave at me.
Okay, I’ll admit, there are a few out there.
After all, I’m still shocked when Rhode Island drivers nose their vehicles halfway into the street, simply expecting oncoming traffic to come to a halt. And I’ve overheard intimate details shouted on cell phones in long bank lines more than once.
Nonetheless, I’ve found the steely, ice-cold persona to be pure hype. Maybe it sells more Del’s lemonade—only in Rhode Island.
This I believe.