The nicest people

On a flight from El Paso to Phoenix I hear of these elusive folk. They live in Lubbock, I am told, and serve the greatest steak. The whole town, it seems, is filled with them, kind and compassionate to strangers, traveling businessmen. The revelation isn’t surprising, I’ve had other close encounters.

On the next flight, Phoenix to San Francisco, the topic comes up again unbidden. In Detroit, I hear, despite the conditions, that the nicest people have arrived again, in fact won’t leave. They are the friendly folk who work hard to keep the city functioning.

What is it about these people, I do not ask, that makes them the world’s nicest? This is a familiar question to me, something I wonder of hot dog stands, burger joints, and ice cream parlors: how is this world ranking calculated? Where is the committee?

On a flight from Salt Lake to Portland I learn of small towns far beneath us, home to people I’ll probably never meet. They are filled, I am told, with gentle, compassionate neighbors who are kind to passers by.

In Salt Lake I hear of the strangers who pile in to town for a Megadeth show, coming from the wilderness in camo and tattoos, in pickup trucks and Hummers. In much of a month of traveling it is one of the few moments of distaste I encounter. Despite our differences it seems that we are creatures of great love, of appreciation for the places we do not live and their inhabitants.

And yet under the weight of repetition I realize I have these conversations mostly with those who have just left the place we discuss, or who are from there. In neither case would they settle in these towns of kindness. What does this say about our tolerance, that we speak well of Lubbock, of El Paso, of Greeley, as long as the wheels are up.

As long as we’re able to get out one flight earlier on Thursday, back to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, we can be kind.

As for myself, I think of the people of Ithaca often, of Lansing, and my old home town. Waitresses, cooks, business owners, farmers, and neighbors there who represent the place to me. I think of those long since reduced to Facebook photos and birthday greetings, to the occasional memory. Are they too the nicest people? Would they be who I spoke of on the plane, sharing with a stranger after a successful sales meeting, on the way home to my family? Or is the story instead of a place visited only briefly, with surprising kindness true or not? Is nice the only word we have to describe those we can not fathom, folk we have no knowledge of how to be?

This later I suspect is the truth of these airborne conversations. The people of Lubbock may indeed be the world’s nicest, as promoted. More likely though they are simply people, a collection of lives tied loosely to some inhabitable ground by a series of mostly unrelated accidents that befell their ancestors. The same as Lansing, the same as Phoenix or San Francisco.

With the seemingly-agreed-upon exception of New York, the world’s nicest people appear as we depart their town, a product of memory and heightened emotion. As the ground approaches and the conversation in each shared row of seats falters, these people recede from our consciousness. By the time we’ve reached our cars, taxis, and trains the nicest folk we’ve ever met are no more real than the conversation that spawned them, some thirty thousand feet above the ground.