I recently spent about a week in Chicago for a chilly spring break trip. Strangely, not counting layovers, I'd never been to Chicago before, even though it's so close to St. Louis. To me, one of the best parts about going somewhere new is coming home and seeing where you're from in a new light. This trip was no exception.
Of course, there are a lot of ways to compare and contrast Chicago and St. Louis, but one thing really stuck out to me. I'd never noticed it before, but after being in Chicago, it was immediately palpable. It wasn't the sort of subtle nuance that leaves you scratching your head, thinking "Hmmm ... something's different here, but I can't quite put my finger on it." It was so obvious that I'm surprised I haven't heard anyone else mention it. I'm talking about the way people relate to each other on the street.
In Chicago, when people get on the El, they instantly become stone faced. Their eyes glaze over or are studiously averted downward. Up go their interaction shields and cloaks of invisibility, and the train ride proceeds in absolute silence. If anyone were to speak, I think it would scare the bejeesus out of the other passengers locked away in their self-contained bubbles.
In contrast, buses and trains in St. Louis are moving parties. There are almost always a few conversations going on. Often, they're loud and entertaining enough to be considered performances. Unlike buttoned-up Chicago, there's a sense that something sublimely bizarre is just about to happen. When my ride picked me up at the Grand MetroLink station after my return flight, there was an old man in a wheelchair who had either fallen asleep or passed out by the bus shelter and rolled out into the street. A security guard was trying to wake him up, to no avail. Welcome home!
It's not just mass transit that brings out the talkers in St. Louis. People here say "hi" or at least acknowledge your presence with a nod or a look when you pass them on the sidewalk. Yesterday, while walking my dogs three blocks down Gustine to Tower Grove Park and back, six people said "hi" or engaged me in a conversation. I only knew one of them. The funny thing is, I'm not very outgoing. All six of those interactions were initiated by the other person.
I didn't think that was worth noting until I went to Chicago, where people seem to have no awareness of what's going on around them. It's as though Chicagoans regard the proximity of other people as an unpleasant side effect of living in a big city. I spent most of my time in Chicago downtown in the go-go center of commerce, but the same standoffish attitude seemed to prevail in the hot Wrigleyville neighborhood. (As an aside, directly across the street from the entrance to Wrigley Field there's a McDonald's surrounded by a giant surface parking lot. And St. Louis looks up to Chicago as a model of How a City Ought to Be? Yeesh.)
I can think of lots of other recent examples that highlight St. Louisans' irrepressible friendliness. The day after I got home from Chicago, I was backing into a tight parallel parking space, and a guy walking down the sidewalk stopped to guide me and offer a critique of my performance. The last time I picked up my dogs from the groomer, a grown woman in the passenger seat of a passing car leaned her whole upper body out of the window and yelled, "I like your doooooooogs!"
Walking around St. Louis, it's easy to find someone trying to talk his way out of trouble or into a dollar. The streets are full of wandering minstrels offering their street-level commentaries about the day's events to anyone who will listen. It's no wonder that there are so many rappers in a city that loves to talk. You could ask the most thugged-out OG for directions, and he'd probably flash a gold-toothed grin before helping you out and throwing in his personal evaluation of your destination. In Chicago, most people would pretend they didn't hear you.
How to explain St. Louis' loquacity? Maybe it's true what they say, and St. Louis is the northernmost Southern city, hospitality and all. Or maybe it's part of our cultural heritage as a majority African-American city. It could be part of our identity as a big small town. Perhaps St. Louisans only seem talkative compared to Chicagoans because the cold March weather had frozen the tongues of our neighbors to the north. In any case, I'm glad to be down home in St. Louis, where the people and the weather are warmer.