This is the first time in my life I’ve ever lived in a small city. Population: 75,000.
Yet now I wonder how we managed to live in big cities for so long. (Mumbai population: 20 million.)
I love the energy and non-stop pulse of urban life, yet the loss of civility in overcrowded cities — lamented everywhere — becomes even more pronounced when you spend time in a smaller place.
I discovered this in Corvallis, Oregon (pop: 55,000).
Unable to find work in Portland, (‘the city where young people go to retire’, according to brilliant Portlandia writers), I traveled a few hours’ south to Corvallis for two job interviews.
This was my first clue about the generosity of smaller places.
Despite dozens of job applications, cover letters and resumes polished anew for each position, I was barely getting interviews in Portland. As soon as I started applying for work in smaller cities, the responses were better.
Didn’t get either job in Corvallis, but I discovered something even more valuable: Kindness.
Everywhere I went, people seemed sincere and friendly. I was rushing for morning coffee — that big-city lunge for latté — and a store owner stopped sweeping his sidewalk for a moment, just to say ‘good morning.’
No hype, no sales pressure — just a genuine greeting and a brief chat. It made all the difference in helping me relax on the way to my second interview.
Almost everyone I passed on the sidewalk said ‘hi’ or ‘good morning’ and smiled, as if I had ventured onto an old movie set. It was infectious: I started greeting strangers with the same warmth.
Later, while fumbling for change to buy a newspaper, a woman in a big, black SUV opened her window to ask if I needed help. Surprised, I showed the coins I had; she showed her change; and when we discovered I didn’t have the right combination, she just dumped quarters in my hand as if that was the most natural thing in the world. She even got out of the SUV to do this, and refused to take a dollar bill in exchange.
I thanked her as if I had never experienced generosity before. Truly. When does this happen?
(Coincidence: One front-page headline was about a surge in consumer confidence, despite high unemployment.)
I bought stuff for a picnic lunch at the farmers’ market, and was rewarded with free fruit by vendors. They rounded off my bill, below advertised prices, and just smiled when I offered to pay full price. OK, when does that ever happen?
At dinner, at a riverfront cafe bubbling with the laughter of young couples, a much-tattooed waiter paused to chat, despite a busy workload. Again, it seemed genuine, not just an effort to sell more, and certainly not to bother me.
I inhaled the cool, dusk air, thankful to sit outdoors and enjoy a healthy meal amid good company and big shade trees. I took in the soft sounds of the river, all the cyclists passing by on a city-made trail, and figured, time to try a smaller place.
It was the best decision.
TOMORROW: Our rediscovery of American goodness.