NASHVILLE -- In the various regions of Hoops Nation, there are regional customs and rules that specifically dictate to whom people are nice, exactly how much they're nice to them, and when. In the Deep South, where I spent much of November, everybody's nice to you until you're not around. In the Northeast, where I'm from, we're all nice to our families and a select group of close friends, and intolerable assholes to just about everyone else. Out on the West Coast, where I went to college for seven years, everybody will be nice for 15 minutes.
The Midwest are the nicest people in the world to strangers. Perhaps you've sat next to a middle-aged lady from Indiana on an airplane, and shocked at the details of her life that she chose to share. ("Ovarian cancer surgery sounds like it was pretty bad, ma'am.") But back in the terminal, she won't make eye contact with you. Niceness is a very contextual thing for those folks.
These are all generalizations, but I've found them to be excellent rules of thumb in my two decades of travel around this land, and have served me well. But it took me a long time to figure out the New South, that wide strip of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and modern Georgia. It's an area that's changed rapidly in the last couple of decades; postmodern technology, outside talent and pro sports teams have helped the New South transcend the outdated notions that held its progress back for so long. It's been such a quick change that people from my neck of the woods are still unwilling or unable to accept it as anything other than Deliverance
country. Who's got the old ideas now?
I've learned that the New South operates under the rules of a Niceness Economy. In any transaction of any type, one party throws down the niceness chip -- usually a smile, a howdoyoudo, a friendly favor to a stranger. That's the signal for the other party to do the same, to match it. To not do so will unleash the fires of a passive-aggressive hell that's quite unique to the area. But if you meet the marker, especially if you double-down, amazing things start to happen. Business and productivity occur, and the power can be unstoppable. If you ask me, the Niceness Economy has spurred explosive growth all across the region, and is responsible for the Mid-South's general economic resiliency.
When I stepped off the plane from New Orleans on Black Friday, I went straight for the empty Nashville airport's rental car counter. (Extensive experience here has taught me that the BNA baggage claim can be incredibly slow.) There was no line, and I had to ding the service-please bell on the counter. A little old lady, about 4-foot-11 with her white hair up in a bun, emerged from the back office and slowly made her way over to the counter. She took my credit card and license, punched some keys on the computer one at a time with her index finger, and contemplated my two-week pre-paid economy rental. She excused herself, and toddled back into the office, where she disappeared for several minutes.
This moment, right here, is usually the time and place where my New York comes out. This is where I usually bitch and complain and ask for a supervisor, or anybody who can get me in and out of there in a reasonable timeframe. In the quiet airport, I could hear the distant announcement that the luggage from Southwest's New Orleans flight were available on the baggage carousel, and I felt myself getting angry and impatient. But then I remembered the rules.
When the lady reapparated five minutes later, she asked me how I was doing. I put one elbow up on the counter and made pleasant small talk. I told her I liked the changes to the airport (true), about how much turkey I ate the day before (foma
), and about the reason I was visiting town. I couldn't wait to visit my cousin Annie, who's studying to be a jazz flugelhorn player at Belmont (complete and total lie). All the while, she slowly punched the keys in the computer as I thought about my suitcase and garment bag spinning, spinning, spinning on the carousel, around and around.
Then she said, "Wait. Hold on a second."
She kept pressing buttons, one at a time, as she recounted her Thanksgiving with all her relatives. She named them all. Bobby and Billy and Joe Joe and... I smiled politely and nodded. Finally, the white slip of cardboard leapt from the terminal printer. She had me initial and sign it, and gave me the stock speech about declining the loss-damage waiver and returning the tank full.
"Sorry it took so long... I just couldn't bring myself to give you the car they first assigned you," she then explained. "I know you'll be driving it for a while, and I want to make sure I give you something that Annie will like too."
A full 15 minutes after I first approached the counter, I retrieved my bags from a pile of orphaned luggage beside Southwest's claim office, then I went across the way to the BNA rental car garage. There, in space 87, was a brand new 2010 Nissan Versa, with bits of the white plastic wrapper from delivery sprouting from the wheel wells and doors. I put Bally in the front seat, and turned the key.
There were just 22 miles on the odometer, most of which were probably put on the car at the factory. We'll put some digits on that, I thought.
At the singly-manned security gate, I was stuck behind somebody in a small SUV. The driver was gesturing animatedly. A large older gentleman in glasses and a brown security-company jacket was closely inspecting his license and paperwork. I couldn't remember anyone else at the counter, so I figured this chap was a No. 1 Club Gold Member who had gone right to his car. I guessed that he was unhappy with the service or something.
Finally, I rolled down the window, and put my elbow up on the frame as I pulled forward. "Good afternoon, sir," I said as I handed him my papers.
He was shaking his head. "Some people just aren't in the spirit yet, I suppose."
I smiled. "Give him time. I'm sure he'll come around."
The security guard smiled back, handed my papers without a glance, then placed a meaty hand on my left forearm and gave it a friendly and vigorous double-pat. "You have a happy holidays now."Choice Bally Pic of the Moment:
We're just now catching up after Technopalypse 2009, and looking forward to focusing back on storytelling rather than webserver moves. (Reminder: you can get a year of Basketball State
for $15.95, $4 off the regular price
, with promo code DREAMHOSTSUCKS). We took that Nissan Versa up to Miami of Hoops Nation last week, and saw Dayton grind out a win over the homestanding RedHawks. This was taken after the game by Steve "RedSteve" Gentile of the fine Miami HawkTalk
website, which has been a blog-friend of ours since Season 1.
Yes, that's Kenny Hayes
, Miami's senior point guard and key to the RedHawk season. His injury a year ago basically derailed the team's Mid-American Conference title hopes, and he was a "senior" last season too, so his eight games played put him juuuuust
below the limit for redshirting. Now he's back 100%, and he's scoring a team-high 12.8 ppg and averaging 4.1 assists, dishing the ball so well that Miami is the best shooting team among MAC members. Kyle's Basketball Travel Tip:
I want to talk about Walmart
for a second. Sure, it's evil and weird and they don't treat their employees like human beings. But only one thing matters to someone like me: it's a place where you can buy Sunny D, a shipping box and two Pilot Precise V7-RT pens at 3 o'clock in the morning, local time.
If life is a video game, Walmart Supercenters are like those little spinning coins on the pathside that you jump up to grab, and you get 100 supply points. Since there are fewer and fewer things that make us better than anyone else, Walmart is worth clinging to. In no other land on earth can you get anything you need every 30 miles.
Back in the old days, before I had to stop sleeping in the car due to health reasons, I spent a few nights in Walmart parking lots. There was once an "unspoken agreement" between the company and traveling folks (especially RV people): you could drop by and sleep overnight in the lot, and nobody would hassle you. This lasted until about 2007. I experienced the end of that, as our country's recent economic problems have pushed more locals into the lots. Nowadays, you can't sleep at Walmart anymore. They monitor the security cameras and send security out to knock on your window, and they'll even tow you (like they did to her
) if you don't listen twice the first time.
While I was driving from Indianapolis to Bowling Green the other day, I was thinking if I would be able to travel Mid-Majority-style 20 years ago. I don't think anybody could. They had Waffle Houses and parking lots and rental cars back then, and people got by without the internet, but they didn't have the big W -- the true difference between pioneer days and the 21st Century. So thanks, Walmart. You suck, but I love you.