My ’80s hair metal friend Mike and I used to drive up and down the streets of Des Moines, just passing the time in a city known for its fertile women and large insurance companies.
We had a system: Mike looked out for the women and I looked between the insurance buildings for a job I might be able to keep for more than two weeks.
We passed by our friends’ houses, our rivals’ houses and the old folks’ houses.
We honked at the old folks. With a blind kindness particular to the Midwest, they just turned around and waved, never really knowing who it was.
We passed the Glendale Cemetery a lot. We both have friends buried there — one the victim of a tragic high school car accident, the other a recent war hero. Across the street is another reminder of death — the house where a friend shot himself to escape his life.
One spring day, we drove north up Hickman Road until we reached Merle Hay Road, when I saw, standing in the grassy median to our left, a glimpse of some shabby clothes with a black man inside. He was dressed in black jeans and a tattered red flannel, stooping at the waist, waving his long dark arms. It could only be . . . Smiley!
I was riding shotgun in Mike’s yellow Mustang Convertible and before he could refuse, I slammed my hand on the horn. The stoplight turned green and we passed through the intersection, honking. The black man turned, bent a little at the waist and waved to us. I caught not his eyes, but a huge ivory smile as we sped past. When I looked back he had already turned to wave at other strangers trapped in their cars.
We moved a few miles down the road when I realized … we were smiling too.
I think the world of Smiley. I don’t know him too well and I don’t know if he recognizes me, but Smiley makes me happy. He is like Des Moines’ mascot or something.
Every cool city has a popular nonconformist: New Haven, Connecticut has Margaret the Shakespeare Lady; Austin has the homeless cross-dresser Leslie; New York City’s Times Square has, among other mavericks, the Naked Cowboy.
They become icons — showing the rest of us what our city would look like if it were embodied in flesh and blood.
Smiley represents the best quality of Des Moines: its friendly people. And who is more friendly than Smiley?
Smiley’s affection for the human race is not well understood. Everyone thinks they know his story and the stories run the gamut from poor homeless man to eccentric rich guy.
It puzzles me why we have to find an explanation for him. Like something is wrong with traveling the city and waving at people. If I thought I could survive doing that, I’d be right there beside him in a chicken costume, making people laugh. Maybe it is the rest of us — with our road rage, work-related stress and money worship — that are crazy. Smiley seems to be truly free and living his life.
I think the most significant thing about Smiley is what happens after you pass him, after his waves and wide smile, after all the honks and yelling. Three minutes down the road and you’re still smiling.