Wanderlust

Smiley of Des Moines, Iowa

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.

49 thoughts on “Smiley of Des Moines, Iowa”

  1. Heidi says:

    I absolutely love this, especially the idea of human mascots “embodying the flesh and blood of a city.”

    I also LOVE your description of Des Moines.

  2. Lerman says:

    Smiley is awesome. I’ve been seeing that guy around for years. I hope he never leaves.

  3. Chris Clement says:

    These people also serve to remind us just how fortunate we are in spite of current situations. I will never forget losing a job, feeling sorry for myself, driving in pouring rain to an interview and seeing a 1-armed guy on a bicycle.

  4. Ken Richards says:

    I had a profound awakening to Jesus Christ and shed my sin a month ago. Today, as I was walking (I am in Afghanistan right now) I thought about Smiley for some reason. It occurred to me that Smiley’s mission is to just wave at everyone he sees. He seeks places where he can wave to as many people as possible. I do not know his story other than to know everyone seems to know him and that everyone has only good to say about him. He seems to have everything he needs by simply waving at passing humanity.

    Why did I suddenly think about Smiley as I was pondering the wonder of Jesus halfway across the world from Des Moines? It struck me that Smiley could be expressing God’s joy the best way he knows how. Whatever it is, Smiley is a blessing and I believe he has Jesus all over him!

  5. William says:

    Hello,
    I am calling from Belgium and have white hair ! I am a man 87 years old.
    During the war a G’I TOMMY SMALL from DES MOINES IOWA slept some weeks at my home.
    We wrote some letters when he was back at home, even his father wrote to my father. Hoping he is in life still, should it be possible that you could look at the town hall to get his adress. He was small and thin !
    Thanks a lot.
    William

  6. Linea Vetil says:

    I had a profound awakening to Jesus Christ and shed my sin a month ago. Today, as I was walking (I am in Afghanistan right now) I thought about Smiley for some reason. It occurred to me that Smiley’s mission is to just wave at everyone he sees. He seeks places where he can wave to as many people as possible. I do not know his story other than to know everyone seems to know him and that everyone has only good to say about him. He seems to have everything he needs by simply waving at passing humanity.
    +1

  7. Jeff says:

    Smiley’s name is Vernon Evans. He used to hang out in the 7-Eleven by Drake University where I worked, keeping me company, sometimes all night. The happiness he exudes is real and he became a good friend of mine. I knew him for nine years and bump into him now and then. He is now very close to 60 years of age. He is a devout Christian and is not ashamed to say it. He collects cans but was not homeless when I knew him, living with his mother and brothers. That was quite awhile ago though. I hope he is okay and I am sure he is still smiling and waving because he genuinely loves people. He’s the real deal.

    1. Alex Pickett says:

      Hey Jeff, Thanks for the post. I think one of my friends did mention his name is Vernon. Yep, Smiley is a righteous dude. He’s got a special place in heaven for sure.

  8. Ken Richards says:

    It is wonderful to hear Smiley is indeed a strong Christian and to have that confirmed by those who know him a little better than most. Smiley is doing God’s work in a very unique way. I pray for all the blessings of the Father upon him.

  9. Jeff says:

    I gotta write again. I hope that’s permitted. I wrote awhile back. I have been thinking about Smiley a lot lately. I worked at the Drake 7-11 (it’s a Kum & Go? now) from 1990 to 1994. Smiley was a big part of me. I wore an Andrew “Dice” Clay haircut, dark sunglasses, and played the blues on my stereo in the store. The customers knew me as “Elvis”. Smiley loved blues. Particularly Muddy and Jimmy Reed. I blew harp. I was 27. He was 38. I had an alcohol problem, but Smiley sort of kept me “grounded”. I later quit drinking. We smoked cigars together (my fault), but I’m not sure he smoked his. Smiley was received with mixed feelings. The Drake kids loved him. Some folks were scared of him or didn’t much care for him. Some people accused him of being on drugs, but he just told them he was high on life. Beleive me, he can handle himself! Anyway, I miss seeing him, and would love to see him again. If I go to heaven, he’ll be there to greet me, and we’ll play blues. God won’t mind. Not long ago, Smiley’s brother and best friend Tommy died. He’ll be there too.

    1. Alex Pickett says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Jeff!

      1. Toni says:

        Thanks for this website and thanks for all the comments & info. I’ve been waiving and smiling back for many years! I alway feel uplifted by each encounter. I asked him to dance at the State Fair one year & we had a really great time. The last report I had on him was that he was living in a Supported Community Living home. I saw his photo in my sons Ruby Van Meter yearbook

    2. janet says:

      SMYLLEY IS IN A NURSING HOME IN POLK CITY I SEEN HIM LAST WEEK HE LOOKS GOOD

    3. Joyce Pardock says:

      Smiley is doing great. He is my brother’s best buddy at Polk City Nursing home. Smiley entertains Ronnie, my brother. Smiley is still smiling and always happy. I play music for him from my phone and we do a lot of dancing. He is very religious and prays for those that are at nursing home that are sick and everyone in this country.

      1. Alex says:

        That’s so good to hear he is doing OK there. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Mandy Mason says:

    Now this is stuff i want to read about!!!!

  11. Lionel says:

    I feel like I first sae Smiley in the EARLY 90’s. Crazy and awesome he’s still around

  12. Ken Richards says:

    I hope Smiley is doing well these days. I have been out of the country so long I just don’t know what’s happening in DSM these days. I just know I will see him in Heaven though.

  13. nicole williams says:

    love this guy!

    1. jr says:

      .he is a great guy .i love to see him .always makes me smile no matter what kind of day i have had .last seen him last fall .i am sure he is doing fine no matter where he is ,
      .

    2. Toni says:

      Me too!!!!!!!!

  14. paige says:

    I am 20 years old and my mother remembers smiley from when she was younger! I saw him one day just waving away at me smiling. My mom said theres smiley and we waved. I told her to pull over. I took my picture with him. I wanted proof that there was such thing! And just like you’ve said, even after i got in the car, buckled my seatbelt, and we got 3 blocks down the road i realized me AND my MOM were still smiling! The world needs more smileys.

  15. paige says:

    I am 20 years old and my mother remembers smiley from when she was younger! I saw him one day just waving away at me smiling. My mom said theres smiley and we waved. I told her to pull over. I took my picture with him. I wanted proof that there was such thing! And just like you’ve said, even after i got in the car, buckled my seatbelt, and we got 3 blocks down the road i realized me AND my MOM were still smiling! The world needs more smileys!

  16. Ryan Owens says:

    I’ve Lived in Des Moines my whole life. I remember the first time i saw Smiley. My dad and I were driving down Euclid. He was on the corner by Tasty Taco’s and was waving and smiling to all the people that were driving down the road in such a hurry. My dad honked the horn, he turned and waved and of course being the kid I was waved back. As my dad and I were on our way home from the Hy-Vee down the street my dad stopped at the Burger King and bought some cheese burger’s. As we passed Smiley for the second time my dad pulled into the Tasty Taco’s parking lot and gave him to sandwich’s. That was when I was 8 years old and I’m now 24 and I still honk and wave to him wherever I see him. He is the greatest representation of the people and when he is gone I will mourn for him but until that time he will spread good cheer and smiles to all the people he waves to on the streets. Keep on smiling Smiley!

  17. Jessi says:

    I grew up seeing Smiley. Mom worked overnights at the Deed Moines Register and step dad delivered the register. Saw him entry day since I was 4 years old. Talked to him so many times. He really is the happiest person! Many people think he is homeless but he isn’t. He just loves to spread happiness 🙂

  18. Carmen Hood says:

    Smiley is a wonderful happy person and he makes the rest of the world happy. God bless him.

  19. leonard says:

    Smiley remembers everyone he waves at. He is a very kind person who I hope never encounters any harm. When u r haveing a bad day, seeing smiley will bring a smile to ur face.
    Trust me when I say if u approach him he will remember Who u are. Thank u smiley.

  20. Jamaal Long says:

    I’ve been seeing smiley around since I was attended Tiny Tots Daycare center. I’m now 36 years old now and Smiley has been waving at passing cars for years, it really gives me joy to know that over the years god has protected him and kept him safe. For a while I stopped seeing him in the “Hood” and I thought something happened to him I was worried. One day my family and I were riding out to the mall either Merle Hay or Valley West and guess who we ran into, Smiley so when I say god has protected him I mean it. Just think if all the people he’s waived at and all the cars he’s been close to and none in mean none of them has ran him over or anything.

  21. Peggy says:

    My friends and I have always thought of Smiley as an angel! He’s always right where he needs to be when he needs to be there.

  22. James Eginoire says:

    Smiley is still around in Beaverdale. I pretty much just thought I was humoring him by waving back, assuming he was “different”.
    It wasn’t until I was driving my daughter home from school when she lit up, excitedly saying ” there’s smiley daddy”, as she waved at him.
    It was then that I realized what a true joy he is.
    That was probably over 10 years ago, and my daughter is a graduate of Drake University.
    Smiley is still bringing joy to Des Moines. Thanks for posting this.

  23. Craig says:

    I have lived on the East side (by Iowa State Fair Grounds) since 1999 and Smiley always made his rounds during the 11 days of the fair every year. About 2-3 years ago- there was no presence of Smiley. The neighborhood began asking his where abouts. The people he touched were truly concerned about his health and status. My kids would always go can shopping and have the .05 cans/bottles for Smiley and held onto the large garbage sacks until he graced us with his presence the following year. No matter what his lifestyle Is or what rough life he might have been a part of- he will always have a place ready for him once the Lord takes him off this unforgiving planet. For those that have never been graced with his smile or his outspoken discussions regarding family- your missing out. This man deserves a feel good story done on him and his adventures.

  24. Wendy nevitt says:

    ive known and seen Smiley for years and he’s ALWAYS making everyone smile! I moved out of Des Moines quite a few years ago,I live about an hour out now,and I look for him every time I go to the city! He is an awesome man,makes my day to see him and to smile an wave back at him!!!! Thank u for posting this on Smileys behalf,he deserves to be noticed!!!!! Thank u!

  25. MissyD says:

    Come show Smiley some love, he is in a nursing facility in Polk City and would LOVE mail and smiles!!!

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/778173505596197/

    Polk City nursing & rehab on 1002 West Washington Street. Polk City Ia. They posted his address and said he would love to receive mail.

  26. stephanie says:

    Smiley recently had a stroke everyone ): if anyone wants to see him he is residing at The Polk City Nursing Home recovering. Go see him!! It would make him so happy!!

  27. Mary Dorweiler says:

    Awwww Smiley..Whenever my kids and I were having a bad day there he was, smiling and waving making me smile, giggle and wave back… Without even realizing it I was soon humming along to the radio and forgot why I was having a bad day… He was and is an inspriration to all… It helps me to realize that God works in all of our lives in different ways… I wish there were more people like Smiley..Just to wave and smile completed him…
    God Bless You Smiley, wherever you are…
    Mary

    God

  28. Donna Cowles says:

    Smiley has been around since I was young. God bless you Smiley

  29. Jeremiah Halldin says:

    Smiley is the best. I can’t think of a better mascot for Des Moines. Smiley4Life. ☺

  30. Cory says:

    Smiley is awesome!!

  31. Lee says:

    Cirrus Minor even wrote a song about him. I think you can still go on their YouTube page and see him on stage with them as they performed the song. He’s just a great guy

  32. Melanie Reece says:

    I remember asking Smiley backs in about 1988 why and how does he smile so much. He said softly and sincerely “when you keep a song in your heart that keeps a smile on your face”. I will never forget that lovely smiling man!

  33. Melanie Reece says:

    I remember once back in about 1988, I asked Smiley why or how was it that he always seemed to be smiling. He said to me softly and sincerely “When you have a smiley song in your heart, you’ll wear a smile on your face.” I will always remember that sweet, smiling, and loving man.

  34. Marium says:

    My day always gets brighter when I see Smiley! He is a amazing human bean!

  35. Christine says:

    I remember SMILEY walking the streets around East High School, when I was there 20+ years ago.. most days we would watch him wave to the cars that would pass by, greet the state employees that were walking from the bus stop to the Walnut building; and we would laugh – make jokes- SMILEY became a familiar face over the 4 years of my high school days. His personality and over all look at life – what comes natural and normal for him, is a challenge for most people. We came to understand him as we got to know the person that was different from us, even to say that SMILEY was our friend

  36. Theresa says:

    Smiley is also an excellent dancer. He goes to the fair and stays on the dance floor. The crowd loves him! The whole time dancing Smiley is smiling.

  37. jeff says:

    Just as with everyone else, I also had the pleasure of witnessing such a joyous man. It was very enlightening seeing Smiley waving and pointing gleefully at every passerby. Having not seen him in a long while, I began to wonder if he was still out there. Through asking many acquaintances I have learned that Smiley is living at a nursing home/care center in Polk city.

  38. Melissa says:

    Smiley will be at Ryans Steakhouse I’m Dsm/Urbandale on Dec 29 2015 from 5-8pm to celebrate his bday. Let’s see how many people we can get to stop in and smile and wave to aman who has brought so much peace to so many people.

  39. Carin says:

    Smiley has been around since I first moved to Des moines in 1984. He use to hang out on 19th & forest and wave at all the cars & smile…don’t forget he use to clap & laugh. I was 5 when I first seen himy and I’m 37 now…. Last time I saw him was about a year and a half ago in front of Merle hay .I wonder what happened to him. He is truly part of Des Moines. If you don’t know smiley…you haven’t lived!! Such a personality and seen everyone equal. We need more people like him. The world would be a better place.

  40. Amy says:

    This is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it. He was a good person. He really could change your day around.

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