It is widely said that people from Nebraska are lovely and generous. Maybe it was just a stereotype, but, boy, did I need that stereotype to be true.
I was driving alone from New Jersey to Salt Lake City and I kind of miscalculated the cash thing. Davenport, Iowa, was about halfway to my destination, so one-quarter of my money should have been gone. But no matter how many times I counted and recounted my remaining bills on the rumpled motel comforter, I was missing a third of it. Staying in motels every night and eating out three times a day was expensive, apparently.
But Nebraska was one state over — and I had a mooching plan in place. I didn’t know if my plan would work, but I had to try. My bankroll was depending on it. Before I checked out, I made a call to Lincoln. Brian, my college friend, lived there. I hadn’t spoken to him in years.
Brian was an interesting person. He entered Carnegie Mellon University – one of the nation’s finest engineering schools – planning to study engineering, a career that was always in demand and paid very well. Midway through his sophomore year, however, Brian had an epiphany. He decided to switch majors. He needed to pursue graphic design, a career that was hardly ever in demand – and on the rare occasion that it was, the pay was terrible. Carnegie Mellon University, it should be noted, is not one of the nation’s finest design schools. I know this first hand. I lived the Carnegie Mellon design experience and was underwhelmed by it.
Oh, and Brian also played the bagpipes.
Armed with these life skills, it should come as little surprise that two years after getting his degree, Brian was unemployed and living at home with his parents.
But he was also a Nebraskan. If the popular assumption held true, he would be lovely and generous.
My phone call to Brian went something like this:
Me: Hey, Brian, it’s Mike Allegra!
Brian: Mike! Oh, my God! I haven’t talked to you in… I don’t know how long! How are you?
Me: I’m good, I’m good! Listen, I’m driving across the country.
Brian: You are? Awesome!
Me: I’m in Iowa right now.
Brian: Stop by and see me!
Me: That’s exactly what I wanted to do! I should be in Lincoln at around dinnertime. You want to get dinner?
Me: Great! (Beat.) Oh, one more thing. Do you know of any good motels in town?
Brian: Oh, no, no, no. You’re not staying in a motel. You can stay with us!
Me: No, Brian. I couldn’t do that!
But of course could. And I did.
A few hours later I met Brian’s very nice and very Nebraskan parents. They were lovely and generous.
“Driving across the country! My goodness!” Brian’s mom said. “You’re a long way from home. You must have dirty laundry.”
My brain jumped for joy. More mooching!, it shouted. OK. Play it cool. Just like you did with that motel B.S.
“I have some laundry,” I said. This was a bit of an understatement as pretty much everything in my suitcase was dirty by now. “After dinner I was going to ask Brian to point me to a laundromat.”
She waved my comment away as if it was a lazy mosquito. “Oh, stop it! Put your dirty clothes right here. I’ll do them while you and Brian catch up.”
“No, I couldn’t!” I protested.
But of course I could. And I did.
So, while Brian’s mom scrubbed nearly 1,000 miles of dusty road out of socks that smelled like regurgitated corn chips, Brian showed me the city.
Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, was a lot smaller than I had anticipated. It wasn’t a city at all, really. It resembled the downtown of a charming suburb that had found prosperity but had yet to discover ostentation. In its unique way, it was kind of perfect.
“Burger place, OK?” Brian asked.
“Sure!” I said, even though I knew I should’ve said no. I had grown a bit too acquainted with red meat on this particular journey. This awful diet, coupled with countless hours of sitting behind a steering wheel, was starting to cause me a bit of discomfort.
To be frank, I hadn’t pooped since Baltimore. But I ignored my rebellious lower intestine. I sensed another opportunity to mooch and that was where I placed my undivided attention.
Play it cool, my brain said. Now go get a free burger.
Oh, and a milkshake. I wanna milkshake, it added.
We trundled into a restaurant designed to mimic the neon and chrome feel of a ‘50s drive-in. As I held the door open for Brian, I said, rather off-handedly, “My treat.”
“No,” he replied, a hint of firmness in his voice. (Just a hint, mind you. Brian was Nebraskan, after all.) “You’re in my town. My treat.”
“No, Brian. You’re doing so much already. We’ll split the bill.”
“No. My dad even told me to buy your meal.”
“That’s really nice of him, but I couldn’t.”
But of course I could. And I did.
Under these happy circumstances I thought it was appropriate to order a bacon cheeseburger deluxe. With a milkshake, of course. And some extra onion rings on the side. All the food was piled high in merry, red plastic baskets the size of office garbage cans. I hadn’t eaten so much since the previous Thanksgiving.
Brian and I talked and reminisced and laughed for hours. We just picked up where we left off our senior year of college. Brian really was a good guy.
Halfway through the meal, I excused myself to go to the men’s room. The lone stall was occupied, which was fine, for my lower intestine remained plugged up and petulant. I did my business at the urinal.
That was when I noticed the wallet on the edge of the sink. It was stuffed with so much cash, it was about as fat as the burger I had just forced down my gullet. I assumed the wallet belonged to the guy in the stall. But, if so, why would it be siting on the sink out of his view where anyone could just grab it? Why wasn’t it in the stall? With him? In his pants pocket?
I was horrified that anyone anywhere would ever do such a stupid thing.
For a moment I thought I might have wandered into a police sting. But judging by the noises Mr. Monopoly was making in the stall, the guy was clearly not prepared to take down a potential thief.
At this point in the story I would like to point out that, as a rule, I do not chat with people in restrooms. I hate it. I avoid it at all costs. But if ever there was an occasion for me to do so, it was now.
“Um. Sir? Excuse me. Is this your wallet?”
The man’s strained, tremulous voice echoed off the tiles. “Hm? Oh, on the sink? Yeah… That’s mine.”
I had startled him in the middle of his business. The awkwardness was not lost on either of us.
“Do you, um, want your wallet in the stall? With you?”
“No. Uh. No. It’s fine. If… If you’ll excuse me…”
Red faced, I apologized for my interruption, washed up, and returned to my table, leaving the rich bounty behind to bewilder some other passerby.
I just had to share my new anecdote with Brian. But when I did, I was surprised to discover that the story didn’t surprise him at all.
“We don’t live in fear here,” he said.
“I don’t live in fear in New Jersey, either, but I don’t leave my wallet out like that.”
“Why not?” Brian asked.
“Because I don’t want anyone to take it!”
“That’s a kind of fear, though, isn’t it?” he asked.
“No. It’s common sense.”
“You lock your car, you lock your house, right?”
“Even though you live in a safe town, right?”
“Why? Because you’re afraid something will get stolen.”
OK. Yes. I am. But leaving a wallet on a men’s room sink? That’s just –”
“That’s a little extreme, even for around here,” Brian admitted. Then he smiled. “But it does give you a pretty good idea of what Lincoln is like.”
It sure did. And for some reason, it made me not like Lincoln very much. The people here were too alien. Too trusting. Too innocent. Too nice. By comparison, I was a selfish, manipulative turd. Lincoln, in it’s inoffensive, kindly way, called attention to who I was — and I hated who I was.
“Brian,” I said. “I want to pay the bill.”
“Already got it, buddy,” he replied.
I returned to Brian’s house to find my clothes cleaned and folded on the guest room bed. Brian’s mom even folded my underpants.
This was all too much. Right then and there I decided to leave first thing in the morning. Dawn. I would graciously refuse breakfast, thank them all repeatedly and profusely for their generosity, and head west in search of more corrupt places where my casual misanthropy would be the rule rather than the exception.
But I was more tired than I knew — and the bed was more comfortable than anything I had laid on in the past week. I awoke at 9:45. I was greeted by an empty house.
I found two notes on the kitchen table. The first was written in a pristine, near calligraphic cursive. It was from Brian’s mom. In it, she apologized that she and her husband had to leave for work. Then she invited me to stick around and make myself breakfast. “Just close the door behind you when you’re ready to leave,” she wrote.
The second note was in Brian’s hand. He wrote how happy he was to have seen me. His note contained an apology, too, for he neglected to tell me the night before that today was his first day at a new job. Brian was working as a designer at last.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
Nebraskans were more lovely and generous than I could have possibly imagined. I didn’t belong here.
Time to go, my brain said. I hoisted my bag — now filled with clothes that were clean, folded, and smelling like a spring breeze — and headed for the front door.
But I paused in the foyer to listen to my brain once more.
I’m kinda hungry, it said.
Brian’s mom said it was OK, it said.
Do you think you could find some frozen waffles? it asked.
But of course I could. And I did. And, despite my troubled conscience, they were delicious.