Last spring, with the sudden change from teaching at school to teaching online at home, I got pretty lonely. And I had a bit of extra time on my hands. To curb that loneliness/boredom, I looked to YouTube to cheer me up. I’d watch clips from musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis. Since I’m from St. Louis—well, from Ballwin, a suburb 40 minutes west of the city—watching these clips made me nostalgic for home, for the Midwest. Somehow, I fell down a rabbit hole of Midwestern-ness and came across the comedian/journalist Charlie Berens. Berens, a Wisconsin native, has his own YouTube channel, one that I found great solace in and many belly laughs from about a year ago.
Watching his videos last year, I felt like, even though I was from Missouri and he was from Wisconsin, I could relate with the Midwestern stereotypes that he mocked. Even now, I still find many of his satires spot-on. Then again, Midwesterners are complex and these brushstrokes don’t show the full person. Let’s unpack a few of his videos and, while we’re at it, a few moments from my life.
In Beren’s Midwest Nice Part 1
and Part 2
, he highlights familiar Midwestern tropes like being overly-helpful to your neighbors and friends; saying “hi,” “hello,” “howdy,” to everyone you see; giving a friendly wave to everyone else at a four-way stop, allowing them to continue, before you proceed driving; holding the door open for people, even if they’re a block away; getting trapped into long, overly-personal and confessional conversations with neighbors; being too nice when people are clearly stepping all over you (in his case, a lady is literally stepping on his foot); saying sorry to everyone and everything (including inanimate objects) even if you have no reason to be sorry.
Whenever I say “sorry” to someone—like when I nearly collide with a co-worker in the hallway—I always think of my mom. I can remember several instances where she’d correct, “If you accidentally run into someone, don’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ say ‘Excuse me.’ You didn’t do anything wrong.” I still say “sorry,” though, each time this happens.
The need to be overly-apologetic and overly self-effacing might be a Midwestern thing, but it might also be a “me” thing. I know plenty of non-Midwestern folks who are like this, too, and, I’m sure, they can relate with lots of the Midwestern stereotypes that I’m writing about here. Even still, I want to tie this “sorry-ness” to the Midwest. What is it about the Midwest, particularly the St. Louis region, that makes us so damn sorry all the time?
St. Louis is filled with Catholics. We have Catholic churches at nearly every corner; Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, even All-Boys and All-Girls Catholic High Schools (I went to one of them—Visitation Academy.) Many Catholics—especially school-aged ones—regularly go to confession. We atone for our sins, even if they’re as small as “I was disrespectful to my mom” or “I lied to my friend.” We are led into a room—the size of a telephone booth—and tell the priest why we’re bad. Why we’re sorry. This might be one reason why I am the way I am.
Am I annoyed that I’m overly polite? It depends on the situation. Today, for example, I cut in front of someone at the grocery store and the laundromat—I move too fast when I’m running errands—and I turned around and gave them a sincere, five-second look and said, “I’m so sorry.” Because I was. However, also today, while briefly stopping in a nearby park before turning around, a woman rather brashly came up to me, asking me to roll down my window, and said, “Can’t you read the sign? This parking lot is ONLY for people with horse trailers.”
“Oh! I was just checking my directions home before I left.” In that case, I didn’t say sorry. I had nothing to be sorry about. As I rolled up my window, as she walked away, as I made a U-Turn, I yelled, “BIIIIIITCH!” It felt so good.
One more thing about Midwest Nice. So many Midwesterners that I know are sweet to your face and then talk shit about you behind your back. So many Midwesterners that I know stuff their other emotions—you know, like sadness and anger—down, down, deep down until shocking, volcanic eruptions occur. Whenever this happened with my dad, my sisters and I got scared. Dad never gets mad. This is so weird. Whenever this happens with me, my friends and co-workers are stunned silent. In the six years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you like this before. It’s unsettling on both sides—theirs and mine—and reminds me to show everyone that I know a wider range of me.
Beren’s take on the Midwest Goodbye
takes it to an extreme and for good reason: it’s a satire. In the video, a working-class-looking guy tries to leave his friend’s house after having a beer and a chat. After trying hard to leave, his friend offers him another beer.
“Alright, one more and then I go,” he says. This exchange happens about ten more times. He tries to leave and then his friend offers him some brats. “Well, if you’re de-thawing them right now, I’ll have a couple.” His friend also gives him a bunch of rhubarb from his garden. He doesn’t want it, but he takes it anyway. “Guess I’ll be making pie,” he says. He keeps over-committing to social events. “The St. Aloysius Fish Fry? I’ll be there.” “The St. Luke’s Charity Softball Pub Crawl? Yeah, I’ll be there.” Then there’s the punchline, “Okay, I really got to go. Your first child’s only born once.” Even the punchline, which is meant to be literal, has that kind of Midwestern, cheesy masculine humor that I’m all too familiar with. This scene reminds me of my family.
My family was always the last one to leave a party. My mom’s side of the family, in particular, was a super kissy-kissy bunch. With each goodbye to grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and second-cousins, you’d give them a hug-and-a-kiss. That intimacy and love and beer-induced-drunkenness from the adults would, inevitably, prompt more conversation. I’d scope out my two sisters and my parents from across the room. After trying to leave the first time, we were all stuck in separate conversations. We’d say goodbye to another family member, and the same thing would happen all over again. It wasn’t until we were the only ones left at the party, that my parents would say, “Well, look at us. The last ones to leave the party again.” They almost said it like a badge of honor.
As an adult, I still have this problem. I’d love to be one of those people who can do the “Irish Goodbye” or “Ghost-it,” but, again, that wouldn’t be polite. What makes it even worse: I married another Midwesterner. He’s from Ohio, and he has just as hard a time making quick and graceful exits. Whenever we visit our older neighbor for dinner, we’re always making eyes at each other or giving knowing nudges that say, Time to go. But here’s the problem: neither of us wants to be the wet blanket.
“Well, thank you so much for dinner…”
“Yes, yes. Wait! Have I shown you these pictures?”
“Oh, no, not yet.”
(Thirty minutes pass.)
“Well, it's so great to see you…”
“Let me give you a few books before you leave.”
(Thirty minutes pass.)
You get the picture. Usually, we get the point where the other person has to say, “Well, I can tell I’m keeping you…”
“No, no, no, not at all,” we say in unison. What we really mean to say, “Yes, yes you have been keeping us. We’ve been trying to leave for a fricking hour. Boy, BYE!” We wish we could be like that. But: we’re Midwesterners.
In Midwest Cheap
, Berens piggy-backs off his friends’ Netflix and Disney Plus accounts; has a hard time giving things away to Goodwill; refuses to waste anything, using his soap until the last sliver and scraping the final bits of peanut butter from the jar; regifts Christmas and birthday presents; saves too many packets of ketchup and soy sauce, too many tiny bottles of hotel shampoo and conditioner. In other words, he’s cheap.
It’s important though to ask this question: why does this stereotype hold up? Coming from a blue-collar, middle-class upbringing, I can relate. My parents took out a second mortgage and constantly refinanced their home so that my sisters and I could attend a stellar Catholic, All-Girls’ High School and go to Liberal Arts colleges. In doing so, they had to pinch their pennies where they could. My family rarely went out for dinner, and when we did, my mom reminded us, “Nothing over six dollars” and “Order from the Kids’ menu as long as you can.”
Early on in High School, my friend Alex and her parents took me out to an Italian restaurant. It wasn’t fancy, per se, but the entrees—at $9-11—were kind of pricey for my family’s standards. Alex’s dad was a dentist, and, yeah, I’d say they were well-off if not wealthy.
“Get anything you want from the menu!” her parents encouraged.
I scanned the menu, looking for anything that was under $6. Mom’s orders.
“I’m not that hungry. I’ll just get the toasted ravioli.” (As an aside, toasted ravioli is a St. Louis thing. If you’re not familiar, here’s a quick summary a la the Internet: “Toasted ravioli is a breaded, deep-fried ravioli, usually served as an appetizer and with marinara sauce. It was created and popularized in St. Louis at two restaurants, Mama Campisi’s and Charlies Gitto’s, both located in an Italian-American neighborhood, ‘The Hill.’”)
For like five minutes, Alex’s parents and I battled it out: they genuinely wanted to treat me and I couldn’t be treated for anything over $6. I won the battle and was proud that I stood my ground. Even still, Alex’s lasagna looked really good.
“Do you want a bite?” she offered. Being the polite Midwesterner that I am, I couldn’t say no.
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