Americans still finding ways to smile

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, September 8, 2010

So, how was your summer? I just finished a three-week trip, mostly by car, covering thousands of miles and sampling hundreds of opinions.

I went to big cities — LA, Chicago, Washington, New York and Boston — and small towns — from Lancaster, Calif. to Lenox, Mass. And what I found in my unscientific sample was that despite horrible economic conditions and political unrest, Americans remain remarkably resilient.

Maybe I was influenced by late summer’s burst of perfect weather and resulting Kodachrome views — from the 95th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago looking out over a glistening Lake Michigan, to the lawn at Tanglewood in Lenox, as the Boston Symphony concluded its season with Beethoven’s rousing “Ode to Joy.”

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Perhaps it was the mercifully peaceful behavior of Glenn Beck’s throng in Washington which, considering the opinions unleashed, could have been much worse.

Maybe it was President Obama going on TV to declare that the most nightmarish aspects of the fighting in Iraq seem to be behind us.

Or maybe it was just that the ice cream at Handel’s landmark stand in Youngstown, Ohio, was so pleasing on an evening when the breeze was warm and the mint chip sweet.

With gas prices lower than last summer (although it’s hard to fathom why a gallon cost me $2.57 in Massachusetts and $3.19 in Connecticut), many Americans are on the road. In some spots the traffic is jammed, but often for good cause, since federal stimulus money is funding some 12,000 highway projects and creating construction jobs along the way.

Still, nearly 15 million Americans are out of work, and many are hurting because of it. I saw a shopping plaza not far from Tanglewood that’s now 75 percent vacant.

Even on bucolic Main Street in New Canaan, Conn., family-owned shops are closing at an alarming rate.

Up and down the Salinas Valley in Central California, where the air is thick with dust, thousands of workers dot the fields, with scarves protecting their faces and hats blocking the sun, hunched over for hours to pick our lettuce and broccoli.

They ride to and from the fields in old buses that look just like the vehicles used to transport prisoners to nearby Soledad prison. At least they’ve got jobs.

At O’Toole’s in Chicago, diehard fans continued to cheer for their hapless Cubs, even as the manager, Lou Piniella, appeared on the TV screen in tears to say goodbye following a 16-5 loss to the Braves.

Despite the recession, there were big crowds at the mall in Providence, R.I., with the wait for a table at the Cheesecake Factory running an hour or longer, as many people enjoyed an end-of-summer treat.

At all these stops I used my own Smile Index to measure the mood of people I met. Most seemed resigned. There’s almost a palpable sense that we’re all in this together, and it shows up in the way folks smile and say hello.

Indeed, it was all on display Saturday morning at the Cafe on the Common in Mansfield, Mass., where the breakfast is terrific and the cheerful service is even better.

It was the first week of school football, and the place was packed. But those seated at the window could look straight across the town green at families standing in the sun, waiting for a free meal at the food pantry run by a local church.

A few miles up the road in Norton, a guy was standing at an intersection with a folding table and a large poster that read: “Stop to Impeach Obama.” I didn’t stop to talk, but I could see he wasn’t happy.

That’s too bad, because America’s got a lot going for it, and President Obama isn’t part of the problem. He’s helping to provide the solutions. What I see is a nation that feels slightly safer, resigned to tough it out, and hoping we’re turning the corner.

That same week, as the President returned from his own vacation, he got a look at the new rug in the Oval Office on which appear five memorable quotes from great Americans.

One is from Teddy Roosevelt: “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.”

And whether your vantage point is an exit on the interstate, or standing on the White House rug, the vision is of renewed hope in America.

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He’s also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” A collection of his DVDs is available at