The St. Louis bus station after midnight was dingy and depressing. My money for bus fare had brought me this far, and now I was waiting for daylight to start hitch-hiking the next 200 miles into northwest Missouri, hoping for employment that would fund college tuition and fees for a second year. I was 19 years old, outside the two Carolinas for the first time ever, and fascinated by the new, mysterious, somewhat intimidating world around me. Tired as I was, I still absorbed every detail of my surroundings, including the loud, enthusiastic discussion by the foursome seated nearby.
The two middle-aged men, battered felt hats tilted back from their foreheads, did the talking, while the two women sat silently watching them, no doubt having heard it all before. The men were listing all the wonders of "the old country." In the old country, they said, in heavy accents, a man could make all the wine he wanted to make. In this country, not so. In the old country, the government didn't stick its nose into a man's private business. But in this country, it did. They went on at length. They never identified the old country, but wherever it was, I concluded that they believed it was the best place on earth. This country, not so much. I wondered why, if the old country was so great, were they sitting in a bus station in St. Louis, Missouri?
This small memory came to mind recently when a friend and I were discussing the alleged "survey" that claimed to have found that Columbus is among the 10 most miserable cities in the country. The two of us agreed that we think Columbus is a pretty good place to live. We wondered how the survey might have been conducted. The results didn't match our opinions at all. We both thought the whole thing was kind of nutty.
I first came to Columbus, with only time for a glance at it, 59 years ago. The next year I came for a long stay, and for an even longer one a few years after that. I found the city to be a pleasant place, with vestiges of the Old South, good and bad, still lingering, and with a hint of a cosmopolitan flavor and a touch of international influences threatening to come out of the shadows. I found the people generally to be friendly and welcoming, the climate natural to me, and I remarked to friends that I thought Columbus had more pretty young women per square block than I had ever seen anywhere. Eventually I managed to marry one of them, and of course as a married man I never looked at any of the others again. But I suspect my early evaluation is still correct.
Every city has negatives. Charlotte, N.C., was recently busy selecting a fourth mayor to serve in less than a year. One left to become U.S. Transportation Secretary, his replacement chose only to complete the term, and her successor has just been indicted by the feds on corruption charges. Small towns almost within earshot of the RiverCenter struggle constantly to stay alive, fighting poverty, corruption, unemployment, and other ills. As for crime, statistical comparisons are not easy to make, but I took a look at a comparable city in my native state, Fayetteville, N.C. Very nearly the same in population as Columbus and sits alongside a sprawling Army post, as we do. One difference, though. Fayetteville is widely noted for having one of the highest crime rates in the nation. By comparison we don't look all that bad. And, by the way, our azaleas, wisteria, and dogwoods are a major plus.
We have a growing university, a thriving public school system, recreation opportunities galore, an economy that seems to be recovering at a rate comparable to most of the country, and a promising future. Still, if you could be aware of the total pain, hopelessness, depression, and despair within this city, or any city, you might be overwhelmed. That's the human condition. And, having lived in a lot of places around the world and for some 40 years here, total, I don't believe it's much different in Columbus from anywhere else.
Some of those surveyed may truly be miserable. But I suspect that some of the respondents were comparing Columbus to the old country -- that old country built of myth and nostalgia and forgetfulness that we tend to cultivate in our minds.
Maybe we ought to seek out the truly miserable and try to help them. And those who claimed misery because Columbus isn't like their own private "old country" need to realize that old country isn't real. This is our real country, folks. It's all there is.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."