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posted: 9/7/2012 12:46 PM

Finding hope in the little things

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I'd stopped off for lunch at one of those classic family restaurants -- you know, the ones with 101 menu items from every possible culinary heritage.

If people eat it, you'll find it there -- standard American meat and potatoes, California New Wave, Italian, Mexican, Greek, Chinese, French, and a bit of everything else in between.

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I've done a bit of traveling and, as far as I can tell, these are a uniquely Chicago institution. And no matter how much they get derided by the sophisticated set, they're still a good place to get a decent meal. And a good place to learn about our city.

Now this particular place is named after a French province, which, if I remember my history, was also part of England at one time or the other. This seemed a strange choice for a name, as there was nothing particularly French or English about the community, restaurant decor, menu or owners. But, hey, this is Chicago.

Actually, the owners were pretty obviously Greek Americans. Not that this seemed to matter much to anyone; the help and customers looked like extras from one of those "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coca Cola commercials of a few years back.

I'm not real good at accents, but I'm fairly sure my waitress was Polish. The busboy was Hispanic. Another waitress was African-American. The hostess was simply South Side Chicago (which may be a nationality all to itself).

Some customers looked to be mutts like myself -- a bit of this, a bit of that in their heritage. One couple was certainly Korean. There was a black family in a large booth. An Indian gentleman sat by himself. Three elderly women, Bohemian I'm fairly sure, sat in the table next to mine.

People came and went. A United Nations of patrons all intent on getting a decent meal and probably totally unaware of the scene they painted.

If there is any reason to hope for humanity, I find it in murals such as this one. You see, it didn't matter much what race, religion or ethnic backgrounds we came from. Certainly no great words of harmony or reconciliation were spoken, no great step forward for civil rights taken. I'm not sure it even mattered what private prejudices some of us might have had.

What was important is we treated each other like people deserve to be treated: with concern, with consideration, with respect. Whether it was the waitress filling a water glass, a customer changing her order, the owner showing a family to a table, certain basic rules were observed.

Sure, when it comes down to it the waitress was being paid to be polite, the customer was asking a favor, the owner was looking for a repeat customer. But so what? People were getting along, no matter what the motivation. That's pretty rare in this world at times.

I find that same hope in the Olympic Games, or multinational relief efforts, or multiracial fair housing groups, or the crowd at a White Sox game. In fact, it seems to me that we manage to get along a lot more often than not. It's just not the sort of news that keeps you tuned in to the evening news or makes you pick up the morning paper.

So look around. As hard as it gets sometimes, things work OK a lot more often than we realize. Have hope, and let that hope come out in a smile to the person -- probably a very different person -- at the table across from you, in front of you in the checkout line, in the car next to you. It can only help.

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