There’s a small-town phenomenon I’ve noticed in a few different places. It’s The Wave.
This is not the same wave you see at baseball parks, when thousands of strangers create a giant performance art piece. This is a smaller, quieter wave. I haven’t studied it in depth, but my guess is it only occurs in towns or on islands with a population of five hundred or less.
I first encountered The Wave on Beaver Island, Michigan. When I worked for Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC), I’d go out to “The Beav” a couple of times a year. After a fifteen-minute flight over Lake Michigan from Charlevoix, I’d pick up a rental mini-van at the airport. My first time on the island, I noticed that all the other drivers – not just a few folks, but everyone – would wave as I passed them on the road. I didn’t know any of these people, but they knew me. Not personally, of course. But they knew I was not an islander. They recognized Gordon’s rental van.
On one trip to Beaver Island, I overheard a woman at the bar talking about how someone hadn’t waved at her. “That’s like road rage, man!” She was joking, and got a few laughs. But I could tell deep down she was actually offended.
Later I discovered that people on another Great Lakes island do The Wave, too. Bois Blanc (also known as Bob-Lo) is in northern Lake Huron, a couple of islands away from its more famous neighbor, Mackinac Island. LTC has a nature preserve out there, too, so we’d take the work truck on Plaunt’s Ferry from Cheboygan. Same deal: once we were on the island, all the other drivers would wave. I talked to Jim Vosper about it. He had grown up on Bois Blanc and was now in his eighties. “We’ve always waved. You actually knew everyone on the island, so usually you’d stop and chat for a while, too. Now, I don’t know who half of these people are, but I still wave anyway, just to not be rude.”
I wondered if this was an island thing. But on two other Great Lakes islands, Drummond and Sugar, I noticed that people didn’t wave, at least not to me. Both of those islands have paved roads, and you can drive fast. Too fast for waving. So maybe you have to have dirt roads for The Wave? I wasn’t sure, but there was one thing I did know. I wanted to live in a community where people wave to each other. When I’d get back to the mainland after my island trips, it was difficult to keep my hands on the wheel.
The Wave takes many forms. It’s usually not very extravagant, but instead is just a simple acknowledgment. Some people lift a single index finger. Others hold up two fingers pressed together, like the blessing from a priest. Or an open palm, casually showing their whole hand. One guy made me giggle when he stuck each index finger up, like the antennae of an insect peeking over the steering wheel. My wave is generally all four fingers of one hand raised from the steering wheel. But if I see a little kid or a friend, I’ll wave my whole hand and arm, like a normal “hello” wave.
The Wave is eloquent and multi-purpose. It can say “welcome to town,” “sorry about your mom,” “see you next year,” or “I know where you were last night, better be careful!”
After living in Seldovia, Alaska since 2013, and now spending the summer in Eagle, Alaska (both towns where people wave) I finally understand the Beaver Islander’s comment about road rage. If someone doesn’t wave at me, I wonder, “What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t he like me? Why’s he being so aggressive?”
If you live in a city, too big for people to wave or make eye contact, you probably think I’m crazy. So out of touch. How could someone not waving be seen as aggressive? Are you kidding me?
This is a small town. A non-wave can cover many possibilities. Maybe that guy doesn’t wave at me because I work for the Park Service. Or maybe he doesn’t like outsiders coming to his town. Or could be he’s a grump and doesn’t wave at anyone. I wouldn’t think anything much of it, except he is the only person in town who doesn’t wave. I’ve given up waving at him, too, and that makes me a little sad. If I see him at the post office or the café, I’ll make a point of saying hello. Then see what happens.
A non-wave can also be jail time. How does law and order work in a place like this, where we don’t even have a cop? Try siphoning some gas. Take something that isn’t yours. Lie. Hurt someone. People will find out. Suddenly everyone in town stops waving. You are locked out, rather than locked in. If you’re lucky, and behave yourself, after a couple of years they’ll start waving again.
I know most Americans don’t live in places small enough or slow enough for The Wave. But what about the other wave, the one that happens in ball parks? Twenty or thirty thousand people, and they only have two things in common: they like baseball, and they are all human beings. Who starts it? How do we all know when to do it? Which direction do we go? By paying attention and cooperating, we create something together. It’s ephemeral, and it’s playful rather than productive. It’s not a matter of life or death – or is it? The wave shows we’re capable of getting along when we share a goal. Fans from both teams all get up out of their seats, cheer, put their hands in the air, and smile. We watch it go around and around a few times, then get back to the business at hand. Friendly competition. It’s actually very easy.