Eugene is a really nice town, no doubt. Peaceful and quiet and known for the University of Oregon. Many people think that Matt Groening (who grew up in Oregon) based the hometown of The Simpsons on Eugene and the adjacent town, Springfield. I first visited Eugene in the spring of 2006 when I met with Lew Goldberg at the Oregon Research Institute. Lew and I spent a lot of time outdoors, walking and talking. At first, it just seemed like one of many nice places you run into, but something still seemed very different; I couldn’t exactly tell what it was.
Since then, almost every time I mentioned Eugene to someone I heard some exceptional story: the friend who stayed to work in a local laundromat after getting his PhD, the guy who came to see the Oregon Country Fair and stayed in town forever. I was in town to visit Lew again earlier this year, and was determined to get to the bottom of what is so special about the town. And here’s my simple conclusion: everyone is happy. Not that just nice, or smiling or any of that. They are genuinely happy. Very happy.
Here are a few examples:
- The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport has been in the army for many years. His mother keeps scolding him every Thanksgiving and Christmas when everyone sits at the dinner table and he starts foulmouthing like in the good old army days. And he is happy. Very happy. The source of is happiness is that he got a telemarketing call last week from the local cable company, and now he is getting Internet access, phone, and TV from them, and saving about $15 a month. In fact, he is even happier because he did not enroll in the Do Not Call registry, and expecting thrilling telemarketing calls to happen in the future as well.
- The girl in a small booth selling coffee on Franklin Blvd is very happy too. The reason? It’s a nice day. And to show how happy she is she is giving me one more espresso at no extra charge.
- The owner of the Italian restaurant is also very happy. He comes to sit with us at the table, and tells us a story about an envious husband who tried to shoot his wife’s lover 30 years ago in some other restaurant that is now an ice cream parlor. There’s still a bullet hole in the ceiling there. It’s a funny story and it makes him happy! (Starting to get the idea?)
- The taxi driver on the way back to the airport is an hour and a half late and is happy because he’s sure he can get me there on time.
How can 150,00 people be so happy? Eugene’s schools are good, but not stellar, there’s some level of crime, and in many respects it’s an average American town. It’s very green and environmentally conscious, and used to be a hippie stronghold in the 60s. None of that is too special.
The locals don’t have an explanation. Maybe it is simply an old fashioned and very strong sense of community. People there talk to each other. They talk to other people in stores and in restaurants, people who ride their cab, and even telemarketers who call them. Everywhere you go people will talk to you. If you turn on your laptop two blocks away from the University of Oregon you find that there is not a single WiFi network, not one. I guess communication in Eugene is much more direct.
Whoever cracks the Eugene mystery will be a very rich person. And if it’s something in the water, I want to drink some of it too.