Smiley of Des Moines, Iowa

My ’80s hair metal friend Mike and I used to drive up and down the streets of Des Moines, just passing the time in a city known for its fertile women and large insurance companies.

We had a system: Mike looked out for the women and I looked between the insurance buildings for a job I might be able to keep for more than two weeks.

We passed by our friends’ houses, our rivals’ houses and the old folks’ houses.

We honked at the old folks. With a blind kindness particular to the Midwest, they just turned around and waved, never really knowing who it was.

We passed the Glendale Cemetery a lot. We both have friends buried there — one the victim of a tragic high school car accident, the other a recent war hero. Across the street is another reminder of death — the house where a friend shot himself to escape his life.

One spring day, we drove north up Hickman Road until we reached Merle Hay Road, when I saw, standing in the grassy median to our left, a glimpse of some shabby clothes with a black man inside. He was dressed in black jeans and a tattered red flannel, stooping at the waist, waving his long dark arms. It could only be . . . Smiley!

I was riding shotgun in Mike’s yellow Mustang Convertible and before he could refuse, I slammed my hand on the horn. The stoplight turned green and we passed through the intersection, honking. The black man turned, bent a little at the waist and waved to us. I caught not his eyes, but a huge ivory smile as we sped past. When I looked back he had already turned to wave at other strangers trapped in their cars.

We moved a few miles down the road when I realized … we were smiling too.

I think the world of Smiley. I don’t know him too well and I don’t know if he recognizes me, but Smiley makes me happy. He is like Des Moines’ mascot or something.

Every cool city has a popular nonconformist: New Haven, Connecticut has Margaret the Shakespeare Lady; Austin has the homeless cross-dresser Leslie; New York City’s Times Square has, among other mavericks, the Naked Cowboy.

They become icons — showing the rest of us what our city would look like if it were embodied in flesh and blood.

Smiley represents the best quality of Des Moines: its friendly people. And who is more friendly than Smiley?

Smiley’s affection for the human race is not well understood. Everyone thinks they know his story and the stories run the gamut from poor homeless man to eccentric rich guy.

It puzzles me why we have to find an explanation for him. Like something is wrong with traveling the city and waving at people. If I thought I could survive doing that, I’d be right there beside him in a chicken costume, making people laugh. Maybe it is the rest of us — with our road rage, work-related stress and money worship — that are crazy. Smiley seems to be truly free and living his life.

I think the most significant thing about Smiley is what happens after you pass him, after his waves and wide smile, after all the honks and yelling. Three minutes down the road and you’re still smiling.

16 thoughts on “Smiley of Des Moines, Iowa

  1. I absolutely love this, especially the idea of human mascots “embodying the flesh and blood of a city.”

    I also LOVE your description of Des Moines.

  2. These people also serve to remind us just how fortunate we are in spite of current situations. I will never forget losing a job, feeling sorry for myself, driving in pouring rain to an interview and seeing a 1-armed guy on a bicycle.

  3. I had a profound awakening to Jesus Christ and shed my sin a month ago. Today, as I was walking (I am in Afghanistan right now) I thought about Smiley for some reason. It occurred to me that Smiley’s mission is to just wave at everyone he sees. He seeks places where he can wave to as many people as possible. I do not know his story other than to know everyone seems to know him and that everyone has only good to say about him. He seems to have everything he needs by simply waving at passing humanity.

    Why did I suddenly think about Smiley as I was pondering the wonder of Jesus halfway across the world from Des Moines? It struck me that Smiley could be expressing God’s joy the best way he knows how. Whatever it is, Smiley is a blessing and I believe he has Jesus all over him!

  4. Hello,
    I am calling from Belgium and have white hair ! I am a man 87 years old.
    During the war a G’I TOMMY SMALL from DES MOINES IOWA slept some weeks at my home.
    We wrote some letters when he was back at home, even his father wrote to my father. Hoping he is in life still, should it be possible that you could look at the town hall to get his adress. He was small and thin !
    Thanks a lot.
    William

  5. I had a profound awakening to Jesus Christ and shed my sin a month ago. Today, as I was walking (I am in Afghanistan right now) I thought about Smiley for some reason. It occurred to me that Smiley’s mission is to just wave at everyone he sees. He seeks places where he can wave to as many people as possible. I do not know his story other than to know everyone seems to know him and that everyone has only good to say about him. He seems to have everything he needs by simply waving at passing humanity.
    +1

  6. Smiley’s name is Vernon Evans. He used to hang out in the 7-Eleven by Drake University where I worked, keeping me company, sometimes all night. The happiness he exudes is real and he became a good friend of mine. I knew him for nine years and bump into him now and then. He is now very close to 60 years of age. He is a devout Christian and is not ashamed to say it. He collects cans but was not homeless when I knew him, living with his mother and brothers. That was quite awhile ago though. I hope he is okay and I am sure he is still smiling and waving because he genuinely loves people. He’s the real deal.

  7. Hey Jeff, Thanks for the post. I think one of my friends did mention his name is Vernon. Yep, Smiley is a righteous dude. He’s got a special place in heaven for sure.

  8. It is wonderful to hear Smiley is indeed a strong Christian and to have that confirmed by those who know him a little better than most. Smiley is doing God’s work in a very unique way. I pray for all the blessings of the Father upon him.

  9. I gotta write again. I hope that’s permitted. I wrote awhile back. I have been thinking about Smiley a lot lately. I worked at the Drake 7-11 (it’s a Kum & Go? now) from 1990 to 1994. Smiley was a big part of me. I wore an Andrew “Dice” Clay haircut, dark sunglasses, and played the blues on my stereo in the store. The customers knew me as “Elvis”. Smiley loved blues. Particularly Muddy and Jimmy Reed. I blew harp. I was 27. He was 38. I had an alcohol problem, but Smiley sort of kept me “grounded”. I later quit drinking. We smoked cigars together (my fault), but I’m not sure he smoked his. Smiley was received with mixed feelings. The Drake kids loved him. Some folks were scared of him or didn’t much care for him. Some people accused him of being on drugs, but he just told them he was high on life. Beleive me, he can handle himself! Anyway, I miss seeing him, and would love to see him again. If I go to heaven, he’ll be there to greet me, and we’ll play blues. God won’t mind. Not long ago, Smiley’s brother and best friend Tommy died. He’ll be there too.

  10. I hope Smiley is doing well these days. I have been out of the country so long I just don’t know what’s happening in DSM these days. I just know I will see him in Heaven though.

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