Iowa Nice

Iowa Nice

Suggested Listening: “Head Over Heels / Broken” by Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair, Album, 1985.

Apparently, four to six inches of snow constitutes a blizzard. 

Did I miss a memo? 

The last blizzard I experienced dumped thirty six inches of snow on Chicago, and no one could open their house doors for over twenty four hours let alone shovel a driveway without using a backhoe. Watching that storm roll in over Lake Michigan was a once-in-a-decade experience and one to behold. The deep, cold waters were not angry but warning. Our gloved and mittened hands grasped the wrought iron rails that protected us from the steep drop down to the beach. We watched the gray clouds form on the horizon. Below those icy waters, the wreckage of iron ships slept. The winds strengthened. We knew there were hours, if we were lucky, to prepare.

The ice sheet that coated the great lake formed when the temperatures dipped far below zero days later. Gray ice marbling the lake surface was a wondrous feat of nature, and one I will always remember. 

Last night in Iowa, it snowed. That’s what happens in winter north of the Mason Dixon line. Freight trains slowed their pace for safety. The long stretch of I-80 was closed. For everyone’s safety in the middle of nowhere, such a precaution makes perfect sense. The crossing signal that flashes red and blares when a freight train makes its way through Ames got stuck. A conductor sounded the alarm and woke me in the middle of the night. Intrigued, I rose from bed and watched men in a pickup truck, awake for what must have been hours, fix the crossing signal while small plows cleared historic downtown sidewalks. 

Fed and dressed for success hours later, I hiked six blocks to work through the fluffy white stuff, which was an enjoyable jaunt, snow no deeper than my suede boot-clad ankles. The streets are always a little sleepy before the stores open. This morning, I may as well have been the lone survivor of some apocalypse. 

That memo.

Welcome to Ames, Iowa, where a lack of ambition seems to be the norm. In case anyone was wondering — I certainly was, the poverty rate here hovers at around twenty-five percent. I’ll let you lovely readers marinate in that fact while I raise my eyebrows knowingly. Connect the dots. “Twenty-five percent?” I’d read several months back and thought, “That must be a mistake.” But it wasn’t. And now I understand. 

A lot of folks here sure do complain and complain incessantly about everyone and every little thing. Hours can be spent beating any given topic to death while the work piles up and thousands of dollars of lost profit are left on desks and conference tables.

My fellow neighbors seem miserable, but I’m well aware of where they stand politically. They’ve made that clear. I’m not sure why they think their voting records are of interest to me. All I am is confused. But I guess one can show up to work whenever they want. Or don’t show up at all. Let the phone go to voicemail. Let it all go to hell. 

These are bad habits I never want to think acceptable, let alone adopt.

Upon my arrival here, having relocated from Chicago, I experienced a mild curiosity about the older man I see every day around noon. He sits at Starbucks kvetching about global warming and the war in Ukraine. Three months into living here, his conversation has never wavered. His friends agree with everything he says. The man’s mood grows gloomier. I wouldn’t call him livid. Rather, he’s concerned about all he’s heard on the news but will never in one million lifetimes ever change.

Behind the dead eyes of the man wearing plaid flannel is a lifetime of what I can only describe as tragedy. 

The unread emails at my new place of work hover around the twelve thousand mark. No, that’s not a typographical error. I’ve been without a printer for nearly two months and only one eager soul has applied for the marketing position I have posted on the ISU job boards. We meet this week. He’s hungry. I’m determined. 

But today I nibbled a delicious homemade ciabatta sandwich at my desk while listening to Ultravox and was delighted by the sweetness of a rare find here: a ripened mango. Outside, the front walk and steps remained un-shoveled and unsalted. Everyone’s sick. Everyone’s taking a snow day. 

At 11:30 AM, I glanced around the vacant office and announced to four walls, “I’m outta here” because while I’m thankful to have a job, I may as well be a sitting target for the homeless man pushing Target carts up the street. And I may as well go home and accomplish something. 

So here I am, sitting down in my writer’s lair, the one without furniture but for three found chairs. I’ve reached out to dozens of people on Facebook Marketplace and Craiglist regarding what they have posted for sale on the platforms, but no one returns emails or calls. Ten bucks says they’re bitching about a lack of money in a coffeehouse somewhere. The furniture I would buy new won’t fit through the front doorway. 

I let one side gig go recently as I was spread far too thin. My new job is challenging, but as of last night, I may be the only one who sees that. As of this morning, all of Main Street is closed. I have no idea why. The weather is lovely. A clean, white snow blankets the blah. No children are outside playing. 

What’s weird about Iowa — at least in my neck of the barren cornfields — is that there is no life here but for the Iowa State University Campus proper. That’s where the action is. The majority of the students I’ve met are on the ball, polite, and studious. They sense the locals are ripping them off, are envious, and the students are right.

I’ve seen a few rabbits, a few crows, and one aggressive hawk. But the few birds in Ames do not greet the sunrise with chirps or with song. They do not flock but hide.

I find the lack of animal life in this corner of America eerie and unsettling. I am witness to the undercurrent of rampant alcoholism and illegal drug use. Fentanyl is everywhere. 

“When in Rome,” is a saying and an appropriate one at that. Yet, I think that saying is best reserved for miraculous cities that have much to offer by way of local cuisine and culture. Besides corn, a caucus and Fentanyl, what is Iowa famous for? I’m not sure. Still, the campus is lovely. 

I wondered about a lack of rye bread in stores. I wandered into an artisan bakery hoping to find some. Rye bread, it seems, is a custom order, and one loaf takes more than one week to prepare. The local flower shop wanted to charge me $42 for three stems of hydrangeas that cost $5.50 each. You, lovely readers, can do the creative math.

I’ve connected the dots. 

There are, of course, several fabulous stores in town and ones I frequent. That includes Dog-Eared Books, who are creative, professional, and ambitious. 

Obviously, I’m not a psychologist. I can offer observations, not answers. What do I see? Other than people who given up hope? Depression, a rabid obsession with politics, and illegal drug habits outpacing usage in the big city. “It must be boredom,” I think. College students here call it “the brain drain.” Those who are frustrated either take charge or leave. 

The college students are wise to “Iowa Nice,” but the locals are unaware of the term. One local entrepreneur offered sage advice. He said, “The trick to surviving Ames is to leave Ames and often.” 

Memo attained. 

I’m bored stiff thinking about the paradigm I readily agreed to throw myself into for a change of pace. That’s not an attitude I can afford — literally — so will take my frustrations out on blank sheets of paper I have big plans for. Say tuned for that. 

The pace I’ve stumbled over here in Iowa won’t budge. Rather, a plastic smile washes over many of the locals’ faces. The birds must be frightened. I know I am some days. The plastic smiles, no matter the passing conversations, remind me Charles Manson’s disciples, handcuffed and escorted to trial. 

Now, as this Tuesday comes to an end, I hear the men driving snow plows and salting roads. I’ve been up with them since long before sunrise, the college students were up by 9 AM gaming, and twenty five percent of the local population smokes cigarettes in vacant parking lots, their smiles permanent, their excuses limitless. 

I’ve made a commitment to Iowa, for now, and am seeing that through. I’m getting to know the newest locals who’ve crossed national borders. Their frustration seems to mimic mine although their words are not translatable sometimes. At other times, those words cannot be uttered without consequences. Yet, one does wonder where the consequences lie when aspiration has been abandoned. 

I hear Jim Morrison in their eyes. “Where are the feasts we were promised?”

Rumor is that those crossing the borders are bringing the Fentanyl with them. I, for one, am not buying that line for one minute. Something is amiss. 

On this January day, wanderlust strikes again, and I wonder if my lack of furniture is not a situation but an answer to the feast question. In the grand scheme of things, all is transitory. There are goals I’ve set for myself and aim to achieve. On occasion, such as today, I swerve into a tranquil moment of reflection.