Saturday, July 16, 2011

NOTES FROM IOWA 75

From Raygun in Iowa City.
In June I took a respite from packing to drive out to Iowa City for the 75th anniversary-reunion-celebration of the Writers' Workshop. It was worth the nine-hour drive across I-80, whose stretch of Ohio-Indiana-Illinois makes one think things like, This is what we're fighting for? I swear once you cross the border into Iowa everything looks better. I loved living in Iowa. It was one of the prettiest, most underrated landscapes I've ever lived in. Deep emerald in summer, endless gold in fall, snow-blanketed fields washed pink by sunrise and sunset in winter, a huge blue sky.

All you people who didn't come because you felt insecure or underpublished or worried that people were going to be competitive and size you up (what? at Iowa?), it was in fact so not like that! It was so friendly and relaxed, no résumé checking at all. No one murmuring disdain about your last workshop disaster or cackling over Conroy's lacerating one-liner. No velvet rope or VIP rooms. Just a big loose-knit party. Here are my ramshackle notes from the weekend.

1. The best thing in Indiana is Joyelle and Johannes, who opted not to reunite with the masses but graciously fed me lunch.

2. First stop after checking in with my excellent hosts Kembrew and Lynne and new tiny Alasdair: Marilynne Robinson at the Englert. Choice quote TK when I find my little notebook.
3. O George's Bar of the flocked wallpaper and utterly transfixing scrolling backlit Hamm's sign! In a narrow dark booth that night——Peyton and Pauls and I devised, or derived, titles for bestselling novels. The dim scrawling in my notebook includes
The Justice of Riga (name of an actual sword!) 
The Executioner's Son, or should it be Daughter?
Orphan Season
American Teeth
American Lesbian
The Lesbianists
The Leper's Guide to Sanitation.
4. Next we hit the immortal Foxhead. When we were at the workshop, the Foxhead was the poets' bar and George's was the fiction bar. Now it's the opposite. I always liked the Foxhead a little better, but George's had that enchanting Hamm's sign and would make you a toasted cheese sandwich (a hamburger bun with pickles and a slice of American cheese) for $1.50. (Still!)
Foxhead outside
Foxhead inside
Two Foxes
5. Because my whole life is a small town, of course I ran into Jarrett who I used to know in Portland. He now lives in Iowa City and runs a coffee cart called Wake Up Iowa City. That was my first stop in the morning with Lynne.
Says the blackboard: THE ESPRESSO MACHINE IS ACTIN A FOOL. SORRY
I love Upper Midwest punk. There's something very low-key and homey and unpretentious about it. 
Do you have to-go cups? we asked. "Just bring the mugs back whenever you're done," said Jarrett, "or do whatever with them." This pair were too good to risk, so we opted to gulp down the strong black French-pressed coffee right there.

6. And then off to some panels with grandiose titles. (What Makes Literature Immortal? How Realistic is Realism? etc.) And the Golden Microphone goes to: Allan Gurganus, hands down. Thank you for your bracing sardonic wit and appropriate irreverence. ("Back then, 'diversity' meant admitting a Quaker from Maine. Who wrote prose poems.")

I took hardly any pictures of Official Events, but the Christian Science Monitor has a long thoughtful article. (At the end of the slideshow of famous and famous-ish writers is a nice shot of a group of us chatting on the museum steps--captioned, appropriately, "other alumni.")
The Dey House, partly, its massive new addition too large and luxurious to fit in the frame of my 50mm lens
7. At noon my phone rang. Malena and Antoine's flights had been canceled in Denver the night before. They then got in a van with four Iowan women, none of whom had ever met before, and drove all night, twelve hours!—only to hit a deer 15 miles from Iowa City, at which point I was called to retrieve them from the side of I-80.

8. My beloved tiny house at 723 1/2 East Jefferson Street still stands. The sunny yard to the west (my bedroom window) is now a giant vinyl-sided, student-tenant-crammed addition to the modest gray bungalow that once was, and the shady yard to the east (my kitchen windows) is now a parking lot to a new apartment building. I guess I lived there at exactly the right time, with Jamie Schweser as my landlord ($360/month!) and awesome lesbian neighbors Mel and Kara in the main house's basement apartment. (They duct-taped corncobs to the rearview mirrors of my U-Haul on the day I drove away.) I wrote so many stories in that house.
Sometimes I would roll the television cart into the bathroom and watch movies in the 3/4 (exactly me-sized) clawfoot tub while my cat Foot Foot walked around the rim of it. I fell asleep watching Breathless and woke up when the water had gone cold.

9. Anyway. Iowa City has gotten a little fancier. There are more coffee shops and restaurants. The Record Collector and Daydreams Comics are still going. The public library is much fancier, and the new workshop building is stunning, replete with sumptuous wood-and-leather library. But mostly it still feels exactly the same. For example, La'James College of Hairstyling is still in business, 
and the Hamburg Inn No. 2, though much cleaned-up and remodeled since my time here, is still very much itself, pie shakes and all.
 At Artifacts--which is still called Artifacts but no longer owned by Mark, who opened up another place three doors down--we discovered the world's most fascinatingly repulsive lamp. It is very heavy brown ceramic and it costs $125.
10. On the last morning I met Cathy and Malena and Shannon for breakfast at the Hamburg Inn. I saw them a block away walking up to the restaurant together, these three wonderful brilliant people I have now known for eleven years, and for the first time all weekend my friendly nostalgia swelled into a wave of emotion. For a moment I pretended we all still lived here, and I was just meeting some of my favorite friends for breakfast. The force of the recall knocked the tears right into my eyes.

I paused to let myself miss them, our time there, my sweet little Iowa life. Then I picked up the pace and hurried to meet my friends. There was a wait for a table and the morning was chilly, but I didn't mind. All nestled together on the outside bench, we stayed warm.

2 comments:

casey said...

I DID enjoy that cheese sandwich with the pickle at George's.

sat said...

what an absolutely delightful piece. I went back over the weekend of the book festival when laurel and thisbe were going to be there from afar but also, it must be noted, steer around the dey house and foxhead with continuing trepidation. thank you for the vicarious treat of your ebullient bravado.