Friday, July 11, 2008

Biking in the Street Under the Trees: Iowa City 1980

It's hard for me to remember exact years from Iowa City. Yes, it was quite some time ago, but it's also that those first years--when I was a student--tend to blend together for me. They were great years, new years, years where I finally conquered the leftover pains of adolescence and saw the possibility for an enjoyable life. An enjoyable world. And I think it was 1980 when--come summer and classes had ended--I stayed in Iowa City and did not return to Des Moines.
My first two and a half years at the University of Iowa I'd lived in the dorms. Burge Hall. The 2000 Floor (a small, half-floor near the basement whose windows looked out upon the residence hall's loading dock). But then I moved out to an apartment on Van Buren Street. And that summer I decided to stay in town and work for the University as a janitor. It was great fun.
And it was a good job, as far as summer jobs went in that town. I wasn't really a janitor--I forget what the title of the job was, exactly--but what I did was work on a crew with other students (alongside the full timers--who had their own stories, who became acquaintances and friends), cleaning and servicing the residence halls. In fact, I worked at Burge Hall--my first home in Iowa City. In fact, I worked with some friends I  knew from 2000 Burge: Quinn, Steve, Dale. Quinn had led us to the job. He had been our RA at Burge the first year and was done with school and was working for the University, he was a local (almost) from the small town of West Branch outside of IC.
There were others, too. There was Rob, who later went out to Colorado, got a job driving camp kids in a school bus but then drove the bus into a too-short tunnel, smashing, wedging the bus into it so that it made the local Colorado papers. There was "Games", who we called Games because he would always say "Stop playing games and get to work" and he later moved to Houston and was shot to death while coming out of his apartment to see about a scene of  domestic violence. There was Brad, who ran track and went on to be a dentist. Clyde--a civil engineer. Keith--a nice guy from some nice Iowa town where they said Ufda all the time. And two others whose names I can't recall but were--like us--satisfied with the summer job and understood the humorous abject irony of it, that here we were--soon to be successful men of consequence--working as janitors in Iowa City, Iowa. Sure we were all basically mistaken, but that's how we saw it, I'm sure. Being a janitor was a running joke among us; when we were in a movie theater once and there was a janitor in the background, we all yelled out "JANITOR" and laughed and laughed.
We were young. Life was funny.
We spent our days washing windows, buffing floors, putting beds together and taking beds apart, going room to room to clean them out, strip and wax floors, put the rooms back together. We spent our hours getting rooms ready for summer students or visitors, making beds, doing laundry service (we'd go up to occupied rooms, knock on the door, and in a deep masculine voice say "Maid service"). We had keys to each floor, later a master key--we had keys to the castle that was Iowa City.
Because it was much more than just the work that summer. It was for me--and for a lot of my coworkers and other friends who'd stayed--the first real summer on our own. For me it meant that Iowa City was my town and Des Moines was in the past . . . I remember that Fourth of July, Matt and I (Matt was working in town for his uncle) went to City Park along the river to see the fireworks and there were a bunch of other people we knew and we got stinking low-down drunk and Matt had his uncle's big old full-size rusted-ugly construction dump truck--drunk truck--and we drove around in it, Matt and I in the cab and many others in the bed, asking people for directions to California. Of course it was stupid and dangerous and illegal. But we did it, we only thought of it as outrageous, funny, entertaining fun.
The main difference was that, during the fall and winter, Iowa City was a crowded town: students mulled and walked everywhere, like herds of wildebeest on the great savannas of Africa. But in the summer, the town was quiet, peaceful. Plants and trees hit full blossom and size. There were enough students to keep it interesting--late night parties full of the cool late night people who'd stayed the summer--and the bars were more intimate and interesting, different somehow. On weekends we'd get cheap blow-up mattresses (the kind used in swimming pools, we called them PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices)), and cans of beer and we'd haul ourselves down to Crandic park in one car (while leaving another at the canoe house on campus) and we'd jump in the Iowa River and float and swim and drink beer for two, three hours until we reached the canoe house and then we were off to other things. There were summer romances, summer sex, summer food, summers within summer.
I still remember one particular moment that year--my first summer in IC--I'd been to some party, a daytime party on Davenport Street. It was a cool and relaxed affair. I'd just gotten a bicycle--I hadn't ridden a bike in a long time, not as transportation or for pleasure. But I decided to leave the party, by myself, and I rode my bike down the street. And it hit me: the quiet town, the old beatific houses, the warmth and laziness, those big big oaks and maples so tall and full of leaves, their shade so deep--everything soft and dreamy--the street itself made of dead red cobblestones, and it was wonderful, pleasurable, stunning in its simplicity and beauty. It was just me biking in the street under the trees.
Sure, it was only a college town in summer. But it was our college town. It was our summer. It was mine. I was independent, an individual, and everyone I met was someone of interest and wit. The world--these little experiences within it--could still hold a freshness, newness, and it was my life within it. It was special and sublime. We were special and sublime. I was too. And really, isn't that the way everyone's life should be?

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