And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around

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The Ped Mall on a Sunday in July

Heat hits, and then a welcome breeze blows through the corridors of buildings and rustles the trees, and sun and shadows dapple the brick walk. Do you want a bench in the sun or in the shade?

The benches on Washington are reserved for the homeless and the stoners who might be homeless or might just like being barefoot and unwashed, but it’s hard to differentiate, all of them unkempt and black-toothed and probably older than they look. Some hold cardboard signs, some just sit back and smoke or sleep or chat.

I see John, a man in a baseball cap with no home, unless the Foxhead Tavern counts. I ask him what he’s up to today and he smiles and says “not fuck all.” He doesn’t hold up signs asking for money, just walks around or sits on benches and watches things, which is what I’m doing.

In the ped mall crossroads, water shoots up in arcs, and swimsuited toddlers race through the water, screaming and laughing. The fountain, the playground with the springy synthetic turf, the public library, all of it is right there. The center of the world. Paradise for summer children. 

A homeless man has set up a gigantic black air mattress right on the brick walkway, off to the side. 

A grunge teen couple sits by the hostas and watches a lone pigeon, fat from lack of competition. 

But seriously, why is he setting up a king-sized air mattress in the ped mall?

Tattoos and long unkempt hair increase exponentially as you near the Tobacco Bowl. Everyone’s tattoo has a story and even if that’s the tenth woman I’ve seen with a large, sprawling tree on her back, she has ten different reasons for getting it that are hers and hers alone. Teens wear hoodies despite the heat, carry skateboards and travel in packs. Their conversations are the most important in the world and they want everyone to hear them.

Bongos beat, teens loiter. The high-rise construction is progressing, but today is Sunday so the machines sit idle. 

I get excited when I see a table labeled “Free Literature” until I see they’re all Jesus books. I smile anyway and when they offer I say I have too many books in my backpack already, which is true. I decline a flyer, even though the man is stretching out with all of his arm length to give one to me.

There are two public pianos in the ped mall, and sometimes I stop to plink out “Coin-Operated Boy” or some little riff, but usually I watch the kids, feet dangling off the wooden bench, hesitantly poking keys with encouragement from their parents. There are so many keys and some echo a long time, some don’t work at all, and the keys are as uneven as that man’s teeth, the one with the white hair down to his mid-back who has tattoos so faded I can’t even make out what they’re supposed to be.

As I walk toward Dubuque St. I start to see more and more “Help From Above” pamphlets fluttering along the brick sidewalk.

Man and woman cross arms over each other and man kisses her shoulder very softly in the shade.

My copy of Lonesome Dove is falling apart and my backpack gets heavier and I have no idea whether I’m admired or sneered at or unnoticed, but I wonder these things today because I am alone and watching everyone else. If I was with a friend I would be too distracted to care.

But then I wouldn’t get to be the observer, and sometimes that is not such a lonely role to be in.

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Friend Portrait: Peach

“What’s your favorite bar?”

“What, in Iowa City?”

“No. Ever,” I ask as I sip my Magners in the mostly-empty Dublin Underground. The bartender looks bored. That episode of the Twilight Zone with the creepy ventriloquist doll is playing on the TV to my left. 

“The Drunken Sponge in Phnom Penh,” Peach responds.

“The Drunken Sponge?” I know that Peach spent 6 months in southeast Asia, primarily Cambodia, but I had no idea she hung out at such a bar, or made the connections she did.

“Yeah, the bartender was this guy from north England and he had this really thick accent, so most of the time he’d say something and I’d be like, ‘huh? what?’ But he’d let me wash dishes in exchange for free drinks, and some nights I slept there, on one of the couches. And sometimes after close we’d lock up, then get fucked up and dance around.

“It was really an amazing time. Yeah, there were bad things. After my friend died, I kept seeing all this shit that I couldn’t do anything to fix. Like seeing dead bodies in the streets from car accidents. Or child prostitutes. Things that were so fucked up, but things I couldn’t do anything about.”

Peach is one of the most compassionate people I know. On our walk to the bar, she stopped and said hi to an old man sitting in the dark on a bench. As we left and walked on, she explained how she’d seen him one night sitting outside of The Foxhead.

“And there were lots of people out, talking and smoking, but nobody was even acknowledging him. They all treated him like this inanimate object. So I finally sat on the bench next to him and asked how he was doing. And after that we became friends. On that bench he told me, ‘You know, I think you’re the first person who’s talked to me in 48 hours.’ And he’s a good guy. He’s a veteran, and he was in the Peace Corps, traveled all over the world, so we’ve been to some of the same places.

“I didn’t find out he was homeless until a few months ago. And he’s such a nice man, just a really interesting, good person. He just has the bad luck of being homeless. And people treat him like he’s invisible.”

Peach seems to seek out the people that many (including me) write off as lost causes. She was there for her friend through a bad morphine addiction, recovery, and then rebound, and her current sort-of boyfriend is a serious alcoholic, to the point where he drinks a bottle of vodka a day, and if he doesn’t, he has seizures.

“He can’t afford to go to the hospital, so he drinks. And he’s such a good person,” Peach says. She is always there to defend someone as a good person, as someone who is kind and well-meaning but has a problem to get through. I don’t think I have the courage or compassion to be like that toward a lot of people I see and label as “messed up,” but I sure do have admiration for Peach for doing so.

Tonight we went to a friend’s house for an all-Amurrican barbeque (Happy 4th), then went to watch fireworks in the park. Even though fireworks stand for bombs and warfare (if our national anthem is anything to go by), they’re so beautiful, and I love hearing the kids’ yells of delight as one after another goes off…however mad I get about what’s going on in America, I can’t be mad at a field of families sprawled on blankets or lawn chairs, especially when I’m in the midst of them, my gaze fixed with everyone else’s on the lights fizzing and expanding overhead.

On the drive back into town Peach played me some Silver Jews, her favorite band, and I fell in love. 

I drove through lights and past stores through Coralville, loving that voice that always sounds sad, those lyrics that I know I could listen to dozens of times and pick apart over and over again, those guitar riffs that drift and expand and fill the car with their sparse simplicity.

And then, after I finished my Magners and was done listening to Peach’s story about her favorite bar in Cambodia, I went home and listened to all the songs The Silver Jews had on YouTube on repeat, listening and wondering if I really was doing right by staying here.

I’m thinking right now if I’m doing right for staying here. Will I get old and regret not going off to live somewhere richly and strangely while I could? I’ve always said that I just will avoid the emotion of regret since it’s such a fruitless one, but can I? I’ve been content here, but is it in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way or a spiritually-awakened, “I can be happy anywhere” kind of contentment? I honestly don’t know, but I’m grateful for people like Peach, who challenge my view of what life can be, of what friendship can be, and of compassion.