And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around

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It Has a Vibe to It

This past weekend, I was in California visiting my brother. He waxed nostalgic about my current home, Iowa City, where he spent a chunk of his twenties. It was a different world a decade ago, when bars and bowling alleys were full of cigarette (and pot) smoke, and the now-upscale, Prohibition style whiskey bar was a seedy dive called One Eyed Jake’s.

“I love Iowa City,” my brother said. “That place has a vibe to it. You really only appreciate that when you move to other places and realize that not everywhere has a vibe.”

He’s right. So many places fall prey to sameness, not only from the prefab houses neatly spiraling into cul-de-sacs or the rows of chain stores, but because the people seem to settle into homogeneous pockets of predictable culture.

At work this week, I griped about the commute to Cedar Rapids, a short but congested drive that adds a stressful hour to my day. “I should just move to Cedar Rapids,” I grumbled. It’s an attractive notion, especially when stuck in bumper to bumper traffic because of a fender bender eight miles ahead. My drive would be shorter, I could actually afford a place of my own (unheard-of in Iowa City, where rent prices have hiked up thanks to corrupt housing companies and wealthy university students), and I would be more keyed in with the community, instead of straddling the line between two different towns.

But this evening, on such a cool, perfect fall night, all dimming blue skies and a nearly full moon and illuminated porches, moving is unthinkable. I walk down my street, past a large brown dog and its owner, who greets me with, “We never get anywhere quickly.”

“So many smells!” I say, more to the dog than to her.

I walk down the brick-paved Linn Street and bump into a friend outside of High Ground. She pulls me in to meet her friend, who read my cartoon in Little Village Mag, the local free alternative publication in town. I say a quick hello, but then I am dashing off to meet my date at Bread Garden, past a man playing on the public piano, who is singing something about how “two pretty girls walked by and didn’t even notice.” If I am one of the pretty girls he is singing about (It sounds like an impromptu lyric), I am too quickly walking to acknowledge that I noticed, already running late. I wish I could stop and smell all the smells, like that brown dog with nowhere to go.

My date and I have dessert and wine on the patio that is somewhere between inside and outside, children shrieking on the playground past us. We look at strange CD cover art in the library. We plan to meet at the farmer’s market next – my favorite way to spend a free Saturday morning in Iowa City.

I walk home in the cool dark. The buildings are taller and cleaner than when my brother walked these streets, but the porches still have worn-out couches and tables littered with cigarette butts and beer cans. I watch employees close shop in Bluebird Cafe, I walk past the bandanna-wearing chef having a cigarette on the bench by Riverside Theatre, I pass porches illuminated in twinkly lights. It is sometimes inconvenient to live somewhere with character, just like my drafty old house, but I need to remember that living in a place with a “vibe” is nothing to take for granted.

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The Northside Girls

“You know what’s the best shade? Cruella.”

She is talking about lipstick and her name is Ariel, though the way she pronounces it, it’s probably spelled Arielle. Second syllable emphasis. And it fits her. She is too real to be real, in the way a contemporary novel is real. She is carefully constructed, in her large sweater and tight shirt. She can twist her long dyed blonde hair into a bun on the side of her neck and it stays put as if by magic as she talks about how “school fucking sucks.”

“What are you talking about?” Another smoker outside the Fox Head asks.

“Nothing. Girl stuff.” Peach says, and then she is putting lipstick on her male friend, a fortysomething Asian who arrived by surprising her with a light for her cigarette. “No, don’t pucker!”

Peach and Arielle are laughing under the smoke cloud and the street light. Peach talks about the neighborhood drunk who got hit by a car. “He’s totally sweet, though. And so interesting to talk to.”

These are my Northside girls. They share pitchers of beer and know the homeless regulars at the Fox Head and George’s by name, and they go out for cigarettes and chat to people they met other times out there on the bench. They wear eccentric jewelry rescued from antique shop shelves or thrift store piles. They are anachronisms from mismatched time periods, in red shades of lipstick, in fox furs, in cameo jewelry. In the light of day it would seem twee or pretentious, but next to the pitcher of beer, in the Fox Head on a weeknight, they are comforting, and they belong. They blend into the old woodwork, the collection of mantle clocks behind the bar, the tables scratched with initials and doodles and scratches from a collection of bargoers. They are as much a part of this place as the jukebox playing Hank Williams followed by Joy Division in the corner by the pool table. I feel like a visitor here, but they are fixtures. They are the Northside girls.