177 Des Moines, IA: Where Am I?

[Fort Des Moines]

In 1843, Fort Des Moines was established on the meager Iowa River, "to protect the rights of Native Americans." (Maybe the Indians put a curse on Des Moines, and that's why none of the residents like it here.) Early natives called the local river the "river of the mounds," which French explorers translated as "La Riviere des Moines." Des Moines is now Iowa's largest city, with 200,000 residents.

Downtown Des Moines had many unsavory characters. And I don't mean just the politicians from up at the capitol. Being a capitol and a county seat, a lot of people in town were awaiting trial. Many of the old downtown storefronts were now bail bond suppliers. There were plenty of Hopperesque places to stay--transient hotels like the Kirkwood that had a shabby old lobby, sparsely furnished and dimly lit. The bar advertised "mamosas" [sic].

The Court Avenue night life district held the predictable brewpubs and nightclubs with thumpy thumpy music. The few people hanging out in their doorways were just as likely to be employees beckoning you in as to be customers. Each summer, though, his area was invaded for the "corn dog kickoff" to one of the largest state fairs in the U.S.--so big it was the subject of the musical play "State Fair."

Most buildings downtown looked bland and unmentionable. So did the locals. Folks in Des Moines (the people here seemed like they should be called "folks") looked like you imagine folks in Iowa would look. Most were pale; many were overweight. Speaking in the uniform twang of rural America, they seemed to enjoy talking to the point of rambling. I burned up all my Dictaphone tape listening to Iowans go on and on. Most towns that I visited I got a sense of right away. They felt like Cleveland (for example) or some other town I had been to, or like a type of town: a river town, say. But Des Moines eluded me.

The Capitol still stood prominently on a hill in the seedier, more run-down east side of downtown. The gold leaf covering the impressive dome was so thin that 250,000 sheets pressed together measure only one inch, yet it managed to bear the weight of a statue of a woman with wheat in one hand and a thresher in the other.

Inside on display were a collection of dolls depicting Iowa's former first ladies in their inaugural gowns, as well as a twenty-six-by-six-foot print showing the Iowa Rainbow Division after its return from France in 1919. A smaller photograph showed the faces of all the current senators. Only one face in the entire House of Representatives was black; none in the Senate.

While I was washing my hands in the rest room, someone else entered. I looked up, and my mirror reflected the mirror above the sink on the opposite wall, so I ended up staring into a receding series like the lights trailing off in Automat. When I went back out to the lobby, I noticed a mezzanine looking down onto the basement level. Looking down, I saw an honest-to-god automat. It was closed for Saturday; nevertheless, a fortyish woman sat alone at one of the tables, quaintly eating a sandwich. I had entered a Hopper again.

Many locals had told me, "There are no real neighborhoods" in Des Moines. But on one side of Drake University I found a neighborhood with big homes and fancy cars. On the other side was a dangerous one that the bartender at a college bar told me the local cops called "The Block" or "The Hood." On the South Side, I found Little Italy, where I passed businesses named Riccelli's, Scornavaca's, and Graziano Brothers. Not only have the people of Des Moines not visited the world, they also haven't visited Des Moines apparently. I found all sorts of things that they had told me I would not find: ethnic businesses and neighborhoods (Leo's Tacos; A Taste of Thailand), etc.

Meanwhile, I couldn't find anything where the "thought" they had seen it. Some of the galleries and cafes that they suggested I visit were out of business. I was given the wrong address for a café by one recommender. Even the local phone book had the wrong address for one business I needed to go to. It was unnerving. Here I was in Des Moines, Iowa, because it was part of the plan to write this book. But now, I began to wonder what the hell I was doing here. I was beginning to think like the locals. Maybe if the locals went to these places more often (or ever), they would be feel better about their town or at least be able to tell me which places were open and where they were. But since they didn't, they thought of the city as not even having such things. Or maybe they were just following another tourism board motto I saw on a billboard: "Let's keep Des Moines our own inside joke."

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