178 Des Moines, IA: Trust Your Sense

[photo from my car driving to my hotel in Des Moines]

Afterwards, I went back to my motel along the outer belt, where train whistles and whining truck tires serenaded me to sleep. I had to be up early the next morning for the farmers market. I wanted to see the city "come alive."

The vendors at the farmers market set up to face the sidewalks rather than both sides in toward the street, which doubled my walking. Maybe they did it for insurance reasons. I looked for the chunky fruit preserves that I like, but only found jam. It seemed a metaphor for the homogenization of Des Moines. One stall served Indian food, but they had Americanized the name Aloo Tiki to "potato cutlet," and the menu included banana bread.

A young man yelled out, advertising Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches. The sign said a vegetarian version was available, so I indulged. As I stood there and took my first bite, a passer-by asked what I was eating. I told him, but he wrinkled his nose and walked on. The cook shook his head at the crowd's unwillingness to try something new. I asked him my question.

"The one with James Dean and all them?" he asked, trying to remember Hopper's Nighthawks. "I think Des Moines is like that to a point," he nodded. "I think most people in Des Moines would prefer to live in a gated community. I'm serious. Entire Des Moines: gated. You never hear them invite anyone in here. But isolation is too broad a generalization to make about the U.S. Here, you have a lot of people not willing to try new things. They would prefer to stick with the known, fall back on their viewpoint. Like that guy who asked about your sandwich. He should trust his sense of smell. Smell is actually the best memory trigger. You remember that smell, and the whole moment will come back to you."

With that, he filled the air with the aroma of another steak sandwich.

On the way out of town after the Farmers Market, I passed the Oldenburg sculpture that one city art commissioner called "plunk art." Unlike the skyway and insurance companies, this umbrella offers no protection. The sculpture seems to nudge this insurance town to remember, "into each life a little rain must fall"-no matter how much we try to protect ourselves.

The day before had been a Friday the thirteenth, and I found the Iowa Skeptics offering an obstacle course in superstition at a downtown mall. I had put on a black hat, walked under a ladder, smashed a mirror, shaken someone's left hand, lined up three chairs, rung a bell, and spilled salt. My reward was a reading from the "misfortune teller." She said that everything I'd just done was once considered bad luck and many had been illegal.

I was the only one from the crowd willing to perform the skeptics' rituals.

Des Moines insures risks. It doesn't take risks.

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