Under the umbrella

Do you have a moment today? I know you’re awfully busy. But why don’t you walk under the Crusoe Umbrella. That’s right, it’s downtown in Cowles Commons. No, it won’t be weird. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised. Trust me.

Cologne. Up from the river we stroll in Cologne. Away from the renovated river walk, with its shops and restaurants. Past the early morning joggers with their early morning religious intensity. In front of the young couple pushing a stroller, where the reason for their forced march is happily sound asleep. Around the old man and old woman, with their aged hands sliding together in well-warn grooves. And above us, seagulls squawk, a foghorn moans, church bells ring. Yup, all is as it should be in on this Sunday morning on the river.

The Rhine flows Missouri River fast. Already barges are moving past the docked cruise boats, barely noticing the massive Cathedral on the banks. But we leave it all behind. Past museums and closed cafes and shuttered shop after shop, we search for a cappuccino. We are just too early. So up the valley we go.

Life slowly begins to unfold. Tables and chairs are unchained at the cafes and placed out for the upcoming crowd. The sound of shutters being cranked open echo down the cobblestone streets. The shop owners with their straw brooms sweep away items thrown by the wind or the drunks. We keep walking.

And then my wife says, “Look up, Joe.”

My oh my. A giant ice cream cone. Fallen from the clumsy hands of some careless god. It’s actually dripping down the side of a building. Unbelievable.


Rotterdam. The rain crests, then washes across the plain in front of the Rotterdam train station in a whoosh. It drenches the folks running just steps from the door. I watch from inside. Glad to be dry. This station is built like the prow of a gigantic ship. It’s not inconceivable that the building will unmoor itself and just float away on this rainy day in the Netherlands. It doesn’t.


I head in the rain towards the museum, maybe a mile down the main canal. Within a block, my jeans are bleeding bluish water, my feet float freely in my tennis shoes, and the attached hat on my raincoat has turned into the Saylorville Reservoir. I’m damp. I’m chilled. And I’m thinking about heading back to the train station. But when I look up through the mist, all I can see are those indomitable Dutch. They stroll hatless, hair wet, rain running in rivers down their cheeks — and affecting an infuriating nonchalance. I decide to move to Boone.

At last I reach the museum. As I’m trying to find the entrance, I’m reminded of the quirkiness of life. Yup, the sun comes out. I don’t smile. But then, straight ahead, a gigantic screw, bent, touching the ground. Really? Is someone messing around? This could be a sculpture memorializing every one of my failed home-improvement projects. Did my wife commission this? I’m in awe.


Des Moines. Des Moines has been sweltering hot, the newspapers say. Bad for the folks fishing the rivers and bad for the mid-day strollers along the river paths. Those paths were my old running and walking grounds. No cooling breezes came up the rivers in those days. I suspect they still don’t. But vendors would set up on the other side of the Civic Center and I would buy treats and lounge in the shadow of a crazy gigantic umbrella.

The Crusoe Umbrella. Tipped on its side. Questionable in a rainstorm. Reliable in a strong wind. A vision of whimsy, particularly when packed in snow. It’s truly Des Moines.


Okay, enough of all these sculptures around the world. Who’s doing this? Who made the Crusoe Umbrella? Who made the ice cream cone? And who made that bent screw?

And, since you’re asking, who made the Meredith trowel also in Des Moines? And the spoon and cherry in Minneapolis? And the shuttlecocks in Kansas City? And the bow and arrow in San Francisco? And the saw in Tokyo? And the lion’s tail in Venice? And the needle and thread in Milan? And the spring in South Korea? And the bottle of notes in England? And the match cover in Barcelona? And . . . on and on and on.

Yup, you guessed it, it’s our old friends Claes Oldenburg and his now sadly departed wife Coosje van Bruggen. They built the Crusoe Umbrella 37 years ago. Yup, it is both a beginning and an end. You can stand under the umbrella in Cowles Commons and taste the ice cream in Cologne, turn the screw in Rotterdam, light the matches in Barcelona, shoot the bow in San Francisco, and be back for supper. The threads of culture.

Isolationism? Build a wall? Ban a people? It’s too late to keep anyone out.

As for keeping our sons and daughters in, Robinson Crusoe said:

“When I took leave of the island, I carried on board for relics, the great goat-skin cap I had made, my umbrella, and one of my parrots.”

Mmmm, I can see him or her now, our young high school graduate from North or Roosevelt or Hoover or East or Dowling, umbrella clutched tight, goat-skin cap pulled down, parrot scolding energetically, as the whole menagerie heads east on Grand Avenue for the Interstate, following the outbound threads of Oldenburg’s and Van Bruggen’s creation.

Trust me. All this happens from walking under the umbrella.










2 thoughts on “Under the umbrella

  1. Just lovely. The umbrella is one of my favorite pieces of art. How lucky to have it right in Des Moines to enjoy.

  2. Love this offering. I used to say — someone left some art lying around — when I’d look at the rusty pieces along the Iowa River by the old art museum. Remember those? I have so much more appreciation for them now.

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