About Joe

Formerly a prosecutor, formerly a teacher, formerly a presenter, formerly a janitor, formerly a baker, formerly a dishwasher, formerly a store clerk, formerly a construction worker, and formerly a carny -- still a husband, still a dad, still a dog and cat owner, and still love foot-long hot dogs.

A good man in desperate times

The grizzled man climbs up out of the litter-strewn riverbank at dusk.  He hesitates.  Flannel shirt wrongly buttoned over multiple undershirts, pants bunched on top of long underwear, a tight stocking cap pulled over a shaggy head with long white hair hanging from the sides.  A homeless man.   The blackened fingers, bitten by frost, are waved in my direction.  He looks down the bike path, his head turning left and right, and then slowly shuffles towards my car in the gravel lot.

A furtive telephone call brought me down to the river’s edge.  A call promising too much.  I was used to dead ends, and sat resignedly waiting for the man to make his way over.

I knew this part of town.  The homeless camp on this bank was cleared long before winter came.  Eagles work the waters below this bridge on Scott Avenue.  A few fishermen hang around during the day.  And occasionally, the laughter and music from Mullets Bar will drift across and down to the sandbars.  But in this evening gloom, when the early night air touches the river creating a low-slung fog, no noise is heard.  Although we are in Des Moines, it could be the dank and musty Thames flowing below London Bridge, or a creaky canal in the warehouse district of Amsterdam.  A place of dark deeds for sure.

The man leans on my car.

“What should I call you?” I ask.

“Is Deep Throat taken?” he says in a low, growly voice.

Really?

“OK, how about Bill Stowe?”

The man, who has spent his adult life studying the river up close, saw and heard a bit too much.  He has a secret that refuses to stay hidden below the layers of flannel shirts.  A secret he wants to share.

“It’s in the Raccoon River,” he says.   “Go check the river.”

So I do.

Down to the river I hike.  The water drifts flat and syrupy.  The Raccoon, born from the joinder of the North and South Raccoon, feeds into the Des Moines River at Principal Park.  The Raccoon spans Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Greene, Dallas, Audubon, and Guthrie Counties.  It is the drain in the tub for northwest and north central Iowa.  It’s here where the water flows that the man said I would find the secret.

Climbing to the water’s edge, I see that the muddy river looks darker than usual.  Somewhat like the oil on your dipstick.

I take a smell.

Oh my lord.  It’s crude oil — with just a bouquet of nitrates.  Bakken Crude Oil.  The man didn’t lie.  There is a secret hidden in the river.

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Back to the man I go.

Why is Bakken Crude Oil coming down the Raccoon River?

The man shuffles back and forth.  Left foot, right foot, left foot.  Looking down the entire time.  A young school boy caught doing mischief.

“The nitrate level was out of control,” he says as a preamble.

I reassure him that everyone understands that problem.

“I did everything I could to make the water safe for the people of Des Moines.  After bringing that lawsuit against the upstream counties, I was at my wits end.  So don’t judge me harshly.”

I was perplexed.

“So I made a deal.”

It began to dawn on me at last.  A deal struck in desperation.  Voluntary efforts had failed. The legislature was not supportive.  The governor was less than helpful.  The man was at the end of his rope.

“We made a swap.”

Ah, so they did.  The brilliance and audacity was stunning.  Who could have possibly guessed how this man had struggled in this dance with the devil.  He knew the water was being poisoned by nitrates.  He knew there was no political will to address the problem.  He knew that his chances of success were slim at best.  But, the bottom line, people needed clean water.

Of course.  It is so obvious.  Crude oil from the Bakken fields is gushing down the Raccoon River.  No doubt, the oil refineries can much more easily deal with the nitrate runoff.  And, as a bonus, no more worry about oil spills in the middle of farm fields.  The land is saved.  Hoorah!

But what about our drinking water?  What is the other side of the swap?

“The crude oil pipeline is quite clean.  This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.  Rural water comes through pipes.  Your city water comes through pipes.  This is not a new idea.”  The man’s tone has changed.  He wants me to understand.  He wants me to see what he’s seen.

So, down the crude oil pipeline our water comes.  Nitrate free.  Just as mother nature intended.  Wow.  American creativity at its best.

I stare at the man as he mumbles quietly to himself.  He then slowly shuffles back to the river, back below the Scott Avenue Bridge.  His long white hair blowing softly on either side of his stocking cap — a rock star leaving the darkened stage.  Who would have guessed?

A good man in desperate times.

Joe

[This is an April Fool’s piece.  In real life, Bill Stowe, the CEO for Des Moines Water Works, does not live under the Scott Avenue Bridge.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Every punch hurts”

A knockout is clean and simple.  You get knocked down.  You don’t get up.  It’s all over.  No more floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee.  The end.

A technical knockout is not so clean and not so simple.  The referee calls the fight usually because the losing boxer’s safety is at risk.  Why?  Because the poor guy is getting walloped by the winning boxer.  It’s not an uplifting sight.

Or maybe it is.

“I was born and raised in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with two sisters and three brothers.  My dad worked on the slaughter floor and my mom was a nurse’s aid at the county home.”

The words are jumbled together, chewed on, and delivered like taffy being pulled at the State Fair — a long string of stretched-thin sentences with no periods or spacing or changed intonation.   The large pink jacket doesn’t help dispel this illusion.

John Roby continues . . . .

“One of my goals is to get on the Ellen DeGeneres show.  I hope my story will change people’s lives.  My story is my life.  Look at it back then and look at me today.  I think it is a touching story.  It’s a little depressing.  How you can be at the top?  And then everybody takes you for what you’ve got?  It’s a sad story.  But it is touching.  What do you think of my story?”

April 3, 1993.  Dalton, Georgia.  Roger Bonine versus John Roby.  130 pounds.  International Boxing Organization World super featherweight title is on the line.  Out of the ring will walk a changed man.  Adulation, respect, endorsements will follow.  Champion of the world.

“My manager said, ‘John can you make 130?  There’s a title out there for you.  If you make this weight, we’ve got the title shot.’  So I went down another weight.  And I had the title shot with Roger Bonine.  From Georgia.  He had the title for super featherweight at 130.  Eventually I made the weight, two days before the fight.  I was amazed.  I went down as the 2 to1 underdog. And what do you know, I knocked him down in the fifth round and I took the crown.  IBO crown.  One of the biggest belts in the world.  April 3rd, 1993.  Preston Daniels, the mayor of Des Moines, made it John Roby Day.”

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The 52-year-old hands are remarkably fine.  Fingers long and delicate.  Knuckles unswollen.  Nails neatly trimmed.  The hands of a patrician, not a boxer.

John Roby takes a long breath.

“What did I do to deserve this crown?  I waited for so long.  It was a blessing.  I see myself winning the belt in dreams.  And sometimes dreams come true.  And my dream wasn’t a fantasy, it was the real deal.  It came true.”

John Roby’s life dramatically changed.

“It was like I was reborn.  I was giving people autographs.  People noticed me more.  ‘Hey, Champ.  How are you doing?’  It made me feel great.  Especially when I was going to schools and telling the kids about my career.  The recognition made me feel good.”

And that was the beginning of the end.

“My downfall was being ‘mister-all-that.’  Mine wasn’t dope, drugs.  Mine was being a ladyizer.  I liked being out there.  Chasing women was my problem.”

The big money never happened.  John Roby worked at Dahl’s in the produce section to make ends meet.  One year later, in 1994, he lost his crown to Jeff Mayweather by a 12-round decision.  But worse than the loss, he had an accident at work.  He injured his neck and head.  His life would never be the same.  Fifteen losses and a few wins later, his career was over.

“John, how do you survive today?  Where do you get your money?  How do you live?”

He turns away.  He coughs.  His brow furrows.  A heaviness comes from deep down in his throat.

“I didn’t want to tell you, but I get a check.  I feel like I’m stupid because I get that check.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I feel like I’m retarded.  I have failed.  I’m trying to do this story.  I feel ashamed.”

John Roby recovers slowly from this blow.  He looks directly at me.

“Everything is slow these days.  Reflexes, legs. . . .  But I think I could make a comeback!”  He laughs almost painfully.  Then he becomes serious.

“Now I have feelings.  Every punch hurts right now.  Back then the punches didn’t hurt.  Right now, every punch hurts.  I was like superman.  I’m still superman, but I don’t have the cape anymore.  I’m not the man of steel.  I’m just John Roby.  The puppy, John Roby.  The old puppy, John Roby.”

So John survives.  Volunteers with kids at various places.  Helps out where he can help out.  Tries to inspire people with his story.  And has a message he delivers in quick jabs.

“Go to school.  Get your grades up.  Respect your teacher.  Respect your parents.  Discipline.  Make your dreams come true.  If you want to become a professional anything, you’ve got to give it your best.  You can’t listen to negative.  If you’re listening to negative, you aren’t going anywhere tonight.  Be sure to get your education.  Don’t be a boxer.  You need your brains.  Become a doctor.”

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“Is this a sad story for a fighter?  I blew my money.”  He shakes his head.  “I gotta get another shot.  Do you think I have a good story?”

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing paths

Illness is an interesting sculptor.  It pulls the cheek bones higher.  Hollows out the spaces near the mouth.  Brightens the eyes just a tad.  And, as the man across the table laughingly told me, “It is a hell of a weight loss program, it is effective, but I don’t recommend it.”

We laugh, because we haven’t been together long enough to cry.  We sip our coffee quietly.

Frankly, when I first met him 34 years ago, he was an irritant.  Over the tops of the five-foot high cubicles at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, his voice would boom and shake.  A flyover on a quiet work day.  Startled, we would all stop working and wait for the ruckus to subside.  It could take awhile because hearing the voice meant Rich Richards was back at the AG’s Office after being in court.  Good for Rich, but bad for the second floor of the Hoover Building.

“I still have timbre in my voice,” he proudly tells me.

No kidding.

The second time I met him, he surprised me.  The opera was all new for me as I sat near the edge of the stage in Indianola.  Amazing singer after amazing singer would appear.  I saw a large man enter stage left.  He was a good six-and-a-half-feet tall, with that tell-tale handlebar mustache.  And there was the voice.  Booming across the stage.  Rich Richards.  Opera singer.  Who knew?

“I had the unique opportunity to perform with the Des Moines Metro Opera for quite a few years.  About a dozen.  Sometimes as the lead and sometimes as a secondary character.   But the shelf life of an opera singer is strictly defined — it is so demanding on your voice.”

Perhaps, but YOUR voice sounds just fine.  In fact, the studious people in the coffeeshop are starting to edge away from our table.

The third time I met him, he and I argued.  The federal building was a bit more open in those days.  A few of us went from the Polk County Attorney’s Office to talk to the United States Attorney’s Office to see who would prosecute a case out of Polk County.  We all argued what the other should do.  Complicated, of course, because we all thought we spoke with the voice of God.  And there was Rich, on the feds’ side.  Slapping me on my back.  Welcoming.  Larger than a man should be.  A big personality.

“Been with the Department of Justice since 1983.  U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Trial attorneys learn just enough to be dangerous on a particular subject, and then they are done with that particular case.  They forget all about what they just did and move on to a whole other area.  A rewarding professional situation for me to have this kind of practice.”

His head shakes as he looks backwards over time.  He then laughs — just as you’d expect — large and loud.

The fourth time I met him, he was (and is) performing with Repertory Theater of Iowa, Clarence Darrow: A One-Man Play.  Yup, he is the one man.  As we talked, I couldn’t tell when Rich was talking as himself or when Clarence Darrow was talking.  He flowed from one into the other and back again.

“There are things Darrow says about the practice of law.  ‘It is a bum profession as generally practiced because it’s devoid of idealism, almost poverty stricken as to real ideals.’  I absolutely agree.  It is a bum profession as practiced.”

Rich looks at me to see if I agree.  But with whom am I agreeing?  Clarence Darrow or Rich Richards?

“Some of the issues Darrow debated — for instance, does man have an immortal soul?  ‘Once when I was debating a man he got so carried away he told an audience, “I’m the master of my fate, captain of my soul.”  ‘Captain of his soul?  Hell, he wasn’t even a deckhand on a raft.’”

I’m beginning to wonder if Rich has internalized all the characters he’s portrayed over the years.  Is he Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol?  Is he Lane from The Importance of Being Earnest?  Is he Giles Corey from The Crucible?

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And then Rich Richards talks of being sick.

”I was ill for a long time.  I was so sick I could not even attend my youngest’s kid’s graduation party.  MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] did so much damage, they were saying my liver was failing, I was eligible for a liver transplant, kidneys were starting to shut down.  I was incredibly ill.  It was really 50/50 whether I was going to make it.  I still have residual problems with my liver.  But I feel good.  Feel better than I have in a long time.”

A shoulder replacement, a fused ankle, and a tremendous loss of weight, thanks to MRSA.  Rich is sanguine.

“Clarence Darrow talked a lot about life and death.  ‘A lot of people were sure as I got older, closer to my final exams, I’d get religion.  Never did.  I still believe when I die there will be nothing left over.  Neither heaven nor hell.’”

“Darrow’s second wife is named Ruby,” Rich says to me as an aside.  And then continues as Darrow.

“‘Ruby had a slightly different point of view.  She does believe in a heaven and a hell.  But it won’t make any difference which one I go to because I have so many good friends in both places.’”

“That’s the kind of guy he was.”  Rich gives me one last smile.

This is the kind of guy Rich is.

And, with a shake of hands that pulls into a hug, off we go to follow our separate paths once again.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a 50-year-old cop

The hallway is empty.  High ceilings stretch off in the distance.  Dark woodwork marks the openings for doorways hidden in shadowed recesses.  And a low murmur of voices provides background.  1600 voices to be exact.  Oh, yeah, and one cop.

I follow the directions from the front desk.  Right.  Then left.  Then another left.  “And then you’re there.  On the right.”

Now was that a right, then a left?

“I still hear the stories about my dad when he was a police officer.  It was a different time back then.  My dad grew up boxing.  He was an east-side boxer.  He brought that knowledge to me and my brother.  We both knew how to fight.  I grew up fighting.  It’s come in handy some time

I ask the guy at the front desk to give me the directions again.  It doesn’t help.  I know I am somewhere in Roosevelt High School.  Lost for sure.  Wandering the halls looking for the promised land.  Will I have to re-enroll in high school?

“I was aggressive in my early career.  I was 23 when I came on to the Des Moines Police Department.  I was probably immature.  But I had a goal to put as many bad guys in jail as I could.  With maturity came understanding.  It is not always about putting bad guys in jail.  I was on the SWAT team for 20 years.  I was in the gang unit for nine years.  I worked the east side on patrol.  I was in the most aggressive areas of the department.”

I continue down the hallway.  A little worried.  Knowing that at any minute a bell will ring, the doors along the hall will open, and I’ll be swept away into teenage angst.  Not a pretty sight.  I didn’t do so well the first time around.

“I wanted to be where the excitement was.  Where it was a hundred-miles-an-hour-with-my-hair-on-fire all the time.  Chasing people.  Being shot at.  All that stuff was great, and exciting, and never the same thing twice.  That’s why I loved the job.  I absolutely loved it.  And if they would have told me we’re going to take away half your pay, I would have still done it.”

Finally, a voice calls my name at the far end of a long hallway.  A waving figure in blue, handsome in a rakish way, with a big smile and a balanced stance, laughing and beckoning me with open arms.  A man who is not lost.

“Like I say, with maturity and understanding, things started to change.  It was a learned thing.  It came from a lot of older policemen.  They told me, it’s not all about putting people in jail, it’s about changing lives.”

Des Moines Officer Mike Moody gave me a big hug.  Yes, a hug.  Is this the crazy kid I taught in police recruit class 26 years ago?  Whose enthusiasm to get the bad guys made me more than a little nervous?  Who was so certain of himself it made me uncertain?  Is this really Mike Moody?  A school resource officer?  It can’t be.

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“My job now is to provide a safe place for these kids to come and get an education.  I take it a step further.  I want to get to know these kids, get to know what’s going on in their heads, in their families, what they do outside of school.  So if they have a problem, they can feel comfortable coming to me, talking to me about it.  It’s a completely different law enforcement.  I went from kicking in doors and pointing guns at people, telling them to get on the ground, to sitting down in an office with a 16-year-old kid and just trying to figure out what’s going on in his or her life.  To see what I can do to help them out.  It’s cool.  It’s a great change.  It’s an awesome change.  I love it.”

Officer Moody is interrupted as we sit in his office.  “What’s up, Anthony?”  “Hi Jordan.”  “Hello Michael.”

Clearly, I was occupying a chair reserved for these kids.

Officer Moody began to tell stories.  A boy climbing up on a building at the shopping center to hold up a sign asking a girl to homecoming.   A gang kid learning to trust Officer Moody as he relentlessly engaged the kid at school — day after day after day.  Two girls being spiteful to a third girl, taking her purse, texting where the purse was located, and then the two girls crying in remorse in Officer Moody’s office.  This isn’t complicated.  Right and wrong, poor behavior and good character, wallowing and getting on with the task.  Life lessons.  Everyone ends up with Officer Moody for a chat sooner or later.

“I have a good rapport with many of these kids because I have the same maturity level.”  Officer Moody laughs at himself — slow and easy.  “I still haven’t grown up.  When I was 15 years old, I told my dad, ‘When I grow up I want to be a policeman.’  He said, ‘Son, you can’t do both.’  I never understood what that meant until now.”

So this tough, aggressive, in-your-face cop sits behind a desk at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Buying lunches for the senior basketball players, just so he can find out about their plans and make sure they have a future.  Encouraging a freshman basketball player to persevere, when he sees the kid pouting on the bench.  Shaking the outstretched hands of fathers he’s arrested, because the fathers are thrilled Officer Moody is watching over their kids.

“This is the greatest school on earth.  I swear to God.  It has the best administrators, the best teachers, and the best kids.  Kids from south of Grand, kids from the hood, kids from the east side, and they all come here.  I have not seen anything about racism, it is everybody hanging out together.  If our city was as good as this school, we’d have no problems.”

Happy as a clam, Officer Moody is home.

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“This is the best job on earth.  I get paid to build relationships with kids that I actually like.  I get actual feelings for these kids.  I say to them, ‘Dude, I get to  know you for four years.  We are going to be great friends.  Do you want to know the worst part of this job?  When you graduate.’”

Officer Moody’s eyes glisten at the very thought.  Really?

“I love the job, Joe, I can’t say enough about it.”

And Officer Moody leads me out of Roosevelt High School.  Safe and sound.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m right here.”

Just a goodbye is what she asked.  Write a farewell.  Nothing more.  Certainly nothing rude.  Nothing getting even.  Nothing to settle old scores.  Just goodbye to old friends, old enemies, and all the in-between.  And, most importantly, goodbye to the neighborhood.  To the East Village, a simple goodbye.

The past few weeks have not been easy.  Holding down a spot in East Village for so many years, Marsha Steele’s time is out.  Her lease is dried up.  Her spot on Grand Avenue is done.  No hard feelings.  But the reality is that her small business is soon to be a business no more.

For 25 years, Marsha successfully worked in the insurance world.  But in 2005, she turned her back on that world and opened a vintage shop in East Village — Found Things.  A dream come true.

“How do you make your dream?  You moonlight.  I painted house interiors on the side so I could support the store.  I went to a small business administration class at night.  They gave you a business plan boiler plate.  Eventually I was able to be open five days a week.  And before long, I was open six days a week.   I then moved to this bigger space in 2008.”  Marsha smiles proudly as she looks around her store on Grand Avenue.

Let’s just take a turn around Marsha’s dream.  Go through the large glass door and up a step.  See that old mortar and pestle on the counter?  It’s Marsha’s favorite item in her store today.  The wooden handle of the pestle is worn smooth by the palm of some long-forgotten person grinding and crushing spices into powder.  Marsha will tell you about the pestle.  She’ll ask about the space you want to decorate, ask about your wants and needs, and suggest other items which might work.

Then she’ll ask about you.

I’m not kidding.  She is going to connect with you.  Sorry.  You don’t even have to buy that crazy mortar and pestle.  She is all about her customers — as she looks directly at you with eyes slightly magnified by the perfectly rounded vintage glasses and a wry smile dancing across her lips.  This is who she is.

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Let’s take a turn to the west wall.  Past the mason jars and bowls and cupboards.  Yup, that is a deer head on the wall.  You’re right, there are a lot of points on the antlers.  Of course it is dead as a vintage door nail.  Stuffed.  Exactly what you’d expect to find in your grandpa’s attic next to his tuba and your grandma’s old phonograph.  Come on, here’s your chance to be politically incorrect.  Buy it.  And you might as well also buy that used fur coat since you’re on that slippery slope anyway.

And while you’re browsing, Marsha will tell you about the other great stores in East Village.  You like her vintage glasses?  Well, go to the optometry shop down a few blocks.  You want men’s clothing?  Just go over to that bridal shop and they have a great men’s line of clothing in the back.  You want soap?  You want spices?  You want painted furniture?  You want fresh tea?  You want a latte?  Marsha will point the way.  All in the East Village.

“All the small businesses in the East Village adapt.  We keep ourself viable.  It is something to be proud of.  And look at all the women entrepreneurs: Sarah Grant, Amy Hassebrock, Jen at Eden, Teresa at Kitchen Collage, they’re all still here.  There’s a great camaraderie of female business owners.”

Yup, she’s about you, but she’s also all about these women, these small businesses.

Now we are towards the back of the store.  If you look up, you’ll see a wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling.  Old as Moses.  A future decoration for some modern downtown loft is my guess.  Perhaps a conversation piece that will float above the cocktails.  Although I don’t see any paddle.

Speaking of no paddle . . . .

“There was a vacuum in the board of East Village.  Six or seven of us were appointed new.  The president resigned thirteen months earlier.  At that meeting, seven new people were voted on the board and they said, ‘Okay, we need a president.’  And somebody said, ‘Marsha, you be president.’  They voted on it, and I became president.”

And it might be an understatement to say Marsha became a very vocal member of the East Village Neighborhood Association.

“A lot of detractors will say I was the bitch on Grand.  That hurts my feelings.  I’m a very direct person and half the population doesn’t want someone to ask them a direct question.  Another portion doesn’t want you to re-ask it because of no response.  I always called myself a pusher.”

Marsha was passionate about East Village.  She loved all the festivals that the City put in East Village, but hated that all their businesses would be virtually shut down during these two-day events.  She railed against noise coming from the bars.  She argued for planters and sidewalks.  She didn’t want drunks out on the street.  And on and on and on.

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Marsha circles back to the front of the store.  Customers need her attention.  A hipster is piling items on the counter, wanting to know their back stories.  Two fashionable women have questions about some funky furniture they saw in the back.

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Next to me are old suitcases stacked on shelves.  The kind of suitcases you’d imagine a silent screen star having in hand on a train ride in the 1920’s, perhaps on the slow train to Paris.  Or the kind you pack up to leave home.

“I want to leave good energy behind for the people I’ve worked with, and leave good energy for my fellow business owners.  I don’t want to give a teary send off — I want to say, ‘Keep being great downtown retail, keep being the hottest retail district in the state, keep redefining yourself’ —  because I’m watching.”

Marsha’s eyes glisten.  Her heart is broken.  Her love for East Village, her love for small businesses, her love for her customers, is too much for her today.

She sets a compass on the table in front of me, unable to make eye contact.

“I carry this old thing with me.  And, not being a boy scout, and not knowing my way, I pull this out.  And whenever I wonder where I am, I’m right here.”

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

A bird’s eye view of wrestling

You couldn’t make it?  Too bad.  It’s Iowana at it’s best.  From all over the state, young men and women came to compete — to see who is the strongest, quickest, and most clever.  They did moves like the half nelson, the single leg takedown, the double leg takedown, and the ankle pick.  Of course, these might also be the specials they were offering at the concession stands.  Got me.  Although, I was mildly disappointed to find out there would be no one wrestling in a costume calling himself “The Undertaker.”  But I went this year because that’s what retired guys do.  Here’s what I saw and here are the new words I learned.

Water bugs.  At 106 pounds these are water bugs.  All legs and arms and quick movements skimming the surface of the mat.  When they lock together, it is an entanglement of filaments — a leg twisted around an arm, twisted around a waist, with a head over there and a foot over here.  A bundle of limbs.   The wrestlers skittle on and skittle off.  A victor is found, but I’m not sure if body parts haven’t been exchanged.  A whole new water bug leaves the mat.

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Bull elk.  Large.  Powerful.  Shy, but territorial.  285 pounds of a boy not yet a man.  There is nothing mean.  Nothing brutish.  Nothing evil in these mammoth boys.  Gentleness is the name of the game.  But out they come to lock horns.  Knotted together at the arms and shoulders.  Immovable.  Neither one bends to sweep the legs.  Neither one feints to the right or to the left.  How dare they?  Their mass unbalanced will quickly tumble them to the ground.  And that is the end.  They struggle with this knowledge.  Locked together.  Knowing that today it is you on the ground, tomorrow it is me.

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Roosters.  Prancing around the gym at 182 pounds, chests thrust out, arms sculpted with muscles, chins chiseled.  They are 17 years old going on 27.  They needed to shave twice today just to keep up appearances.  And here they are.  Ready to fight.  Watch them warm-up off the mat.  Glaring and thumping and dropping to one knee to shoot inside the imaginary opponent.  The fans whoop it up on the sidelines.  Happy.  Excited.  Watching the wrestler off-stage.  Forget the actual match.  This is the real arena for the 182 pounder.  Strutting their stuff in the chicken yard.  And the interesting twist?  It doesn’t really matter if they lose a feather or two.  Their crow will still be heard in the morning.

Prairie dogs.  The coaches all line the corners of the mat.  Sitting two abreast.  Placidly at the start.  Then bent at the waist.  Then hands cupped around their mouths to shout.  Then conferring intently with each other.  Then — wait for it —  they spring out of their holes.  Jumping and shouting and gesturing.   Whew.  Back to their hole they go.  Sitting placidly once again.  Wiping their furry brows with a small hand towel.

Yellow labs.  Their butts high in the air.  Chest down on the ground.  Eyes forward watching the action.  Scooting to the left.  Then scooting to the right.  Dancing and dancing around all the fun.  Pulling in close to slap a hand against the mat.  Darting back out to circle and circle and circle.  Barking at one wrestler.  Then barking at another.  It doesn’t stop until everyone is herded off the mat.  Wagging their tails, the referees are just happy to be there.

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There you go.  Now you know everything I know about Iowa high school wrestling.  I can’t wait for high school basketball.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom and Pop

The corner door pushes open to a soft “dong.”  That’s it.  No automatic swoosh of doors ushering you into a neon-lit extravaganza of restaurants, dry cleaners, coffee shops, post offices, liquor stores, pharmacies, and groceries.  Nope.  This door you have to push with your hands.  And it pushes open only into a small mom-and-pop store.  No bustling of people stocking shelves, no clang of shopping carts being rounded up by a machine in some football-field parking lot, no crackling voice announcing “help needed in aisle twenty-five.”  Nope.  Not here.  Just a warm hello from the smiling woman at the cash register — who will likely call you by name — and then you are on your own.  Quiet.  Peaceful.  Slow shopping.

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“There used to be all these corner groceries in Des Moines.  One over here in the Roosevelt Shopping Center.   There was the Waveland Market.  There was one in Sherman Hills.  There was Greenwood Market, where we’d stop in every day coming home from Merrill.  New City Market has been the location of a grocery since the 1920’s.”

Jim Raife explains with gestures as he identifies each corner grocery on some large imaginary map of Des Moines.  A thin man.  61 years old.  Small boned.  Straight.  His peppery-grey hair, narrow face, and rounded glasses are window-dressing to his smile.  A slow, lazy affair.  It starts at the eyes, eases on down to his upper cheeks, then finally brings the corners of his mouth upwards.  It’s not in a rush.  Nor is he.

“I started work in what was then the Iowa Farmer’s Market in 1979.  It was like the first natural foods market in Des Moines.  The Iowa Farmer’s Market was a private store.  It was like crocks on the floor and an old cooler in the back.  That was it.”

Jim straightens the long apron that loops around his neck and falls below his knees.  The costume of his trade.

“It was a bunch of us hippies back in the beginning.  I had a giant fro.”  Jim laughs at his image as a young man.

“In 1989, I bought the Iowa Farmer’s Market and immediately moved it here to this corner.  I knew politically this was right.  I knew the natural food movement was a convergence of several movements.  One a political movement and one a health movement.  And so there was a compelling reason to think this would work.”

But really?  Running a small business?  Running a natural foods store?

“I learned by trial and error.  We did have a consultant fairly early that helped us a lot.  And I really worked to educate myself.  This was a fledging industry back then.  People were flying by the seat of their pants.  You see small business people who say, ‘No one’s going to tell me how to run my business.’  And you look at them and think someone needs to tell them how to run their business.  I was not that type.  Whatever help you can give me, I’ll take it.”

Ah, and then there’s his wife Cindy.  His indispensable partner in all of this.  She works the back room and he works the front.  Not too interested in any attention from me, she keeps to the periphery as she periodically glances our way.

And children?

“We had our first child in 1981,” Jim says.  “All my kids grew up in the store.  We were mom and popping it.  Play area in the front.  One of our kids would use the bathroom and yell across the store — ‘Mom, I need a wipe.’”

Jim laughs at how ridiculous it was.

“They all worked here.  We ate and breathed and lived this.”

Cindy continues to bustle in the background.  Grey hair pulled back tight.  Softly curved eyes glancing our way.  Gentle.

I intrude on her space.  What did you think when you and Jim opened this store?

“Well, when we started, I had two kids and I was very pregnant with the third.  When Jim said we should buy this place, I said he was crazy.”  She pauses.  “It was all good.  When our youngest was big enough to play, he had his legos set up in the front window while the older kids mixed peanut butter.  My adult kids all still eat natural foods and are healthy and well-rounded.  You can’t ask for more than that.”

And that’s enough goofing off.  Cindy heads to the back and Jim to the front.

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The floor shines from polish.  The large windows glitter in the late afternoon sun.  The cans and boxes are marshaled  in neat rows on the shelves.   Vegetables and fruits are bright and lush in the refrigerated case against the wall.  And the barrels of grains and beans are ready to be scooped into waiting bags.  All is well at New City Market.  And a soft dong is heard in the background.  Mom and pop are back to work.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A jazzy romance indeed

The large bushy mustache has a life of its own.  As do the quizzical eyebrows tucked behind rounded eyeglasses.  And the tufts of hair wanting to go sideways at the ears.  He could easily be an old vaudeville player made up with props from the back room.  Certainly the one-liners delivered in showman’s patter are a reminder of an earlier time.

You’re also a performer with the Java Jews, aren’t you?

“No, I play the accordion with them.”   [ba da bing!]

And how does the audience respond to the concerts you bring to town?

“There’s an older guy in the Jewish community, he comes up after every concert and has the same speech every time.  ‘Abe, I could tell those were really good musicians, they were very entertaining, I could tell they really knew their stuff.  But . . .  it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’”  [canned audience laughter]

Abe winks at me to make sure I got the old man’s joke.  I’m clearly three steps behind.  Abe continues nonplussed.

“But he still comes to every concert.  One time I asked a pianist to play It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.  See, we can get away with that kind of stuff.”

Abe beams at me.

Jazz is what he’s talking about.  Bringing great jazz to Des Moines.  Simple.  Or so it would seem.

Abe Goldstien loves jazz.  Abe Goldstien loves Des Moines.  He wants to share the two.  So he found a place for jazz musicians to play — The Caspe Terrace, a 150-seat performance space operated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines.  He found jazz musicians — like Amina Figarova, Trio X, Eric Vloeimans, and, on February 19th, Lee Konitz.  And he found the money to pay for it all.

Really?  From where?

Out of Abe and his wife’s own pockets it turns out.

Oh.

“We are really blessed in Des Moines.  We’d be hard-pressed to do this in any other community.  I have hotels, a venue, promotion is nothing, our only cost is the musicians and the food.  We don’t make any money.  I guarantee the musicians that I will give them a certain amount up front.  Then any other money that comes in above that from tickets, I give to them.  We always come out at a loss. . . .  But something magical is going to happen at the performance.”

So I sit at their kitchen table in a quiet bungalow on a quiet street not too far from Roosevelt High School.  Abe Goldstien, 63 years old, and Jackie Garnett, 56 years old, sit across from me.  They are a team.  Abe finds the musicians, and Jackie, a self-styled “culinary school dropout,” feed them.

Abe speaks of their passion. . . .

“My goal is when the musicians go back to their towns they say: ‘I was in Des Moines, and man, Jackie made this apple pie and whatever we wanted, and Abe drove us everywhere and it was great and you really need to play there.’  And if possible, we like to get them in a day before so that I can show them around Des Moines.  The end result, when they get up on stage they think they’re playing in our living room.  They’ve gotten to know us and they assume all the people in the audience are like us.  So it becomes this little intimate dinner party.”

Wow.  Another good man and another good woman doing good in Des Moines.  Great.

But that is so not the story I want to tell.

Years ago, Jackie and Abe briefly crossed paths.

“I always tell people I thought she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw.  But you know, I was, and still am, a schlumpy Jewish guy.  I would have never thought of walking up to her and asking her out.”  Abe ducks his head and shyly smiles.

“And that’s why I didn’t have any dates,”  Jackie deadpans in her low syrupy voice.

Sleepy eyes, warm wide smile, and a drawl.  Yup, a molasses drawl.  Rich and deep and comforting.  Jackie tells of her former life in production at WHO, her stint in DMACC’s culinary school, and her present job at Methodist hospital taking care of patients’ diets.

But Jackie does not speak of her first place wins at the Iowa State Fair for pies and various other dishes.  Abe does.  Jackie does not tell of the raves that the jazz musicians give for her meals and her care-taking.  Abe does.  Jackie does not speak about how head-over-heels Abe is in love with her.  Of course not.  Please.  Abe does.

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Abe has a few rules for whom he invites to Des Moines.  After the musicians pass the test of being someone Abe wants to hear, they have another major hurdle.

“They have to play a tune called East of the Sun, West of the Moon.  If they won’t play that, forget it.”

And the musicians all surprisingly agree.  Each group, each musician, play a tune written by Brooks Bowman, a 1930’s jazz standard.

“East of the sun and west of the moon,                                                                                       We’ll build a dream house of love, dear.                                                                            Near to the sun in the day,                                                                                                  Near to the moon at night,                                                                                               We’ll live in a lovely way, dear,                                                                                         Living on love and pale moonlight.”

A love affair with jazz?

“The love affair is with Jackie, not jazz,” Abe quickly corrects.  He pulls off his heavy wedding ring to show me.  On the inside is carved these words:

“EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON.”

“It’s our song,” Abe says with a bright-eyed smile that is not intended for me.  And Jackie smiles back.

A jazzy romance indeed.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two faces of Lisa Takes

The smell of clean causes your nose to flare when you enter the room.  Sharp.  Astringent.  With an undertone of earthy.  A fine wine.  Laughter crosses from over the busy side of the counter.  It’s mixed with distant barks and the sounds of people clipping, trimming, talking.  When it is your turn to check in, your dog inevitably decides to investigate the far corners of the room, leaving you with one arm firmly on the leash and the other gripping the counter.  Certainly you would have confessed the name of your dog with a little less drama.  But there you are.  Shouting out her name while stretched out on a self-made rack.

Saturday morning at Starch Pet Hospital.

The vet today is a woman.  Hair pulled back tight.  Blue lab coat open at the neck.  Smile lines high.  Lisa Takes listens and observes.  She’s good at it.  A vet for 24 years, the last 22 at Starch Pet Hospital, there is not much she hasn’t seen — from pet owners and pets.

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“I basically have two patients.  It’s very complicated.  The hard part of the job is dealing with the human, not the animal.”  Her lower face smiles as she watches me carefully.

Takes is that kid you knew in high school who took every science course offered.  Disciplined.  Focused.  And just a little scary smart.  The person you want as your vet.

“I like my job.  I’m never bored.  The most common problems are skin issues, allergy issues, gastrointestinal issues.  Older patients generally have kidney disease, cancer.  Yesterday I had to do surgery on a dog with cancer.  Bleeding in the spleen.  Rewarding work to be able help.”

She moves around the room with ease.  Taking care of a dog here, picking up a cat over there.  Calm.  Clear.  Certain even among the uncertainty of health.

“To some extent these animals are an extension of their families.  I treat the animal as such.  I have the luxury of knowing it is an animal.  What applies to humans does not apply to veterinary medicine in every case.  So, like cancer.  We don’t have hospice.  We have to make decisions.  I will treat every animal as part of the family.  But there are different rules.”

She pauses.  Looking at me closely.  Wanting me to understand.

“Animals for a lot of people are good for them.   They make you feel good.  They make you feel happy.  They are a gift.”  And off Takes goes to the next examination room.  Working until the last patient is seen and the day is done.

Life as a veterinarian.

The smell of clean is surprising as you enter through the carpeted doorway.  No wonder.  The owner’s mom (yes, Mom!) is vacuuming, wiping down, dusting.  Constantly.  But the undertone of sweat is inevitable in a gym.  The clang of iron echoes sharply in the large room, although muted by the steady beat of treadmills, and elliptical machines, and new-fangled cardio equipment.  But it is the slabs of iron, stacked and sorted and placed on racks, that beckon.  Like Stonehenge.  They are a little primordial.  A little old school.  And definitely a little crazy.

Sunday morning at Anytime Fitness in Beaverdale.

Hidden at the far side of the room is a woman lifting.  Back towards me.  Tucked behind the lifting rack.  The muscles separate and bulge as she strains at the weights, serrating her back into an anatomy lesson.  Trapezius, Triceps, Biceps, Lats, Delts.  Yup, they’re all there.

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Lisa Takes smiles shyly at me.  She isn’t quite comfortable talking about this part of her life.  She’ll tell you she is married.  She’ll tell you she has a 12-year-old kid.  She’ll tell you she’s a veterinarian.  But she probably won’t tell you she is a professional bodybuilder.  Did you know she came in first in her last regional tournament?  Of course you didn’t.

“There was a trainer I started working out with here in Des Moines.  Dado Kantarevic.  I started to see big changes.  Then he asked me to do a show.  I laughed at him.  He had me watch a video of girls competing.  Again, I laughed at him.  It took me a year and a half to actually commit.  I am still with Dado six years later.”

Takes continues her routine.  Straining at the weights.  The point of exhaustion comes and goes as the iron is moved from here to there.  Sweat drips from her forehead.  There’s no stopping today.

“We tried to do Figure first.  There is Bikini, which to me is more beach body.  Real lean.  Not a lot of muscle.  A little bit, not much.  And then there is Figure.  They are looking for wide shoulders, big lats.  Like a V-taper they call it.  Very feminine.  You’re in heels.  I was in beginner and I got third at my first one.  I enjoyed it.”

“Enjoyed it” is an understatement.  Takes was hooked.  But she was looking for something a bit more.

“I’m more muscular, and I decided I was too muscular for Figure.  So I did Bodybuilding.  I like Bodybuilding better.  I didn’t have to be as girly.  Because I’m not like that.  I didn’t have to wear heels.  I like to lift heavy.  And I like to work out hard.  I like it a lot.  I went pro my next year.”

She moves to her next routine.  Methodical.  Practiced.  Nothing too quick.  Nothing to abrupt.  Just hard.  Her against the iron.

By the way, of all people, she must be happy when she looks in the mirror.  Right?

“I’m looking at myself critically.  I never go to the mirror and am totally satisfied.  I look in the mirror and say I need to do this.”  She smiles, shaking her head.

And then there is that small fact that Takes is a month from turning 50.

“There are not a lot of women nearly 50 like me.  There is a master’s category, but I usually do the open — which is everybody.”  She smiles again, giving a small glimpse of the confidence needed to strut on stage.

And that’s enough conversation.  She heads down the floor, a weight in each hand, doing front squat after front squat after front squat.

Life as a professional bodybuilder.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Life is a banquet”

The old Standard Oil Station in Osceola seemed an unlikely location for the boy’s childhood, given what eventually happened.  Although I could be wrong about that.  In those days, gas station attendants fixed cars, pumped gas, changed oil, and wiped their hands on rags that were washed and rewashed.  The old man who ran this station did it all.  And the boy learned to do it all.

“I got my love of cars from my Dad.  My first job at the station was loading a coke machine with those little six-ounce bottles.”

And the love of cars only became more intense as the boy aged.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Cadillacs.  Got my first in 1982.  I’ve travelled to Berlin and Amsterdam for Cadillac shows.  To me, a car is a work of art.  One day when I die I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes scattered at Willis Cadillac.”

Apparently next to his Cadillac Allante.

Teaching middle school students instrumental music in small town Iowa for over fifty years also seemed an unlikely career for what eventually happened.  Or, again, I may be missing the boat.  Young people do cause you to rethink the universe year after year.  They keep you nimble, open to change, flexible about the future.

“My niche is teaching middle school.  Either you love working with middle school students or you go insane in two weeks.  They are a different breed.  They go brain dead when they get into junior high.”

The boy relished this challenge.  After “retiring” in 2000 from teaching at Osceola, he continues to teach part-time at Valley High School and Valley Southwoods and perform instrumental music in Des Moines.  This is a boy up on his toes, ready to go.

“The last concert I was in, a young couple came up, and the girl said, ‘Can I ask you something?  How long have you played clarinet?’  And I said 61 years.  ‘Wow.’  She got all embarrassed and started to say, ‘Are you that old?’”

And all those students over all those years are a source of joy to the boy.

“One of my former students is now on staff at USC.  Clarinet.  She was a fantastic player.  She could have studied with the janitor and done great.  She wrote and said I gave her the self-confidence to do what she did.  That means a lot.”

And then there is the boy falling in love late in life.  Normally a time to settle down, take it easy, rest your feet on the balcony of your Florida condo — not to do what the boy eventually did.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong about that also.  Courting is a complicated dance at any time in life.

“My husband, Larry Hoch, was a middle school math teacher from New York.  We both started coming out at the same time and met in a chat room.  This was in 2000.  We started e-mailing, and then we started talking on the phone.  And then right around Christmas he asked what I thought about him coming out to Iowa.  My first thought was ‘oh my god.’  Panic City.”

The boy survived.  A couple of years later, he and Hoch were united in a civil union in Vermont.  That he was gay was a minor blip in his world, he claims.

”When I started coming out in 2000 to friends and family, it was about fifty-fifty.  Some people said, “You are?  Really?  So what.’  And the others said, ‘Yeah, we knew it.  So what.”

And that should be the end of the story.

But then life took an unusual turn.  The group pursuing a case for gay marriage in Iowa contacted the boy and wanted him and his partner to be parties to the case.

“We were what we called the old fart couple.  There were six couples and we were the oldest by far.  We decided we would do it.”

Soon followed an avalanche of media exposure for what became known as the Varnum case.  Press conferences, interviews, stories.  The boy’s life was on display for one and all.

“It’s been a great experience.  Right after the first press conference we only had one ‘you’re going to hell’ type letter.  That was it.  I’ve had so many former students contact me telling me it was great.  We would do it again.”

David Twombley, the nearly 74-year-old boy, is surprised where life has taken him.  He is not brave — leaning in to emphasize this point.  He does not know where the courage came from to stand up for gay marriage — shaking his head at me in quiet disbelief.  He doesn’t know why all the excitement didn’t give him a heart attack — laughing at his good fortune to be alive.

He is truly dumfounded.

“None of this is my personality,” he tells me with a wry smile.

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So what is?

“I love the line in Auntie Mame — ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.’ That’s kind of been my philosophy.  You have to live.”

Joe