The COIC = The City of Iowa City.
And that's Herky, the mascot, for those of you unfamiliar with Hawkeye lore.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m typing this post in the Java House coffee shop in downtown Iowa City – conscious that the phrase “downtown Iowa City” makes it seem a grander and more sprawling place than it is. I’m here for the next week to teach at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, to earn some money and hopefully to read some good work.
Iowa City is in sluggish summer mode right now, the campus quite deserted. The Iowa House hotel, where I’m staying, is a university-run venture in the Iowa Memorial Union, its cafes and offices closed, a dust-blown construction site outside. The building looks west over the river, towards the hospitals and big houses, and south over a small park – more of a sports field – where the sprinklers already seem defeated by browning grass. Beyond it, through gaps in the pine trees, I can spot the red-brick crenellations of the ugly building that houses the English department, where every Wednesday I used to read submissions for the Iowa Review.
My room has neither a western or southern view, by the way: it looks into the angular concrete void in the middle of the building, and if I don’t keep my blinds closed everyone else can see into my room.
It’s ten years since TM and I left Iowa City, Tom driving a huge moving truck that one of my students, the very able Joyce Turner, had to back out of our long driveway. I think it may be eight years since I was last here. Some of my friends are still here, all with children now that they didn’t have eight years ago. Many of my friends have moved on, and it’s strange to wander the grid of leafy streets, thinking of the houses where Becky and Brandon lived, or Sarah and Bob, or Tracy and Corbin, or Gallaudet and David … And our house, too, of course, on Governor Street, which looks much scruffier these days.
The big tree outside where the cardinals nested is gone now, damaged by the big tornado that crumbled the sorority house on the opposite corner. There's a satellite dish in its place now. I stood there for sometime gazing at the house, by the way, before realizing there was a youth on the porch, lolling in the hammock.
Some things change – new people, new restaurants, a ton of new construction along the highway – and some stay the same, like Prairie Lights Book Store and the gloomy caverns of the Java House. Atlas is still here, and I plan to have a mojito there some time; the sushi place where Sarah Rogers marched us weekly for early half-price dinners has gone. John's Grocery is still here, thank god.
There are some places, e.g. the Foxhead, that I’m content to gaze upon rather than enter again, even though the smoking laws have changed and they no longer pose an immediate risk of lung cancer.
Iowa City is still a real American college town, to the point of parody, almost. Sheets pinned up in windows, barbeques and bicycles in front yards, porches a jumble of found furniture. On Saturday morning I walked past one porch where an earnest guy was playing guitar, and the girl with him started singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
The Farmers’ Market is twice as big as it used to be, spilling out of the parking lot into the street now. Most of the Amish sellers are gone, replaced by sturdy young people in headscarves selling organic this and vintage that. The guy at the baked-goods stand we used to frequent remembered me – that I was a New Zealander, that we’d moved to New Orleans, that we worked at Tulane! – and promised to put some brownies aside for me next Saturday, because he’d sold out. I’d forgotten my Iowa ways, and thought the market wouldn’t open until ten AM. It opens at seven.
Among the growers selling rhubarb and kale and asparagus, there are new stands schilling organic coffee, wine, cheese, or salsa. And, reassuringly, there are still stands offering Iowa’s number one meat product, pork.
This week I’m teaching every afternoon, so will be spending most mornings here in the Java House, I suspect, drinking iced tea and working on my book. Some evenings I have friends to see, and I’ll have manuscripts to read as well. There are c. 1000 TV channels available on my hotel set, which I will try to resist.
Hopefully here in the COIC I can leave the stress of the past month behind me, all the racing around, the festival appearances, the marking, the bad news and nasty letters, the axes of deadlines swirling around my head. By the time here, my Rome book will be finished, and I'll be in a good frame of mind to take up the residency at the Brecht House in Denmark.
Happy to see there's a little bit of Louisiana here in Iowa City this week, too.