Monday, June 18, 2007

i landed in iowa, literally, with skis and a backpack, a cousin who lived there, a plan to go to school. i was flighty- if things went wrong, i'd go to california, or mexico, money or not, especially when school was on break, or for even less reason. i imposed on my cousin for a while, then got a place out on muscatine avenue, a long walk from school. the landlord confronted me because i'd leave my door open, all the time, and this made him very nervous. my view was that it was my room, and i wanted it to be open at night. you can guess that i was a little dogmatic, unreasonable, uncompromising. iowa set out to make me grow up.

i was in a writing class, but the teacher held classes in a bar, had a drinking problem, didn't give much serious criticism. of course i was, and am, thin-skinned anyway, so it didn't take much. i continued my pursuit of languages- after having mastered spanish, in some form, i set about learning german, and then chinese- but chinese lasted only about a week, when i lost my book- and my german teacher spooked me one day by sounding exactly like hitler- or maybe it was a hitler movie. i dropped out; had no place to live, was not feeling good about myself or my plan. it seemed like, in the condition i was in, i wasn't much for going back to school.

fortunately i'd been spending saturdays working for the co-op, a large store on gilbert st., that had stories about the old times on bowery- but nevertheless allowed me to find some peace and work off my self-doubts. talk there was in starting up a restaurant, and i got in on that...it was called stone soup restaurant, and opened, i believe, in 1976 maybe. i ended up working there for several years- the first vegetarian restaurant in iowa- a kind of anti-restaurant. in the basement of center east, an old german catholic grade school, with pigeon droppings on the sidewalk, bats on the inside occasionally, ghosts of nuns in the closets beneath the stairs...it was quite a place. i wasn't much of a cook- and cooking for 70 (or so) was a skill in and of itself, but i held my own there, for years, learned to set a table, and back off, and let a restaurant be a place of peace, a rest stop for wayfarers. of whom there were many- those days they lined up at the door, they found us.

the time line is a little fuzzy in my mind. i went to school in january of '75, held out one semester and a summer, and dropped out that fall, a couple of weeks into the term- dropped out quickly, so as to not endanger my grade point average- and, adding my barely two semesters at iowa to my one and a half at boston univ., was now about halfway, but thoroughly disillusioned with school for the moment (for, as it turned out, the next five years or so), certainly not wanting to be an english major, but also seeing no particular point in going into language or other things that interested me. as for the restaurant, that started maybe in spring of '76; i'm not sure, but i got work there and paid my rent with my own labor, eventually, from about spring of '76 well into midsummer of '77, when it just got too hot down there, and i got other work painting at black's. though it was barely more than a year, it seemed like a lifetime.

those days i lived at black's gaslight village- a truly unique place. i had got tired of homelessness, as it had been my life for so long, and i was now glad to have a roof over my head. henry black was a truly unique character- he had taken a mansion, bought the mansion next to it, built on to each of them, built houses behind them, and thus created a village, with at least four distinct warrens of rooms and apartments, many of which had separate kitchens, but many of which didn't. he enjoyed the bohemian atmosphere, and the battle it took to keep it going, and defend it against attack by neighbors, city, mormons, local stray cats, etc.

the odd thing was, after no more than a year or two i was the pillar of stability, a workaday grunt, coming home exhausted, barely able to keep up with the wild turmoil of the people around me. at the restaurant i was a conservative- against expansion, against wasting money; it was as if, being a natural contrarian, i found myself opposing all the radicals just out of principle. we'd have long meetings, which we didn't pay ourselves for, and i remember wondering if we could, or if paying ourselves would just make them longer and more painful, or make them mercifully shorter. as a vegetarian, cooperative, etc. etc. we were very principled about everything, but to me one important principle was having my own place that i considered myself part-owner of, having something to put my soul into. i was, in that period, a vegetarian, but had trouble when i travelled, as i couldn't say no to things, and often would give in to hunger or impulse. being a vegetarian was much easier with a huge main dish prepared every evening, and i working right there most of the time; making it or being involved, and able to snatch a few bites between mopping the floor and changing one beatles album for another. my friends there were good, close, and i would love to have a reunion with them, someday.

i had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named p., who actually lived with me for a while, but this never quite worked out, and at one point i met another woman at black's, l., who became the mother of my first child. i was completely in love with her and wanted a family, but that was not going to happen. i thought maybe my menial job was the problem, and got a job on the railroad out in the country- but that didn't change it.

that did give me a new perspective, though. the restaurant receded into memory...and i picked up a volkswagen, a rusty old bug, and a quaint farmhouse on the edge of amish country...and drove, the other direction, in fact, to washington iowa, where i pounded on track for the milwaukee road. cmstp&p- chicago, milwaukee, st paul and pacific- or, cheapest, meanest, and slowest to pay...& what that last p really was, is lost to me. this also didn't last, i wasn't made to work on the railroad, though it was romantic in its way- and they broke me, maybe because i said something political. or maybe they didn't like my bug. my farmhouse, out on a gravel road way out in washngton county, was a lonely place when i was out of work- my two muscovy ducks, leonid and nikita, had got away, got run over or picked up by something wild, while i was away. i was away a lot- in spite of my need to be alone, get away from it all, see the stars, get some sleep- i didn't like the idea of a baby of mine, starting life, off somewhere where i couldn't get near. it didn't sit well. i started another round of travelling- to mexico, to banff, or back to buffalo, wherever the road would distract me.

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