Trouble with a capital “T”

By the

January 25, 2001

“So, are you bored yet?”

I stared out the sliding-glass door towards the snow and blustery winds outside that had defined my current, housebound stay in Muscatine (pop. 20,000) and plumbed my brain for a diplomatic answer to my uncle’s rather baiting question.

“No, of course not!” I answered cheerily. “Plenty to keep me busy here.” Liar.

“Well, you should be.” He knew the cold, hard truth of the situation.

Not to give my uncle too much credit, but he understood the one basic, unavoidable truth of life in Muscatine, Iowa. By Washingtonian standards, it’s boring; maybe it’s not so much boring, perhaps, but excruciatingly slow. Plodding seems an accurate description for the general pace of the events unfolding around me. But then, the snowy blanket smothering the streets, houses and people of Muscatine might have contributed to the widespread malaise. It’s sort of like a city-wide seasonal depression, or so I hoped.

But I knew better.

Having made many a pilgrimage to my ancestral home in Mason City, Iowa, I considered myself decently schooled in the ways of small-town life. And, to my surprise, I never found it totally unappealing. I’m not alone in this opinion; a travel feature in the New York Times counted Mason City as one of the “hot spots” of the Midwest, duly noting that the smallish city boasts not only a celebrity (Meredith Willson, writer of The Music Man) and a famous event (the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens happened just outside Mason City in 1959), but also some rather interesting architecture à la Frank Lloyd Wright and other Prairie School architects. Remember the picturesque River City that Marian and Harold fell in love in (cue the music: “There were bells in the hills…”). That’s a loose, very loose, visual interpretation of Mason City. And no one there is about to let you forget it.

Of course, there’s always a huge helping of that infamous small-town charm. There is the little, blue-haired lady who eyes you and your high-heeled black boots and too-short skirt (read: hemline above your knees) suspiciously as you shop for the vegetables that you’ll eat instead of the meat-and-potatoes fare your aunt has planned (being a vegetarian in a place where the packing plant was formerly the biggest employer for miles around is roughly analogous to having been a Communist in 1950s Hollywood). There’s the pack of high school girls who watch you nervously, wondering if you’re the new girl in town who’s going to wind up sitting next to them in Biology, robbing them of their only shot at making small-talk with the swarthy quarterback whom Fate has surely destined to be their lab partner. And there’s the Hyvee clerk wondering what in the hell anyone could want with a package of tofu. After all, how do you make meatloaf out of that?

Indeed, there’s more than a little scandalous human interest in the small-town stories of wives taking the kids, pets, television and all the small appliances that will fit in the trunk of a Camry and ditching their husbands. Some talk that the head mechanic at the filling station has spent the last five years secretly amassing a stash of canned food and dry goods in anticipation of an apocalypse he seems to have manufactured in his head. Others speculate that the woman next-door was the heir to a large, ill-gotten fortune but renounced all ties to her affluent Chicago kin upon discovery of the impropriety of their dealings. But this isn’t the typical, canned string of vaguely dispassionate, local six o’clock news human-interest stories to which my suburban upbringing has inured me. This superficial relation of gossip evolves into a genuinely engaging, and ultimately personal, discussion.

“Would you like a pop, honey?” my grandmother offers, between stories.

Umm, what? My rigidly mid-Atlantic brain stumbles over the nuances of Midwestern language usage. Several stunted seconds later, I fumble forth a nearly incomprehensible answer; and as I do, I notice my cousins eyeing me curiously. The girl whose assumed cosmopolitan life they see through the occasional, mailed newspaper clippings; exaggerated parental reports of her triumphs at Georgetown; photographs from England, Japan and Italy; and a smattering of Xeroxed programs from various collegiate theatrical pursuits, has been floored by a seemingly innocuous query.

The instant of awkwardness, the sense that some sort of cultural gap is being exposed and widened, passes quickly. My aunt’s congenial laugh echoes in the kitchen, and my father briefly leaves his appointed post behind the stove to relate yet another Smokey-the-Dog story, the second in a series that will be trotted out for general amusement this evening. Smokey’s stories are chased by the classic turkey farm-hotrod incident, which is succeeded by the seasonal pumpkin-pie-in-Geneva tale (tag line: the French-speaking waiter at a swanky restaurant offered my parents a tasty slice of “pumpkin pee” to round out their Thanksgiving dinner). My transgression and all its minute implications, slips easily into the recesses of distant memory.

Four days earlier, the woman in seat 22A took a bite from her sandwich, glanced at the volume of Trollope sitting in my lap, unread, and said, “So, are you a student going home for the holidays?”

“Yes, I’m a student, but I’m not going home. I’m going to visit my grandmother.”

“That’s nice,” she replied.

I couldn’t disagree.

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