I spent half of this spring break at my friend David’s house in Winona. I found Winona to be a pleasant little city, full of churches and brownstones and colleges. Since the students were all on spring break, the sidewalks outside David’s family’s trim Victorian house in the center of town were blessedly unmolested by drunk frat bros. (“I told him to take his behavior somewhere else, and that student said, ‘Fuck you, bitch,’ said David’s middle-aged mom, wiping down the countertop with a prim stroke of her wrist. “He did. He really did. So I said, ‘You couldn’t handle it!'”) At nights, then, we hung out with David’s friends pretty much unmolested. At bars and houses, I shook hands with a group of people I didn’t know.
This was the sort of situation that would have terrified me a few years earlier. Luckily, all of David’s friends were incredibly likable. They had tattoos and piercings, had hopped trains and thrown punk ragers and destroyed basements, but they were also pleasant conversationalists with piles and piles of stories. (“You make a lot more sense to me now,” I told David, and he looked at me askance over his beer.) All of them seemed to be content to exist pretty much in the moment without doing any “So, what do you do, where are you from”ing, but still somehow it came out that both David and I were currently employed as teachers – college teachers, at that. David’s friends cackled and cackled. “You guys? Seriously?” We said, looking at our shoes, that we couldn’t believe it either.
It was flattering, kind of. But – as Carrie Bradsaw would say – their stories got me thinking about how not all jobs are like mine. It’s not everyone’s job description to say words and punch buttons on a keyboard. No: some people do actual things with their hands and not their mind-grapes.
- David’s friend Dingee (pronounced “Dingy” – “It’s Scottish,” he told me, then ordered everyone an Irish car bomb) is a land surveyor. His company is currently working on a project identifying graves in the Winona cemetery, which David and I had visited on Tuesday. It’s massive and hilly and very estimable: grandiose monuments, authoritatively creepy crypts, etc. It’s still in use, though. This is unfortunate for Dingee, who, for his job, has to wander around a cemetery with a metal detector and a shovel. He said he started wearing his orange vest, “but it doesn’t stop the families at the funerals from staring…”
- The way from Winona to Iowa City is windy and pleasant. You pass through towns with names like Independence and Choice – there are few to no stoplights, but a lot of desolate Midwestern storefronts close to the curb. In one town (Decorah, maybe), we saw a man about to cross the street. He was tugging something big, on wheels – a dolly? “I guess I’ll stop,” I said. I pulled up to the crosswalk and he waved a hand at me, then wheeled it into the middle of the road and propped it up. It was a stop sign. David and I could not handle what was going on.
- Today, back in Iowa City after four days of such fun in Winona, I decided firmly that I wasn’t going to be in Spring Break mode anymore. I Skyped with my long-distance Creative Writing student. I went to the gym. I scanned things for class. I went to the grocery store. (HyVee on Friday night is a desert.) I was very businesslike until I pulled open my trunk and the empty brown paper Trader Joe’s bag I’d been keeping there for some inexplicable reason jumped onto a gust of wind and headed up, up, away, across the parking lot, directly at the storefront in a matter of two seconds. I stared at it for a second. What was the right thing to do in this situation? Nobody could say for sure. Certainly I couldn’t reach it in time. So I kept loading the groceries into the back of my car (polluter!) until I heard someone go, “Hey!” I looked up. A HyVee attendant had materialized out of nowhere and he was holding the paper bag up triumphantly. “Do you want this?” So not in his job description…
- Driving back, I stopped at the fire station – a truck was pulling out, its lights flashing, then a somber deafening wail. The other cars and I let the fire truck pass, then proceeded slowly forward. I looked into the station – maybe there was another truck coming? But instead I saw only a lone pair of tennis shoes, abandoned in a neat row next to where the door of the truck must have been. Apparently tennis shoes are not proper footwear for saving lives.