I headed back north from Bascobel, Wisconsin and rejoined state highway 60, which had become the line from which I improvised - or simply got lost - as I made my way across the southern part of the state. Highway 60 meandered along with the Wisconsin River and its attendant wetlands until joining US 18 and curving up into Prairie du Chien. Not to be confused with Un Chien Andalou, much as my brain made the connection.
I crossed the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien, reluctant as I was to leave a state with such a commendable reverence for cheese and beer. The Mississippi is particularly expansive at Prairie du Chien; I thought I was crossing two or three rivers, given the several channels that flowed around the islands in their midst. Right across the river, Iowa began with wooded bluffs. Not exactly the way one pictures the state. But soon enough, the land flattened to endless corn fields, already harvested, shorn and tilled. A not overpowering scent of manure wafted into my car. Ah, yes...Iowa.
I was considering a few towns and theaters in northern Iowa as my destination for the night. After lunch, I was working my west along state road 9 and I came to one of the contenders, Cresco. The Cresco Theater is a former opera house, originally opened in 1918. The town was at least a little bigger, slightly more vital than a few of the meager settlements through which I had already driven in the state. But larger Charles City to the west and the deco facade of its theater drew me on. I'd have to stop in Cresco another time.
There wasn't much to see as I continued west. At one point, the monotony was broken as I became slightly mesmerized by a series of wind turbines to the north of state road 9, some extending out into the fields, a row of them surprisingly close to road, creating the slightly surreal vision of the massive blades spinning over tree tops in the distance. The turbines out in the fields looked like so many giant Mercedes Benz emblems revolving at different speeds.
I hadn't slept enough during the trip and I was growing weary of all the driving. And, well...is this a sunless purgatory? No, it's Iowa. I had planned to continue on to Osage and maybe another town or two before circling back to Charles City, but when I came to US 218, I headed south. I wanted to get to Charles City with a few hours of the afternoon to spare.
It was dark by the time I got downtown that evening. The business district in Charles City spreads out somewhat sparsely on the east side of the Cedar River. The crazy wind of days past had, at last, dissipated. But I had been cold all day. The transitional 39-degree weather kills me. My body had not adjusted yet. Come January, I would be walking around in ten degree air with no hat on my head and a lunatic smile on my face. But not yet.
The glitzy polychromatic deco facade of the Charles was only partially visible from the light cast up from the marquee. The electronic display on an old marquee is always an unfortunate touch, but I expected it from pictures I had seen on the Internet. I was looking forward to seeing Get Low again, the scheduled film for the evening.
The auditorium was surprisingly intimate, the lack of depth surprising given the size of the building. And the cylindrical deco light fixtures on the side walls warmed up the room in a sense. But they were not overcoming the marginally heated space. I crossed my arms over my black fleece, in which I had been living most of the week.
We were treated to a Looney Tunes cartoon before the feature, though it seemed of more recent vintage than those on which I had grown up. The surface to air missiles seemed a giveaway. At least poor Wile E Coyote was not subjected to an IED.
Then the movie began, just not the movie we were expecting. It was that owl movie. The Legend of Something. Guardians of Something. I thought that perhaps I had confused the dates or misread the electronic display on the marquee. But the extremely loud and animated conversation of four people sitting across the aisle confirmed my suspicion. As the wrong film continued for a few minutes, one of the women in the group arose, still talking loudly, and walked back to the concession area. The man sitting next to her also talked and laughed so loudly that I wondered if he was actually retarded or just extremely uncouth. Before I could make any sweeping judgement about the manners of people in this state, I saw a number of annoyed Iowans looking back at the group and taking more offense than me.
Finally, one of the volunteers limped out and explained that the film was supposed to be Get Low, but it was no longer available. Apparently the problem was one of digital projection and they no longer had access to the week's film on-line. So, the owl movie it was. About half of the crowd ultimately left. I was hoping the entire the uncouth quartet would follow, but only one of the couples departed. What the hell, I thought. I haven't seen the movie yet. I picked up my tub of soda and moved to the other side of the room.
If nothing else, "The Legend of the Guardians" can be credited with entertaining the guy cackling on the other side of the auditorium enough to shut him up. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the film, particularly since I had been so distracted early on. All the owls seemed to have Aussie accents. Then a couple of the owlets were shanghaied and made to serve evil owls who generally seem to have British accents, particularly an imperious Helen Mirren. An allegory perhaps about English swinery Down Under? But then as the evil owls spoke of being "pure ones" and the strong ruling the weak, it seemed more of Nazi parallel. I was surprised at the frequently dark tone. It all seemed rather muddled, though frequently a beautiful thing to behold.
After all that, and to stave off hypothermia if nothing else, I desired a bracing drink. I walked down main street a short distance, past the abandoned sqaure of Central Park, a handful of Victorian places lining Jackson Street on the opposite side, to Home Base. As with the bars in Bascobel the night before, I just opened the and hoped for the best. As was the case the previous night, I didn't have much to worry about.
The Home Base was a cozy little place, not the oppressive sports bar the name might suggest. The whole place was paneled in dark wood, booths opposite the bar on the right, which had it's own lowered ceiling from which hung lanterns that had lights in soft reds and blues. There was just a female bartender, who I came to know as Renee, and a guy at the opposite end of the bar to whom she was speaking when I walked in.
Renee and I got to talking as I sipped my first pint of Guinness and occasionally glanced at the proceedings of game two of the World Series on the t.v. behind the bar. The guy at the other end of the bar looked a little chagrined that I had drawn her away from their conversation. He looked even less pleased when another guy walked in, sat between us and held forth for the remainder of my stay.
This guy - somehow I never got or at least didn't retain his name- who sat a couple of barstools to my left was the sort of cocksure American man who almost seems a parody of himself. I half expected to look over at some point and see Will Ferrell beneath the navy blue sweatshirt, underneath the black goatee and dark hair. This guy wasn't Ron Burgundy - he wasn't nearly that entertaining - but he was somewhere in the same sub species.
Our conversation, such as it was, began, as so many do, in talking about the weather. He and Renee lamented how windy it must be in my Windy City. I didn't diabuse them; plus, if you've been in the wind tunnel of Jackson Avenue on a ridiculously cold winter day, you realize that our city's nickname, given by East Coasters during the contentious battle to win the right to host the 1892 World's Fair, to deride all the hot air coming from the upstart metropolis, is not so inappropriate. From the wind in Chicago, my man quickly segued to global warming. Had I heard about the global warming conference interrupted by a snowstorm? "A conference on global warming cancelled by a blizzard. Classic! I think it's fraudulent...I think it's cyclical." "I hope so," was my only reply to all this hard science.
Oh, we touched upon so many topics. But we returned to Chicago. "In Chicago, everybody has their own thing. The Irish are cops, the Mexicans take care of the lawns, the Pakistani's drive the cabs. The African Americans...they have their thing on the South Side." Yes, so they do. He told me that it wasn't like that in Kansas City; everybody apparently does everything there. I half expected us to get to Al Capone or Mrs. O'Leary's cow; given time, perhaps we would have.
Over time, we did at least evolve from a monlogue (his, of course) to some semblance of a conversation. He was clearly a blowhard supreme, but really didn't seem that bad of a guy. I didn't sense much in the way of malice beneath his words, just lots of carefully manicured ignorance.
He had been drinking a couple of surprisingly girly, scarlet-tinged martini's, courtesy of Renee. But then she made him some sort of concoction of whiskey, peach schnapps and something else. By this time, the forlorn guy at the other end of the bar had been joined by a few friends, some volleyball players from the Y had congregated at tables behind me. We got on the subject of Halloween costumes. My friend had once recent year fashioned an outsize penis out of some sort of hose, which he concealed beneath a trench coat and then sprung upon unsuspecting woman. Knock me over with a feather. The ladies were apparently delighted, but then faced the problem of comparing the Halloween penis to that of their mates. Yeah.
Renee had early told me that there was going to be a pub crawl on Saturday night in Charles City if I happened to still be in the area. When she told my friend about this, she said that she wasn't going to tell him what her costume was to be; he would have to come to find out. I protested that I might not be around and she should tell me at least. "I'll tell you later," she said, implying this might happen when our more macho Cliff Claven had retired for the night. About this time, Renee had mixed another of peached colored whisky and schnapps and whatever drinks and put it before me, saying "try this." Renee, I thought, are you trying to get me drunk?
After a few pints of Guinness and my complimentary cocktail, I decided to take my leave before the short drive back to the motel turned, by necessity, into a longish walk. I shook my friend's hand and told him it had been a pleasure, which in a perverse way, it had. I bade goodnight to Renee as well. A very nice woman. Her Halloween costume? Little Red Riding Hood. She put the side of her left hand to a point about mid-way up her left thigh, over her black pants, indicating her worry that the skirt might be a little too short. "I'm sure you'll pull it off," I said. I suspect she did.
There was actually a bit of frost on the back window of my ragtop. I cleared it off with my bare hand, but didn't feel cold. I lost the chill at some point in Home Base. Whether this was due to the company, the alcohol, or simply the benefit of sitting in an adequately heated room for two hours, I'm not sure.