In my memory, the carpet was orange but it may be a memory from a faded photo of that living room. Or the carpet may have degraded from brown from the years of college kids that tramped in and out of this 2-bedroom garden level apartment, with their disposable furnishings and found cats.
But the memory is of me on the floor smoking, most likely drinking a beer, and there is music. I face the armchair containing Kathi with freshly died red hair, also smoking, with Venus digging her claws into flesh, and Glenn Danzig looking on from the poster on the wall. Heavy metal posters, original artwork, and late nights of conversations that ran the gamut…
We were writers after all…
What was it about Iowa City that made it so special for me? It is a jewel in eastern Iowa, a small college town split in half by the Iowa River, home to one of the Big Ten schools- the University of Iowa (UI). Among writers, it is best known as home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which has produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners. UI is the origin of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA). I attended as an undergraduate English major.
The city offers ample opportunities for arts and entertainment. We would go to the Bijou to take in foreign and independent cinema. We would catch punk shows at Gabe’s bar. ‘Dirty John’s’ grocery store was the place to buy beer because the photo on your fake ID didn’t even have to look close. I saw Yo-Yo Ma, the Kodo Drummers, and the Joffrey Ballet premiere of ‘Billboards’ which features the works of Prince. I saw Smashing Pumpkins, Primus, The Cows, L7, Dead Milkmen, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, to name a few. I stumbled into my first poetry open mic in some basement coffee house and was transfixed. My favorite. My people.
But it was more than that. For as rural as some people might think Iowa City (a.k.a. Iowa small town) really is, I grew up even more rural than that. I lived across the street from the Illinois river along a highway nowhere near any town. I lived near a cattle farm and a factory. The only place we could walk was to the roadside bar, the Club 29, where there was table shuffleboard, hubcap sized tenderloins, and Payday candy bars that tasted like ashtray.
Half the population of Iowa City was college kids like me- single, smart, all there for the same reason. For the first time in my life I lived in a town, mostly safe, and we could walk to the store or the coffee house or a friend’s garden apartment, late in the night, to talk about life and books and everything.
Coming of age, as they say.
When I first arrived at UI, I was dropped off with my bag around dinnertime, the night before the start of the 1991 fall semester. I was a sophomore transfer student in a dorm room at the end of the 3rd floor of Stanley Hall, which I shared with two other girls. The blonde one quickly asked my black leather self which sorority I was rushing and the other one asked me not to smoke in the dorm room, even though it was designated as a smoking room.
Thankfully, I connected with a group of art weirdo girls at the opposite end of the hallway who were also friends with Kathi on the 8th floor. But mid-semester, my philosophy class gave me an existential crisis and I had to drop out for mental health reasons. My blonde roommate was grateful because I was in her words, “just too different”. But this made my other roommate angry because she was from a multiracial family…
I was right back spring semester 1992, swearing off philosophy for good. The 3rd floor already had a replacement roommate (a hippie girl) which was fine with me and I moved into the 8th floor with smokers, Kathi and Aria. My tribe. Aria worked as a nude model for the art department and Kathi was an English major/ Art minor. I was still wandering. But that summer, Aria moved home to Kentucky and Kathi got her garden apartment with the orange carpet. I got my second-floor apartment on a city park about four blocks away. And we talked novels and music and travel and getting the hell out of the mid-west. We wanted to be professional writers.
In 1995, I made my way to Carbondale, IL, then Chicago, IL, and finally Minneapolis, MN. She made her way to Portland, OR, Austin, Tx, and finally New York City. I’m a mid-western IT professional and she is a NYC freelance editor. But we are still great friends who still dream of writing that great novel that will free us from our respective day jobs.
And two week ago, I celebrated her sister Karla’s 40th birthday in Cedar Rapids, IA with Kathi and her family. We got to relive a little bit of those college days. Dinner and drinks and Karaoke and staying up until 4am to talk shop. I loved every minute of it. I am grateful in a way that is difficult to express that I was adopted into their family.
Iowa City is the one place that whenever I visit, I get that ‘alumni’ feeling, though I never graduated from there. It is a remembrance of my liberation and struggle and the lifelong friends I made. Anyone with a great college roommate turned friend turned ‘sister from another mister’ understands. My time in Iowa City set me on a trajectory that would define the rest of my life- my education, my writing, my cycling, my independence…
And I also have a great place to stay in NYC!
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2020