The Swing State

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Joshua and I woke up this morning, prepared a few last-minute items, packed up the truck and hit the old dusty trail—and by that, I of course mean Interstate 88. The two of us had been looking forward to this trip for a couple months now, ever since we found out about a used-book convention that is held twice per year in Des Moines, Iowa.

After a five hour drive through America’s heartland, listening to Jim Croce, talking and laughing, smoking cigarettes, and dreaming of the books—the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books—we would be perusing, we finally arrived at the 4-H Building of the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

We approached the building, where we saw hordes of people lined down the sidewalk and giant signs, labeling the event—The Planned Parenthood Book Sale. Josh and I had no idea that this event was sponsored by the fine folks at Planned Parenthood, so were almost taken aback by the signs.

I turned to Josh and retorted, “Planned Parenthood Book Sale…? Joshua—I think we’re in a swing state.”

The 4-H Building was enormous and very spacious. Upon entering, Josh and I were amazed to see hundreds of people that had already beaten us inside (the sale started at 4pm and we arrived at 4:15) and had already filled their totes and boxes and even shopping carts to the very brim with their loot; hordes of people, from all walks of life, swarming around the tables and competing with each other to locate obscure treasures. If they weren’t in the least bit educated and civilized people, I could very easily imagine it being pure anarchy inside—people pushing and shoving each other out of the way, spitting at each other, throwing fists. There was one occasion, however, where I was holding up the line of people behind me while I thumbed through a kooky old edition James Joyce’s Dubliners and an old woman groaned, “Could you please move?” On another occasion, I was standing next to two older women who were cackling amongst themselves, the way old women are apt to do, and, eying the pile of books in my arms, one of them retorted, “Well Mikey wanted me to find Lonesome Dove for him and I just simply cannot find it anywhere! I’ve scoured this entire building and haven’t even found something by that author!” Of course, as they were saying this, I was holding a first edition copy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove—which I, of course, later purchased for the low, low price of one dollar. That’s right—I’m a ruthless competitor.

After five hours of intense scouring through these thousands upon thousands of books, I came much closer to completing my Pulitzer search; I came needing close to 20 titles and left with needing less than 10. The Pulitzer-winning novels I managed to snatch up include:

  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry – first edition
  • Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie – first edition
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck – first edition
  • Laughing Boy, Oliver LaFarge
  • Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter – first edition
  • One of Ours, Willa Cather – first edition
  • Now In November, Josephine Johnson – first edition
  • So Big, Edna Ferber – first edition
  • Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor – first edition
  • A Fable, William Faulkner
  • All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren – first edition
  • The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor

These purchases mean that I own every Pulitzer from 1950 to now, except for Jean Stafford’s Collected Stories (1970). And, of course, since I was there, I bought plenty of other books that I’ve been wanting as well. You might be scoffing and saying, “Drew—you make shite pay in the fast food industry—how could you afford all that!?” The best part of the whole experience was that nearly all of the books I purchased were less than $3—even the first editions.

“Really…?” I asked. “Why do you want to stay in a motel like this?”

“Drew—I’m a married man. I never get to experience stuff like this,” he replied.

We were sitting in the truck, in the parking lot of the Beacon Motel in Des Moines. This particular motel was something out of a horror movie, like the Bates Motel—a classic side-of-the-highway, sleazy inn. Besides its inherent sleaziness, it was close to the fairgrounds, had vacancies, and, at $40 per night, was the most easily affordable place we could find—all the criteria necessary for a night well-spent in Des Moines, Iowa.

The lobby of the motel wreaked of burning rubber and, yet, for some reason, this did not turn us away—it only added to the mystique. A young Indian boy—probably in his late teens—greeted us, “Are you the guys that called about vacancies?” Josh and I glanced at each other and we both understood immediately that this kid was thinking we were gay; so we did whatever it took to let him know that we weren’t—we probably overemphasized it, in fact. Our assumed homosexuality became the elephant in the room—we all knew it was there, but we really did not want to acknowledge it. Here we were, I in my argyle sweater, Euro-loafers, and freshly washed blue jeans, and Joshua, dressed very similarly, both of us looking as much like pretentious literary-types as we probably could, doing whatever we could to convince this kid that there wasn’t any hanky-panky going on between us. The kid asked, “So, you guys need… One room?

“Yeah,” Josh replied, making sure to quickly add, “Two beds!”

“Right, two beds… I’ve got a great room for you.”

And, with that, the kid led us down the sidewalk to room 29, unlocked and opened the door, and showed us around. He was a great guy, very helpful, but it was around this time that he suddenly became quite overbearing—it was almost as if he wanted to spend some more time around us, just to feel us out, to see if we were straight or not. “This is the room,” he said. “Very clean—I just vacuumed in here and made the beds and washed all the sheets and dusted. So, I mean, it’s really clean.” We nodded, “Yeah, great. Thanks.”

“Sure, no problem, guys. This is the television over here—I just cleaned that up too, it had some dust on it. Do you guys need a channel guide?” We didn’t. “Hang on right here, I’ll go get one.” Then he ran out, let himself into another room, took their channel guide, and returned to us swiftly. “Here you go—there’s a lot of channels. We have HBO, too.”

Mmhmm, great, fantastic, thanks.

We finally managed to get him out the door; Josh turned to me with an exasperated look and I retorted, “What a delightful, helpful young man!” After a long day of driving and book hunting, it was high time to open the windows, lay down on our separate beds, and enjoy a smoke. I hadn’t taken two drags of my cigarette when the incredibly helpful Indian boy pressed his face up to the screen and exclaimed, “Just so you guys know, there’s an ice machine in the lobby and we have some sodas in there—you know, in case you get thirsty. I have a list of restaurants in the area too—and a phone book. Do you want me to bring you those?” No, we’re fine, thanks. “Okay, I just wanted to make sure. I see you have your laptop with you—” my laptop, resting on the bed in front of me with the screen popped open “—we have Wifi here too, you can connect to my username, if you want to. My password is,” etcetera, etcetera. “Well, I’m going to back to the office, let me know if you need anything else.”

Mmhmm, great, fantastic, thanks.

And as swiftly as he entered our lives, he was gone. Josh turned to me and said, “Well, let’s order a pizza!” I found a list of pizza joints in the area and stumbled across one that seemed like a great place—very professional website, fancy Italian name, all the makings of a great pizza joint, apparently. I called them up around 7:30, placed an order for a large pizza with an appetizer of cheesy bread and the guy informed me that I’d have my dinner within an hour. After 45 minutes, we got a little impatient and decided to call. I informed the guy that it had been a pretty long time, just checking on the status of my delivery, he told me, “I told you—within an hour! Give it some time!” After another 30 minutes, I called again. “Hey, it’s been over an hour, where’s our pizza?” “I just called the driver—he’ll be there in a couple minutes.” After another 15 minutes (it’s about 9pm now), Josh said, “This is unordinarily long couple of minutes,” so I called again. “The driver will be there very, very soon!” and, sure enough, he arrived a minute or two later.

Josh told me, “I’m in the pizza delivery business—this is unacceptable. I’m not paying for this shit.” I agreed—it would be the epitome of foolishness to bend over and take it from a pizza joint like that. So one can imagine my curiosity when Josh answered the door, received the pizza and handed the driver the money. I said, “Josh! Don’t pay for that! We’ve been waiting for an hour and a half!” He turned to me, with a nearly expressionless face, and replied, “Drew—I had to. That guy would have probably killed us if I didn’t.” He then explained the driver’s personality attributes: a tall, skinny guy with a shaved head, a long tattoo of a dagger on his neck, and prison tats up and down his arms. He further explained, “We are strangers in a strange town—a shady part of said town—and we’re staying in a sleazy, roadside motel. You were an English major—can’t you foreshadow what the outcome of this story would be if I didn’t pay?? He would’ve gotten fired, became bitter, and come back here to murder us!” As ridiculous as that sounds, I agreed.

I opened the pizza box and, I must admit, was not surprised to find the sorriest excuse of a pizza I have ever seen. It was cold, some of the pieces were curled up (how that happened, I’ll never understand), and, considering it was a large, was very tiny. And if that sounds bad-looking, it doesn’t even compare to how badly it tasted. But we ate it—and because our lives were no longer in danger, we ate it happily. Then we decided to dip into our appetizer—the cheesy bread.

Now, when I ordered it, I was imagining that the “cheesy bread with marinara sauce” was going to be several thickly-cut slices of Italian bread, smeared with garlic butter and oven-roasted with mozzarella cheese—kind of like Texas bread. Not so. The cheesy bread, actually, turned out to be exactly how it was named—three slices of white bread with a piece of cheese on top. I want you to understand this—the cheesy bread was nothing more than three slices of white bread, from a loaf of Wonder Bread, with a piece of cheese on top. White bread with a piece of cheese on top! But we ate it—and because our lives were no longer in danger, we ate it happily.

Now if there’s one thing that the world knows Des Moines for, it’s the night-life. (…right?) Josh and I knew this and we wanted to tap into it. We set out around 10pm, turned on the GPS and searched for “Bars and Nightclubs,” scrolling through the names that came up, eventually deciding that The Underground Lounge seemed to be the best place for a good time. We followed the directions the GPS supplied and we found ourselves being led away from downtown Des Moines—a curious location, I thought, but the GPS knows better than me. When it led us into the country and into the entrance of a subdivision, we knew something was amiss. As it turns out, The Underground Lounge is, apparently, in somebody’s basement. I reasoned that the proprietor of this “club” was probably some 16 year old kid, making beats on his laptop in his parent’s basement and inviting his 16 year old friends over for glue-huffing parties.

That’s when we decided to head downtown, just to see what was there. We found a classy pub and I indulged myself with an I.P.A. beer and a gin and tonic and Joshua had a beer with a rum and Coke; we shared some laughs, discussed Obama’s visit to Iowa City, health care reform and watch NCAA basketball to the wee hours of the night and, at last call, reasoned that it was time for us to head back. We stepped outside into the crisp Des Moines air, lit our cigarettes, leaned against a bench on the sidewalk and watched all the people coming from a Black Eyed Peas concert fill the streets and scurry into different bars.

A gothic girl approached me and asked, “Do you have a light?” I reached into my pocket, pulled out my lighter and offered it to her and was surprised when she took a few steps back, held up her hands in front of her and blurt out, “No, no, no! I’m sorry—no, no. I cannot use that lighter!” I turned it over in my hands and asked, “Okay? Why?” “It’s yellow!” she exclaimed. “Jimi Hendrix was found dead with a yellow lighter! I’m sorry—I cannot use it!”

After she bummed Josh’s light, we decided it was time to get the hell out of Des Moines. We retired to our separate beds and, because our lives were no longer in danger, we slept.

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3 thoughts on “The Swing State

  1. Ridiculous Drew!Yellow lighter fear, chatty Indian boy, scary pizza delivery guy and cheese toast marketed as cheesy bread. Thanks for the "I should never visit Des Moines" promo.

  2. An excellent story — the whole trip sounds like a good adventure (and a nice haul — I'm incredibly envious of some of those cheap firsts you've picked up of books I've read and enjoyed). I'll finish Bridge of San Luis Rey soon, and comment on your review — good luck with the reading!

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