July 19, 2019
It’s my last day at the Iowa City Writing Festival. I’m inflamed—brain and gut—from seven days of suckling on Iowa City’s greasiest spoons and absorbing writing guidance till saturation.
I arrived last Friday, July twelfth, and spent the evening searching for authentic Iowa City. There are nine central blocks with eighty-two places to eat or drink; forty-five have full bars. Most are utilitarian college drinking pens—tinted windows, tables, pitchers, sports TV—but there are exceptions. I visited a hip restaurant outfitted like a midwestern luncheonette and was met with prescribed Iowan warmth from the waitress: straight handshake, disarming full-body smile and two minutes of small talk. Initially, I thought I must be giving off intriguing out-of-towner vibes but then she carried out the same routine with the next two schlubs. I downed a rye and ginger and left.
Next, I found my way to a punk bar with sanctioned graffiti and affected teen mad-dogs comparing rap sheets. Two strikes. I watched Jaws overhead through a tallboy and headed out. It was live music night on the pedestrian mall leading to the hotel. I stopped to catch some bluegrass and enjoy my buzz in the late evening Iowa breeze. As I sat on a ledge I chatted with two confirmed Iowans and finally got some intel: “Go to the Hamburg #2 up in Northside and get a breaded tenderloin sandwich.”
Saturday morning my first workshop instructor began, “Share an occupation that is NOT your profession.” Students shared: “a keeper of ponies,” “a counter of freckles,” “a preparer.” She asked, “What makes you a preparer?”
The Texan pastor answered, “I bet I’m the only one sitting here with a pocket knife.”
“Write that down,” she said.
She wanted us to write like we would speak. She used Emerson’s Self-Reliance to illustrate. In it, he writes, “God will not have his work manifest by cowards.” We wrote from a prompt for ten minutes and read aloud. The pastor’s theatrical presentation was lobbed off by the cutting Long Island voice of our instructor. “Did you write that? That is pre-written,” she said. His head (and probably his blade) drooped in shame—a preparer indeed.
After class, I ventured northeast of center to look for the Hamburg #2 but noticed another two-story beauty next to a construction site—a sand-colored box with gray brick face covering its lower third. A skin-and-bones old man sat on a bench in front, limbs all crossed, only moving one arm from the elbow joint to drag a neat cigarette. He looked coin-operated. A green and yellow striped awning that read “George’s” gave him a nice block of shade. I entered the bar and no one addressed me. A subtle yodel-speak (Fargo-light) permeated.
I took a seat and respectfully observed. The menu overhead has a hierarchy of three items—cheese sandwich, hamburger, and cheeseburger—a quarter nut machine and hanging bags of Lays supplement it. Faux velvet-gold wallpaper glows under dangling Christmas lights behind the bar. A free beerback, (a short beer) comes with any straight liquor drink. Busch Light is ordered so often it becomes more of a grunt than a word, the way New Yorkers order a breakfast sandwich with salpepeketchup. I had two Wild Turkeys and their two Busch Light beerbacks, and resolved to return the following night.
The next day in my second workshop I told two locals in the group—both white-haired Iowa women affiliated with the catholic sisterhood (the workshop is not religious)—how much I liked George’s. The taller of the two leaned back in her chair looking delighted and confused. “George’s? My friends and I have been going there for decades.” This just validated the place more.
After class I headed right back, saddled up, and ordered the cheeseburger and the cheese sandwich. They both came out in wax paper. I had to open them to decipher which was which. I took a chomp out of each. I was expecting a grilled cheese for the cheese sandwich but it was just a cheeseburger minus the burger (sesame seed bun, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, and a slice of American cheese). Perfectly tangy, soft and sweet even with its poverty of burger.
My body relaxed and I began chatting with the man sitting next to me. He told me, “I just retired. General Mills. Would have done it two days earlier but I wanted to stay for my last union vote. We won, but now they are trying to discount my vote because they know I stayed longer on purpose.”
“What are you going to do now?” I asked
“I’m making Frida Kahlo t-shirts and selling them,” he said.
I looked at his red and black t-shirt more closely and there was Frida, screen-printed and stretched out over his Busch Light-filled gut. “I’m an artist,” he said.
We drank to it as Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” played overhead. I remembered what my workshop instructor had said. Reality is never one-sided; if you are writing that way pull back.
* The breaded tenderloin sandwich follows the same formula as the cheese sandwich, just add a breaded pork tenderloin. I had one two days ago at the Hamburg #2, a place where presidential candidates go to project folksiness. Evidence of this is all over the walls. Other places I liked: TCB pool hall, where I played straight pool with the trans author of an essay titled Straight Pool, Pagliai’s Pizza—the best pizza I have had in the past year, (I ate mine outside listening to free music from blues world big B.F. Burke), and Dave’s Foxhead, known as the dive where the writers hang (turns out to be true).
Hamburg No. 2
Cheese Sandwich Recipe
According to the bartender Alex…
“We have an electric broiler, so if we are making burgers we just put all of the ingredients except the burger [usually pickles, ketchup, mustard, sesame seed bun, American cheese] on the warmer on top and the cheese melts and the bun slightly toasts. If we aren’t making burgers we just heat up a piece of aluminum foil and throw the slice of cheese on it to melt for 30 seconds. Something about the properties of processed American cheese helps it melt perfectly.”
Bob Dylan’s New Morning
The song was well matched to the moment at George’s. The fact that “the Man in Me” is in The Big Lebowski firmly associates it with a divey good time. T. Bone Burnett, the musical archivist for the movie, chose it for a reason. The la las, the singsong, “Oh, what a wonderful feeling” and the slow skipping tempo are made for dive-bar-day-drinking-delight anywhere from the mid to far west. Drinking whiskey and swill, eating cheese sandwiches and floating around the easy flat terrain of Iowa City sounds exactly like this album, New Morning.