It's a wonderful life
DENISON, Iowa – There’s a worn and weathered sign on the western edge of Denison, Iowa, the kind that goes unnoticed by town-folk.
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” it reads.
Donna Reed, who starred in the movie that shares Denison’s slogan, grew up here. For a long time, it was said that this city of 8,300 could be a stand-in for New Bedford Falls, that All-American, fictional town where cooperation, traditional values and family were spread thick.
Denison is a respite when Harry and I pull into town on US-30, a shelter from the relentless, unyielding north wind that’s blowing at 40 mph across the western Iowa farmland, unobstructed by the trees or buildings, like a hypodermic needling of air.
We take a drive up Main Street and the downtown emerges at the top of a steep hill. It’s your typical small town; a stately county court house, the Crawford County Bank, a well-kept façade of the American Legion, the stalwarts of small town American life.
I park Harry by the courthouse and get out for a walk. The air is thick with the smell of something that has never crossed my nostrils before, something very organic, dusty, salty. Flies swirl around me. They are everywhere, like the air itself is producing them.
A group of five young Hispanic kids goes running by me, plastic straws bobbing up and down in their mouths, screaming at each other in Spanish. A taqueria emerges, then another with ads about sending money – “Envios” – to Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico. There’s barely a lick of English on the place.
Harry and I drive down Avenue C toward the Walmart for a much needed parking lot nap. To the north, just off the avenue, sits “Farmland,” massive complex of pipes and thin smokestacks and corrugated metal warehouses. The parking lot is immense, full of cars. Across the avenue, a row of broken-down homes sits under the shade of tall live oaks, their porches swelling with brown-skinned families.
Then a blue sign comes into view, an arrow indicating the way into Farmland, “Freezer trucks use this entrance. Hog trucks use this entrance, ” it reads. “Employees this entrance.” And then another word next to that, hugged with parentheses: “(Empleados).”
The sky is clear, and stars are beginning to twinkle in its darkest spots as the cloak of night slowly gets pulled over the rolling western Iowa farmland. But the sound of thunder breaks the thin silence.
No rain will fall, but a few pins might. A yellow, musty light buzzes out of the two swinging doors at Lucky Lanes off the highway on the east edge of Dension. Inside, men and women in worn jeans and sweatshirts with the names of a local daycare or feed company or tractor retailer on their backs sit at square tables, sipping Busch Light, getting up only to roll their ball down the lane.
On this Friday night, only half of the 12 lanes are being used, making the Bon Jovi and AC/DC blaring out of the speakers seem extra loud. But it didn’t used to be this way.
“We used to have lady’s night on Wednesday. Two leagues and the place was packed,” says a man keeping score, sipping a diet Pespi. “On Friday? Hell, there’d be a line out the door to get in. We had a waiting list.”
They long for the way things were, in more ways than one.
This is Carolyn Quandt’s one night out, the one time of the week when she gets a few hours to herself, away from the kids. She’s a lifelong western Iowan, and long-time Denison resident.
After her second game, she steps outside for a quick cigarette just outside a side door. A mix of potatoes and onions are simmering on a grill next to her, making the air savory.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday, and in six hours she will wake up in the cold darkness of early morning, put on three shirts and a coat, heavy hunter’s socks and boots and head to Farmland, where she arranges strips of bacon in 12 oz packages for nine to 11 hours a day in a room that stays at 46 degrees.
“You know when you go to the store and see bacon all lined up?” she asks. “That’s what I do. I’m the one that lines it all it up and makes it look all pretty.”
More than 1,500 people work at Farmland, a pork processing facility owned by Smithfield. And like the population of Denison, whites are the minority at the plant, where Carolyn works alongside Mexicans, Ugandans and Vietnamese, drawn away from home by the promise of $8 an hour at Farmland. Things are much different than they used to be, but she embraces the change. There’s not going back anyway, she says, and without the plant, “Denison would pretty much fall apart.”
There’s a palpable frustration in Denison, Carolyn says, but it’s not coming from those just arrived who are trying to make a life in a new land; it’s coming from the white population, upset at how fast things are changing, how the way it used to be is now the way it will never be.
A few years ago, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union organized most of the workers at the plant, a move that Carolyn supported. She proud, she says, to be a union woman.
“They watch out for us,” she says. “Just like the workers watch out for each other.”
Not everyone shares Carolyn’s embracing of the change in Denison.
Brian Newell doesn’t exactly know how he ended up here. He’s from Portland, Oregon, a place where he struggled to make ends meet, often living in his car for three to six month stints, sleeping in parking lots and taking odd jobs when he could find them.
Here, he’s a fireman, does construction work. He works to give his 16-year-old son the opportunities he never had, and knows he never will, even though Brian is still just 34 with many years of work ahead of him.
“My life is to give him the future I never had,” he says. “I ride him hard. Right now, he don’t like me, but I know that one day he will wake up and realize what I did for him, and how I didn’t want him to have the life that I did.”
Exactly whose future is most important in Denison is in question, though, Brian says.
The average worker, the blue-collar man and woman, is in a bind he says. Things are not fair, and anymore if you want to make it you better have two incomes, work extra hard to get by. But how do you do that if jobs are so scarce?
He looks down at the ground, breathing heavy.
“You got me,” he says.
He’s one of the frustrated ones. It’s hard to be happy, to enjoy life, when you constantly have to worry about surviving. And even when you need help, folks from other countries swoop in ahead of you, talking your benefits, he says. Brian goes to his son’s school and can’t read instructions because they’re in Spanish.
He takes a long drag off a generic cigarette, and the air around him smells like dead, burning grass. His voice gets louder.
“They’re taking over – the Mexicans,” he says. “When we’re in need to use the public assistance we can’t ‘cause everybody else has got it…why do I have to know Spanish. I’m English!”
I didn’t bother asking Brian about the town’s slogan. I doubt he even knew it.
Without a single clean item of clothing, I hit a Laundromat on Main Street the next morning, the tiny place full of the sounds of a Saturday variety show on Univision. Cars drifted by, Mexican polka music blasting out of their windows.
When I was done, and the clothes had been packed back in one of Harry’s back cabinets, I walked into a Vaqueria, a kind of Mexican cowboy store. The shelves were lined with long pointed boots in every color and texture of leather. Mexican CDs, their covers full of mustached mariachi men, swirled on circular racks. Pearl buttoned shirts hung from everywhere.
This was not a store for me, I thought. This was a specialty store – for an ethnicity, not just a customer.
I asked the man working behind the counter what he thought of Denison, how he handled the often frustration that hangs over the interaction between whites and those from other lands.
He knew little English, but smiled wide, showing a mouth full of rust colored teeth, held together in four places with pieces of metal screwed into his jaws.
“Estamos aqui,” he said. “We are here.”
Miller in a mill town
CEDAR RAPIDS – Adam Miller has made mistakes. Many mistakes.
They took away several years of his youth, put him in prison with violent offenders two, three times his age. And in the end, they took away his voice.
Adam will tell you he was young. He will tell you he lacked direction and was a “knucklehead.” But he will also tell you that he regrets what he did.
The 17-year-old kid who stole cars and broke into skateboarding shops to steal decks spent several years in an Iowa state penitentiary. He’s 33 now, his thick, strong body a landscape of brightly colored tattoos.
Adam has never entered the voting booth, and maybe never will. Felons can’t vote in Iowa. He would vote if he could, he says. He has opinions, ideas and desires for his nation, personal prerogatives that are often most powerfully uttered by the silent filling in of a bubble next to a candidate, an issue, a proposal.
For those who think that voting doesn’t matter, Adam says this:
“That’s because they don’t know that it’s a privilege. They can’t take that away from you.”
Adam isn’t looking for people to feel sorry for him. He doesn’t make any excuses anymore.
He makes music.
He lives in a $425 a month apartment above a bar in the Czech Village neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, a hip part of this working class town full of quaint shops, dive bars and specialty restaurants, with a Jack Russell Terrier he saved from a local shelter.
“New lease on life,” he says of the dog. “Kind of like me.”
His gear is parked out back in a trailer he hauls to shows in the Midwest; Chicago, Detroit and around Iowa, playing electronic music to hundreds of people. If he’s lucky, he might get $1,000 for a show, he says. But he does it for more than the money. He does it because it makes him feel alive.
But for all the fun, Adam has very adult responsibilities. He’s a father to an 8-year-old son, a boy who suffers from a rare disorder where his leg muscles never developed while in the womb. Adam and his son’s mother (the two are divorced) have made countless trips to the Shriner’s Hospital in Chicago seeking treatment for the boy, Adam Jr.
A year ago, they learned that the boy would never walk, that he’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Like his dad, though, Adam Jr. is a fighter. He wrestles, “tears people apart,” Adam says. He loves his son, you can tell. Adam lights up when he talks about him, chuckles when he talks about how his boy whips normal kids on the mat.
But he’s also brutally honest.
“If my son didn’t live here, I would move away from Cedar Rapids,” he says. “This is not a place for people like me.”
A year ago, two men tried to break into his apartment, and Adam, with a friend at the time, bore the brunt of the break-in. The teeth that he flashes when he talks about Adam Jr. are fake. The would-be robbers busted out his two front teeth.
He takes out the partials, showing an upper gum of tiny teeth fragments.
“I can’t seem to escape this stuff,” he says.
Still, Adam is a peacemaker. During an especially violent time in Cedar Rapids, when there were 19 shootings in a month’s time, he organized a march to end the violence.
He paid for shirts, food and motivational speakers. A group he helped lead walked through the city’s neighborhoods, preaching peace and non-violence.
He wanted to get his city back.
In 2008, when floods devastated Cedar Rapids, he aided with the reconstruction efforts, helped the Red Cross hand out bologna sandwiches to those who lost everything.
“We called it block by block,” he says. “Because that’s how the city had to be rebuilt.”
The city rose out of those floodwaters, when 14 percent of Cedar Rapids was destroyed in an extremely rare 500-year flood event.
But there is more rebuilding to be done, Adam says, and it can’t be constructed with concrete or rebar or hammers and nails and marches for peace.
Besides broken homes and life’s possessions, something else floated downstream on the Cedar River when the floodwaters receded, Adam says. Jobs left, too, and with them, hopes and plans for the future for many in Cedar Rapids.
Several manufacturing plants have packed up and moved overseas; a Purina pet food company, a plastic molding plant. Jobs were slashed at a Quaker Oats mill, and Cedar Rapids – a bastion of grain production for decades – is a now a husk of its former self, Adam says.
Muslim in the heartland
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – When Sarah Robertson is a native of Cedar Rapids, a city where all the Cap’n Crunch cereal in the world is manufactured, a town that owes its life to things that are harvested off the fertile, rolling hills around the city by people who look just like her – corn, oats, barley – simple crops with simple names.
Sarah is a simple woman, too. She is a single mom, a first, second and third grade teacher and a mean cook.
And she’s also a Muslim. In fact, she’s been a Muslim her whole life. Her American father converted to Islam after Christianity wasn’t working for him any longer, she says. He married a Lebanese-American woman, a third-generation American. In a city full of Lutheran churches and “First Church” of this and “Second Church” of that, to be the best Muslim she can be is all Sarah has ever wanted.
She sits in a room in the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, where she teaches. Then her phone goes off, the sound of a man praying in Arabic surging out of it.
A reminder it’s time for afternoon prayers, iPhone app style.
She walks around the center. On a table, there’s canned vegetables and boxes of generic Cheerios (Toasted Ohs) to be handed out to needy members of the community. There are white sheets of paper with random shapes on them, the coloring of a five-year-old. There are plaques on the wall praising the work of a Boy Scout Troop the center supports.
She started wearing the Hijab, or head-covering, a few years ago, another step forward in her journey as a Muslim woman. She found, however, that she got more respect from men than she did before she wore it. Cedar Rapids is accepting of the Islamic community, she says, and it's been that way for generations. There has been a Muslim presence here for nearly 100 years, she says.
The longest standing mosque in North America, the "Mother Mosque," is located here. Yes, there are Muslims in the heart of the Midwest - and they like it that way. But more education is needed, especially nationwide, on what Islam is.
"Too often we're vilified," she says. "But I think that all the religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam - we are all basically the same. We believe the same things."
American Islam is at a strange place in its history, Sarah says. On one hand, more and more Americans are accepting of the faith while at the same time there is a concerted efforts by "some in the media" to vilify Islam, make it scary, hostile, foreign, and, by default, non-American.
In a nation that prides itself on religious inclusion, Islam should not be singled out, she says, and people shouldn’t believe everything they hear about the religion.
“People need to find out for themselves,” she says.
And, even more than that, Sarah believes that Islam has a few lessons for the United States.
Sarah takes off her shoes and walks into the center’s main prayer room, a large, simple space with heavy, thick red carpet and white walls. The books of the Koran sit next to one chair, facing Mecca, near a microphone from which the center’s Imam would speak.
There is no one in the room, expect for her, but Sarah is whispering. There’s a reverence for this space, something that can be felt in the silence.
A man walks in, heads over to a bottle of scented oil on a window ledge, pours a few drops in his hands and rubs it onto the back of his neck.
“Salem Alaikum,” Sarah tells the man.
“Alaikum Salem,” he says.
Then she leaves the room, and the man prays – chanting, singing – his praises. He bows, sits on the floor, prostrates himself toward the holy city, each motion exuding devotion. He leaves 15 minutes later, his footsteps unheard.
Sarah tells me what the man was saying, that he was praising Allah for his goodness and grace, asking for blessings for all people. She spent several years in Cairo and knows Arabic, understands the culture.
She has lived among the cornfields of Iowa and the crazed busyness of the streets in the Egyptian capital, and she thinks that for the most part, people all over the world want the same things – to be free from want, to be able to prosper, to he happy. In the United States, we are not as divided as we’re told we are, she says.
But it’s not often enough that we are asked to seek commonality, she says. We need to be.
“Politically, there’s a growing gap, and I think it’s being fueled,” she says. “The news medias and the radio personalities are fueling this division.”
Sarah’s 5-year-old daughter is in the center’s lobby, playing with a paper airplane. She is dark, her skin the shade of her Egyptian father, her eyes the color of chestnuts.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” she tells Sarah.
“Ok,” she says. “We’ll eat. But first I have to pray.”