Saturday, January 19, 2013

Quiet City

When I was living in Des Moines, Iowa (specifying the state is hardly necessary) ten years ago, I found it a terribly lonely place. I had gone there on the suggestion and encouragement of an Army buddy, but when he left town a year later, I found myself alone without family and friends. Why or how I wound up staying there for nearly four more years is one of life's mysteries that isn't worth going into.

For most of my time in Des Moines I lived in a one-room apartment downtown on Cherry Street, in a renovated building that once housed the National Biscuit Company, overlooking the vast expanse of parking lots on the city's south side.

I worked for a private security company in the skywalks - elevated sidewalks that connected nearly all the downtown hotels, the convention centers, and the parking ramps. Since I worked graveyard shifts, I was alone for most of the time, patrolling the close to five miles of skywalks, chasing out the occasional drunks and homeless people, taking my breaks in deserted food courts, and gazing out over the sleeping buildings from the roofs of the parking ramps. The pay was ok, for doing little more than staying awake, forty hours a week.

On Fridays and Saturday nights, the town's young people, the ones who hadn't yet managed to escape to Chicago or Omaha or Minneapolis, drove their cars around the downtown one-way streets, a time-honored activity known as "looping the loop." From where I stood, looking down on it from six or eight storeys above, I thought it was a vision of hell, driving in circles for hours on end in a city with a forgotten past and a displaced future.

On some particularly dead nights, the words of Robert Frost's poem "Acquainted With the Night" would sneak up on me, stepping as I stepped, breathing out as I breathed in:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

I was the watchman on his beat.
My favorite mornings were Sundays, when the streets remained as deserted by day as they had been by night, when the sun glinted off the windows of the empty buildings as I walked the four or five blocks home. I had been familiar with Aaron Copland's tone poem, Quiet City for decades, but the still morning cityscape of Des Moines evoked it for me beautifully.

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