Sunday, November 2, 2008

The 2008 Iowa Caucus Review

On Halloween morning, a group of students and adult supervisors from the Twin Cities area met in the parking lot of St. Paul Central High School. They were expecting to spend an enjoyable holiday weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, The City of Five Seasons. This seemingly paradoxical motto is, in fact, a reference to the Chamber of Commerce’s belief that time spent in their fair city is “a time to enjoy life, to enjoy the other four seasons.” Whether or not this makes sense is a question for the ages, like the chicken and the egg, or the Jew and the Cocker Spaniel. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that Cedar Rapids is all about enjoyment: enjoy your time, your life, your friends, and yourself. Since at least some of those are activities high school students tend to enjoy, the trip was a highly anticipated one.

That excitement only mounted—no pun intended—when their bus drove up. It was a futuristic, stainless steel bullet with white leather upholstered seats, individualized flat-screen televisions, and a talking toilet seat in its bathroom. The windows were so advanced that the diagrams instructing riders how to open and close them were completely incomprehensible. They may as well have been in Swahili. For all we know, maybe they were in Swahili. The right side of the bus had a pulsating LCD screen advertising the name of the bus company, Bus Daddy.

Before setting off toward central Iowa, the bus driver, whose nametag simply read “Justice,” laid down the ground rules. “What you got here is more than just a nice sturdy bus, the kind of bus a family could call a home away from home, away from the gridlock and shenanigans of the rat race. It’s my home away from home, and when you’re in my home or my home away from home or my home away from home away from home, you gotta follow three rules. Number wonderful, don’t throw any women’s products—if you catch my menstrual drift—in the shitter. Number two, put your garbage in the bags or the cans or up your craphole for all I care; just don’t put it on the floor. And the most important rule: for the love of all things holy, do not bring any beverage on the bus unless it is in a container with a screw-on top.”

That syntax elicited a flurry of giggles from the younger students, who misinterpreted the phrase “screw-on top” as something salacious. Just before the bus pulled away, a late straggler ran onboard, holding a large handbag and a Stein of Oktoberfest beef. “Stop it right there, young man. You are in blatant disregard of the rules. You gotta finish that drink outside before you get on the bus. Only screw-on tops!” The confused teen stepped back outside, quickly drained the rest of his brew, and threw the stein into nearby bushes. “Thank you,” Justice said, and the journey began.

The sights, sounds, and smells of late autumn in Iowa entranced and occasionally repulsed the group, or at least those who were unable to sleep through the waves of skunk odor, piercing morning sun, and horrible classic rock emanating from the laptop of some idiot who thought it appropriate to impose his taste in music on everyone else.

Just before noon, the bus pulled into an empty parking lot near the corner of 16th Street and 1st Avenue, near Pizza Daddy, a particularly ghetto Hy-Vee, the rollerblading dart players’ club, and Tobacco and Liquor Daddy, a popular store among the area’s college student and hobo populations. After a restorative meal, everyone regrouped to check into their hotel, the downtown Crowne Plaza, before heading to their tour headquarters, Franklin Middle School. One of the ninth graders attempted to get on the bus with a canned martini from Tobacco and Liquor Daddy, but Justice made him finish the refreshing cocktail before joining the rest of the screw-top rule followers.

Guy, one of the adult supervisors of the group, led his group of students to their room and quickly unpacked his various silk turtlenecks for the weekend before returning to the bus. Their departure was briefly delayed by a child wielding a juice box of wine, but Justice was vigilant as ever and the screw-on rule remained unbroken, much like the spirit of a wily felon having finished his sentence, a punishment that was necessary to respect the moral agency of the criminal, who doubtlessly chose to commit the crime knowing full well he would be caught and deservedly punished and disenfranchised, since there are no socioeconomic factors that could possibly problematize the view of crime as a totally autonomous internal choice.

Franklin Middle school was smack dab in the middle of the west side of the east half of Cedar Rapids, not far from Pizza Daddy, Washington High School, and a golf course ringed with upscale homes, decorated for Halloween with plastic glowing skeletons, devils, and Democratic politicians. Come election day, while felons are rightly reminded that they should not and do not have a say in elections, we’ll see who will ultimately, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, get the very final last laugh. Mark my words: we will see.

Built in 1923, Franklin was originally a junior high school, then a high school, then a junior high school again, and finally transitioned to its current role in the mid-70’s, after the explosive growth in the colonic health industry brought so many jobs and dollars into the once-suffering city. A stately brick building with neo-Gothic concrete details and entrances still marked separately for boys and girls, up and down staircases, and shadowy nooks and corner, Franklin’s eerie charm was undeniable.

The group convened in the theater, which was decorated for the fall musical, “Life: A User’s Manual,” based on the classic novel by Georges Perec. The stage was trimmed with large jigsaw puzzle pieces, and decorated to resemble a gracious drawing room inside an affluent apartment on Paris’s Boulevard Housemann. Ernestine Crawford, a lifelong Cedar Rapidian and feisty octogenarian with the gravelly voice of a woman not inexperienced with unfiltered cigarettes, introduced herself as their guide.

“My parents named me Ernestine after my great uncle Bootsy, who died in the great flood of 1934, when I was younger than any of you are. It happened exactly 74 years ago, this very weekend. Families were homeless for weeks, wishing the government could come in and give them a nice sturdy boat. When Katrina hit New Orleans, us survivors here knew just how they felt: like us, but far, far less white.”

Speaking of racial politics, Cedar Rapids has become quite diverse in the past couple of decades, and fully 26 percent of their black male population are unable to vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws, but there’s no way to stop racism because you would have to dismantle the entire government, and that would lead to anarchy.
“We’re going to spend the rest of the afternoon,” Ernestine continued, “watching a film about the history of Cedar Rapids, narrated by 90’s dance music star Gilette. Then you’ll have time to explore the city before you go back to your hotel for whatever illicit activities you stupid kids do when you’re away from your parents. Damn out of control juvenile delinquent fuckers. In my day, you would have been hung from a post in the town square for a fortnight, and that’s just for starters.”

The video was indeed stirring. Guy hadn’t seen anything this engrossing since the finale of Season Three of “Australia’s Next Top Model,” when Jane showed her roots as a lesbian dark-haired bitch. She and Steph H. were soy bad at modeling. A teen couple in the back of the auditorium were not as rapt, focusing instead on caressing each other’s perfect hips and thighs. Soon enough, they crept out of the theater, heading to the top floor of the school to find a deserted staircase where they could sex.

Near the end of the film, Guy thought he heard a piercing scream, but he wasn’t sure if it was coming from somewhere in the school or the video, which was covering the FBI raid of the notorious Irish strip club O’Boobigan’s, the scene of the most filthy vice Cedar Rapids had seen since the Prohibition era.

After the video, the group returned to the bus, which was finally not delayed by someone brashly violating the screw-on rule, but instead by the absence of two students: the very two students who had left the film to sex. Attempts to phone them proved fruitless, much unlike a Cher concert. The supervisors split into teams and searched the school, a search that ended with a gruesome discovery of two exsanguinated bodies. Their young lives, so full of potential and spirit, had been crushed like a pound of pancakes.

The next morning, two obituaries were prominently featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. One of them read: “Congratulations to Tina for a lifetime of accomplishments, including once going 3-3 at a high school debate tournament as a freakin’ junior, and finishing third in a statewide coloring contest at the age of eight. Tina is succeeded by her parents, Christi and Christ, and her older brother Bubba.” The other obituary was in Swahili.

At the morning meeting at Franklin, the mood was somber, tense, saturnine, sinuous, and somewhat inquisitive. Ernestine assured the group that everything was being done to find the evil killer, but there was a hint of disingenuousness in her voice, although that could have been a stray tobacco chunk lodged in her soft palate. Guy raised his hand and asked, “This situation is dead serious, ladies and germs. Riddle me this: How are we going to find who, or what, is responsible for this abortion of that of justice?”

“I made it through the Great Depression, the Great Flood, and the Reagan Era. I can make it through this, and so can you,” Ernestine said.

“Dude, that doesn’t answer my question. Stop trying to weasel your way out of a sticky wicket and—damn it, woman—put your money where your mouth is.”

“I’m getting there,” she said, sounding less than confident. “But right now, I have a more pressing need.” She excused herself and hurried to the female bathroom. A shoe, presumably attacked to a prone body, peeked out from one of the stalls. “Damn elbow-benders and their Halloween hijinks,” she muttered under her breath, expecting to find a passed out drunk bitch. But when she opened the door, what she found was far more troubling: the third victim, exsanguinated, white as a sheet, dead, gone, murdered, killed, gone to a better place, to meet her maker.

Seventeen minutes later, the police arrived on the scene, still with no leads on the first two murders. Sheriff Troons departed from his minibus and surveyed the scene. There was no visible evidence of horseplay or other shenanigans, so his deputies bagged up the body to take back to headquarters. Feeling angry and endangered, Guy asked for a ride back to the hotel, and Troons was happy to oblige. As he sped through the streets, nearly killing a jogger and taking out a lamppost, he told Guy something fascinating: Franklin was rumored to be haunted.

“To be perfectly honest,” Troons said, “I always thought it was hooey, but my daughter said she heard weird noises there, and three of her friends saw the ghost of an old woman in a wheelchair. It scared the living shit out of them, and they really seemed to believe it was real. Sometimes I don’t know what to believe.”

“In an age where felons retain the right to vote in some jurisdictions, I don’t believe anyone who doesn’t say they don’t know what to believe. But riddle me this: why the haunting? Did something happen on that site?”

“That is one darn tootin’ good question.”

“Fuck the hotel. Take me to the library.”

Troons immediately swung a u-turn, causing a hearse to careen into a ditch. “Ironical, that!” he said, laughing maniacally.

Guy spent the next several hours reading old issues of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, determined to find a story about Franklin that would explain the alleged paranormal activity there. His breakthrough came from a 1974 issue, commemorating Franklin’s 41st anniversary. It was just a sentence, a simple reference to something that happened there during the flood. “Things lost in flood” had to mean something. It had to hold the key.

With trembling fingers, Guy fed the October 1934 roll of microfiche into the machine, and scrolled to October 31. There was nothing there, so he tried November, and everything became perfectly clear.

During Prohibition, a bunch of sots and hoochers started a speakeasy in the basement of Franklin Middle School. Its unlikely location led to great success, particularly among the elderly and infirm residents of the enormous Mercy Care Center on nearby 1st Avenue. The weekend of Halloween 1934, the speakeasy was packed with drunkards, dancing and singing and having a generally gay old time, but when the flood started, the emphasis was on “old,” because the able-bodied ran for the hills—literally—while the incapacitated elderly citizens were deserted. With no way to escape, they shrugged and poured another round: a farewell toast to life, and to the great beyond.

Guy turned off the machine and realized he was ravenous, so he ordered a cab from Taxi Daddy and headed to Gringo’s Mexican Eatery for a margarita and a sizzling fajita platter. Before he could finish his drink, the phone rang with more tragic news: there were five more victims, and for the first time, an eyewitness survivor: a young girl in shock, muttering about a posse of ghosts chasing her down the hall in wheelchairs.

It was obvious there was only one thing to be done: get Troons, the police’s ghost hunting unit, and Ernestine, and make the ghosts show themselves. But first, there was a sizzling fajita platter with Guy’s name on it, written in fresh guacamole and queso, and it was time to take a big bite.

Later, at midnight on the dot, the ghost hunting posse crept into Franklin Middle School though the girls’ entrance, thinking that might be the first way to disturb the ghosts. That explained why Ernestine was wearing a men’s suit and a rubber Richard Nixon mask. They stuck together, walking down the stairs leading to the basement, shouting disparaging ageist and anti-alcoholic remarks in the hopes of getting a rise out of their nemeses.

“You dirty old boozehounds deserved to die!”

“Washed out in a flood of booze, and then a flood.”

“No offense, but I seriously hate all old people.”

A piercing noise, like broken glass and guitar feedback played backwards through blown speakers, ripped through the room. The hunters all froze in terror. A pale green light appeared from the top of the stairs, and an old man on a flying wheelchair slowly descended. Drops of water from his hair and his chair left a trail on the floor.

“We knew you would come, you who dare taunt the victims of the flood. All we want is peace, not a bunch of stupid kids walking all over our territory. We’ve shown you fair warning, yet you didn’t listen. So now you must die.”

The walls began to crumble as dozens of wheelchairs surrounded the group, creeping ever nearer. It was like the “Thriller” video, only not as popular with Filipino felons, whose disenfranchisement reflects the government’s need to exclude citizens who fail to respect the social contract. Guy opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. A pale, bony, moist hand approached his throat.


“Wake up, Guy,” a cheerful voice said. It was Tina, Christ’s daughter, a frickin’ junior who was riding the bus to Cedar Rapids with him. “We’re already here. It’s dinner time.”

They had stopped on Collins Road to enjoy a variety of big box options before their first night in Cedar Rapids. The Perkins Guy chose was handsomely decorated for Halloween, and Sasha, the waitress, served up soft drinks and chicken Caesars with élan.

After dinner, the bus was about to leave when a latecomer ran aboard holding a goblet of red wine. “For the last time, finish that outside. The screw-top rule is not optional,” Justice said.

The bus dropped the group off at Franklin Middle School, where their tour of Cedar Rapids was to begin with a historical video followed by a Halloween derive. But Guy was too disturbed by his dream to pay attention to the video, and left to check out Pizza Daddy. There was a full moon outside and the streets were empty, save two masked trick-or-treaters running away from 1st Street.

Guy turned onto it, crossing 19th, which took him to the Mercy Center. Outside the building, behind a wrought iron fence, a row of men and women in wheelchairs, wrapped in white blankets, stared silently at Guy. The wheelchairs were lined up, single file, and spanned the entirety of the long block: behind, ahead, and right where he was. Their dead eyes stared not at Guy, but into him.

1 comment:

a freakin' junior said...

Wheelchair Daddy. Classy.