Walking in Des Moines, Night (1985)


A full scarlet moon is rising over Des Moines Saturday night, and Mike in a white tuxedo and girl in arm asks me the way to the Hotel Savery. It is almost balmy out and it is prom night, bug-spattered blue Mercedes' lining the curbs, yellow and silver Corvettes screeching turns across corners of sidewalk, pickups and battered Chevies with drinking buddies cruising down Locust Street as the red and blue umbrella with half an "A" that blinks announces "The Travelers'" insurance.

Des Moines, where rooms at the Marriott start at $89 weekdays, $65 weekends, ("Most of our conventions are during the week," the desk girl tells me,) and white steel construction booms tower over my head, where a train engine bellows and flags are flapping in the southwest wind.

I am walking east of the Des Moines River from my hotel, beyond the public library and the city hall and the federal courthouse, along wide streets lined with Ford dealerships and Dodge showrooms and vacant lots, past the Amoco station on 6th and Walnut where I stopped for gas years ago the night I was moving to L.A., on up towards the capitol whose dome basks in floodlights and the smells of warm cut lawns. I hear the sound of a streetlight transformer with the rush of trees, and a man and woman are standing amid an immense green slope looking towards downtown and the white moonlit clouds. I sit on the capitol steps, a Civil War mortar, a sundial and a statue of Lincoln my companions, where a fountain is wrapped in winter black plastic and I can see the pink letters of the Hotel Kirkwood sign. The Saturday night trees blow their fluorescent glowing green over the streetlamps and the river sparkles in sulphur-vapor orange. Noises drift up muffled past me, and my view is a "V" of lights pointing white and vacant towards downtown.

There is an odd openness of space here near the river, the city and state buildings large masses of stone as big as other cities', but set apart from one another like the red squares on a checkerboard, equal amounts of blank spaces between them -- something, I imagine, like Berlin after the war. But there is no war here except, perhaps, the one of new or, rather, renewed money descending upon a tired downtown. The building next to the Hotel Randolph has been renovated and painted and is for rent, and next door to the Elliot Apartments the 1870 Hawkeye Insurance Building is gutted and "for lease retail, office, apts." The Schlitz bar across from the Civic Center is now an ice cream shop, and down on Court Street at the river the Kurtz Building offers loft space, a loading dock, new windows.

My own hotel, the 12-story Kirkwood ($24, commercial rate) has managed to hang onto its gold-leaf corners and the dados under 11th-floor windows and the white-oak lobby with art deco moldings. But tomorrow morning, as I stand outside on the sidewalk down the street in front of the Hotel Randolph with its weekly rates and potted cactus in the lobby window and its woman in a tan raincoat sitting there biting her nails and its corner pawnshop and bail bonds office, a woman in a 7th-floor window will call out to me, asking if I am an architect, and I will yell up that I am just writing and she will yell back, "That's good," as a man in another window, same floor, looks out across at her.

Tomorrow there will be time to notice the streetcar rails and the herringbone-patterned bricks beneath the broken asphalt of downtown, to look south down Second Street as it fades quickly into railroad crossings and red brick factories and houses in morning haze, to listen to the county courthouse peal nine. Then I will smell the wet lumberyard and the peeling train depot with its arch spanning 4th Street, its sign barely readable: "Rock Island -- Route of the Rockets." There will be calls of morning sparrows and May robins, and pigeons will fly beneath the Court Avenue bridge over the river, the Des Moines River full and brown with spring rain, its banks waxed green and stuttered with dandelions.

But tonight, here on the capitol steps and close to midnight, the moon is hiding between haze and clouds, and the sounds of Saturday night are seeping up to me. The construction booms are silent and parking meters go unattended. A red radio tower is blinking and a horn is honking, cars are dragging and the red and blue umbrella is sending its insurance message into the sky. From across all of Iowa the warm May wind is blowing into the heart of me, and Des Moines sleeps, unadorned and unafraid.

Jack Balas
May 4, 1985