Once or twice a month we would be dismissed from school at 1:30 so that there could be a teacher’s meeting. We were savvy 7th graders, done with the playground flirtations of 6th grade – we wanted to spend the day downtown. Only a few blocks from our school, our Main Street was like every other in the Midwest, with lines of brick turn-of-the-century buildings, numbered cross Streets and mom and pop stores increasingly aware that they were a dying breed. Still, the seventies were taking their toll on Main Street, holding disappointments and surprises along the way. Already losing ground to the new mall on the other side of town, the city planners had torn up the straight main street and made it curvy and added modern multi-globe street lights and more stop lights in hope of drumming up business for the merchants who remained.
It was perfect for us. We could walk from home and school and spend a whole afternoon making our way from the Library at 5th and Main to the Regent Theatre at 2nd street. The Regent didn’t show matinees on weekdays but we would always check the coming attractions (anything from Annie Hall to Gone With the Wind) and come back on the weekend.
Pockets loaded with allowance money and whatever we could scrounge from our mothers’ change drawers, my best friend and I would recruit any of our other friends who wanted to go and hurry to our first stop, the Public Library. We bounced down the street in those days before 60 pound backpacks, iPods and cell phones, elated to know that we were free of nuns, coaches, and parents until suppertime. That was true every day, of course, but going downtown on our own was a special freedom, one that allowed us to peek through windows and doors and make a short foray beyond the neighborhood.
The library was an old blond brick building with a modern addition that had large widows and thick carpet on which you could run through the stacks without being heard. I loved the books with their gold embossed spines or jackets covered in cellophane, so much so that I often hated parting with them – much of my allowance went to library fines. It was understood that, even though we were old enough, there were certain books in the adult section we weren’t supposed to check out, and so we would snatch the romance novels off of the rack near the front desk and sneak them to the back stacks so we could read the steamy parts. No elegant binding here – they were well-worn paperbacks with titles like The Wolf and the Dove and The Flame and the Flower (which, incidentally, are still in print and have dozens of reviews on Amazon). Occasionally one of my friends would actually smuggle one out the library in her jacket, but I never dared. It would not have been worth getting caught. My mother had already given me permission to check out my beloved Hollywood biographies (over the objections of the nuns at school) and there was no way I would give up access to Marilyn Monroe, David Niven and Judy Garland for a cheap thrill.
On to the soda fountain at Hieber Drug. Located in one of the older storefronts, it had high stamped tin ceilings with black fans twisting lazily overhead. There was no more empowering experience than to hoist ourselves up on the black leather swivel stools, rest our elbows on the cold marble countertop and order a green river or a root beer float. With enough green dye to make you glow in the dark, green rivers were all fizz and no flavor but they looked spectacular in the curvy soda classes. The root beer floats had a thirties moonshine look in the thick mugs; I still love silky vanilla ice cream against sharp, foamy root beer. Dog ‘n Suds, the yellow neon drive-in restaurant across town, couldn’t hold a candle, neon or otherwise, to a countertop float at Hieber’s.
Beyond the delights of the soda fountain there was a certain mystery to Hieber’s. I never saw my father there, but I knew he bought greeting cards and stale Whitman’s chocolates from Hieber’s for my mother on holidays, and as the years progressed she was less charmed and more annoyed by these offerings (I, of course, was charmed – Whitmans had a map on the top of the box so you knew what each chocolate had inside). Reading the cards, with their cellophane overlays and cursive poetry, I could not quite connect the sentiments found in them to my parents. The inscription didn’t match the tone of their banter when they got along nor the smoldering resentment when they didn’t. My mother would remark pointedly on Mother’s Day, “I am NOT your Mother.” He would just chuckle and I would giggle, too. It wasn’t really the cards; he would call her Mom all the time, just like us, using pretty much the same tone. He called his own mother Gramma, too. Once we were grown and moved to the city to be near the grandchildren, he never skipped a beat – he called her Grandma, which also drove her crazy. I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him call her by her given name.
Anyway, I always thought about my Dad stopping in at Hieber’s and wondered what he did there, whether the knew the man behind the counter or the one who was always smoking in back. Hieber’s smelled like hair tonic and alcohol and newspapers and reminded me of our town as I imagined it was in the 20s or 30s, as if Bonnie and Clyde might walk in the door any minute. Dad loved to tell stories about those times. After 25 years of marriage to a native Iowan, my mother, a transplant from Philadelphia, had clearly had her fill of Old Iowa stories and whenever he began to wax nostalgic we all rolled our eyes and groaned as if we would die of boredom if we ever heard any of them again. But truth be told we all loved the stories (like the one about the Indians who were allowed to come into the Mains Street stores and take whatever they wanted), Mom included; it was the way he told them in this phase that wearied us – it was like we weren’t even there, he would just drone on, as if nothing in the current day – including us – interested him much. We were young; our lives were too exciting to be drawn to sepia tones. Many years later, the fog of middle age long lifted, he would tell all of the stories again on a single afternoon, the colors and joy refreshed as he spun them, his voice animated and his audience rapt.
Time to cross the street and blow some money at Ben Franklin. Straddling that odd place between childhood and adolescence, we debated among Play Doh Fun Factories, Barbie Dolls, Rona’s Barrett’s Hollywood, Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines. Usually we got magazines because they were cheaper and easier to share, but I did buy my only Barbie (Malibu) on one of those afternoons, more as an act of rebellion since my mother refused to buy them. Plus, my friend had scores of them with a house and everything, too, so I wanted to show up at sleepovers with, at the very least, my own perfectly tanned Barbie.
Hungry again. On to lawn City Bakery for fresh long johns from Mr. Lang. Long johns were puffy, rectangular shaped fried dough with a long perfect smudge of white icing on the top. With our big family, we had long since abandoned homemade birthday cake, but no matter. Mr. Lang’s cakes were Crisco and white sugar heaven with red icing roses. The roof of my mouth still hurts when I think of the all-frosting bites that I saved for last. Say what you want about the dangers of fluoridated water – it’s the only reason I still have my teeth. Mr. Lang had developed an allergy to flour over the years and had to keep his arms and hands completely covered when he baked. It looked a little odd in the days before everyone wore gloves when handling food, and I wondered if the allergy kept him from eating all of those wonderful sugar-filled deep fried confections.
Before we entered the bakery, I would glance across the street at the open door to Vic’s Tap and wonder who would want to be in such a dark place in the middle of the day. The sounds of deep voices and clinking glass spilled out onto the street, along with the odor of beer and cigar smoke. Even as the warm sweet smell of the bakery pulled me in, I parsed the familiar and unfamiliar smells from Nick’s. Cigarette smoke, bourbon, whisky and gin were good smells: beer and pipe smells were musky, strange and unwelcome. The former conjured up images holiday gatherings and of parents just home from a party. A hug wrapped in chilly winter mink, Kent cigarettes, Old Crow, and Chanel No. 5; a smiling smooth cheek damp with scotch and Old Spice. Later, my husband would imbue romance into beer and cigarettes but then it seemed that beer smelled old and stale even when it was fresh; spirits never lose their luster.
Sometimes we would stop by the Hotel Black Hawk to poke around in the lobby. What the mall was doing to the merchants, the Holiday Inn and the Howard Johnson’s out on highway 218 had done to the Hotel. It was mostly residential now, a kind of stepping stone to the local nursing home, called the Western Home (I always imagined that it had swinging saloon doors and looked like the set of Gunsmoke, only with wheelchairs). With its black and white tiled lobby and cloudy front windows, the Hotel still had a lot of folks coming and going. My Mom rented one of the offices off the lobby for the local Birthright organization. She met with girls and women who were pregnant and needed support, money and a place to have their babies. It served her purposes perfectly – anonymous but still easy to find. It was very simply furnished with a desk, two chairs and a black rotary dial phone that looked just like the one in the Birthright logo. She was seldom there at this time of day, though, and usually we moved fairly quickly out of the Black Hawk lobby and back onto the street to check out the movie theatre and then head home before dark.