Muscatine, Iowa
Population:  22,886

“From the 1840s to the Civil War, Muscatine had Iowa’s largest black community, consisting of fugitive slaves from the South and free blacks who had migrated from the eastern states. One of the most prominent community leaders was Alexander Clark Sr., a Pennsylvania native, barber and eventually a wealthy timber salesman and real estate speculator. He was among the founders of the local AME Church, assisted fugitive slaves, and petitioned the state government to overturn racist laws before the war. In 1863, Clark helped organize Iowa’s black regiment, the 60th United States Colored Infantry (originally known as the 1st Iowa Infantry, African Descent), though an injury prevented him from serving.

In 1868, he successfully desegregated Iowa’s public schools by suing the Muscatine board after his daughter Susan was turned away from her neighborhood school. Eleven years later, his son Alexander Jr. became the first black graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law and its first black graduate from any department. Clark Sr. went to the college and became its second black graduate five years later, despite being 58 years old, saying that he wanted to serve “as an example to young men of his own race.” Clark rose to prominence in the Republican Party, serving as a delegate to state and national conventions.”

So much free parking. So many empty schools. So many aborted and half developed exurbs, suburbs. Such low rent. So many hollowed-out malls with shifty-eyed security guards and put-upon bored kids. Such cheap produce. So many aging classmates who never left. What a lovely parks system. What a dirty lake. So many new casinos. Such unbelievably wide pot holes. What nice turnpike pit stops. What a low sales tax and minimum wage. What a greying population.

Our grandparents or parents moved here to have children, to make steel or cars, to teach at the college, to work for NASA, to mine salt from underneath Lake Erie. The schools were good then they say. The land was cheap, but there were plentiful amenities. It was a proper city, but not an intimidating one. Eastern Time, rustbelt industry, nonregional dialects, diverse-ish populations, Midwestern sensibilities. Such promise. What times they had. The suburbs grew for decades, schools and houses appearing steadily. And now they shrink, dry out, and empty.
Researchers call it the Cleveland Brain Drain. We grow, we suck all the nutrients from the dirt, we learn, we save our money, and we leave.
We take jobs in the eastern cities, with their steep rents and narrow streets; we hide in expensive, drafty bars in Chicago or St. Louis, bragging about what we know; we add degrees or men’s surnames to our names; we flee to LA or San Fran or France or Lebanon and show everyone back home all the pictures. We are smiling and small against big backdrops.
We come back briefly to collect Christmas presents, roller coaster rides, hugs, memories, estates, condolences. We do not call enough. We spend our money on stupid craft brews that all taste the same – bitter – instead of on plane tickets.
We are statistics. We move by trends, like the grandparents and parents who brought us here. They placed their roots beside the veins of salt that ran beneath the lake. We have placed thin roots in the air. They quiver and shift as the times do.
When we visit, we enjoy the low sales tax, eat the 99 cent peaches, roam the empty sidewalks, reflect in the windows of our closed-down high schools, and prepare to leave again. A huge hunk of us stays. But not the brain.

Ohio Portraits Vol. 1:  A Midwestern Micromemoir is here! This book contains newly-edited and amended versions of the first 100 entries in my popular (by tumblr standards) Ohio Portrait series. Get it now for $2.99 on Kindle, or free with Kindle Unlimited

minnesota gothic

- You are on campus and all of the boys are wearing shorts. The snow collects on the brims of their caps. “Aren’t you cold?” you ask one, concerned but also bemused. “We are not cold,” all of the boys in the coffee shop answer, simultaneously turning to face you. “We are not cold. We are men.” These are the only two things you can be: cold or man. You must chose now.

- You are saying your last goodbyes before leaving the party. You cannot remember a time when you were not attempting to leave the party. You do not know anyone here, yet you must talk to each person individually before you escape. Each time you think you have succeeded, another old woman hugs you and asks about your parents. 

- At the potluck, a woman compliments your hotdish. “Thanks,” you say, “It was my grandmother’s recipe.” It was not. You read it off the back of the tuna can. You are forever haunted by your lies. 

- Your friend is going up north for the weekend. To the cabin. By the lake. They want you to meet them there. “Where?” you ask. You beg for directions. “Go up north,” they tell you, “to the cabin, by the lake.” They are too polite to be exasperated with you. “Which lake?” you yell into the darkness. There are so many.

- Everyone is so nice and so accepting. “We are so nice and so accepting,” they tell you. They make polite suggestions, in the form of a notarized and annotated list. This is what you must change about yourself. Then you will be accepted. 

- You are so parched, but it is a Sunday. You cannot drink on Sunday, no one drinks on Sunday without crossing the border. It is a dangerous crossing, the neighbors are hostile. It is not worth the risk. 

- “Hot enough for ya?” the cashier asks. He laughs at his own joke and you chuckle politely. It is not hot enough for you. You no longer remember what it feels like to be warm. It has always been winter and it will always be winter, world without end. He is still laughing as you leave the store and walk down the street. 


Atalissa, Iowa
Population: 311

“Atalissa was the home of a few dozen intellectually challenged men for several decades who worked in a nearby turkey processing plant. They lived together in an old schoolhouse and were taken each workday to the plant, and were paid $65/month after expenses were taken out. They were removed and relocated by state agencies in 2009, after being found to be living in unacceptable conditions. A 2013 verdict awarded the men a total of $240 million in damages, since reduced to $50,000/man. The men’s plight has had a profound effect on social services in Iowa.“