Beginning Wednesday June 5th and continuing through Friday the seventh I’ve been hanging in Des Moines, Iowa with my best-bud John. John is my two-and-a-half year old grandson who lives with his mom Katie and dad Kevin in the USA’s heartland just off US 6, the same US highway that my wife grew up next to 1,144 miles east in Brewster, New York, a quirky little coincidence that brings me mindless pleasure.
I drove solo to Des Moines from Raleigh, North Carolina and brought my bicycle, a used 20″ bike for John’s “future needs” and a Burley bike trailer/child stroller along with me. John won’t need the bike for another four years or so but the two of us are using the trailer every day as we cruise the greenways that Des Moines has judiciously placed in the flood plains along the Des Moines River. When I leave Saturday I’ll bring my bike home with me but the used 20″ and child trailer are going to stay with John so he and his parents can use them when I’m not here. Hey, what are grandfathers for if not to provide gifts for their once removed progeny?
From John’s house one can access the greenways by cycling a mostly downhill mile through Des Moines working class neighborhood streets and then hopping onto the Trestle To Trestle Trail just east of MLK Drive. Under normal circumstances one can travel either north or south along the river on either its east or west bank but as I learned Wednesday the plethora of rains that have fallen in the Midwest this spring have caused a lot of flooding so many of the trails are closed. No big thing for us as I have no particular destination in mind, but rather only a desire to enjoy the fresh air, bask in John’s company and get some much needed exercise.
On our initial foray on Wednesday I learned that many portions of the trails are closed due to flooding so on Thursday I decided to return with John to the Ding Darling greenway, a rather old, bucolic, rutted strip of asphalt on the east side of the river that I had not traversed prior to this week’s visit. John and I zoomed down to the Trestle To Trestle Trail, headed south and planned to cross the Des Moines river after passing the Department of Motor Vehicles station (DMV) that sits on US 6/Euclid Avenue.
Rounding a curve I see two or three dozen people standing in a food bank line and I slow as I make my way among them and then onward to Euclid Avenue where I cross the river via the sidewalk that straddles the four lane bridge. On the east side of the river we plunge back down to the greenway where we travel between the green, murky, stagnate waters on the landward side of the asphalt and the murky, brown waters that are the Des Moines’ temporary overflow. With water on either side of the greenway my mind momentarily goes on alligator alert until I remember that we are in Iowa, not Florida and that while I may need to watch for snakes, alligators pose no problem in the Des Moines greater metropolitan area.
We cycle on and come to a short, arched wooden bridge where I dutifully call out, “Trip-trop, trip-trop! Who’s that crossing my bridge?!” to John, just as I did for his father on similar outings a quarter century ago. John does not answer but I know that with repetition he will come to shout this tiny bit of Billy Goat Gruff along with me in future years.
Passing beneath a highway overpass I note no sleeping bags and wonder if no one ever lives under this bridge or if the homeless that are frequently found beneath the loud but dry shelter of said construction were chased away by floodwaters. We ride half-an-hour before turning around and heading home.
I’m working hard on the return ride, trying to up my average speed to 12 mph, and soon find my way back to the DMV where the crowd for the food bank has doubled and is now swarmed onto the greenway. I slow, again wind my way through the crowd and think to myself, “It has been 23 years since I was impoverished. Twenty-three years since we were at risk of losing everything.” I inhale, my breath catches in my throat and I begin the mile struggle up the hill and back to John’s house, breathing hard up the short, very steep section, my heart aching from both exertion and emotion.
The Woodlawn Education center is along the route and this facility has a playground designed for preschool children. I ask John if he’d like to stop at the playground and interpret his answer of, “Play!?” as an affirmative. I open the gate, wheel the bike through, close the gate and observe an age-mate, gray-haired woman sitting alone in a lotus position in the shade next to the playground. As I help John out of the trailer and remove our helmets she rises, walks up to me and greets me.
“Good morning. Were you hoping to play here today?” she asks.
I tell her I was, she tells me that a class is about to start and that we would almost assuredly prove a distraction. I concede the point, tell John we’ll have to go to another playground and put his helmet back on his head; a pleasant, though disappointing exchange. As we approach the gate an age mate couple appears with a toddler child in a stroller along with another school aged one. They ask why I’m leaving and I explain that a class is about to start. In response the grandmother all but emits steam from her head.
Muttering under her breath she approaches the teacher and harangues the woman with how disappointed they are that the playground is not available. Through word and intonation she berates the woman who will be leading the class before storming away, one grandchild in the stroller the other in tow.
I return to the teacher before leaving and say, “Hey? Thank you for letting us know. Okay? Have a good day?” The teacher looks at me with her head tilted and I add, “You were very gracious. Have a good day,” before I nod, smile and head for home with John in the trailer.
The grandparents do not have a look of financial want about them. The grandmother’s pique seems due solely to being inconvenienced. It has been 23 years since I have known poverty and five since I have known financial want. While I hope to never know poverty again I will do my damndest to never be ungracious to others for daring to inconvenience me in the course of doing their jobs.
‘Murica. May we all be blessed.