The Student Union

 

(A thinly veiled memoir about a youthful escapade, friendship and loss). 

If we had done this today, we would have been carted off to jail, I’m sure of it or at the least, been exposed and embarrassed in the Daily Iowan student newspaper, maybe even expelled from the University. It was not that we did anything terrible but we trespassed, brazenly. It’s really amazing that no one saw us.

It was probably Darcie’s idea. She was by far the most fearless person I have ever known. It was three of us,me and Darcie and another girl who she had a crush on. Laura had huge brown eyes and long blonde braids. She was quiet but loved hanging around with Darcie.

I had met Darcie in the pot shop, what we students called the Ceramics Studio. It was a series of quonset huts by the river. A snazzy Frank Gheary building sits there now, appropriate to the priorities of our current times, it houses the School of Business. The quonsets were leftovers from emergency building right after World War II and had also had been used for married student housing before he  being moved to their current “temporary” location. It would still be many years before the new,modern facilities would be built.

They were cold and had no straight walls. It was like being inside a barrel. In a rainstorm, it was a noisy but comforting shelter, although not necessarily dry. After a downpour, riverlets of water would flow under the doors and make their way, like a natural creek, to the clay room’s wide drain. Fortunately, the throwing wheels, the shelves for drying pots, the kilns were all set up off the floor. Of course, it was always damp in there anyway with clay and slips and glazes and all the water needed to clean and mix and throw. I recall one major hail storm that was deafening. Golf-ball size ice balls pounded down, denting the buildings and metal storage bins outside the quonsets. People drove around Iowa City in pock-marked cars for years after that storm. Still there was something thrilling and comical as the ice hailed down on us inside our metal drum.

Darcie had transferred from a women’s college in St Louis, she told me, where she got kicked out for hitting another girl. She had apparently took a swing at someone who insulted her current crush. If Darcie disagreed with you, she would just give you a look, cold and incredulous, like what are you thinking, how could you be so stupid?

If you were someone she didn’t take a shine to, she’d most likely swig. She was stocky, only about five feet tall, wide and thick. She always wore a clay-spattered plaid flannel shirt over cuffed clay splattered blue jeans and muddy work boots. Her hair was cut boy-short with soft brown curls that flopped over eves like a teenage rock and roll idol. But she had a round, pretty face with a delicate nose that reminded me of my Aunt Grace. Her humor was sly and wicked and she loved to smoke pot. One night Darcie decided I needed to be educated in the ways of the world so she had me rolling joints in the living room of her off campus house on Iowa Avenue. We were listening to the Fugs. I didn’t feel a thing until I got up to go to the bathroom and felt the walls leaning backwards to accommodate me. Darcie always had strong stuff. She smoked it whenever and wherever she wanted to, causing quite a stir with the ceramic instructors at the pot shop. She was at odds with them all.

The head of the program was a daft, vacant eyed old man whose work was in a lot of museums. He was the token famous person in the department. The assistant professor was a tall and younger, very East Coast, lots of thick brown hair that stood out from his head. He flirted with all the women and most in turn had crushes on him. He was in fact carrying on with an aspiring undergraduate sculptor who I waitressed with on weekends. The grad assistant was this gorgeous Hungarian who sat at his wheel, shirtless, pulling up walls of huge muscular pots. He was kind to all of us unworthies but the feeling in the department was big pots were best and only men were strong enough to really work in ceramics. Darcie thought the men in the ceramics department were idiots that had stood too close to the off gassing kilns when they were firing. For all her nonchalance, she was ambitious and wanted to get into graduate school. She wasn’t about to sleep with anyone to do it.

I was a terrible potter. I loved the feel of the wet clay as it formed in my hands. I could never throw a cylinder more than a foot high but I took as many classes as I could. I loved the wet dirt smell of the place, the noise of the rain during a storm and I loved Darcie. It wasn’t girlfriend love. I was already sneaking off to the riverbank with guys and dancing slow, drunk and dirty at the bars downtown. I loved Darcie because she didn’t give a damn, because her rebellion was so refreshing and because she was so fiercely loyal when she loved you back. I saw something in her eyes that needed me, that needed a friend, that needed not to be judged. I was young and unformed, I didn’t even know I had the power to judge.

More than a few times at Bill’s Saloon over on Dubuque Street, she would get angry if no one asked her to dance, then she would get drunk and angry when no one asked me to dance, or if some obnoxious frat rat said something snide about one of us art school chicks. She’d take a swing and soon the big, bearded hippie bouncer would escort us out and we’d all have to leave. It was worth the drama. One time she swung at her intended target with such force that she slipped fell onto the beer-slick floor. It was a few minutes before anyone in the writhing crowd noticed. Darcie told me she couldn’t decide if she was hoping to dance with a cute guy or with her cute friend with the long blond braids.

Darcie had the sweetest parents. I met them a few times when they visited their daughter. Her mom had that cute Darcie nose and they genuinely loved this wild girl, their precious only child they had later in life, but seemed totally puzzled by her. They didn’t understand her, Darcie said, but who did? Certainly not me. I basked in her swagger, her ballsiness, but I saw the hurt in her eyes, the caring and the bafflement, too. Did she know what she wanted? I didn’t but I wasn’t even looking. Darcie was. Me? I had no plan, I was just coasting until the next thing came along to capture my attention.

Laura, the girl with the blonde braids was really smart and assured. Her father was an anthropology professor at the university, known for his liberal politics and outrageous lectures. He traveled frequently to New Guinea and would at some point during the semester, get rid of his suit and bow tie and show up at McBride Hall in full native regalia complete with a bone through his pierced septum. It was worth the rigorous essays and the early lecture hour just for this performance. Laura wasn’t wild, but she had taken a fondness to Darcie. I think Darcie was in love. The three of us palled around together for a while before Laura went off to a university in the East. Her father was such a strong personality, I think she felt overshadowed. And like I said, she was smart. She eventually transferred out to Yale or Princeton or someplace like that.

That early spring evening, it was getting dark. Deep lavender and gray clouds hovered over the river. We were sitting in the pot shop in a room where Darcie had displayed her latest work, shelves and shelves of hookahs. The body of the pot was a light porcelain jug, the top a black course clay fashioned into a hand giving the middle finger. All these fuck-yous just waiting to welcome some professor who had wronged her in some way. We smirked talking about the possible reactions, Darcie giggling at each scenario.

The quonsets were below and to one side of a stone walking bridge that crossed the river to the main art building. Stepping down off the bridge and directly ahead was the Student Union building that also housed offices and the Iowa House, a hotel for visiting alumni and professors. It also had the only decent high-end restaurant in town, the State Room. On Saturdays I worked there with another art student, the girl who was carrying on with the ceramics instructor, hoping to land a spot in the graduate program. We served platter-sized steaks garnished with a big mushroom on top, served with a baked potato with butter and sour cream and a salad of iceberg lettuce. We never got to eat the steaks. After our shift, we got one of the baked potatoes in a doggie bag as if were a special treat.

From the pot shop door that March evening, we could see that a window to one of the offices in the student union was left ajar. It was about two stories up. The windows swung out slightly like French doors and opened onto a wide ledge that wrapped around that end of the building. Darcie noticed that the decorative molding led up almost like steps to that open window. I don’t recall much discussion about what we were about to do. We had no agenda, no plan. It was pure opportunity.

Darcie led the way as we walked over and quietly and quickly climbed up the side of the building, Laura opened the window some more and we hefted ourselves in. Incredible. What to do now? We marveled at the ease of it, looking at each other nervous and embarrassed, but soon Darcie was bouncing up and down and spinning the secretaries’ chairs, opening drawers to see what was in them. It was all pretty boring office stuff. I suppose there were some interesting files there but we really had no intention of doing anything – it was pure whim. I grabbed a few printed notepads from “The Office of Student Affairs” and some ballpoint pens, incriminating evidence if I had thought about it. Darcie took an automatic pencil sharpener emblazoned with the University of Iowa seal and Laura just wandered around, amazed at how effortless it had been. I began to get queasy imaging the Campus Police charging in to apprehend the trespassers and dragging us off to jail. And me! With those notepads and pens in the pocket of my army surplus parka. We checked everything out and moved a few things around just to spook the unhip townie secretaries we assumed worked there. Darcie led us out, opening a heavy metal double door and suddenly we were in the dark, quiet halls of the Iowa House. A Latina maid stared at us blankly as she pushed her cleaning cart past us. We continued down the carpeted hall, then to the elevator, down to the main entrance and out the door.

It was totally dark by now and the air heavy with cold moisture. In Iowa, March is late, grim winter, spring still weeks away. In the safety of night, Darcie pulled the pencil sharpener out of her pocket, inspecting it, showing it to us like a pitchman at the state fair. Then we started laughing, the relief of not getting caught, the amazement at our daring adventure, the craziness of it all – we laughed and laughed clutching our sides and puffing out little clouds of freezing breath. Darcie took one of my notepads and ripped off pages, tossing them in the air like confetti.

When Darcie transferred to Kansas City Art Institute, the pot shop lost most of its appeal. After a few letters, I lost track of Darcie but many years later, a potter friend in Seattle told me about this crazy, wonderful artist she had met and was showing with at local craft fairs. Darcie! Yes, still crazy, still conflicted, still wildly talented.

She had built a studio in an old schoolhouse on Bashon Island. I planned a visit and Darcie asked if I could bring some coke. It would be one of my few drug purchases ever but I felt like I owed it to her, payback for the pot and the Fugs  so many years ago back on Iowa Avenue.

My Seattle friend and I took the car ferry and drove to Darcie’s schoolhouse. She was much the same, a bit thinner, still her soft laugh, her defiant, puzzled look, gorgeous pots everywhere, their glazes picking up the weak Northwestern light. She seemed have a peace about her verging on sadness, though, her humor still biting but not mean. She was modest and self-deprecating about her successes and there had been many. My meager dose of drugs impressed her and we had a wondrous afternoon talking, looking at pots and walking the wet, grassy perimeters of her new place on the island.

I’ve always thought my pottery instincts transferred to my Seattle friend. She was so much better at it than I had ever been. In fact, she seemed to take up where I stopped. I could go no further with ceramics and my life took a different direction. She took up pots and Darcie as well. They became friends and colleagues.

I learned that Darcie still struggled, especially with her love for women and her sense of doing right by her now elderly parents who had always been so patient and generous with her. One day, my friend called. When Darcie didn’t show up to teach her class, friends called a neighbor to check in her. A big, lumberjack kind of guy, he walked across the crunchy, frosted-over grass that separated his trailer from her schoolhouse and looked in a window. It was the bathroom window and there he saw  Darcie laying in the tub, peaceful like an odalisque-her plump white, body almost glowing, he said later. He had never imagined his tough little neighbor in quite this manner, then again, maybe he had. Darcie was always appealing and seductive in her own way. At the risk of Darcie’s considerable anger, he tapped at the window, waiting to be yelled at, hurled unfired pots at. He tapped again and then began pounding on the side of the old wooden building.                       Wake up, goddamn it. Wake up!

It was gas. I heard two versions. One was that her father had been helping Darcie and working on some things around the place. That it was he who had installed the gas heater. If so, how could he bear that truth. The second version, no more bearable, was from my Seattle friend. She wasn’t so sure it was accidental. She had learned to love Darcie but knew of her demons, that happiness had eluded her for so long, that she wanted it so badly and seemed to think of it as an entity. If you did the right things, loved the right people, made the right pots, that you could earn it. Maybe she didn’t remember the pot shop in that thundering hail storm or our devilish escapade and escape from the Student Affairs office. Maybe she thought that once earned, happiness would just be there, ever and always, like heaven. For that you need religion. Happiness is for now, Darcie, just like our breath that cold March night by the Iowa River. It’s real, so real you can see it but then just as quickly, it dissipates and is gone.

 

Sent from my iPhone

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