Tuesday, January 25, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

The food court


joes1Food courts are not the place where most folks go for spiritual renewal. Heck, food courts don’t even count as a location for a date with your special someone — unless, of course, you’re 12. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that caramel popcorn purchased at a food court is not a religious experience. It can be. But a food court feels a bit like a rest stop on Interstate 80 — I’m here for the moment, I’m heading elsewhere, and I’m stopping because of forces I can’t control.

On the other hand, isn’t there something about colored neon lights, the smell of fast food and the murmur of shoppers that beckons? It’s the state fair without the butter cow.

joes2Valley West Mall’s food court is a fine example of the genre: bright lights, garish signs and lots of conversation (frustratingly spoken just below the level for adequate eavesdropping). You can vaguely hear the piano player at Van Maur doing a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow.” You are easily swept up in the ebb and flow of the diners. No squatters in this group. People are here to do their business and move on. If you want to hang out, go with the other cranky husbands and sit in the soft chairs in the center of the concourse. There’s your peer group. This spot is for moms and dads hauling their little ones, or the mall hipsters sporting funky hats, or young teenagers untethered from their parents and experiencing the wonders of fast food.

However, if you’re lucky, and you look closely, you might see Marie.

joes3Marie is quietly and thoroughly cleaning up after you. You will barely notice her as she keeps her head down and wipes your table. At 51 years old, and with eight years under her belt, she knows this job. She sweeps, wipes and mops, all in the same conservative sequence of movements. She has a full day to get through. Flamboyance is not rewarded.


Marie’s English is not the best, but she listens with tolerant amusement to my excellent Spanish, which involves pronouncing English words loudly and with clown-like facial movements.

She comes from Guatemala. Four sons. Three married and one still in high school. Husband?

“It’s broken,” she says.

She works hard as a single mom. Every day. The mall ladies — “muchas ladies in mall” — stop her to thank her for how clean everything is.

joes4“You happy, you good, you clean,” is how she sums up her duties. And she doesn’t lie. Everything is spotless.

And what about fun?

“Dance,” she says with a twinkle. ”Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, everything…”

And that’s enough talk. Marie has no more time for idleness. She is off to clean another table and leaves me standing alone amongst the neon. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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