Thursday, September 23, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

‘I was never pretty enough’


“I was never pretty enough. I was never thin enough. I was never good enough. I was never smart enough.”

The cold wind blows around the parked cars and down the buildings and up the broad sidewalks in the East Village. This taste of winter-to-come causes a quick shiver. A foreshadowing of red-chapped cheeks and cold fingers. Lord, winter might not be as fun as it sounded back in mid-August. Cold and ice and slush and snow and cold. Did I mention the cold?

Then the smell of hot coffee sneaks out the door at Village Bean. Smokey. A little harsh. Tickling your throat. A lifeline.

The interior is warm and softly lit. A grizzled man is tucked into himself against the far corner, music plays softly, and the barista is hard at work on my latte. Art is displayed on the walls. In the back, vintage pictures of a woman from another time hang. A  kaleidoscope of moods splashed across the 12 photos. Pensive. Happy. Melancholy. Observant. Gushing. Waiting. Wondering. Flirting. Yes, even one where she’s had enough of this silliness.joes 1 10.22

Words of self-doubt are written around the edges — never thin enough, or smart enough, or good enough, or pretty enough. A mantra of human anxiety.

Prep Iowa

The female artist who did this work must still be young. She’s clearly not tired of railing against the craziness of life and the ever-present lack of self-confidence. She’s obviously a revolutionary. I’ll bet she wears long flowing dresses and ties her hair up with a strip of cloth and has a weakness for poetry and Victorian men of a certain age. I want to meet her.

The barista points to the crumpled man in the corner. The artist at rest.

Don Hirt sighs. A broad-chested man, no longer young, top buttons open on his shirt, an earring dangling from his left ear, weariness around his eyes. He unfolds from the stool.

An ID on a lanyard hangs around his neck. I’ll be darned, this guy’s on his afternoon break.

“I have worked at the Iowa Historical Museum for the past 14 years. I manage the historic structure inventory, which is over 130,000 records of historic buildings across all of Iowa.  And then I do Geographic Information Systems, which is electronic mapping. Map locations of historic structures, archeological survey areas.”

Oh my. And you’re the artist?

“I was always creative with photography, and I had dawdled with art over the years.  Sometimes people say if you just decide to be something, and start pretending to be that something, you might become that something. Does that make sense at all?”

A photo book with a mirror on the front cover hangs on the far wall. Snapshots poke out from the inside.

“The mystery snapshots that you can’t see because the album is pasted shut. This piece is called Frustration.” Hirt chuckles softly.

He walks to the front of Village Bean to show me his favorite piece in this show of a dozen items of mixed media and collage mounted on old wooden cabinet doors — “Erector Boy” he calls it.

joes 2 10.22“It may sound strange, but because I’ve been in data processing, I mull things over. I get an idea in my head and it kind of churns. Then you sit down and it comes in 20 minutes. Erector Boy is that way. I thought about that for a long time. I found the metal box from an erector set in one antique mall, they were dumping it for a buck. The parts came out of a different erector set out of the original wooden box. So the parts are much older than the lid. That piece fell together quickly, but I thought about it for a long time.”

And what about the “I was never pretty enough” woman?

“When I lived in Seattle, I’d ride bus a lot and I wrote in journals. What do people write in journals all the time? ‘I wish I could be better at what I’m doing. I wish I could be happier. I wish I could be thinner. I wish I could be more active. I wish I had more free time.’ ” Hirt pauses, remembering that time.

“Sometimes you go back to a journal that you wrote 15 years ago, and you’re writing the same things today. ‘I wish I was prettier.  I wish I was happier.  I wish I was thinner. I wish people liked me.’ ” Another pause by Hirt.  “As for the woman in the images? I had a whole stack of those old photos and she just looked like a real cool person.”

Hirt then gives a small smile, drinks up the rest of his coffee, tells me the show runs until the end of November, and back to work he goes. His day job.

The barista wipes the counter. The fall wind pushes the front door with the unsurprising news of winter’s coming. The espresso machine whirls out another two shots in defiance.

The woman-who-was-never-pretty-enough hangs in the back, forever laughing and squinting at the sun and looking surprised and just a bit embarrassed and perhaps in love. Certainly in love. She is mesmerizing.

“I was never pretty enough. I was never thin enough. I was never good enough. I was never smart enough.”

Really? 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:

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