Monday, March 27, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

A red ball mystery


“Could I help you, hon?”

I don’t know. As an old man, the bright florescent world of Target presents several unique challenges — like where in this giant warehouse is the darn thing I’m looking for, particularly when I can’t exactly remember what that darn thing is that I am looking for, and I can’t call my wife to ask her what that darn thing is that I’m looking for because I left my phone at home against her strict orders to have my phone on my person at all times so as to be able to receive other strict orders from her, and, by the way, is that the smell of hot pretzels, whose very existence proves that there is a loving God.

“I’m fine,” I say. 

“You just let me know, hon, whatever you need.” And Cathy Howard goes back to work.

As many of you know, there is a mystery to the Merle Hay Mall Target. Let’s go back in time a bit.

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (March)

In the 1930s, Iowa was deep in the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the WPA — Works Progress Administration — to pay unemployed people to work. One of these programs under the WPA was the Federal Writers’ Project. Their goal was to put together a guidebook for every state and territory — including Iowa. So, in 1938, Iowa writers and editors and journalists and historians and librarians wrote a guidebook called “The WPA Guide to Iowa.” 

This book is chock full of wonderful tidbits like, “Today no point in the State is more than twelve miles from a railroad.” Wow, imagine that instead of Interstate 80. Or “Hotels are available in most towns and in all cities. Rates usually vary from $1.00 to $3.50 per day.” Heck, I’d be willing to go as high as $4.00. Or “Beds of coal underlie approximately 20,000 square miles in 20 counties. It has been estimated that, according to present needs and rate of consumption, there is enough coal to supply the State for more than 4,000 years.” I mean, who knew we were all coal barons?

But the book also mentions Merle Hay Mall, or, more correctly, the earlier incarnation of Merle Hay Mall:

“ST. GABRIEL’S MONASTERY, NW. corner Merle Hay Rd. and Douglas Ave., belongs to the Passionist Order. The priests of this order, founded by St. Paul of the Cross in Italy in 1720, live a life of rigid discipline. Their major duty is to conduct missions in the Catholic churches in their area. The monastery, built of brick and cement in 1922, is Gothic in design, with a cruciform plan.” 

This means the present day Target at Merle Hay Mall sits on the grave of a former monastery.

Which gets us back to the beginning…

“My Target is extremely friendly. Everyone helps out, from the store director on down.” Cathy Howard later joins me for coffee to talk about the store.

“There are a lot of young employees at my Target. I see the younger employees as my kids, and they take care of me. They are very patient and don’t treat me like I’m stupid for being older.”

Cathy smiles and pulls out a card she saves given to her from another employee at Target that reads: “Don’t tell anyone, but you’re my favorite person to work with.” 

Cathy wipes her eyes. 

“What about the customers?” I ask.

“I’m an older person, and if I see some older people struggling, I think, that’s me. I want to help them.”

“And what about Target being a former monastery?”

“I did know something like that and, by the way, there are ghosts at work. My girlfriend and I were working one day, and this little red ball went rolling past us. And it was just the two of us. Pretty soon, the red ball came around in a circle and went around again. Three or four times. And since then, my girlfriend will see a little red ball just sitting somewhere in the store.”

And there you have it.

See, the typical day for a Passionist monk, according to the Passionist Historical Archives (a-day-in-the-life-of-a-passionist), began at 2 a.m. with prayer (matins) and prayer (lauds), more prayer (prime) and prayer (tierce), reading prayers, walking alone, prayer (sext) and prayer (none), then eating. Did I mention praying?

And now you understand the red ball. Duh. It’s just the ghost of a monk finally able to let loose, mess around, and be himself. 

As for Cathy…

“My future? Someday I’ll be the Target greeter with my little walker. I had cancer in 2006. Lost all my hair. I never had hair that I liked. I had my first treatment, and my hair fell out. That bothered me.”

Cathy pauses and looks off.

“At John Stoddard Cancer Center, Peggy, I don’t know if she still works there, helped me pick out a wig. Back then I worked at Bakers Square with the old revolving oven. I’m pulling pies off and then go to the office to cool down. My boss notices my hair is on fire. My boss starts cutting it off. And I tell her to stop — my wig won’t grow back.”

And Cathy laughs uproariously at the ridiculousness of it all. 

“I am what I am. I’m not embarrassed to be myself.” 

Apparently, this is true of both Cathy and the monk who is finally feeling his oats.

As for me, I’m still wandering around forgetful in aisle 14 — wondering if I dare return home shamefaced and empty handed, although I do have this large pretzel in my right hand. 

And look… is that a red ball? ♦

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:

One Comment

  1. Elvin D McDonald says:

    Joe, this Target experience recalls a recent shopping encounter for me. I asked the stock boy at Hy-Vee for where to find starch.
    With not a moment’s hesitation he pointed in the direction and said “aisle 5.”
    When I got there I found Wonder bread, Pepperidge Farm bagels, and bags of flour–none of which I’d iron my shirts with.

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