Today I traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
I had never been to Iowa before. When I landed at 5:30 pm, it was already dark, but thankfully as warm as my home in North Carolina when I left it nine hours earlier. I dragged my suitcase and workbag to the “Ground Transportation” area and waited. And waited. Nothing.
I went back inside and found the first official-looking person and asked him where the taxi line was.
“Right out front,” he responded, pointed to the door marked “Ground Transportation.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I went the wrong way; I was just out there and there weren’t any taxis.”
“They’re probably all gone.”
I felt like an idiot, and slunk away.
Half an hour later, after I called the hotel to send its airport shuttle to pick me up, I stood in front of the front-desk attendant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a very nice hotel that runs about $150 per night, which apparently is pretty standard for “downtown” Cedar Rapids.
The front desk attendant handed me my key and told me the hotel had a good restaurant but that it was closed on Sunday nights.
“Can you recommend a restaurant nearby? I’m taking a client to dinner.”
“They’re all closed—it’s Sunday night,” he said, looking at me strangely.
“It’s 6 p.m.”
I’ve been tweeting all week about this trip. I had never imagined coming to Iowa. The idea that I’m here amazes me, and so far has provided an endless stream of frustrated Facebook posts. But everyone needs to understand that I’m not laughing at Iowa.
I’m laughing at me.
Oh, I’ve been in this situation before. I grew up in the Bronx, worked in New York City after college and got my graduate degree at New York University. I grew up in a place where I could step outside my office at lunchtime and ANYTHING I wanted—the perfect black pump, French Onion soup to go, THREE Barnes & Noble stores, $5 espadrilles, a church that had been turned into a nightclub, a children’s bookstore, the restaurant that was used as the exterior for the pub on “Mad About You”—was less than a 5-minute walk away. I lived in a place where I could decide on the spur of the moment to see a Broadway show, ANY Broadway show, and I knew it was playing that night and I could get tickets. When I left class at NYU at 9 p.m. I would take the subway back to Grand Central and whatever I wanted to eat, right then and there, I could find a place to buy it before I got on the commuter train to head home.
It was an unbelievable shock to me when I moved to North Carolina and found out the rest of the world was not like New York City. What do you mean stores close at 6 p.m.? I’m sorry—you’re a Chinese restaurant and you don’t deliver? If it’s fresh mozzarella, why is it pre-wrapped? Shouldn’t it be soaking in unsalted water?
So please, understand, I’m not ridiculing Cedar Rapids. I’m ridiculing me. I’m a City Mouse, born and bred, and even after 15 years in North Carolina, I remain one through and through. You’ve heard the expression (or something similar with your hometown substituted): you can take the girl out of the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx out of the girl. I am living proof of that adage. It’s only been in the last few years that my friends from New York have stopped asking me, “No, really, when are you moving back?” They still don’t understand what I’m doing “down there,” because I was the last person they ever imagined would leave New York (unless I was heading out to Chicago or San Francisco or Boston).
I’m still amused to no end about how awkward I am when I’m in a place that is a little bit quieter, a little bit more laid back, a little less “on.” I thought that after all these years I’d stop expecting things to be the way I always thought they were, but I’m still caught off guard when I have to slow down or change tactics or make other plans.
I desperately wanted a little souvenir from Cedar Rapids so I could remind myself of this feeling once I was home and back to the things and the places and the ways I know. I don’t know what the typical keepsake is for Cedar Rapids—you know, Baltimore has its crabs; New York City has the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building; Paris has tiny Eiffel Towers; Vegas has Elvis. I couldn’t wait to find my little miniature something from Cedar Rapids that would remind me how out of it I am when I’m away from home.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a gift shop open anywhere…