Truth is, we teased Rick mercilessly.
Rick Kubat, the lanky Illinois native who inhabited our eighth floor of Mayflower Hall (pictured left to right: me, Bud, and Rick in 1986), was probably the first person I met when I arrived in Iowa City that autumn of ’84.
He was fastidious, something of a worrywart, but always full of arcane cinema history, and quick to respond with wit and tact.
Whenever he joined me and Bud for a night out, he’d invariably start looking at his wristwatch—in the hopes that the experience would soon be over.
Bud and I would glance at each other, check our watches, laughing—then order another pitcher of beer and stay put for hours on end, much to Rick’s exasperation.
But Rick saved my bacon a couple times.
And he was right there at the end of what was probably one of the happiest nights of my life.
Finally, I was getting the hang of college: showing up for Geology lectures, turning French lessons in on time, and working away at my first research paper for Rhetoric.
Our Rhetoric instructor, Jeff, was a young guy with a laid-back, somewhat world-weary approach to the class.
He’s first mentioned in the journal on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1984: “I stopped in at Jeff Gardiner’s office … and talked to him about my first research paper (my proposed topic is on the profound similarities between Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A.W. Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray). He seemed to approve and directed me to get on with my rough draft.”
After turning it in, I received a C+ and this assessment: “Mike, you are a good writer. In this paper you are telling a story more than analyzing or developing a game plan. In that way the paper does not quite fit the assignment. It has story-telling organization instead of essay organization as well.”
I was crestfallen. Still, he ended the critique on a hopeful note: “A few tips should get you writing exceptional papers.”
As for the speech-making component of class, I was worse. Just over two weeks later, the journal confesses, “I dragged myself up to Rhetoric and stammered through my speech. I was incredibly relieved to get it over with. Jeff, my instructor, was going out past Mayflower, and he gave me a ride home. He mentioned that I’ve got to get a more organizational sense to my thinking. I agreed.”
After a Thursday, Sept. 6, Rhetoric class I noted we “did quite a bit of discussion on everything from TV to movies to Greco-Hellenic culture. I tell you … it’s great to be in college again.”
Just before the weekend of Sept. 21–23, the journal reports that Bud’s hometown girlfriend Kim was driving with friends Mike and Elaine from Louisville to stay with Bud in Iowa City.
Rick agreed to let me crash at his place while his roommate was away.
I recounted the weekend’s events in the journal on Monday, Sept. 24.
During the dinner Rick and I had at Currier Hall the previous Friday we “talked openly about our frustrating experiences with the beguiling Yolanda… Rick had had similarly enticing circumstances with our mutual lady friend and we both stewed over it over our roast beef and mashed potatoes.”
Later that Friday we made our way to The Crow’s Nest, paying the $3 cover and saving seats by the stage for Bud, Kim, Mike, and Elaine when they showed up. The journal confesses that I “of course noticed that the lovely ‘Melanie’ was working the back bar.” The entry tells the story:
“Bud and gang didn’t arrive until about 9:30, just when the band started, Kool Ray & the Polaroidz. They were a good band, playing a lot of oldies but good dance songs, i.e. Beatles, the Who, Elvis Costello, the Doors, etc. …The place was packed. Kim, and her friends Elaine and Mike, turned out to be very lively. Kim, very lovely and graceful; Elaine, a bit loud and obnoxious, always poking people in the side. Mike was quiet, reserved, yet affable. We left the Crow’s Nest after midnight, I think, as the band was still playing and ‘Melanie’ was still rushing around behind the bar, occasionally finding the odd moment for a cigarette.”
After a blur of more bar-hopping and nightclubbing Saturday, we recuperated on Sunday and were back in class on Monday.
I wouldn’t return to The Nest until 12 days later, on Wednesday, Oct. 3, when I sat “in a sublimely quiet Crow’s Nest, having a stout and updating [the] journal. Iowa City is lovely tonight and it’s still my intention to wander down to the library after I’ve had a few here.”
I loved the main library—either watching old movies on VHS in the audio-visual screening booths, or wandering through the upper book racks, with thousands of musty volumes filling my nose.
Later that Wednesday I wrote an addendum, just after midnight. It reads:
“…I looked in at BJ Records, ordered Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly album … I [saw] ‘Melanie’ and a friend, [they] went directly into the Deadwood. I … instinctively went into the Deadwood. I went to the jukebox to play some songs: ‘Walk Away Renee,’ ‘Southern Cross’…While I was picking out my third song, ‘Melanie’ came up and looked at the box. I told her I had one more song—she was looking for Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’—I asked her if she’d heard ‘Tupelo Honey’—no, she said, she didn’t know songs by their titles. …We looked for ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ together, but all we came up with was Van Morrison’s ‘Domino.’ I played it as my third song. I asked her if she worked at the Crow’s Nest and if her name was Melanie. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Melanie works at the Crow’s Nest.’ —But I didn’t press her for her correct name. …She didn’t seem upset, only mildly curious. I think she’s lovely. This kind of familiarity may make the heart fonder. She and her friend left before I did—sometime after ‘Domino.’”
Pure serendipity. I can still recall the heart-thumping excitement of that moment.
But what was her real name? How could I find out?
The answer came three days later, after I’d walked out of a reading author John Irving gave to a packed MacBride Auditorium, to go watch the Cubs-Padres game at The Crow’s Nest and sip 35 cent taps.
There I “got to talking to the one bartender guy I recognized, after he got off tending bar … he told me her name is Sue, Susan. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘She really has pretty eyes.’ And, he told me, she had said she was going to go to the Deadwood Wednesday. So, the evening wasn’t a loss. I learn her name.”
Bud was despondent after Kim had returned to Louisville.
But hitting the books took his mind off it, since he was a post-graduate student in Statistics, and received a stipend as a teaching assistant, too.
Often Bud was too busy grading papers for a night out, so I pleaded with Rick to be my wingman. When I told him about my growing infatuation with Sue at The Crow’s Nest, he joked that he never got to see her when he was with me there.
“Yeah, right,” he laughed. “The Mysterious Sue. Figment of your imagination.”
Case in point: Saturday afternoon, Oct. 13, Rick and I caught a matinee of Reuben, Reuben in downtown Iowa City. It was my second viewing, his first.
Before the movie got started, I filled him in on what happened that Friday night. The journal lays it out:
“I headed straight for the Crow’s Nest … the World Series was on TV and, at one point, in walks Dan O’Connor, of Deadwood fame, slurring his words and looking sullen. He didn’t say anything to me, much less recognize me until sometime after 10, when he started making comments on the game, he introduced himself and I cut him off before he got to his last name by saying it for him. He seemed noticeably surprised. ‘Ya floored me,’ he croaked.
…Well, I had been sitting at the bar for about an hour, patiently sipping my draws of Special Export when, it must have been a little before 10:30, after the waitresses came and went and the bartender (a guy named Mark?) shuffled round behind the bar, that Susan finally appeared—she popped around the corner wearing a grey flannel collarless shirt (pullover) and a bright yellow sleeveless thick-knit sweater. She radiated.
Dave, a regular bartender off-duty, asked her, ‘Hiya Sue. How’re ya feelin’?’
‘Oh, I’ll make it,’ she sighed.
I noticed her voice had a heavy quality, a strange combination of being squeaky and slightly gruff.
‘I’ll work for ya, if you want me to,’ he offered.
‘No, that’s all right.’
I took this exchange to mean that she was probably ill, but decided to come to work anyway. I think she noticed me at the bar, but I don’t remember any particular gesture or look that seemed directed toward me. She did come back and forth from the front and back often, though, after that first appearance. The evening took on a delightful quality for me after seeing her—I just think she is really lovely, her stray traces of jewelry, her slender hands and arms, her soft neck and sweet face. There is the little girl still in her looks. But the contradiction: she is a woman! Joyous incongruities! I can’t imagine what talking to her would be like. It’s a fantasy hard to form. I’d be afraid that by opening my mouth I’d drive her away with the jibberish I’m know to go in for. But if I don’t speak, how will I become familiar with her, and [she] with me? I have so many questions about her: where does she live? Does she live with her folks? And if so, what are they like? Does she have sisters and brothers? Does she live with a girlfriend, or even a boyfriend? What is her attitude about relationships? Is she filled with the cynicism familiar with people our age? Or is she willing to dream and hope a little? How old is she? Does she go to school, and if so what does she study? What does she want to be when she grows up? All I know about her is her first name, her ‘favorite song in all the world [‘Brown-Eyed Girl’],’ where she works…
My other half says nothing, as usual, will come of my spindly hopes of meeting her and enjoying her company. I’m too shy and pessimistic. Sometime not long after 10:30, I was being distracted by Dan O’Connor’s death mumble, Susan passed through the front barroom with a purse clutched in her hands. Did she leave for the night? …I got up—not wondering long—and D. O’C. wanted to know if I was leaving so soon. I mumbled some shit about having to get back to a party at home and threw a tip in the glass and blew out the door.
Of course, she was nowhere in sight…”
On Friday, Oct. 19, Bud caught an early flight out of Cedar Rapids for Louisville, and a weekend with Kim.
Rick’s roommate had his girlfriend in town, so I returned the favor and let Rick crash in Bud’s upper bunk bed for the duration.
We had supper at Currier Hall, then I hurried home, changed into good jeans, blue Oxford shirt and tie, and—without Rick—went to The Crow’s Nest to catch the band Kool Ray & The Polaroidz.
The journal entry tells the whole glorious story:
“The night shift came in, servers, back bartenders, John & Chuck lugging bags of ice. It looked like, for a while, that with so many coming in to work, Sue wouldn’t be one of them.
…Eventually, close to 9:00, I could see Susan in the back room, obviously checking in. She wore jeans, a pink chamois-like shirt and a thick-knit white sweater. She wore green emerald earrings that shot green glints. She talked to the guy behind the bar and he offered to work back bar in her place, if she’d trade working for him at the front bar. She said she’d think about that. After about ten minutes of invisible consultation at the back bar (it being sometime after 9 o’clock) she came back and said she would.
The upshot of the rest of my evening at the Crow’s Nest is this: we talked a lot while she worked the front bar and as I sat there watching MTV and listening to tapes being played overhead. On TV there was a rock group called Wham! or something of that sort dressed Californesque—with white sweatshirts that bore the slogan: ‘Choose Life’—she had been out cleaning up tables when she appeared close beside me and, looking up at the video, said, ‘What do you suppose those guys are about?’
It was the negation, the contrary of heavy metal, we agreed, but in some way was just as awful. I was charmed by her well-balanced, rational and ‘puckish’ critical attitude. On the tape player she played Rickie Lee Jones and The Pretenders. I told her Todd Rundgren’s Utopia provided the background vocals for ‘Back on the Chain Gang.’
‘Whatever happened to him?’ she asked rhetorically of Rundgren.
We talked in-between people ordering drinks. I asked her if she took classes at the University and if so what her major is.
‘Psychology,’ she said. ‘You need it to work here.’
I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, but she rarely had a free moment as business picked up as the evening got later.
John, the co-owner of the Crow’s Nest, kept appearing at the bar with confiscated beer cans and bottles for Sue to throw away. She rolled her eyes at me and I said, ‘He’s doing some major confiscation tonight.’
‘Yeah,” she smiled. ‘He’s on a vendetta.’
We talked about Bowie (his video, ‘Blue Jean’ had been on earlier) and I recommended his film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. She said her roommate has a VCR and that she had had the film recommended to her before and she said she might pick it up from a video club sometime. From her voice and manner, I figured her roommate is female—quite possibly the girl that was with her when I saw her at the Deadwood. But I can’t be certain.
Apparently, she rides a bike around. John came in carrying a ten-speed and said to Sue, ‘You shouldn’t leave this outside…I’ll just put it in the back [room] for safekeeping,’ and she nodded, ‘Thanks.’
I still had so many things to ask her, such as what area of psychology she’s studying, what year she’s in school, and just about anything else that comes to mind. I thought that perhaps I could see her round the University now that I know she’s a student. And I deduced that if she rides a bike, then she certainly doesn’t live in Coralville, much less Cedar Rapids. I’d guess she lives in the apartments down by Gilbert south, and really not far from the campus and the Crow’s Nest. Earlier in the evening, just as Sue switched positions with the previous front bartender, Beth, the tall, attractive brunette in my Rhetoric class came in the side door with a group of people; she saw me at the bar, her friends went on in to the back and Beth sat at the bar with me for a second, though she had nothing to drink. Sue washed glasses behind the bar as Beth and I talked about last Thursday’s Changing Society game. I had heard somewhere that it’s always flattering to be seen with an attractive girl in another girl’s eyes. So I was pleased to see Beth and have her sit at the bar with me.
‘Did you just get off work?’ Beth asked, pointing vaguely at my tie.
‘No,’ I said under my breath. ‘I just decided to dress up a bit.’
Beth asked me if I was going in to see the band, and I told her I had planned on it (actually, with Sue, all my attention was directed at that front bar as long as she remained there). Well, I stayed until around 11:00, the front bar had become packed and Sue was hopping around taking orders. She remarked to me that she was surprised at how busy the front bar was that night. To relieve tension, she cracked a bottle of beer and sipped at it behind the bar. When things had been, in my mind, conversationally depleted for the evening, I left, leaving her a tip in the glass. On the way out I passed by her, touching her lightly on the shoulder and said goodbye.”
The entry concludes, “I staggered home around 1:00, blissful.”
“Rick was waiting for me in the 8th Floor lobby.”