House of Hunger (Iowa City 1995)
by Uzodinma Okehi
You think you know what you want. Let me say that much. You move through life, and the idea feels impressed upon you that freedom is the important, most crucial thing. Soaring eagles, like freed slaves. Like dawn, glowing across the mountains. This was how I went to college. I felt I was constantly being told how free I was, or that each next stage; childhood, high school to college, was the pursuit of some elusive, greater freedom. Maybe that’s the way I sold it to myself . . .
But there were no mountains in Iowa City, no vistas. Teams of white girls in the Lucky’s. Birkenstocks, in pajamas, Iowa sweatshirts, laughing their heads off, their shopping carts, clinking, loaded with bottles, hard liquor, mixers . . . White girls throwing snowballs, frolicking. White girls, outside the IMU, huddled, lighting each other’s cigarettes. See where I’m going? White girls with huge, open mouths, chiclet teeth, you need a scene to represent freedom, and carefree lives, so you cast these multitudes of euphoric, white girls, herd them together, tell them, bombard them with the fact they’re young, so uniquely, irresistably young, and white, and that these must be the most absolute days of their lives . . . Or, night shift. The Airliner, the Union, any of those spots. The Fieldhouse. This two, three block, downtown clusterfuck. And in between, less of a parade, but stumbling, jumping out of cabs in heels, they’ve got on their black stretch pants, their tube shirts, it’s freezing out, but that’s the uniform and they gotta go in packs, on Washington Street, hands in the air, or not even. More of a delicate, keenly acted theatre piece, on South Dubuque, 3am, bars close, and the pedmall’s flooded, with girls and dudes in puffy Hilfiger jackets, shouting and laughing, that one guy with sunglasses on, someone’s looking for Amy, the mingling, shuffling groups, and piggyback rides, and back and forth, spilling soda, waiting in line in Hardees, and where the fuck is Amy?!. . . The truth was, apart from that post-bar spillout, I didn’t really know what was going on, night after night, in those spots. Riding the free cambus, my walkman, listening to music. Or lost in those woods. Literally. Go by to see Abdul and without fail, I’d try to shortcut, and then I’m out there for hours, getting back to the dorm. That’s another Saturday night, scratched by brambles, falling, from the woods into the parking lot, then finally sitting there in the snow. Couldn’t tell you what I was thinking. Getting numb. Going nowhere, but searching, both inside and out.
First of all, to separate reality from the way we saw it in our own minds . . . From the interstate, that the looming thing you lock onto, driving south to Iowa City. High on the hill, and years later, the internet, seeing it from above, with reinforced flood breaks, a sprawling letter “h” in lowercase. But what we began to see back then, after a while, was that gloomy, massive, concrete wing, grey on grey, chipped, beaten by wind. Cloudy, dark glass, greenly lit. The architectural largesse given to Communism, and Gulags. Not just me. Rush Hour and Abdul. It was Valdes who would later coin it the so-called, House of Hunger. And not just us. Swarming, in and out. Piling on and off the Cambus. Fake-laughing, loitering. Gobbling, crunching snacks, pizza. Guzzling rivers of soda, and earth-friendly, three-dollar bottled water. Lounging, staring, studying, mostly starving, that’s what it felt like. Life settles on you, a fog of confusion. And from there, everything feels craven, shameless. Everyone staring, looking away, hoping for someone to notice. Some hi-caloric food item, some unattainable picture or idea from some magazine. But mainly ogling ourselves, staring, longingly, in the glass, the floor-to-ceiling front lounge windows facing west . . . Grey carpet. Cigarette burn on the siding. Along the wall, and there’s my shadow, leading, hungry. Grey stairs, to grey hallways, onto cloudy, grey decades of days somehow resigned to fate. Dudes with ripped jeans on, all that gel in their hair. Cheerleader types. Muscleguys, bulging in sweats. Girls with leather jackets, crowds of types, that crew with the eyeliner on, black coats and jewelry, and little chains hanging off their boots. Vampire cats. To indict myself, I’ll say, even then I knew most of what I did and thought about was also ludicrous, misguided, how could it not be? And yet, all around, when I looked, it was as if the people I encountered were cattle, uncomfortably shuffling in roles that had been somehow chosen for them. Those geeks in the computer lab, huddled together, giggling, and what are we doing? Porn? Swords and wizards? You fuckers . . . Is this a game, or are we actually trying to find a way out? Or worse, youth itself as some potion, as if one had to be drunk on it, to pretend, around the clock, regurgitating slogans and anthems for jeans and popular clothing lines, and by the way, I wore jeans too, and I’d fuck that white girl, absolutely, from the commercial, the camera trailing her on the beach, she’s smiling, now she’s hiding behind her hands . . . Like everyone, I was soaked in that nonsense. But then also, what was left without hopes to live for? And from there, I guess, why wouldn’t you attach a mythology to it, to beauty and life? I didn’t know who to blame. The way the hallways and those spare, grey rooms seemed themselves to respirate and thrive off thwarted dreams. Eight stories. Four hundred and three thousand square feet. Two thousand and seven beds. The Mayflower residence hall was the turnstile, through which we were all inducted into that adult realm of pointless, perpetual longing without borders, beyond reason. Plotting, maybe. Biding time. But shuffling like inmates, all of us, farting, burping, jerking off, crying ourselves to sleep, then padding in socks and slippers through vendoland, around the laundry room in the basement. By that time, I’d begun spending entire nights downstairs, the lounge, playing Virtua Cop, alternating to the computer lab where I’d sit, typing, re-writing the same letter to Inez, all the usual lies I could think up to say to a girl, but also, trying to break through, leaping up with a flourish to rip the sheets off those dot matrix grinders . . . Because your experience is different. Inez. Be honest. You’ve got dudes waiting, calling your phone, a thousand social engagements, and so on. You pick and choose. I live on the other side. I walk around hungry all day, and it’s not food, not just a sex thing either. A kind of unquenchable feeling, if that means anything. I don’t want to offend you. But I’m not interested in your friends, or your writing group. If I could spend some time with you. I want to see you sweat. Even if that means we’ve gotta take an aerobics class together. Why does it have to be complicated? I’d like to see your breasts. Am I being a dick? If so, then I’m sorry.
For a bio, Uzodinma Okehi figures he’ll just never measure up. He draws comics. Or kind of . . . A while back he went to Hong Kong. He wrote about that in his book, Over For Rockwell, out now from Short Flight/Long Drive books.