If I have one iota of coolness in me, I learned it at the Motley Cow Cafe in Iowa City.
When I was a junior, the guy I was seeing wanted to get a bartending job at the newly opened and clearly rad cafe, so we went in one day so he could talk to the owner. They didn’t hire him, but they hired me. (Sorry, Wes.) I worked there for the next two years as a waitress and sometime prep cook and I can say with certainty those were two of the best years of my life thus far. I learned about food, about wine; I learned how to dress, honestly. Everyone in the Motley Cow orbit was cool and soaked up the codes.
The cafe was named for a town in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which tells you half of what you need to know about The Motley Cow. The other half is that the food was incredible and the spot created a community: small restaurants in small towns tend to do that. There were many regulars and it was part of the magic of the place.
One of my regulars was Hans. Hans looked like Ernest Hemingway and was a big deal in town because he started the Intermedia department at the University. He taught there from 1966 until 2000 and has been an influential artist in intermedia and performance art in America for decades. I think there was a sandwich on the menu named after Hans. It was basically a croque-monsieur, if I’m remembering correctly.
One day, Hans asked me if I was interested in working on a project with him. I was floored. I was also intimidated and scared because a) Hans! and b) he wanted to record me screaming. Look, he needed audio of a young woman screaming — this is what intermedia artists do. Who am I to question? And I said I’d do it. He also wanted to take pictures of women in the woods, which I would’ve done except the women needed to be naked. The scream was all I was brave enough to do at the time, but it’s a bummer because the naked-women-in-the-woods project on went on to be a seminal one in for Hans. Just think: a picture of my naked, nubile, twenty-something body could be on the walls of MoMA right now. Dangit!
Hans picked me up from the cafe after my lunch shift one spring day in his vintage Porsche Targa ragtop convertible. I had never ridden in a convertible and the Targa was a decent one to break me in, I guess. I was wearing a long, pretty scarf (I had agonized over my outfit; what do you wear to a famous artist’s house to scream into a microphone? this is a wardrobe choice that would stump the most experienced stylist, I feel.) Hans told me I’d better take off the scarf because the famous dancer Isadora Duncan was decapitated when her scarf got caught in the wheels of a convertible.
“Thanks for letting me know, Hans,” I said. I was very pale.
The house was a farmhouse out in the country, every room filled with camera equipment, photography equipment, lighting, etc. I went. I gaped. I screamed. It was fantastic. And the lesson is that all you have to do is get out of bed in the morning and stuff will happen to you. If you show up, you will encounter adventures. If you say yes, you can go on them.
The Motley Cow Cafe is still serving beautiful food on Linn Street and if you’re in Iowa City, do yourself a favor and eat there.