Most every year my dad's side of the family convenes in a place far from anyone's home for an early Christmas and a general gathering of the siblings. For a long time it was St. Louis, in a holodome where one of the cleaning ladies claimed to have known Ozzie Smith; then it was a resort in the Ozarks during down-time so that the only place still open in the tourist town was a strip mall with an awful record store and OshKosh B'Gosh. This year, after having not met for several years, the Brothers Monk decided Dubuque, IA, was the place to be.
The youngest brother lives across the river in Galena, but for the rest of us it was a three hour trip - which was fine and actually pretty scenic. A lot of old trees and hills and small towns with creepy gas stations. In particular, one gas station on the Road to Dubuque had a white-haired man in a big blue jacket sitting at a table with a bag of Doritos and a soda. He continued to say in a very loud voice, "Put a quarter in, take a quarter out, put a quarter in, take a quarter out." We laughed nervously, unbeknownst to us at the time that the man was probably a prophet and ridiculing the gambling addictions of many residents this close to the Mighty Mississippi.
We drove our little red car away from the gas station and the prophet and, finally, through blinding night rain and road construction, arrived at our hotel in Dubuque. It was late. We gathered a bit with the family and drank some dessert wine that tasted like vinegar and sour but was supposed to taste like cherry pie before heading to bed. The beds were fine, but as always, staying in a strange room, I woke up several times, waiting for something. I didn't know what.
The next morning the Brothers Monk took us to the cable car in Dubuque. It was a very old thing, pulled by rope and greased well (so well, in fact, the smell got in your nostrils). We got to the top of a big hill and the city was spread out before us. Uncle Kevin, the Eldest, pointed out several city sites: Diamond Joe's Casino, the steamboat, the lack of an interstate, Mystique Casino, the museum. The most interesting of these things, for me, at least, was the barge tug. It was an out of service tug, rusted, with two large black smokestacks. For a moment, I imagined myself a lighterman floating down the Mississippi or some other river in some other land, carrying cargo to a strange, foreign town, one where I could make a new name for myself. We went back down the hill in the cable car. Dubuque was having a chili cook-off (one cook had a sign that read "My Gas Smells Better than Yours") and there were people dressed up as cowboys. While we were at the top of the hill, my mother - who didn't accompany us - told us we'd missed a real shootout.
After the cable car, we drove to Galena where Uncle Kim the Young lives. Galena's Main Street is one of those perfectly sculpted streets out of a movie set in the fifties. You have this strange sense of nostalgia as you walk from quaint clothing store to vintage toy shop. We stopped in a used bookstore full of historical books about America: the books were very expensive and very awesome. The police shut down part of Main Street for the Fireball Run. Classic cars filled the street until that sense of nostaglia was nearly bubbling over and you thought you might disappear into the Golden Age of America, order yourself an Old-Fashioned at the tavern on the corner of Main/Diagonal.
Eventually, we took the trolley to OctoberFest in the park. I drank three beers quickly (two Miner's Treasures, kind of caramel, smell like vinegar, though I was beginning to think it was just my nose at this point; and an Uly's Dark, very chocolate, very thick, very good) and we watched a weiner dog race, naturally. Uncle Kim the Young took us on a little tour of Galena that evening. We drove along its curving, hilly streets. There was an old brick high school converted into condominiums. There was General Grant's house: it looked like it hadn't changed since he'd lived in it. There was a statue of Mrs. Grant, the former first lady, who had owned slaves during the war. In fact, Uncle Kim the Young, told us, "she not only owned a few slaves, but her wedding gift to Ulysses was a slave." He said the general set his slave free later that evening. He said he'd fought the city board to have this information presented to the public and lost, but he and a few of his friends bought some of the bricks used as the platform of the statue of Mrs. Grant and had the slaves' names carved in them. He said, "Controversy is what makes historical people interesting." Those of us that smoked, smoked a cigarette, and then returned to my uncle's house - climbing vines covering the red bricks out front, the backyard like a mad gardener had got lost in his own maze. We opened presents at the house, and by "presents" I mean "gag gifts." Some of these included: a device you put in your mouth to make your teeth flash like a rainbow; a toy gun with foam balls; and the coconut monkey, the traditional gift that gets passed around each year - the receiver must put a quarter inside of it and set it prominently in their house.
Then it was back to Dubuque and the German restaurant. I ordered sauerbraten and everyone else ordered the same thing: beef rouladen. It's bacon and a pickle wrapped in beef. Germans. You gotta love them. We ordered some German beers and a scotch and soda or two. The family was rather congenial, all of us having a good time. The owner came out to us and sang us a disparaging tune concerning the "goddamned Dutch," and we clapped and clinked our glasses and slapped the wooden tables.
After dinner, with our German buzzes going, we were off to the casinos. I've been to a few before and I've never liked going. There's something strange about the atmosphere in a casino: the smoke haze, sure, but there is a lingering sadness too - as if all your troubles could be over with one lucky roll of the dice, one more spin, one more dollar bill spent searching for the thing that will make you whole again. I lost twenty dollars on the penny slots. Uncle Kevin, the Eldest, won two hundred at Blackjack. There's also a taste of happiness here, like a hint of orange, and it's beatiful and fresh when you taste it.
The night ended at a Mexican place across from our hotel. We drank frozen margaritas and discussed political comedians, ending up even more buzzed and debating the pros and cons of illegal immigration. It was a bit raucous and perhaps a little too loud for the establishment we were in - certainly not our finest hour, but then, who would we be if all we had were fine hours?
All in all, a fine trip to a town I'd heard was different than your usual Iowa. "Dubuque has hills," everyone says excitedly. And it does. A lot of hills.