Any time I meet someone who is making their first visit to downtown Des Moines and they ask “What do you like about downtown?” I could reply in a number of different ways. I could say boring, generic stuff like “The food” or “The bars” or “The people.” I could say more specific, touristy things like “The capitol,” or “The shops and restaurants in the East Village,” or “The concerts at Wells Fargo” (was I supposed to capitalize “The capitol?”). I could tell them about the Farmers’ Markets. I could mention the great companies to work for (they’re are plenty). I could even say the caucus since that’s fresh in mind now. But no, almost inevitably I tell them, “Um…probably the skywalk.”
Yeah, Des Moines has a kick-ass skywalk downtown, and it’s easily the biggest perk about working there, especially in the winter. For those of you who don’t know what a skywalk is, here’s a quick study. We have these tunnels that connect buildings except they’re above-ground tunnels and not only above ground but actually one level above the above ground level which kind of makes them like streets but they’re elevated and enclosed so it’s like one big building with hallways that attach…yeah, it’s basically like a bunch of hallways that hover above the roads so you can get to different buildings without crossing streets, slipping on ice, getting rained on, or sweating your ass off on August 15th when it’s 100 degrees outside and 95% humidity. That’s a skywalk. I’ve heard Minneapolis has one too, but it’s probably not as cool, albeit more well deserved cause winters suck there even more than here.
I have worked in Des Moines for almost ten years now. For a while I excommunicated to West Des Moines, but now I’m back downtown, kickin’ it with my skywalk homies. I’ve done a lot of walking in the skywalk, going to lunch, going to work, and just taking a couple walks a day during breaks because it’s good to get exercise and clear your mind. I decided to do the math and make a back-of-the-envelope, good-enough-for-state-work (I worked for the state for a year and a half before moving to Des Moines) calculation as to how much time I’ve spent skywalking. On average I take two, twenty-minute walks a day plus walking to lunch. Some days I take an extra, some days I may not take any. Some days I walk outside when it’s nice, other days I don’t. Let’s pretend all the randomness cancels out and I spend fifty minutes per working day skywalking (forget holidays and PTO cause they’re too messy), and there are 260ish business days a year, and I’ve done this for eight years figuring in my aforementioned excommunication. That comes out to 50 X 260 X 8 = 104,000 minutes or 1,733 hours or 72 DAYS that I’ve spent skywalking. That’s one hell of a vacation.
I’ve been meaning to write about my skywalking experience for a long time, and now that I have the math to prove I’ve really had an experience, the time felt right to get this done. In order to keep this anonymous and not alter anyone or anything’s reputation, for better or for worse, I won’t mention any names of people or places. If you’ve been there, though, or are a skywalker yourself, you’ll likely know who or what I’m talking about, though. So without further ado, the skywalkers of Des Moines…
The Guitar Guys
One of the most obvious features of the skywalk scene is the presence of numerous musicians with guitars in hand and cases open, already filled with a few dollar bills that may or may not have come from their own pockets just to “grease the skids” on the wheels of charity. Most play guitar, one plays a banjo, one just plays a harmonica, and some even sing. One odd thing I have noticed, though, is that occasionally cops or security guards or someone with authority and a uniform will kindly ask them to stop and leave the premises, while other times I’ll see the same uniformed guys walk right past another musician and say nothing. Near as I can tell there must be some sort of permit that they acquire, sort of like a food vendor, to play music in the skywalk. Otherwise, it’s just solicitation, and they have to be on there way.
There is one guy I’ll dub the Mexican Chordless because I think he’s Mexican. Well, he might be Native American. Race isn’t important in this utopian land of the skywalk, but what is important is tonality. His guitar is never in tune, and he only knows one, awful, linear strumming pattern. He is, however, clever in tailoring his songs to the seasons, which probably helps his business for those a little less musically inclined to care about talent. He plays many hits like “Monster Mash” in the fall and plenty of Christmas staples when the snow comes. I would say he has the biggest library of music from which to pull when the situation calls.
There’s another guy that is like Willie Nelson crossed with ZZ Top’s beards and cheap sunglasses but looks more stoned and less talented…and he looped one part of a song in his brain and got stuck on repeat after too much pot one day. I have walked past this guy literally hundreds of times, and I’ve never heard him play a different song. I don’t know what it is or if it’s an original or a cover because he sings so quietly you can’t hear him, but it’s the same chord progression on that guitar every single time. At least he’s in tune.
There’s another guy that plays nothing but slide guitar blues, and unless he’s singing, all he’s doing is sliding. Every solo is just one five-minute long slide between a handful of notes. When he sings, though, it’s not bad. Also I think he might be blind. And he plays in a suit most days, so it’s possible he works downtown and just plays on his breaks. Or he’s trying to be one of the Blues Brothers.
There’s a banjo guy who is good at banjo and sings alright, but he’s not interesting enough for a second sentence. There’s a war veteran who sits in his Rascal and plays harmonica; not much more to say yet, but he makes an appearance in a later segment. Then there are some random other guys who almost made honorable mention. Few women, however. Actually no women that I remember, at least not that ever make multiple appearances. Perhaps a skywalk gig is career suicide for a female.
But my personal favorite, and so far probably recipient of tens of dollars (almost a hundred) from me over the years, is…well I’m not sure what to name him or how to describe him, he’s just ACTUALLY a freaking stud at playing guitar. I suspect he’s had some hard knocks in his life that prevented him from making it big, but he’s amazing. He plays mostly ’70’s and ’80’s rock, and he nails it on everything from “Sultans of Swing” to “Summer of ’69” and many other songs that are alliterations starting with the letter “S.” I love that guy. I tried to tell him once, but I don’t think he understood me. I think he took the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” seriously.
Ah, the “Important People.” No, downtown Des Moines isn’t the financial center in Manhattan, but it’s still a financial center, primarily an insurance center, and there are plenty of important looking people looking busy and being irritated by those around them.
There is one guy I have seen for years who is always suited up, never walks by himself, and the person walking with him is always a 40-50-year-old woman I assume to be his current assistant. If they were younger and cuter, I’d say they were his mistresses, but I’m going with decent-looking assistant. And I’ve seen him with so many different ones, so he must have very high standards and fire them frequently.
There’s another guy I find quite interesting that’s always dressed in a suit, a little goofy looking, and has the world’s worst toupee of sandy-brown hair. The color doesn’t quite match, it doesn’t blend well structurally, and it has so much volume that it looks like helmet hair (that link is really worth the click detour; check it out). I’m not yet sure if he’s actually important or trying to be important, but this is his category for now. Perhaps he’ll get a promotion or demotion in a future update.
There are also these groups of extremely smug, arrogant, 20-30-year-old, overprivileged lawyers from the various law firms looking very snarky and amused by the rest of us. I dislike. You know what the difference is between a lawyer and a pile dog vomit? Nothing 🙂 That’s not entirely true, but it applies to some, and it’s funny.
There is a gang in Des Moines. It may or may not be one to fear, but it’s a gang nonetheless. It’s the Rascal Gang. It’s like Hells Angels but lower RPM. Except for the one former veteran, the one I mentioned in the music section and said he’d make an appearance later in case you’re a picky reader checking for consistency, and he’s borderline dangerous. I think his Rascal is illegal or he took the governor off or something, and he’ll weave in and out of skywalk traffic like a stupid sixteen-year-old rich kid with a corvette his dad bought him for his birthday. Thankfully, though, this guy seems to be an experienced driver, and I’ve never seen him in an accident.
There is another notable member of the Rascal Gang that I believe is handicapped. He has his own style of mohawks, piercings, jewelry, and tie-die shirts. I actually found him to be quite pleasant over the years until my friend found him sitting alongside the road flipping every car the double bird. I’m trying to give him a second chance, but you gotta unlearn the hate, people!
The Shop Owners
There is another cool thing about the skywalk; it has shops! And restaurants! And a food court (used to be two of them)! Many have been around almost as long, or longer, than I have, and I’ve gotten to know many of the people who run them.
There is a lady who sells ice cream and popcorn who I never really knew until I went there with my friends who actually wanted to buy her stuff, and now she waives and talks to me every time I see her. Across the way there is a lady who sells rolls and doughnuts, and I think she’s slightly crazy. She often lies down for naps on the bench outside her store and is always caught running back to the counter yelling at the customer “I’m coming, I’m coming!”
Just just across the walkway from them is the skywalk “convenience store,” if you will, where my favorite Asian lady and her old white dude counterpart now work the register after having worked upstairs at a famous Chinese food place I used to frequent years ago before I changed my diet. I went in there recently to buy a banana, figuring she’d never recognize me, but she did. She asked me how my day was, if I got off work for the holiday, and then gave me a banana on the house. And I thought being social never paid off for me.
Back upstairs at the food court where the last two used to work Chinese, there is a Thai place still going after probably six years now. I’m pretty sure the lady running that joint has been flirting with me as long as I’ve been going there, and if I’m wrong, well, you can’t prove it anyway because it’s my word against yours. And your just the reader; deal with it.
Also, there is a place that sells local sports team shirts and stuff, and there was a guy I always saw walking around that I thought was one of the aforementioned “important people” until I found out just this past December, having gone into the place for my first time ever with a friend who was looking for a Christmas gift, that this guy was actually the owner of this place.
There are also a handful of places that have closed over the years. There was an old English pub style eatery that traded owners for a while until going down seemingly for good, but I’ve seen lights and people lately, so I think they’re bringing it back once again. There was this dedicated toy store that seemed destined for failure but managed to stay open for probably three or four years. We always imagined it was owned by some rich guy who continued to swim in red in through the losses because he loved children but never had a family of his own and wanted to make sure parents and grandparents brought their kids a toy home after work every day. If that’s true, then the store probably just moved with him to another city instead of closing for economic reasons. There have also been a number of eclectic women’s clothing stores that lasted about as long as the flavor in bubble gum.
Random Awkward People
In fairness, these people aren’t necessarily awkward themselves, it’s more my experience that makes it awkward. For example, there was this waitress from my old favorite English pub downtown that I asked out on a date once who, of course, turned me down (she let me down easy by saying she had a boyfriend…or maybe she actually did). I’ve run into her a handful of times while she’s doing business at the bank. We have the same bank.
There’s another girl I went on a date with probably, oh, eight months ago, who works in the skywalk and is also a frequent walker. I thought things went okay, and we were on our way to planning a second date until some technical phone difficulties and miscommunication evidently scarred her enough to never return my messages again. I mean, I only tried to message her twice before she never responded again and I gave up, but still. I’ve seen her maybe five times, and the early, sheepish “Hi” eventually devolved into her suddenly becoming fascinated with the buttons on her phone every time she saw me coming. Oh, dating…
I also came to find out a few years back that someone I met and tried to do some open mic jam sessions with got a job downtown. The open mic stuff went well until we actually did it, meaning it seemed like a good idea until it happened. We only did it once. At any rate, we still run into each other and talk a little, but it feels weird. Maybe someday it’ll get better. It happened on the way back from lunch one day, and my friend said afterwards “I assume you two had a rough breakup or something in the past? I sensed a bit of awkward tension.” Yeah, something like that. Good girl, though.
The plethora of people who work for some charity organization and stare you down from afar as they ask “Do you have a moment to spare for X?” In this case it’s them, not me. They make it awkward.
But the mother of all awkward situations happened for me just a few weeks ago. I was taking my normal walking break, and I saw two “youths,” as Schmidt from New Girl would call them, just hanging out by one of the automatic doors leading to the next section of skywalk. I was bracing for them to ask me for money, but I kept getting closer, and they just kept on with their own conversation. Then when I got about five feet away from them, it happened. They quickly turned and said “Can you spare some change, sir?” I ignored them, staring straight forward at the doors, proceeding to walk, and just as I reached the sensor that should open them for me, they suddenly jammed shut, and I walked full speed straight into the damned things.
There I was, stuck in the skywalk five feet from two people who had just asked me for money, unable to escape, trying desperately to pry open the doors with my own two hands as fast as possible as my face turned cherry red, sweating through every pore. So much went through my head in thirty seconds that seemed like three hours: should I just turn around and walk back again, right past the panhandling youths? Am I really going to get these doors to move, or is that impossible? Maybe the doors will open again on their own if I back up and try again? Did these goddamned youths go Data from Goonies on me and set a “booby twap” to get me to either give them money or face ridiculously high levels of social embarrassment in front of the whole of the skywalk kingdom?
And then I got the doors to open and took the long way back to the office.
People I Know from Other Places
There’s the guy I know from college who now has a beard. There’s the other guy I knew of, not really knew, from college that now has an even bigger beard than the other guy along with a bigger gut. There’s the other guy I knew from college who was in my classes and who’s brother I used to work with that says “Hi” to me occasionally. There’s that other short guy I know; he used to be a wrestler at the college I went to, and I think we had some classes together. The “People I Know from Other Places” section is basically the “People I Knew from College Who Now Work Downtown Des Moines” section.
Now we’ve reached the most important section since the “Important People” section, the “Actual Skywalkers” section. These are the people I see so frequently that they must actually be skywalkers themselves rather than just random people who happen to be walking in the skywalk at just the right time but are doing so with an actual purpose like mailing a letter or buying pretzel bites.
There is a little person lady that is always walking very abruptly in her white sneakers and has been doing so as many years as I can remember. A few months ago she saw a window was open in the skywalk on a hot day at the end of the summer, and she asked me to close it for her. This told me two things:
1) She was too short to close it, and it made me suddenly feel very tall
2) She is definitely a true skywalker because she’s taking ownership of maintenance
There are two people that are about sixty-ish that are either brother and sister or just look really alike. One is a male, one is a female. They both are serious power walkers, doing all the athletic arm movements and everything. They’ve been upgrading their gear slowly over the last few years, perhaps via sponsorships of some kind. What started in sweatpants and headbands has grown into full Under Armor bodysuits. They sort of look like space travelers from the future. They also remind me a bit of these guys from Seinfeld.
There are the number of generic looking people walking fast on their work breaks trying to lose weight and breathing really heavily.
There’s a short little dude about my age who I probably see on 90% of my walks, and he’s always cruising with his IPod going. He’s probably the most dedicated I know.
There’s DW, one of my very dry-humored friends from work, and we run into each other now and again. When two dry humored, mildly quiet males run into each other, the conversations are probably as painful for casual observers as watching two slow-talking eighty-year-olds at a nursing home argue over who the general manager of the Yankees was in 1948. But we love it. And they usually include at least one “Looks like you’re working hard today.” I also said I wouldn’t name names, but I didn’t say anything about naming initials used as a nickname. It also reminds me of Darkwing Duck.
There are two girls who I’ve seen walking together for years now. I find the dark-haired one attractive but get the sense from her energy that she doesn’t make herself that available and thus complains about how there are no good guys out there in Des Moines. Her friend seems quite happy and content, though.
There’s a guy I used to see many days walking with another lady he apparently worked with, and they would fill up their coffee thermoses each day at the local bagel shop. I got the distinct sense that he was cheating on his wife with this woman. I’m sure I’m totally wrong.
There is a banker who wears lots of earth-tone suits and goes out for smoke breaks a lot, each one looking like it will be his last. You know that look where someone is hungover, didn’t sleep, and has a sinus infection all at the same time? It’s time to quit, man.
Then, of course, there’s my good friend and old roommate for eight years plus a year of college! He’s worked downtown for a few years now and is an avid skywalker as well. Sometimes you just need a break from the office, and how cool is it that I can do that and hang out with one of my best friends?!
There’s also a guy I see a lot who I briefly saw walking with my roommate a couple of times until he started walking with this other guy instead. The days he’s walking alone he looks very…alone. I think he’s the neediest walker and potentially uses walks as a means of infiltrating office political parties or simple friend acquisition. I’m glad my buddy got out of that situation.
Guy Who Gets His Own Section
There is a ceremonial security guard who looks to be about eighty years old, barely making it up and down the halls, but he checks every checkpoint, looks for cracks in windows, and appears to be the most diligent security guard the skywalk has ever had the pleasure of employing, so they had to keep him on staff.
I picture him waking up every morning to the same alarm with the same two eggs and oatmeal breakfast, putting a checkmark next to his fifteen thousandth consecutive work day without leave. He goes over to the mirror and acknowledges that he past the Guinness world record ten years ago for such a consecutive day streak. He asks himself, “When do you know it’s time? Time to hang ’em up? Time to kick back and relax? You know what? It’s a scary world out there in the skywalk, and I gotta job to do. Get those boots on, we’re goin’ to work!” It’s hard giving up on the skywalk.
Random Stuff I’ve Seen
There have been a lot of crazy things gone down in the ole skywalk in my day. Barack Obama campaigned in the food court before his first term, so I got to stand ten feet from him while my coworker asked him what his stance was on the flat tax. I once saw birds flying in and out of the deli. There was a Coney Island restaurant (yeah, I named it, but it’s closed) where they used to allow smoking, in doors, in the skywalk, which later closed down and reopened as an Indian restaurant, which closed and reopened as an Indian buffet that also sold the old Coney Island menu in case someone wanted Indian and their friend wanted chicken strips. Now the space is empty.
I’ve seen roaches in two places, once alive crawling on the old “dungeon” food court floor (now being remodeled), and another time dead inside my friend’s burrito. I calmly finished the rest of my food over the course of the next ten minutes thereafter. That same friend was present for the roaches crawling in the “dungeon” food court floor scenario and now has serious food pickiness. Well, it was probably already there, but this exacerbated it.
I had another former coworker “steal” soda from the soda fountain at the food court in the morning because he discovered they never locked it up at night. The fact that he revealed this information to me is still shocking.
I’ve seen vomit on the halls on Monday mornings. I’ve seen plenty of homeless people. And I’ve seen crazy shit anywhere and everywhere near Walgreens by the old bus stop.
Other Stuff Added from My Friend As a Guest Contributor (written by her)
“…there was a nice day that I decided to walk outside and a tiny black guy on a bike chased me yelling “Hello! Hi! Hello! Hi!” but not in a friendly demeanor. I see him in the skywalks on the reg.
There’s also the Asian lady with the dragon face tattoo. I feel like she used to work at one of those places by “bleep” (name protection bleeping) or maybe the pretzel place, but I’m not sure she does anymore.
The guy that sometimes wears a clapboard about the end of times and all sorts of religious verses. Sometimes he just has it on his shirt and backpack. I picture his morning routine going like this “Hmm, clapboard or straight on the clothes today? I tweaked my back and sitting in the clapboard is awkward, just going to tape it on my shirt today. Gotta get the word out! Doing the Lord’s work!”
Yeah, it’s been one hell of a ride, and I’m not sure how long it will last, but I’m staying on until the ride operator takes unbuckles my seatbelt. Hopefully I see you someday in the skywalk. Don’t forget to say “Hi.”