Three days ago we were presented with an official city of Dubuque flag from Mayor Roy Buol with Representative Chuck Isenhart and Arts and Cultural Affairs Coordinator Debra Alleyne standing by on the Ice Harbor dock, among other supporters and city officials. Debra called us brave and original and other embarrassing things, and we accepted the honor with the sun hitting my retinas so hard it made me cry. Morgan and Roy were clearly the professionals (close your eyes and count to three and then open them at the last minute, Chuck said from the sidelines, though apparently I’m not much for following directions). They all came out beachy and golden in their photos, while I look like someone is quietly pulling off my toe nails below the crop of the camera frame.
After I recovered from the assault of the evening light and turned to take pictures from an angle that was more backlit, I looked down at the flag we all had stretched out in front of us: it was a simple design, a gold rectangle floating in an expanse of blue and green, which I took to be representative of the Mississippi, though the Mississippi that day was a brownish morass of stumps and logs floating in algae swirls around the docks from the recent storms. The flag was almost as big as Michi Zeebee’s forward wall. It was also upside down. Another round of photos, this way right-side up, and we were formally tied to the city where this idea was first hatched. Officially bonafide.
Almost a week ago we experienced something similar with a very different crowd. We were presented with a Society of Shanty Boaters certificate by a man who was most likely the unofficial mayor of all the shanty boaters from Itasca to the Gulf. Tim and his partner Sarah spotted us almost as soon as puttered into Prarie du Chien looking for water and gas. Not long after, Tim was on our boat, looking around the cabin, saying things like “this is so cool guys, this is great,” then, “I got something for you.” He disappeared, leaving us with his partner, a woman who looked like she could scale buildings with her bare hands and run across the Andes without breaking a sweat. She kindly offered to fill all our milk jugs with fresh water. When Tim returned he was already emptying out a backpack, producing a bowler hat and a vest, and finally some papers that he presented to us like the mayor who would eventually present the Dubuquian flag to us, smiling and leaning in, the certificate balanced on my fingers and held by his and Morgan’s on either side. Cameras snapped in silent iphone fashion all around, and then the group dispersed until another photo op presented itself, a better angle, with more of the boat in the background, another picture, another angle, always watching for the sun. Unofficially bonafide.
Just as Mayor Buole and Debra Alleyne know the arts and culture people of Iowa, Tim and Sarah seemed to know all the shanty boaters up and down the MIssissippi; they asked us if we know this person and that—including John Ruskey from River Gator and Wes Modes, champion character of the shanty boaters, who we continue to hear about at every other stop we take (among the tidbits we’ve learned: he has a flock of girlfriends and a biblical verse tattooed on his arm, is “real avante-garde,” wears a T-shirt that says “world’s best grandpa” and apparently forgets what clothing he’s wearing at the moment).
Tim sped across the river with us in a low-lying duck boat and to show us his shanty shack, where we scrambled up a ladder next to a slide that held the promise of many a drunken dunk in its wiggly blue form. He and Sarah bought the boat for 2,000 and remodeled and remade until the original was almost unrecognizable. Solar panels and tiki stylings complimented a sign that read, “shanty boat museum closed.” The whole living space was packed with both utilitarian and decorative items from every phase of technology since the dawn of the industrial revolution, all side by side, scavenged and cobbled together. Tim talked about where each piece came from–he once took a chainsaw to a Chris Craft to cut out its shiny porthole now resting on the port side of his own craft. All this, the collaged bits and pieces, added up to a densely expanding patchwork portrait of himself, and at the heart of it was a photo of him and his dad’s shanty boat, a wooden homemade craft.
Tim was mentally sharp with a penchant for fitting three or four stories and personalities into a few sentences, and he managed to hunt down some salted and smoked meats via telephone as he rounded the corner of his boat to take us back to the dock, where the man with smoked Ahi tuna was already waiting for us.
We added our shanty certificate to our now-growing collection of objects from the river. I could see how in several years all the walls would be covered, and the ceiling too, and maybe even the space under the floor boards. There’s a collecting, sorting, and scavenging spirit that pervades “shanty” making; it’s making and unmaking, repair and patching. One driving interest behind this whole endeavor is that type of making. We started with that idea but are expanding it in all directions, throwing to the wind constraints of era and scale. Instead of using a chainsaw on a Chris Craft, we’ll cut out pieces of the locks with cameras; we’ll roll up the bottom of the river with scanners; we’ll scavenge dredged sands with plaster form-making, and we’ll borrow in miniature the structures of bridges that form the land for the wooden interior, to make a portrait not of ourselves but of the river itself as we experience it.
As I stood holding a very official Dubuque flag three days ago, happy that the city has been so welcoming to us and pleased at all the ceremony represents historically, the many people who have been bestowed an equal honor, the many wayward travelers that have called Dubuque a temporary home, and all the merchants and farmers who made their way up and down the river with this city as a starting or ending point, I was also thinking of our unofficial certificate resting inside Zeebee, a piece of paper that represents another loose city of sorts, spread all along the river.
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