welcome to nashville

March 2014

I am not my shiny, happy self right now.

I’ve spent the past two weeks scouring the internet for names and phone numbers for every 923 Oak east of the Mississippi. I am not a detective, nor do I want to be, but I desperately want to connect with the residents I’ve yet to hear from. Email, phone, Facebook – I’m trying everything. I’ve already sent out letters, addressed simply to “resident,” to all the 923 Oaks I’ve found so far. My Aunt Cindy reminds me that I have a stellar response rate from those mailings – 12%, far above the typical response rate for direct mail. My expectations – however unrealistic—were closer to 80%. I’m still irritated.

I’m in Nashville, in the early throes of my road trip. I have the next five weeks to drive around the USA and interview as many 923 Oak residents as I can, and I am not getting a lot of cooperation. I call my mother to pout, and she gives me her two cents: “I hate to say this, but you really should have been [contacting residents] long before this.”


It’s cold. Really cold. Nashville has been hit by a rogue winter ice storm. Schools are cancelled, and I am stuck at a Springhill Suites.

#923roadtrip nashville march 2014

My romantic Nashville visions included cowboy boots on a bar stool, live music and a cold beer in a lively honkytonk. Instead, it’s yoga pants on a queen-sized bed with the comforter pulled back (gross), Michael and Kelly on TV and lukewarm soda in a gloomy hotel room. I trudge down to the teeny one-treadmill gym, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, which helps alleviate my crankiness. A little.

There is no on-site restaurant or bar and no nearby restaurants that deliver. From my second-story window, I see plenty of headlights on the dark road, and decide that risking my rusty winter driving skills is well worth getting out of this hotel room. I walk through the automatic sliding doors into the parking lot and immediately reel from the blowing bitter cold. My car is entirely iced over. I stand frozen, literally, staring at my car. I wrench the driver-side door open, sounding like a Williams sister on the tennis court, finally climb in and shut the door. Remnants of ice on my window fall to the ground with a tinkle.

The only implement in my glove box is a wine key, which is much more useful to my northern California lifestyle than an ice scraper. I trudge back into the hotel, score an ice scraper from the front desk, and spend ten full minutes going to town on my windshield. I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold.

My drive is happily uneventful – the roads are really not that bad – and soon it’s Papa John and me, back on my comforter-less queen. The garlic butter sauce that accompanies their pizzas (let’s be honest: that stuff is the sole reason I chose Papa John’s) is basically flavored liquid Crisco – sooo good but sooo gross if you really think about it. The cold temps have congealed the garlic butter sauce, which makes it too disgusting to ingest, which is just as well.

This is not my favorite day.

I came to Nashville not just to soak up the city’s charms in a cool joint, but specifically to meet Jamie, a 923 Oak resident who lives outside of the city. I tracked him down over the past week via Facebook, and not only did he quickly respond, he graciously agreed to meet with me, making me eternally grateful for another 923 Oak participant.

Jamie is a songwriter and has been spending most of this week recording an album. The sessions are running long and his schedule is unpredictable – this weather threw everyone a curve ball – and it will be a game-time decision whether he can meet with me tomorrow.

Fingers crossed for better weather and for schedules and stars to align.

#923roadtrip nashville march 2014


meet faye and dan: 923 oak | iowa (50 years of bliss)

“Last time I was in San Francisco, gas was $.20 a gallon.”

Dan is regaling me with his own “Tales of the City.” After volunteering for the service in the late 1950’s, he completed basic training and went on to an intense twelve-week crash course in engineering, where he learned the critical skills he would use over the next two years – fixing hydraulic systems, generators and frequency converters. When he graduated, he was thrilled to find out he was heading to the Bay Area, stationed at the Nike missile base in Berkeley.

Nike missile, San Francisco

“We’d go up through the university and wind around up to Tilden Park and get up to our base. Every night you could just see the whole Bay Area all lit up.”

San Francisco skyline, circa 2010 © K Johansson

San Francisco skyline, circa 2010 © K Johansson

I love that he is both familiar with and fond of my city by the bay, too.

When Dan got to Berkeley in 1957, he bought a 1948 Dodge Fluid Drive for $50, so he could go to church and play on two softball teams every Sunday. He sold the Dodge to the base cook when he was discharged in 1959, and bought a ten-year-old Chevrolet Fleetline for $150.

He and a buddy drove that almost 2,000 miles back home. “All the way across the desert. There were no interstates back then, you know.”

Back home in Iowa at the ripe old age of 21, Dan settled into a routine of farming with his Dad, playing ball and driving 50 miles to Sioux City with his buddies every Thursday for dances. He didn’t meet Faye at one of those dances — he met her at the hospital, recovering from knee surgery. “I always said, ‘When I get married, I don’t care who it is. I want to go back to California for our honeymoon.’ I knew so many people out there, and I wanted to go back. So we did. We took off a whole month.”

Faye laughs, reminiscing about one of her fondest honeymoon memories. “We woke up in the middle of the night. Our mattress was flat, the tent was falling down on us, and we were frozen.” Dan had apparently forgotten one of the tent poles. They were somewhere near Reno, in a tent minus a pole, with a blow-up mattress on a big rock. They spent the following day sleeping in the sun by Lake Tahoe, only to get rewarded with terrible sunburns.

“We didn’t have any money!” explains Faye.

“Comin’ home from the last night, we left Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Dan says, smiling. “We couldn’t stay over another night in a motel ‘cause we had no money for it.

“So Faye had a twenty-dollar bill in her purse yet, and that’s all the money she had.” He chuckles. “So we had to put that in the car for gas, and home we go.” I am charmed by Dan’s manner of speaking – such a storyteller. He is full-on laughing now, wiping tears from his eyes, so amused at the memory. “I had no money back home in the bank ‘cause I worked for my dad for $125 a month. In the service, I got paid $68 a month, and I sent $50 home. I only spent $18 a month, and when I got home I had saved enough money to buy a new car.” He bought a brand new 1959 blue Chevrolet Impala.


“That’s amazing,” I say, my eyes wide, matching his. I think my Ford Escape Hybrid cost about $35,000 when I bought it seven years ago.

“Yes.” He nods, agreeing with me.

After the honeymoon, Dan continued to work with his dad on the family farm, where his parents lived. Dan and Faye lived a mile or so from there, in a one-bedroom house, and soon they were joined by two young sons. With a third on the way, Dan and Faye needed a bigger home. Dan’s parents moved out of the farmhouse and into “town,” so Dan and Faye and the kids could move in. Steve, Faye and Dan’s oldest son, his wife Julie, and their children live in the farmhouse now, after Dan and Faye moved to 923 Oak twenty years ago. Chris, Dan and Faye’s second oldest, his wife Christine, and their family live in the house that Dan’s parents moved into after the farmhouse, not far from 923 Oak.

Dan and Faye have five children: Steve, Chris, David, Kenny and Susie – all of whom live in Iowa, all within a three-hour drive. They have twenty grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“Has it been 50 years of bliss?” I ask them. I’ve known Dan and Faye for only a few hours, but I feel right at home, as if I’m with my own parents, bugging them for deep thoughts on their marriage.

“It’s gone fast,” Dan remarks.

“You didn’t answer her, dear. 50 years of bliss, right?” She laughs.

“Yes, I’d say we’ve had a very good marriage.” Dan smiles, nodding. “Really.”


“What have you been surprised about over 50 years of marriage?” I ask them both.

“I just think we’ve just grown together. Nothing surprises us, you know?” Faye says, matter-of-factly.

“We really never had a good fight, neither,” Dan adds.

“Really?” I challenge, not believing him.

“Really!” Dan enthuses.

“Well, we’ve had a few spats,” Faye allows. “He never liked my driving.”

“We may call each other a few names you know, to get it off our chest.” Dan winks.

“You pretty much see eye to eye?” I ask them.

“Well, even if we don’t, it’s livable, you know.” Faye smiles.

“I think we’ve got a very happy marriage,” Dan declares. “And grandkids help make that all come together. Nothing greater than family. Nothing greater.” He chokes up. “If I had to do it all over again, don’t know what I’d done different.”

“Faye, if you could change one thing about your husband, what would it be?” I ask.

“He’s just always late. Drives me crazy.” She shakes her head.

“Yeah,” Dan agrees. “I’d be the first to admit that.”

“What would you change about her?” I ask him.

Dan is quiet, considering my question.

“You haven’t eaten yet …” Faye cheerily warns him.

Dan smiles. “You know, I’m kind of a fussbudget. You got [something to throw away] in your hand … why don’t you just walk over and put it in the trash. Don’t put it here (motioning to the counter). Then we gotta pick it up again!” He laughs.

“I accuse myself of being too much of a perfectionist once in a while. My kids gave me hell [about making them scoop up manure frequently].” He laughs, mimicking his kids: “‘In two days, there’s gonna be crap there again anyway!’ Well, it’s nice to clean it up! My theory is that in the summertime, if you leave old manure laying in a spot, then the flies come, lay eggs, then you get more flies. So you get that all cleaned up. But you know, you gotta be efficient when you’re farming too – you can’t be an old fussbudget and spend two hours on something that maybe you could get done in a half an hour. And still do it right, you know.”

Faye motions to the driveway, currently snow-free. “All of our neighbors have such a fit. I mean, we scoop this by hand when we get snow. We have no snowblower. We have no tractor. I mean if it would be a blizzard or something –”

Dan interrupts her. “She’s always packing that damn driveway. [Driving onto the snow-covered driveway, compacting the snow.] I gotta scrape them tire tracks out of there, see? I don’t want that. ‘Cause I want my driveway nice and clean 365 days of the year!” He laughs, fully aware of his persnickety ways.

“That is him.” Faye shakes her head and smiles. “That is him. And we’re not going to change either of those.”

light a candle

Someone is missing from 923 Oak.

It’s a single mother, a few years younger than me. She lives in Tennessee, next door to Jamie, whom I met on my 923 Oak roadtrip. When Jamie mentioned he lived in a duplex, my ears pricked up: another person with a 923 address!

“Do you think your neighbor would be open to chatting with me?” I asked him at our first meeting.

He sat across the restaurant booth from me and pondered my question. “I wanna say no.”

“Why do you think?”

“She’s very cool – tatted up, as Southern as Southern can be. But she’s one of those people who doesn’t want any information ever shared, because she’s a very strong conspiracy theorist.”

The subject shifted as I explained my challenge with recruiting residents to participate in my project. Jamie and I share a mutual concern that we, as a people, veer far closer to the skeptical and suspicious side of the spectrum than the warm and welcoming side.

Cut to last week. I sent Jamie a link to a Maya Angelou story I’d read among the myriad online tributes that followed her passing. During my conversations with Jamie – eight hours over two visits – I learned a lot about him and his “tribe.” This quote about Maya Angelou, delivered by a New York City subway rider, resonated with me and immediately made me think of Jamie and specifically, a dear person in his life. Jamie is normally super-responsive, but this time, I didn’t hear from him right away. Oh dear, I thought. Maybe that story struck a nerve.

He did not reply until the next day. “Look at what is happening at 923B Oak. My dear friend and neighbor is missing. And it does not look good.” He sent me a link to a news story: “Police suspect foul play in the disappearance of local woman.”

I won’t share that link here, because it mentions the town in which she (the “local woman”) and Jamie live. One of the guidelines of The 923 Oak Project is to keep the residents’ towns and last names private. Jamie is actually not concerned about revealing his town or last name, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. At the same time, maybe the more people who know this woman’s name and face, the sooner she can be found. I’m conflicted.

It’s been twelve days since anyone has heard from her. Her little boy was at her ex-husband’s house, hours away. Her two dogs were alone at her house for days. Her purse and cell phone were in her car, in her driveway.

This story – one we hear all too often – feels different to me. I didn’t even know this woman existed at this address, but I feel connected to and protective of the people of 923 Oak. Even the ones I don’t know.

She is one of my people now. Part of my tribe.

What I’m trying to do with this whole project – using 923 Oak as a microcosm of America – is help us remember that we are all connected.

Say a prayer tonight. Whisper a blessing for her safe return. Light a candle and send her and her loved ones words of peace and comfort in this dark time.

We are all each other’s tribe.

light a candle for 923 Oak

about faye and dan: 923 oak | iowa (faye and the fam)

“Our most memorable experiences are probably what we had with our kids,” Dan says, as Faye nods in agreement. Faye tells me about taking the boys on Ragbrai, a weeklong bike ride across the entire state of Iowa every summer.

Ragbrai: the bike ride across Iowa

photo credit: RAGBRAI

“How long did we do that? Four years?” she asks Dan.

“You took the Suburban, then you had that camper I made,” Dan says. “I stayed home and did the chores and stuff,” he tells me.

“The first year we had a tent. And that was the year we had six or nine inches of rain and everything was wet. I had an old suitcase, and it had a red lining. And the clothes …” Faye laughs, remembering, “they all got dyed. And of course the kids packed their feather pillows, and they got all wet. And we had a tornado drill … ” she drifts off, momentarily lost in thought. “You remember those things,” she says wistfully, as the grandfather clock in the hallway chimes.

Faye grew up in South Dakota with a carpenter for a father. “We lived in ten homes by the time I was ten. We would buy a home, and he would remodel it.” Her dad was flipping houses in the ‘40s and ‘50s, long before it became a program genre on HGTV.

“Was it hard?” I ask, thinking about how disruptive moving to a new house every year might have felt.

“You just didn’t think about it.” I see Faye’s pragmatism in my mom and her siblings, all of whom were born and raised in Iowa. A little bit in myself too.

“What advice would you give yourself as a teenager?” I ask her.

“I was young – I didn’t have to do anything.” She laughs. “It was just different. I don’t know what I would have said. I was the youngest of eight, and I was spoiled rotten.” We talk about the difference between growing up on a farm, as Dan and their children did, versus growing up “in town,” as she did. In those days, farm kids had a lot of chores. I’m sure they still do.

Faye’s oldest sibling was 23 years old when Faye was born. Of her seven brothers and sisters, only one brother is still living. He has prostate cancer – the same thing their father had. One of the siblings died of a stroke; the other five died of some form of cancer.

“Do you go to the doctor more frequently, given your family history?” I ask gently.

“I get a physical and a mammogram every year,” she says. Faye turns 71 this July.

“Are you concerned?”

“When you get aches and pains, you think about it. You always think about it, but you can’t dwell on it.”

Faye took a job at a local food processing plant when her youngest child, Susie, was nearing high school age. She felt that she needed to help out more – or help out in a more meaningful way. “I think we had about twenty insurance policies at one point, between crop, building, car and health.” So getting health insurance was a big help.

Her shift on the line would start at 6 a.m. – an hour or two earlier if she was working in Quality Assurance. She moved into QA after hurting both shoulders, one of which was already damaged from an eight-foot fall off the bean truck 30 years prior. She can’t use her right shoulder at all now. “We did rotator cuff surgery, but that didn’t work, so I had shoulder reversal surgery three years ago. I was the only person it didn’t work on!” She chuckles. Faye’s not one to dwell on these things, and a bum shoulder clearly doesn’t slow her down.

Faye cooks for 50 people every Thanksgiving. Christmas and Easter are big too – their family alone counts for 43 people, including spouses and kids. I ask about her most treasured possession, but she thinks more in terms of memories than possessions. “There’s been a lot of good ones: Thanksgivings, Christmases, breakfasts ….”

I press her to think about a favorite possession, and she points to a wall in their family room, covered in framed photos of the grandkids:

923 Oak Iowa: the wall of grandkids

There are eight of us around the table for supper tonight: Steve, their oldest son, his wife Julie, and three of their six kids, came over for this home-cooked meal of roast, mashed potatoes, and a Chinese chicken salad that Julie made.

923 Oak Iowa: Sunday night supper

The beef, so tender and savory, and the mashed potatoes — absolute bliss for a carb lover like me — were both crock-potted to perfection as we got to know each other all afternoon. The soft dinner rolls have the perfect hint of yeast. It is so delicious that I seriously contemplate going in for seconds, but refrain myself — our America cake is still coming.

Chris, Dan and Faye’s second son, his wife Christine, and three of their seven kids join us for dessert. Christine is a reporter for the weekly newspaper, and came over to Dan and Faye’s earlier to interview me (me!) about The 923 Oak Project. More on Christine (and my regional press debut) to come.

Faye serves the iced chocolate cake — flipped out of the baking pan onto a tray, so that New England is now in the Northwest — with vanilla ice cream, scooped out of a big gallon container – just like the kind my parents bought when I was growing up.

The America cake @ 923 Oak Iowa

“So I get to eat Florida?” Dan smiles, receiving a peninsula-shaped portion of chocolate cake.

Faye finishes handing out cake and ice cream to the table and sits down to an empty placemat.

“You’re not having any?” I ask.

“I gave up dessert for Lent,” she says.

Unbelievable. The woman happily consents to bake a cake at my request, but refrains from eating any.

Not me. I sample our chocolate collaboration. Just like the rest of the meal, it is yummy (if I do say so myself). But I suspect most of the food consumed at this table — even if it’s right out of a package — tastes extra good, just because of the people around it.

about dan and faye: 923 oak | iowa (dan and the farm)

“Danny’s dad’s dad was killed by a team of horses,” Faye tells me.

That’s Dan’s grandfather. Dan’s grandmother died shortly after giving birth to her eighth child. Then, this heartbreak struck. Dan’s father was in his early teens. “All eight kids were home yet,” Dan tells me of his father, aunts and uncles. “So four neighbors in the area – at that time, you usually had four farms [one farm on each 160-acre plot] – took two kids, and they raised them until they were old enough to be on their own.” My mouth drops. “Nobody went to high school – lucky they went to anything. My father was raised by neighbors.”

“They were able to keep that whole place. I don’t know how they did it,” Faye shakes her head.

Dan’s grandfather moved from Oklahoma and bought that northwestern Iowa farm on which he was tragically killed, where Dan’s father farmed, where Dan grew up and eventually farmed, and where Steve and Chris farm now. It’s been in their family for 100 years.

“Years back it was all plotted out in 160 acre plots to each section. You had a half-mile square, half-mile square, that’s the way most farms were set up. And then some of them were divided into only 80 acres. Years ago, people in this area raised a family just on 80 acres. Every square mile has 640 acres, you know.” I probably knew that at some point, but I am happy Dan is reminding me. “And now we’re gettin’ bigger farmers, but Iowa’s still known for small farmers.”

My parents have a little bit of farm land in western Iowa, where my dad grew up, about 150 miles south of where Dan and Faye are. It’s been in our family for maybe 75 years. We’re not a farming family: my great-grandfather Jacob ran the general store and my grandfather Howard worked in the town bank. My grandmother Muree was a nurse and stewardess on the Union Pacific railroad (I think it’s so cool that she was a working woman in the ’30s and ’40s). My dad graduated with a master’s degree in piano, and after a couple of years teaching at the college level, he’s spent most of his career in the music business. Even though my family didn’t work the land, I grew up hearing my father frequently repeat, “grow beans, grow!”

“We’re getting a lot of investors too. That’s just hurting us,” Faye says.

“How so?” I ask.

“Because the farmers are losing out,” she says. “We make our living on the ground, and then you have these big conglomerates coming in and buying our ground because the stock markets were so bad. They’re investing in land instead of the stock market.”

“Well that’s what wealth does to a country. You know what you get on a CD at the bank – one, one and a quarter percent at the most, you know. And if they’re in a gamblin’ mood, you know, they like to play the stock market.” Dan’s tone is serious. “It is truly the same thing as our cattle and hog commodities. We can buy and sell, and you call it on the board and sell it on paper. We used it as a tool; we were a little bit scared about the market, what we paid for the animal, and whatever got invested in it, with grain and everything. If there’s a profit down over here, then you’re gonna grab it that month and you sell it. And you pick it back up later. We use that all the time.”

I’m fascinated, recognizing how much financial savvy is required in farming.

“You can’t afford the risk anymore. What does a 700-pound calf cost anymore?” Faye asks Dan.

“Just a calf, fresh from the cow, now will cost right at a thousand. A lot of feeder cattle you buy to bring ‘em into a yard, fatten ‘em out for finished product, you can invest anywhere from $1100-$1400 per animal.”

“Was your dad a cattle farmer?” I ask Dan.

“Yes he was. But if we farmed the way he farmed today, we wouldn’t be farming anymore,” Dan says. “All the little fine things, when you feed a few numbers of cattle, you save ten cents here, twenty cents there. That all adds up by the time you got that animal back to market. So you get real sharp on your nutrition, how you’re feeding. Formulate your rations so you get the right combination for the animal. Each day they need so much of nutrients, and you gotta make sure of the ingredients you buy, you gotta analyze that, and whatever that’s short of, then you supplement that.”

I could learn a lot from Dan, and I wish I were able to spend a week on the farm with him to soak it all up. He brightens at an idea. “I can throw her in the car, just drive through the cattle yards and back home again,” he tells Faye. “That takes fifteen minutes.”

“You can’t do anything in fifteen minutes,” Faye says, laughing.

“I could,” Dan protests, laughing too.

“But our boys have changed a lot too, since they started,” Faye adds. “They farm different than we did. And we farmed different than his dad did. [Dan] said there’s nobody gonna see as many changes as he did, ‘cause he farmed with horses.”

“Really?” I ask, as scenes of Michael Landon on a horse-drawn wagon from Little House on the Prairie play in my head.

“When I came home from the service, we still used a team of horses in the cattle yards, and we scooped all the manure by hand. That was in ’59 and ’60. Now we got tractors that you get in ‘em and you don’t even steer. All in one lifetime.” Dan grins.

“My dad actually never gave me no land. He did after he passed away, but we started from scratch. We rented some land that was right in the neighborhood. Our farm was always a livestock farm; my dad always had cattle; I had cattle, hogs. But –” suddenly Dan’s voice breaks as he chokes up.

“Alright, we’re not talkin’ about it anymore,” Faye says, laughing lightly.

I’m not sure what’s going on. I realize that Dan has one of those faces with the same expression, whether he’s laughing or crying. We were just laughing a few minutes ago.

“It got very bad,” he manages, wiping away tears of sadness, not laughter. There’s something about seeing a father figure in distress that instantly brings tears to my eyes.

“We lost everything,” Faye says quietly.

“Oh, my gosh.” My hand reflexively goes to my chest. I’m confused and concerned.

Faye nods, attempting to explain what happened. “I think Nixon put a ceiling on what cattle could bring, and we got to the point that the bank gave us the money to buy our cattle – we had our yards full of cattle – and then they wouldn’t give us the money to feed ‘em. So we went through a pretty, pretty tough time.”

Dan composes himself. “So by that time we had bought two farms – things were goin’ good, you know, but then land kept goin’ up. So the bank could stay with you ‘cause you had equity back here to back it up with, see. But in the ‘80s, the land went down. It was just like pullin’ a light switch. That’s how that went, you know.”

“I don’t understand how that happened,” I say, feeling completely ignorant. Vague memories of Farm Aid come to mind.

“That’s how bad it got,” he says. “See everybody – all the cattle farmers pretty much bellied up. That’s how come Iowa lost its cattle feeding. It all migrated to the Southern states. And all these big cattle yards you drive by – they’re all investors.”

“You want another cup of coffee?” Faye asks me, nonchalantly trying to change the subject, refilling Dan’s iced tea.

“So here I had four sons, and here they wanted to farm so bad –“ Dan chokes up again.

“They did,” Faye steps in for her husband. “Steve went to school study mechanics, and Chris went to Indiana to learn to fix radiators, but they both came back and started farming. They each got a Young Farmer’s loan and bought 200 acres of land.” Their operation is now permitted for 2500 cattle. Steve and Chris have been working together for 35 years – since high school – and have built the farm back into a thriving business.

I’m struck by this family’s passion and resolve to start their farm from scratch after losing everything – after starting it from scratch to begin with. I ask Faye if she knew what she was getting into, before she married a farmer. She laughs. “I was young and stupid! I was a city kid. I didn’t know what a farm was, for crying out loud.”

Susie, Dan and Faye’s youngest and only daughter, stitched this for Dan. She found the poem in a magazine, but the description fits Dan to a tee:

susie's cross stitch for dan | 923 oak, iowa




god bless cindy

The romance of the road trip is over. There will be more open roads in my future, but for now, the work of The 923 Oak Project is mostly comprised of transcribing interview notes. The stories rely heavily on dialogue, so it’s critical to accurately capture the words of the residents. It’s a teeeeedious process, and is right up there with my other least-favorite task for this project: research.

Both of these tasks require patience, which is not what anyone who knows me would call one of my “gifts.” It’s much more fun to work on setting up my little nook of a home office:

923 Oak HQ

Over the past year, and especially during the first week on the road, I spent days tracking down the residents of 923 Oak. Hours and hours and hours of Googling. Emailing. Facebooking. Calling.

It would have been more enjoyable if I’d gotten some wins and connected with people. To be fair, I did connect with several residents. I have about a 12% response rate, which is pretty awesome by direct mail industry standards. But not so awesome in context of my exceedingly high expectations. Some people responded, only to tell me they didn’t live at 923 Oak (which I really appreciated). Most of the people I contacted didn’t respond. Arghh.

I was constantly hitting dead ends, searching for 923 Oak residents — that sense of defeat was the key contributor of the low point on my road trip. I was relieved when Stephen Bloom told me that this phase was the most difficult of the entire project. Validation sure helps keep my chin up. (Feel free to offer words of comfort and encouragement anytime!)

I am taking a break from the research phase — my hands are full with writing the stories from the interviews I’ve completed anyway. But I couldn’t get one particular 923 Oak — what I suspected was a retirement home in New Jersey — out of my mind. Over all this time, I couldn’t make any headway following up via phone or email to see if we could connect, or even if they’d received my letters and postcards. I had a sense — and still do — that this is one 923 Oak worth tracking down. So within a day or two of getting home from the road trip, I fired up Google and uncovered a phone number that I’d never seen before. (Previous phone numbers I’d tried went unanswered with no opportunities to leave a voicemail.)

Someone answered.

Her name was Cindy, and sure enough, she’d received my letters and postcards. This particular 923 Oak is an affordable housing complex for low-income seniors, and Cindy helps run the place.

NINETY PEOPLE LIVE THERE, you guys. Gold mine!

It was a triumph to have finally connected with someone there, and it’s icing on the cake that she sounds like a gem. Here’s an email I received the day after talking with her:

Just read some of your posts and God BLESS your parents for not stealing your car keys and saying ‘no way are you going to see Swift.’  And God Bless him for being a good soul that day and not attacking you.  Sigh.  The world is a pretty amazing place.

Love the idea- can definitely hear an interview with you on NPR.

Thanks for your work on this- I love learning about others’ lives!

After feeling so defeated with my futile efforts at research, Cindy’s note was a beam of light. Thank you, Cindy, for your validation and enthusiasm, and thanks to all of you for your ongoing support and encouragement. It means more than you know.

The world IS a pretty amazing place, tedium and all.

welcome to new jersey #923roadtrip

about faye and dan: 923 oak | iowa (america, the polka and grumpy old men)

“All the ladies at coffee thought I was crazy. They couldn’t believe I was doing this.”

“This” is talking with me. Faye is bustling around the brightly lit kitchen on this Sunday afternoon of spring forward – the annual trade-off of a precious hour of sleep for another hour of sunlight. She was up liFaye's church cookbook + crazy cake recipeterally at the crack of dawn baking rolls for a big church breakfast – which today is actually an hour before the crack of dawn. She’s got roast cooking in one crockpot and potatoes in another, and she’s helping me follow the “crazy cake” recipe from her church cookbook. We’re baking it in my America cake pan; it’s the featured dessert at tonight’s supper.


“Rosilie was going to call me at three and make sure I was okay.”

I look at the clock. It’s past three. “Did you call her?”

“No! ‘Cause I told her that Christine [her daughter-in-law] was coming over, Danny is here, the kids are coming for supper. Don’t worry about me. I said I would worry more being her!” She chuckles. “Her” means me.

There’s an abundance of positive energy, Midwestern pragmatism and good humor packed into Faye’s petite 5’2” frame. You just feel good being around her. She’s got a lightning-fast wit, and you know that nothing gets by her. She’s sharp as a tack and funny to boot.

“Was Dan on board with talking to me, or did you have to talk him into it?”

“Oh, heavens, he thought it was a good idea.” She nods to her husband of fifty years, sitting at the kitchen table. “He trusts everybody. You get in this town, and you just do.”

“We don’t trust people like we used to,” Dan remarks. “But the world makes it that way, you know? How do we change it?”

“I think it’s too late. The drugs and that stuff are taking over the world,” Faye sighs.

Dan looks out the big kitchen windows at the light brown grass dotted with patches of white snow. “The way the world is today, just seems like … you look at poverty, a lot of that comes from the usage of drugs, ‘cause they need money for that. And the good old American doesn’t work like he used to work anymore.”

looking out from 923 oak

Let me tell you, if there’s one thing I’m sure about Dan, Faye and the family members I met, it’s that they are Workers. Dan has farmed his entire 75 years, and when Faye wasn’t busy raising five children, on top of tending to chores, she worked in a factory. She retired a couple years ago after 25 years. Steve and Chris, their two oldest sons, now run the farm, but Dan still meets them there every day. Steve and his family have lived there after Dan and Faye moved two miles away, into “town,” a small Iowa enclave of fewer than 400 residents. This is a family with a deep sense of responsibility toward each other, their church and their community. They don’t spend much time with their feet up.

“America’s still a good country to live in, but I think we’re not as good a country as what we have been,” Dan continues. “I’ll sit here and read the papers, and as you get older, you kinda slow down and think things out a bit. On TV – ‘course I’m not a TV person, she mighta told you that already – I think TV should only work for news, weather and sports.” He winks at me. “Nightline is a good program … they spruce it up to make it interesting. Faye likes to watch Hallmark. It always ends up nice, you know?”

I do know. I like happy endings tied up in nice little bows too.

Faye weighs in from the counter behind Dan. “I bought that Nebraska show, ‘cause I thought it would be so great. And I was very disappointed in it. Vulgar! The mother [character] was supposed to be a slut. She talked dirty. She ruined it.” She shakes her head, clearly concerned about the quality of Best Picture Oscar nominees these days.

“We’ve seen two movies together,” Faye tells me.

“Did you ever see the movie Grumpy Old Men?” Dan nimbly picks up Faye’s ball and runs with it, a move perfected over 50 years and repeated throughout our visit. I shake my head no. He gives me a big grin. “Ahh, hell. You gotta go see that.”

“And Smokey and the Bandit.” Faye chimes in.

Those are the two movies they’ve seen in the theater.



“I’d rather go to a dance and dance,” Dan explains. “But now we’re getting too old for that. We like the polkas and waltzes yet, you know. With the younger generation, it’s the wild stuff – but I try and do that when we dance. When we have weddings and stuff.

“I remember the first time I danced with a girl,” he says with a glint in his eyes. “I was a freshman and we danced the polka. And the girl’s livin’ yet today, but the poor woman, she can hardly get around. We still talk about that when I bump into her. She lives down in the neighboring town.”

He gets back to the topic at hand. “I get very frustrated, and then you lose confidence in your government. It’s sad that I should even say that – you got people in how many countries, they don’t have the freedom to vote, you know. So okay, you don’t really like the way your country is run, then why don’t you run for senator or representative, see what you can do? You almost get to the point of, ‘If I’m a real good person and really concerned about my country, if I get in there, how long am I gonna last? In order to get along with the other guys?’” He is visibly frustrated. “Sooner or later the politics gets into it and just takes over. It’s sad.”

“You know, it’s still a great place to be. We’ve done some traveling now that we’re older, and it’s always good to be back.” Faye plays the role of diplomat a lot, I think.

“We still have a lot of freedom,” Dan agrees.

“Where have you traveled?” I ask them.

“We went to Brazil; we went to Australia and New Zealand,” Dan muses. “We went to Hawaii with a group when we were younger, you know. We did go to Vegas one time – I said everybody’s gotta go there one time just to see how the other side of the world lives.” He smiles. “I don’t care to go back, you know.”

They both light up at the prospect of going back to Alaska, one of their favorite trips.

“Ask him if he’ll ever take me on a cruise,” Faye winks at me. Dan hates the water. I know this because we talked about family vacations to Lake Okoboji when the kids were small. Dan would drive back to the farm, about an hour away, twice a day, to do chores and feed the livestock. Twice a day. On “vacation.” Which didn’t bother him because he didn’t care to spend any time on the lake anyway. (Workers.)

“What if that is her all-time favorite thing to do?” I ask Dan, trying to plead Faye’s case.

“We’re not in the box yet, so maybe it could happen.” Dan grins. Faye whoops, audibly amused.

Faye spots her friend Rosilie outside, casually walking near 923 Oak, likely checking up on things since Faye neglected to call at the designated hour. Faye chuckles. “I’m going to invite her in to meet you,” she says to me, walking outside. I excuse myself to use the restroom, and when I come out, Rosilie is standing with Faye at the kitchen island, admiring our America cake that just came out of the oven. She is also petite, blonde and looks decades younger than her 76 years.

america cake at 923 oak

I walk over to her and smile. “Hi!”

“How are ya?” She surveys me with a smile.

“It’s nice to meet you.” I say. “I’m not an axe murderer!”

“I didn’t know what you were!” Rosilie laughs. We hug. This is a town of huggers, and I’m digging it.

“You’re a brave person to do what you’re doing.” Dan looks at me, and I feel a warm sense of paternal pride. “‘Cause you are exposing yourself to most anything possible. But yet I know you’ll get through it. But you know what? It’ll be a hell of a book, you know.”

almost twilight in iowa