Books and Bernie
By Joe Weeg, a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office for the last 31 years, now retired and writing a weekly column for Cityview called Joe’s Neighborhood.
Hushed voices float up the few stairs to the cafe where large windows look out onto the wintry parking lot and the newly built Chic-fil-A. Concrete and January. The two seem to belong together. The acrid smell of coffee tickles the back of your throat as you wait in line. Row after row of books and magazines and calendars and games are spread out below. The books are the draw. And the crowd is affected by their presence. Perhaps Sister Mary Marla is watching to make sure everyone is behaving. Perhaps not. Although everyone keeps their voices hushed on the off chance.
Nathan Luethje works the cafe inside Barnes and Nobles on University Avenue in West Des Moines. Smiling slowly. Laughing softly. Talking gently. Every customer is greeted. Everyone is chatted up. Everyone is welcome. He moves from food to coffee to the cash register, keeping a steady rhythm. A low hum of efficiency.
“Luethje. It sounds Italian. It’s not. It’s Lithuanian or German depending on who you talk to in my family. I am 35. Born in 1980 here in Des Moines. Moved all over the country, but kept coming back.”
Luethje provides the bare essentials. The milk for cappuccinos is frothed and cookies are warmed.
“I wasn’t so into high school. I was a rough teenager. I got my GED. I since went on and got an associates degree.”
And now he works as a barista at Barnes and Nobles.
“It doesn’t cause me much stress. I made eye glasses for a decade. And was a volunteer firefighter for three years. I’ve lived in Indianola for 15 years now. I started a family. I have a wife and I have six children.”
What? Six children?
“My oldest is 16, and my youngest will be one in a month. We make it work between my wife and myself. Make a middle class living. I really like books, and I enjoy working with coffee. I’m not getting rich, but it’s enough.”
So it is. And the caucuses?
“Politically, I’ve voted more right wing than left. I’m a registered Libertarian. But the candidate I like the most is a socialist. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I have caucused in the past. I may this time. But I would have to switch my affiliation. Although I kind of like Bernie. I’m not a party-ticket guy. I believe in people. It comes down to people and how they act.”
And your customers at the cafe?
“I’d say a good portion of our customers are caucus-goers. They all have opinions and appear active in the world. They are not apat
And your joy?
“I like to hold books. I like to look at books. I like the smell of books. I prefer classics. I’m one of the few people I know who’s read the Sagas of the Icelanders. All of them. I just read the Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. It was good. Except for the bestiality. That was kind of weird. But it was a good book.”
“I’m reading George Orwell’s 1984. One of those I missed in not doing high school.”
The book store cafe has a sudden run of customers. Back to work Luethje must go.
“Two grande lattes please.”
And that’s all the opening Luethje needs to start the conversation.
“How are you doing with the cold?” he smiles at the bundled-up customer. And they’re off and running.
Mmmm . . . a Bernie Sanders supporter and a lover of books. Perhaps those two also belong together this time of year.