It was about half past two on a Wednesday afternoon. I had been sitting in a booth at Scooter’s Coffee Shop for nearly 30 minutes and still the man I was supposed to meet hadn’t shown up. He was supposed to tell me about a little-known Siouxland organization and wanted to know if I would be interested in joining. We met when we were both filling our cars up with gas at a local convenience store. Once he found out that I was retired and wrote a blog, he became even more interested in me and suggested that I could help them publicize the group to a wider population than they’d been able to so far. I’d already had two cups of strong specialty coffee and my stomach was growling. I ordered a cinnamon roll from the worker at the counter and waited while she warmed it up.
Sitting down again I began taking an inventory of the clientele at the coffee shop that afternoon. There were two high school girls studying in one of the booths. Two women, one with a briefcase full of cosmetics open out on a table and a half-dozen brochures in front of her. She was explaining to the other woman how easy it would be for her to make $500 a week selling mascara and eyeliner to just her friends. At the big table in the back sat five people – three women and two men – who appeared to be having a meeting of some kind. I walked by them earlier on the way to the bathroom and overheard them talking about a church committee they were on. They each had a laptop computer opened in front of them. I was willing to bet the two men were looking at porn movies.
I heard the front door buzz as it opened and in walked a curious looking gent of about 50. He was quite overweight – maybe weighing close to 300 pounds if I were to guess. He had on light brown chinos, boat shoes and a bright green knit golf shirt that stretched tightly across his stomach and shoulders. He was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, had wire-rimmed glasses on and looked around the coffee shop quickly. Our eyes met and he nodded at me. I guess he was the fellow I was supposed to be meeting a half hour ago. The man stopped by the counter and placed his order then waited for the counter person to make his double latte whatever. Meanwhile his eyes darted around the establishment some more, as if he were casing the joint or looking for cops who might have a warrant for his arrest. His forehead looked shiny in the glare of the counter lights. I soon learned when he got closer to the booth I was in that it was sweat. I noticed that not only was his forehead sweating, but so were his armpits. His golf shirt had dark stains under the arms. His shirt was soaked with sweat in front, too. He looked like he’d been in a sauna. Only he couldn’t have. It was just after New Years and the temperature here in Sioux City wasn’t supposed to get any higher than minus 5 today and tomorrow. I took a deep breath and held out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand with a moist, warm paw and shook it up and down. “Glad to meet you,” he said. “I’m Julius Troutburn, at your service.” We talked for a bit and Julius, or “JT” which is what he preferred to be called, began to talk about his organization.
“What’s it called again?” I asked. “Dance-a” or something like that?”
JT eyed me suspiciously as if I had talked about sacrificing kittens or something equally heinous.
“No,” he said slowly. “It’s Denssa. Pronounced Denssss-ahhh,” he said making the first syllable stretch out and sound like the hissing of a snake.
“Okay,” I agreed. “Denssss-ahhh,”, mimicking the large, sweaty man sitting across the table from me. Actually, I was thinking to myself that I didn’t want to piss this guy off, what with his beady, darting eyes and profusely sweating abdomen. He could be ready to explode and start hacking me and the church committee members to death with a machete I was worried he might be carrying somewhere on him. That’s probably why he was sweating so much. The machete in his pants was uncomfortable and causing his underwear to bind up. And now that I looked more closely at him, I thought I could detect a slight twitch in his right eye. But then JT smiled with a grin as wide as the Missouri River, sighed, and began to educate me again about Denssa.
“It was 2002,” he said. “Gateway Computers had moved out and the Sioux City Stockyards was closed. People in town were depressed. I mean really depressed . . . especially after the stockyards closed! It was as if we’d lost our meaning in life. There was no direction. No purpose. We’d lost our joi de vivre.”
JT’s shoulders were sort of hunched over and his head was down as he related those sad moments in Sioux City’s recent past. At that moment the big man looked like he was going to tear up. I felt sort of sorry for him. But just then, he lurched straight back against the booth wall, with his head rocketing up and he snorted. I mean he snorted . . . really loud. Even the church people glanced over our way.
Then he continued. “But those of us who inhabit this burg; those of us who people in Sioux Falls laugh and make jokes about us not being able to read; well, we’ve got pride. We could rebound a group of us thought. After all, didn’t Sioux City have a corn palace before Mitchell, South Dakota even dreamed of it? Of course, it did. Even if we only had the corn palace for four years. It took gumption, promotion, cojones.”
“Sooo, it sounds like that was the motivation you needed to start Denssa?,” I asked. “In 2002?”
“Oh, hell no,” JT roared. This caused the two high school girls to move a couple of booths down closer to the door. “We never got started until last year!”
“Last year?” I wondered. “Why didn’t you start it back in 2002 when the Stockyards Closed?”
“Oh, I couldn’t. I’d picked up my third DUI and that, combined with a possession of meth with intent to deliver charge got me sent to prison.”
“Really?” I asked skeptically.
“Yup.” Stated the big guy. “I’m going to get off paper pretty soon. This summer, I hope. Then maybe I’ll get my driver’s license back.”
“You don’t have your driver’s license and can’t drive? How do you get around? Take the bus?”
“Nah, I ride my bike,” he said pointing with his chin out the coffee house window to a beat-up ten-speed laying on its side in the handicapped parking spot.”
“Wow. So, tell me, JT, who are your members. I mean, what do you require for someone to be able to join Denssa?
“Well, we’ve got some pretty tough requirements,” he said. “Really stringent rules.”
“Really?” I asked. I began thinking there must be more to this guy than meets the eye.
“Really. First of all, a prospective member has to be able to fog a mirror.” He sat there with a smirk on his face waiting to see how I’d react.
“Hmmm,” I replied.
“Then we check his or her background. We want to know that the applicant comes from good stock. Then there’s the test.”
“A test? What kind of test?” I was getting pretty interested again.
“You can take it today if you want. I mean, I can administer it right here,” JT said with a gleam in his eye.
I readily agreed to take the test. I knew I was up for the challenge.
JT pulled out a folded-up sheet of notebook paper and borrowed a pen from the coffee shop cashier’s station. He pushed the paper and pen across the table towards me. “Here’s your testing material. I’ll tell you what the questions are. You can write them down.”
“How many questions are there?” I asked.
“Just two,” he said. “Ready?”
I nodded my head affirmatively.
“Question one is, What’s the opposite of a tree? Question two is, Why are manhole covers round?”
I quick wrote them down on my paper. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” the sweaty man said. “You have 15 minutes to complete the exam.”
Well, I knew why manhole covers were round. It’s so they won’t fall into manholes. If they were square or rectangular or triangle-shaped, they would fall into the holes. I learned that in a book by Malcolm Gladwell that I’d read. But it was the first question that stumped me. I stared at the page for 14 minutes, then wrote “a car.”
JT looked at my answer sheet and exclaimed, “Wow! A perfect exam! You got them both right.”
“Really I wasn’t sure you’d get the second one correct, because that’s the only one I knew the answer to,” he said with a silly grin on his face. “It doesn’t matter what you put down for the first question, any answer is correct!” You didn’t expect any group who had as their first standard of membership an ability to fog a mirror as going to be really difficult to join, do you?”
“Not really, I guess,” I said sheepishly.
“What this says is that you have around an average IQ – which is just perfect for Denssa!”
“Golly,” I said sarcastically. But JT didn’t pick up on it. He was bounding up to the counter and ordering two large chocolate chip cookies for us.
“A little celebration snack,” JT said.
I asked how many members there were in the Siouxland Denssa group. He told me that if the weather was good and if nobody had a meeting scheduled with their probation or parole officer, there were around 10 who attended out of a total membership of 16. He said they meet in various locations around the area as they don’t have a permanent meeting site. I wondered what the group did in their meetings.
“Oh the usual,” he said. “We have old business and new business to discuss. Sometimes we have a guest speaker – usually someone who we think exemplifies our humdrum ideals, who is really mediocre and who might know a simple joke or two. In the past we’ve had a couple of the Woodbury County Commissioners, the city manager of South Sioux City, the president of Western Iowa Tech, the new executive director of the Sioux City Symphony. He was great – dumb as a rope, too. And speaking of dumb . . . we even had Congressman Steve King come speak last year. Boy, he was a hoot! He wore his KKK hood and robe to our meeting. Then afterwards he led us in burning a cross out along the riverfront. “
“Sounds . . . intellectually stimulating, I guess.”
“Not really,” JT said. “But if somebody’s got a gimmick and a joke or two, we’re all over it!”
It was getting on toward 4:00 p.m. and JT kept looking at his watch. He said he needed to meet some of his Denssa buddies downtown in about 15 minutes. I offered to give him a ride if we could get his bike into the trunk of my car. So we crammed his bike into the trunk with the front wheel sticking out. I had some rope in the car which I used to secure the trunk to the latch so the bicycle wouldn’t bounce out. Then away we went, headed for downtown Sioux City.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To the bus depot.” JT responded.
“You mean the MLK Transportation Center? Why there? Are you guys going to catch a bus home?”
“No way, man! Every other Wednesday the transit system director has us come down there and lets us announce where the busses are going,” he said proudly. “Then, if we time it right, we’re able to be there when the big bus from Kansas City and Omaha comes in to pick up passengers for Sioux Falls and Minneapolis.”
“Wow. Sounds like. A lotta. Fun.”
“Oh, it is,” JT gushed. And then afterwards . . . afterwards we have knock-knock and Norwegian joke telling contests. You should stay. I could introduce you to some of the crew. There’s Elmer and Lenny and Side Pocket Sally and . . . “
“No thanks, JT,” I said. “I’ve got to get groceries and pick up the missus at work. Maybe another time. But I’ll be sure to mention Denssa in my blog.”
“Allright, I guess,” the large, still sweaty man said. “You don’t know what your missing.”
I pulled up outside of the transportation center and helped JT get his bike out. We said our goodbyes and he pushed his ten speed
toward the transportation center door. I closed the trunk and started to get in the car when I heard of voice cry out, “Hey, JT! How’s it hanging, man? I got one for you. Knock-knock.
“Who’s there?” JT said laughing.
“Iva sore hand from knocking!”
Both were laughing uproariously as I slowly pulled away from the curb in front of the bus depot. I was already thinking of some knock-knock jokes that I knew.