the story
16 min readJul 17, 2021


I found myself at Forest City Inn, in Forest City, Iowa. A town of less than four thousand people, which is pretty big in Midwest terms. The inn seemed nice and not expensive. The host that came out to the counter was an Indian dude. I asked him where he was from to confirm, and he said he was Gujarati. Had gotten somewhere else in the US first, didn’t like it, then lived in Florida for some time. Before he moved on to telling me about the next place, I asked him if he didn’t like Florida — he said he liked it, but then continued saying he moved up to Forest City, Iowa and has been there since, and that he liked it there.

Something that required a lot of time figuring out throughout my whole trip was finding places with wifi where I could sit with my laptop. There was no wifi in many places, and none of the two or three coffee shops in that town had indoor seating. I found this bar called VIP Lounge that had small tables with chairs placed comfortably for someone to sit with a laptop.

I called to make sure they had seating with wifi, and that I could come and work there. As soon as I walked in a nice old woman looked at me and encouragingly said, “you can work here on wifi!”

I sat there with my laptop running online errands. I had two Budweisers. I hate beer, but turns out in Midwest such places don’t serve coffee, let alone decaf, and I never risk asking for any wine because they may actually bring out something and I know it would be terrible — I’d tried already. So, beer was my only option. I had beer, ran errands online, and listened to the whole bar talk to each other on one topic or another with people talking about one thing at a time and discussing together. Occasionally loud topics would quiet down, and everyone would continue more quietly with those at their own table. I never shied away from turning to look and listen to a great or important story someone had to tell, like that one guy who was doing very well either with his retirement, or his work, or something else, until he suddenly got knocked down by coronavirus. It had made him spend 19 days in a hospital, that must have cost a lot. And after he got out, he fell down and broke a rib. He said the last one was “because of his own stupid.” Someone asked his wife (I assume) sitting with him at the table what was happening with her retirement plans, and something about her retiring unexpectedly soon. She said she was expecting to retire but not so soon. But then she got an email telling her that her services were no longer needed, and it meant for her that she would initiate her retirement then.

In the very beginning there seemed to be a handicapped man in a company of two or three people having drinks. I assumed they were part of a family. By the time I changed my tables to be at the bar, the other men were gone.

Then an old patron, Larry — his name I would learn later — told a story I could not quite hear because the bartender turned on something that made a dishwasher sound — I assume to wash glasses — and Larry was sitting facing the other way. But I understood that when he was in school — he had grown up and lived his entire life in that small town of Forest City, Iowa, so most of his stories had happened there — someone in his school times got pushed out of either the school board or a similar important role for doing seemingly nothing wrong. I didn’t get to hear the story, there was too much noise.

The owner of the bar who was also doing the bartending and serving the food… — actually she was the owner’s daughter, and her name was Teya. Her mom had founded that bar 42 years ago and was ready to hand the ownership of that bar to her daughter, and Teya was very excited about it.

Teya came up to me from across the bar and handed me a chip that had on it “good for one drink,” and said, “this is a free drink from that man over there,” and pointed to Larry. I said thank you, Larry was sitting facing the other way, so he half-turned around to acknowledge it. “Sir, would you like anything?” I said loudly enough for the man to hear me well. He half-turned again and thanked me for the offer, and said he was fine.

After that I had another free drink, from Teya’s husband who bought a free drink to everyone at the bar — about 5–6 people, and, on a side note, it cost him $20.50.

We were in Forest City, Iowa.

After my first free drink I somehow began talking to the guy who had broken the rib and gotten the coronavirus. I asked them what places to see there were in Forest City. They mentioned the tower, the same one I heard at Sally’s. I said I had heard of it and that I knew it was the second tallest tower in whole Iowa. I said I would have to see it.

It was three beers in that I felt I wouldn’t be able to have the fourth one by using up the free-drink chip. I asked Teya for the bill and asked her to give my chip to Larry and add one drink for everyone else in that bar to that bill. She took my chip and moved towards Larry. Larry was engaged in a conversation with two other men, maybe twenty years younger than him, and was facing the opposite direction from me. Teya got his attention and said “that gentleman bought you a drink.” “Oh thanks” said Larry, this time turning more than halfway and moving his chair to sit more towards me. And then with an upbeat tone, “so what brings you here?”

I said that I had gone to college in Austin, Minnesota when I was nineteen, and that I had now come back to meet up with my college friends after thirteen years but was also travelling throughout Midwest stopping in small towns. We started talking.

I told him my story. About my move to this country and my divorce. How we were best friends again and still a family.

Larry, after getting his undergraduate degree in something what I think today is called mechanical engineering, immediately started working for the Ford Motor Company. From what I remember, the company had a big part in his overall career but after working there for the first few years he left the job and started teaching. “Teaching where?” I said. “Kids,” he said. He shared how fulfilling it was to explain the nitty gritty details of mechanical reactions and motions to kids, — and kids, he said, were zealous in their wanting to learn. “You feel a lot of fulfillment at the end of a day,” Larry said. And when he said that, I could see his eyes shine the memories of fulfillment from doing that in the past.

At one point he said “I don’t like where this country is headed right now.” In big liberal cities for the entire Trump presidency until Biden’s election by saying the same phrase people were implying that all the bad things were on the rise and openly so for being personally influenced by the President from the top. To my question what exactly he meant he brought up conservative fiscal values and mentioned that in the younger generation there are a lot of people who don’t want to work, and that the country is moving towards socialism. When stepping into this topic, Larry said something about “uncontrolled immigration,” to what I thought ‘oh boy, here we go’, but I was curious. No rant came out of it; he was talking about the idea of encouraging uncontrolled immigration, then placing the newcomers on government subsidies, and creating this dependency. That, Larry said, was in the interest of big government, because making people more and more dependent on it leads to a greater chance that things could be influenced and achieved through that apparatus.

I only half agree with one of those views but agree fully with the other. I shared with Larry my hypothetical example of how something could potentially be made a dependency. “Manhattan has a lot of subway stations. And many stations do not have elevators, and getting someone help carry a baby stroller down or up the stairs must be much harder in New York City than anywhere else in the world. Imagine that on every station that doesn’t have an elevator the city starts to employ people to carry strollers and other things up and down the stairs. Imagine that this is enforced for five years. After five years, if you try to take that away, people will protest. There will be promoted stories about this one single mother that needed to get somewhere on time but was with a baby in a stroller, and there was no one to help her carry it up, and they would say you are evil for wanting to remove that government expense item. Once people get used to it, you can’t remove it.” My example made Larry smile. I gave him an example of how in New Jersey it is illegal to put gas in your own car; you can’t touch the nozzle. Gas stations must employ people that refuel for you.

I don’t remember what we were talking about around the time I told him about the founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, and how his perception of the goal of an enterprise is not to maximize shareholder value but to maximize the entire stakeholder value. I told him how Ulukaya gave a certain part of the company’s equity to his employees. Larry was agreeing it was a kind gesture but said with somewhat of a polite excuse in his look that those were not the values this country was built on, softly tapping with an index finger on the table. I begged to differ, “it was built on choice! If you’re a shareholder who believes those same ideals, you will invest in companies that have those ideals, and if you believe that the shareholder value should be maximized, then you will invest in companies that maximize shareholder value.” Larry said what he meant was that someone who was very young and had just gotten there would receive something free — and that practice per se is not for the benefit of anyone. He said there is never a free meal and if you’re getting something at no cost to you, it means it’s costing someone else in a certain way. I agreed with that and thought worthwhile to note that those at Chobani received shares aligned with their years of service.

I then asked him what he thought could reverse the direction where he said the country was headed. He said he didn’t see a solution and hypothesized that it would eventually lead the country to collapse, and said it with an absolute calm on his face as if implying that this was the only probable outcome.

When I continued with, “so you’re saying there is no solution to that,” he stopped me and said, “I didn’t say there is no solution, I said I just don’t have the answer.”

During this whole time Teya sometimes listened and a couple of times chimed in a conversation with us. And until they left earlier, Teya’s husband was sitting at the bar, having beer and talking to a younger guy at the same table with him; the tables were put alongside the bar to make it feel as if the person is sitting at a bar but also as to comply with an Iowa rule that people could not be seated at a bar since it makes the virus’ spread faster and among people more than within separate groups of people seated at tables. So we were officially sitting at tables, not at a bar.

Larry told me a story about a town somewhere in Iowa, with a community of fifteen hundred, that hosted German prisoners during the WW2. Whatever they were treated like, it was at least good enough for some of them after the war to want to stay and receive American citizenship.

Then Larry told me about Teya’s daughters. He pointed to a photo of two teenage girls on the clock and said those were her daughters. I was curious to see their photo. He then said that they had died in a car accident three or four years ago. I was stunned. Larry then, looking at the photo that was more visible from his angle, said slightly nodding, that it was a great tragedy. This whole time I couldn’t see Teya at the bar and her husband was sitting at the same spot. I wondered what he thought about Larry bringing this up. I didn’t know whether he was the father, though. I assumed he wasn’t because he took no place in any of Larry’s stories, even those that included Teya. This was the first time for the whole couple of hours of knowing the man that I thought maybe Larry was being unaware of his surroundings at that moment — after what I remember to be five glasses of whiskey throughout the few hours I was there — by bringing up, with no other noise or music at the bar, something that could have probably required a lot of effort to forget.

Larry was 74 and had up to five glasses of whiskey throughout the past couple of hours. But still I was not able to tell, so I thought maybe it was whiskey.

I said I was sorry and that it was a terrible tragedy. Then Teya joined us. I remember her leaning at the bar from her side and looking at Larry, and saying that she would be the last person in her family to own this bar, because she had intended to pass it over to her daughters, but now that they were gone, Teya would be the last one to have it, and she wanted that bar to become an even greater place while she had it.

I remember first talking to Teya about something besides my orders by asking her across the bar whether the quote on the wall that said “Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to own a bar. That was me. The end.” was about her. She said “oh no, that is my mother!” Her mom, 42 years after founding this bar, still owned it, and was about to pass its ownership down to her daughter.

Whenever I again think about the pride of small business ownership, this will be it.

Larry helped dig the ground behind the bar (I do not know what that means) those 42 years ago and has been a patron since then. Larry had known Teya’s mother for most part of their lives.

The way Teya talked about her daughters right after Larry had brought them up left me amazed. Her strength amazed me. I thought earlier this would have been a hard thing to forget but Teya never did. She accepted it.

This also made it clear that Larry had never lost the sight of his surroundings. Not even after five glasses of whiskey within two hours.

Teya was going to own the bar within a year and couldn’t wait for it. When the crowd was there, after she responded to my question, they joked about her husband getting fringe benefits, and he joked back that there were no fringe benefits for him and, pointing to the other guy, “you’re getting fringe benefit from your wife as an accountant!” The other guy just chuckled with no sense of even thinking of apologizing for that. That crowd was there in the beginning. Later, it was just I, Larry, Teya, and Teya’s husband until he left earlier and only three of us were left in the bar.

She told me she would totally renovate the place when she gets it. She said her mother first needed to renew the liquor license and then she would have it. I do not remember the entire timeline but with the renovations Teya said in January of 2022 she would have it completely new. I said I would have to come visit in more than a year to see that. When I said it, I thought to myself that it could actually be fun to come back there in a year and see how renovated the place was. I thought also that it would require a lot of logistical commitment, and seemed like something maybe not as much prioritized.

The bar’s ceiling, just as that of Benny’s, was pinned with dollars that had people’s names and notes on them. Someone had pinned up a five dollar bill and someone did that with a twenty dollar bill. I thought I would rather leave those twenty dollars as a tip than pin them up the ceiling. Teya said they were joking that this was her retirement plan.

I said I would like to leave a dollar too. I took a dollar bill and wrote on it with a black sharpie Teya handed me; she couldn’t find it initially, then found the whole pack. I explained to Teya what my name meant and she asked me to write it down on the other side of that dollar bill because, she said, when they take down those dollars some day she would like to see what people wrote. Larry asked what I wrote. I read it: “name lastname 12.07.2020 Great bar. Amazing people.”

We talked about DNA testing and ancestry — Teya had been adopted, so she doesn’t know. She shared her adopted family’s lastname and I said it was something East European and Jewish. Larry nodded.

I said I was one percent Japanese. Larry asked how we knew they weren’t lying. I said there would be no other way for them to openly learn that I had ‘Persia/Iran’ and ‘Turkey and Caucausus’ in my DNA, because I hadn’t filled out any questionnaires.

Later I thought I should have also given Larry the example of Theranos and how they went bust for lying, and that the two big DNA sequencing companies have been in business for nearly a decade now. This would be one example where the government is doing what it is intended to do and is useful. But I didn’t remember this while talking to Larry.

I remember he once mentioned the word “greed.” I shared a quote from a movie where Gordon Gekko’s character says “greed, for the sake of a better word, is not bad” and said that a little bit of greed is what moves progress. Larry noted that there is a distinction between greed and a desire to be better. Greed is the willingness to get more at the expense of others. It was a precise distinction, I agreed with it.

I told Larry that I was divorced. We talked about family life and how important it is for divorced parents to look in the same direction when it comes to raising their kids. The same person who started our first discussion by mentioning uncontrolled immigration advised to me at the end that, although he said he didn’t know my circumstances, from what he already knew, if he were me, he would try to convince the ex-wife, the daughter’s mom, to stay in this country. That way the daughter will not be torn apart between wanting to be with one versus the other parent.

Larry talked about his life. “I am divorced too,” he started. “My wife left me for another man” he said. “But I was too engaged with my work that I didn’t pay attention to important things in my life. I understood it too late and this is the aspect of my life in which I’ve failed.” These were Larry’s precise words to the best of my memory. From what I understood his wife left him when their daughter was just born, so the daughter grew up and lived with her mom and stepdad for 16 years, before her mom left him too. When talking about the other man Larry was very respectful, and said, “he is a great guy and I’ve known him for many years.” And whenever he would talk about his ex-wife, he was as respectful.

Larry had had a successful career and was well off. He paid for his daughter’s college. The money that he gave her for college ended one month before her graduation. And her stepdad stepped in and paid for the last month of her college. Her stepdad, from what I inferred, was comparatively not as well off financially. To this story I had to say that there are many good people around. Larry nodded approvingly and said there are.

Larry would often say, “I was very lucky.”

Larry startled me with his education, awareness, and him being very well informed. He accepted arguments that made sense after discussing different views and ideas, and enjoyed having a discussion about different topics. And he had a perfectly clear mind despite finishing five or six, if not more, whisky glasses throughout the whole evening there.

Misal — Nizami — ipek yolunda yashadigina gore — bayira chixmadigina baxmayaraq chox savadli ve bize deyilenlere gore elmi (shishirtme ile tebii ki, onu alim de adlandirirlar edebiyyatda — shair and felsefi dushuncesi olan chox bilikli adam ve ayrica alim ferqli sheylerdir. Forest City in Iowa is no silk road destination. But that 74 year old Larry was that Nizami. Hadn’t lived around but was very well informed and educated.

I finished doing my chores on my laptop, put it into my backpack (which I was wearing when I walked in before an old lady told me yes you can work on wifi — that woman I didn’t see much that night), I took that and my beer, and sat at the next table closer to the center and right next to a bar. There is some rule in the state of Iowa about restaurants and bars not sitting people at the bar — only at a table — so what the restaurants would do is put those tables right next to the bar have people sit at them. Those in small towns of around 500–600 people never implemented that and there was nobody to enforce it there. Bigger towns and Des Moines had to comply with that rule. Except for one cool bar I stumbled upon where everyone was comfortably seating at the bar and not giving a single flying f about that rule.

I would later think that when I thought coming back to this bar in more than a year from now to see renovations would not be a priority because it would require a lot of effort, I was wrong. It can just be something constant. It may not have to wait for more than a year or it may also happen once every few years. But it would be constant because such connections matter to me and I want to have them in my life. This trip made me realize there are no borders. They were all in my head. If in pre-pandemic times it took me more than an hour to get to work one way through Manhattan, that was ten hours per week of my time I was willing to give away — every week and all weeks — on my commute alone. That is more than the three to eight hours it will take me to fly to a different place or a country or a continent, and back, with no major commitments, and the ticket price, not even rent, being the only odd thing in my expense graph. Being in a different country doesn’t mean I have to spend as a tourist. Doing it as a local is kind of a must. And now I will be going on that trip maybe once every few years to meet up with the same people. Two days off from a regular week with added two days from a weekend is four days to do that and come back, and I will occasionally want it to be done.

I never went to that tall tower famous in all Iowa. But I got an amazing sense and a memorable impression of Forest City, Iowa, from its very own people. Throughout this entire trip, I met a lot of kind people who seemed sincere to me. One pattern that absolutely stood out was people’s strong willingness to take responsibilities for their own actions and own up to everything that happens to them in their lives.



the story