Fountain Follies

It was hard to explain to Mom that the fountain was gone. Anyone who doesn't live in Iowa City has an even harder time understanding it than we do. "It was so nice," she said. "It was a silly design, but it was nice and the kids played in it. It was the best thing downtown!"

The Three Women Pissing Fountain was indeed the main feature of Iowa City's downtown plaza for about fifteen years. It had another name, I'm sure. But everyone usually referred to it as simply "the fountain", or if pressed, "The Three Women Pissing", because that is what it looked like. Three squatting arches streamed water from their centers onto a pyramid of bricks. Tots could splash around at the bottom, and the brick pyramid was an easy climb for older kids and drunks. All during the spring, summer, and fall, someone was almost always in that fountain.

I heard that the fountain was not designed to be interactive, which was probably true. For sure, the designer must have been childless, because anyone with kids would have made it safer for climbing. The ledges of the pyramid were extremely narrow, and there was nothing to hold on to except more narrow bricks with water running over them. I never heard about anyone getting seriously injured on the fountain, but I saw many parents suffer near-heart-attacks when they noticed their toddlers halfway up the pyramid.

Any six-year-old could have redesigned the fountain to make it safer: widen the steps, make them out of rubber, put up railings. But our civic leaders never figured it out. Once a few years ago, they actually took apart the fountain, cleaned the bricks, and put them back exactly as they were! I suppose that some artist was paid good money to design the fountain, and any modifications, such as making it safer, would have violated some contract.

"But everybody liked the fountain," my mother said, "didn't they?"

Well, I never heard anyone say that they disliked the fountain. Occasional complaints were voiced about its unsafe design, but everyone played in it anyway. It forced parents spend quality time with their children. You had to climb into the fountain with them to make sure they were safe.

But somewhere in Civic-Never-Never-Land, it was decided that the fountain had to go. What Iowa City needed was a newer, safer (and presumably more insurable) downtown fountain. In a town overflowing with artists and engineers, you'd think we could have had a local contest to come up with a new fountain design. But no, we had to pay big backs to get a big-name artist from a big city. The design that was chosen, to the tune of a quarter-million dollars, was something called "Weatherdance". I saw it in the newspaper, and it looked OK. It was supposed to somehow represent Iowa's weather*, and it had some sort of archway of water that looked like fun. I could not see how it could cost more than a few thousand dollars, but then, I'm not an artist.

So in the spring of 1999, the same year the MegaMall Of The Universe opened up in nearby Coralville, our city fathers and mothers turned the downtown area into a construction zone. Just in case there were any shoppers left downtown. I felt a bit sad when I saw that the old fountain was gone. But I looked forward to seeing the new fountain. It would be fun; at least it would be safer. And it would not look like three women pissing.

"So what's the new fountain like?" my mother wanted to know.

Well, it's hard to say.

"How come?"

Well, because it's not really there.

"What do you mean, it's not really there?" My mother thinks I've been smoking too much pot.

Well, Mom, it's there, but it's all sort of underground.

"Uh huh. I see......"

She doesn't. I don't see it either. All summer long, big men with big machines moved earth and cement and bricks all around the plaza. But they never built anything. Even after it was all done, I still didn't see anything. The new fountain was to be unveiled in a special ceremony. Was it going to rise up from the ground? Or materialize from the air?

On that special day, I was downtown with my kids. Everyone walked around looking for the fountain. The ground bricks were arranged in interesting patterns and there were some scribblings in the cement. Clouds. I remember seeing clouds drawn on one section. Could this represent the clouds over Iowa? Hmmm......

The day wore on; the kids were hot and tired; and we had things to do. So we went home before the unveiling of the fountain. An hour or so later, a friend walked by our house from downtown. "Hey, Skylar!" we called. "Did ya see the new fountain? What's it look like?"

"Six guys pissing!" was the answer.

Yes, Mom, I'm afraid that is what it looks like. There isn't any visible structure, just water shooting out from six holes in the ground. The water forms six arches, or it gets blown around in the wind. It looks like six guys lying on their backs, pissing into the air. Only there's no guys.

"But I don't get it," my mother says. "You mean there's no actual fountain?"

No. If it's not turned on, you could walk right through it and not know it's there. And, in fact, it's not on very much.

"Why not?"

Well, there's two reasons. First, they had to shut it off for a while because they forgot to put in a drainage system.

"You're kidding!"

Nope. That's what it said in the paper. And then after they fixed that, it's still off most of the time. You see, the fountain, or more accurately the hoses, have a high tech timer which automatically shuts off the water when it gets too windy. If the designer had been from Iowa, or had even spent much time hanging around downtown Iowa City, he would have known that it's usually pretty damn windy here.

"So let me get this straight," Mom says. "You have a fountain that's not really a fountain, because there's nothing there except what's underground. And the water that squirts up from underground is usually shut off because it's too windy, in which case there is nothing there at all."

Exactly. But there are some drawings on the cement. Nature drawings.

"I see. And how much did you say this cost?"

A quarter of a million dollars.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding!! How can that cost a quarter million dollars?!"

I think this is what they call performance art, Mom. One performance was the artist convincing people that there is an actual fountain, or an illusion of a fountain. Another performance piece was talking a roomful of people into giving him oodles of money for drawing on cement and sticking six hoses under the ground.

"Well, I'll miss the fountain when I come to Iowa City. It was so nice."

I'll miss the fountain too, Mom. I met my wife there. All of our kids played in that fountain over the years.

But occasionally now, when walking downtown on an especially calm summer evening, we will be treated to the spectacle of Six Men Pissing In The Wind.

*People outside of Iowa think that the only thing Iowans talk about is the weather. They're right.

Pictures from the Iowa City Public Library historical archive and the Iowa City Downtown District.