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  Field Notes From
ZipUSA: Ames, Iowa



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On Assignment
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From Author

Hillel J. Hoffmann


On Assignment

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From Photographer

Scott Houston



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Scott Houston
 

On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
ZipUSA: Ames, Iowa

Field Notes From Author

Hillel J. Hoffmann
Best Worst Quirkiest
On most assignments, you try to make yourself invisible. That’s not easy when you’re dealing with students. Kids can sniff out the uncool with merciless efficiency. At 39, I’m among the youngest writers on the staff. But that makes me more than twice the age of a typical college freshman. I needn’t have worried. The guys in my dormitory were great. Yeah, they pegged me and Scott Houston, the photographer, as outsiders right away, but they welcomed us as their own. That means we got the same fusillade of cursing and the same relentless teasing about our manhood that any guy could expect. I loved it. Behind all the tattoos and the piercings, these kids were plain nice. It’s a cliché: Folks in the Midwest are nice, pleasant, polite. But it’s true. When Kyle Snyder, a freshman, went home for the weekend, his mother gave him a care package full of food and goodies to take back to the dorm. Except it wasn’t for Kyle. It was for me and Scott. Now that’s nice!

I arrived in the dorms September 10, 2001. The next morning I walked the halls on a scouting mission, looking into as many rooms as I could. It didn’t hit me right away, but something felt wrong. It was too quiet. No music—just the sound of TV news anchors. I walked into one student’s room and saw the same thing every American saw: Airplanes hitting buildings. I walked from room to room and tried to take a few notes. Then I heard a report that Washington was under attack, and the Capitol might have been hit. My home is about seven blocks from the Capitol and, although I was comforted by the knowledge that my wife and baby son were out of town, I panicked. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t work. I reached my wife by phone, but I couldn’t get through to my relatives in New York. I spent most of the rest of the day wandering the halls.

Behind the front door of all the dorm rooms in 50012, there’s an orange sticker instructing occupants how to seek shelter from tornadoes. There’s no advice about seeking shelter from heavy metal music. I heard industrial metal, death metal, alternative metal, black metal, thrash metal, speed metal, rap metal, you name it. All day. All night. I’ve heard my colleagues complain about parasitic worms, poisonous snakes, and violent mobs, but I think I might be able to top them now.



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