Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Travelogue 28 -- July 28

So Troy and I are playing an innocent game of chess at Hootenanny's when they come bursting in, swaying and shouting by the dozens. It's not a big bar, and they pack the place. We are annoyed -- first, because they've completely blocked access to the bar just when we're ready for another round of gin and tonics, and secondly, because they have raised the ambient noise levels beyond the norm, which is TV static and drunken screeches around the pool table. Even on a Saturday night, Hootenanny's is never crowded. You've got your regular Northeast Minneapolis types, guys with primitive needs and primitive humor, women with scratchy bar voices and cackling laughter to cool men's blood. But Northeast is famous for its bars -- small and dingy, serving drinks cheap and stiff. To say they're intimate is probably a misuse of the word, but it comes close. And this fame draws nightlife tourists. Here's a busload of them now. We give up on the drinks for a while. A couple of young guys stare at the board. They tell us we're better than the sports channel, and they seem to mean it. They whisper and point and make their predictions. This happens more often than you’d think: the chess board has surprising gravity among the barflies. A couple of women dance their way up, being slinky to an approximation of the beat from the jukebox. "Playing chess?" The shorter one with sleepy eyes sidles up next to me. The tall blonde has more response in her eyelids and a steadier voice. "Whose turn?" It's mine; we're just starting a game. I invite their advice. The tall one moves my end pawn forward. Okay; I'll just have to live with that. For my next move, the short one pushes a pawn diagonally three spaces. She breathes into my ear, "How's that?" as she grinds one breast into my shoulder blade. I explain that the pawn doesn't move that way. I hold up the bishop. "This is the piece that does that." She doesn't know it, "but I betcha he'd look good naked," she says. "Don't you think?" She grabs it and turns it over, exhibiting the green felt underneath. "See?" Well, who am I to disagree? This woman drifts away quickly. I'm not dancing. She settles onto the knee of the round man behind me. Her tall friend has more focus. She starts a halting conversation: something like, "I like this place. Do you come here often?" She even gets around to my occupation. I'm none too responsive. "I'm a teacher." I try to make it sound dull. She tells me they're on a bar crawl, and I realize this is a single's event. I'm on display. Troy and I start giggling. All these drunken, horny people tramping bar to bar, boys with boys and girls with girls, scared of each other but brazen with the locals they find. Eventually, someone rounds them up and out they go, dancing in a chain. We denizens sigh, and look at each other wide-eyed.

Speaking of biology, I have to brag about my baby robin. I just watched him take his first flight. We've been observing the two babies that hatched a couple weeks ago, enjoying their peeping, bobble-headed phase, endured the hostile glares of mom when she brings the worms and clears out the poop. It's been fun. I can't believe how fast they've grown! Eyes open, feathers sprout, and soon they're crowding each other in their tiny home. I stepped onto the porch this evening, talking on the phone, and noticed that one had stepped out of the nest and was standing bravely on the narrow platform at the top of the porch's pillar. After a moment, he fluttered down to the lawn. It's more of a cushioned fall than flight. Glancing back at me, he begins to hop on wobbly legs out toward the street. Mom is chirping at him. I try to herd him into the bushes for safety, but he goes right out into the street. I have to chase him all the way across. He makes it and stares at me from the other lawn. So that's the way a new life begins.

All right. I've put off Part Two of the walking tour again. We'll get there. It's summer, and anything worth doing is worth doing leisurely. But I do want to inform my loyal readers of the Plan, so they have something to look forward to. The ticket is in hand: I leave America September 2nd. I stop in London on the way. Expect jarvis reportage. And once back in Africa, I promise reports from travels around Ethiopia and to neighboring countries. Come spring and summer, next year, destinations farther afield during the Ethiopian rainy season. All this in the interest of high-quality entertainment. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Travelogue #27 -- July 24
The Third Base Line

And then there's baseball. I know I'm diverting from Part Two of the Mill City walking tour, but it's important. If you're visiting the American heartland in summer, particularly from overseas, it's vital you make it out to a ball game. And to do it right, you have to find the local minor league team. Ours is the St. Paul Saints, notorious for being part-owned by Bill Murray. Craig and I pulled out the bicycles last Sunday and pedaled our way to the stadium. It's out on Energy Park Road, the name of which should signal fairly well what kind of neighborhood the team has been consigned to. In every American city there are these lost zones with street names like "Technology," and "Energy," and "Commerce" to let you know you should turn around, unless you like looking at warehouses, industrial parks, broad, bland corporate lawns, or train sidings. We're running a little late. The street is clogged with parked cars, and the national anthem is blasting. All these good Americans are duly standing for the song, even the tailgaters in the parking lot. Tailgating, by the way, is a tradition I only became acquainted with in the Midwest. It's nothing more than partying in the parking lot. You open up the back of your pickup, set up the grill and the cooler and pump up the radio.

It's a perfect day for baseball, hot and hazy. It's made all the more perfect when someone hands us free tickets and saves us $4 each. We stand in line for our brats and lemonade and wind our way among the crowds to seats in the general admission stands, out past third base. Third base because a friend of ours is working the stands. "Beers! Ice-cold beers!" We do our part, and she gives us a sunny smile. Now, here's a scene for you: We're in the midst of a dense crowd, kids, teens, old couples, all of us sitting on our ass-busting benches. She can't reach us, nor we her. She pours the beers and hands them to a guy in the front row. He passes them back, and, hand by hand, they make it to us! Only a fraction of the miracle: I do the same with the money. It flows down, staying whole; the change climbs up, arriving safely in my palm. Is this old-time, true-blue, Honest Abe America, or what? Would those shifty Europeans in their soccer hysteria do the same? Well, you know where to find old-style virtue now.

So how to describe baseball without treading tired ground and sounding like George Will? There's lots of green ahead of you, but that's no different than soccer. Well, I can think of a few divergences. One is that all the action in baseball happens in the corner with the bases. There you've got the famous "diamond", the lines between four bases and all the freshly raked, red dirt. For us, that's off to the right, surrounded by people with the good seats. We sit in our poor man's exile, the sun beating on our necks, drinking our beer, eavesdropping on the silly teenagers. The pitch -- high and wide. Okay. Now, the common complaint is that baseball is too slow. But, really, isn't that the beauty? Aren't there days like this in summer when the proper game allows the hitter to strut around between pitches while you buy your crackerjack from the pretty vendor and stare up into the blue sky? The pitch -- crack! The batter makes contact, and he pauses to watch it. You check the wide sky for the ball; you watch the outfielders as they maneuver, necks craned back. Now, here's where all the green comes into play: the dance between flying ball and fielder. It's the only time that space gets used. They run across the grass; they bob and circle, waiting and gauging. Or they run to the wall and watch the ball sail over. And across all that green from you, there is no one else. The seats are arrayed along two sides only, beside the diamond. So in St. Paul, you look past the fence at the oddly spare building with large windows that someone finally tells you is the fire department's "fire house". It's where they train. They can make fire spew out of any corner. And on July 4th, they light it up for fans. Or, between pitches, you can watch one of the trains as they chug by on either side of the small stadium. Remember, I said we were in that neighborhood.

It's a decent game. We score nine runs almost immediately, on five of their errors. But late in the game, they (Winnipeg's team) have a big inning, and they end up tying in the top of the ninth. Baseball has only nine innings, and it looks like it'll be going into overtime. But no, the second pitch is caught squarely by a St. Paul bat, and it's gone. The fans go wild. Well, not so wild, actually. That's baseball on a lazy, summer afternoon. The funnest parts aren't necessarily the sport. For example, between every half-inning, there's some sort of goofy promotion, sponsored by local companies. Sometimes it's as simple as a clown running around throwing peanuts into the seats, but usually it's an activity. My favorites are Chase the Kid, where a little, tow-headed boy from the audience starts from second-base and has to make it home before the guys in animal suits on first base can catch him; or Bowling for Yogurt, where a fan gets put inside a big, plastic bowling ball and has to run down a bunch of tall, stuffed pins looking like yogurt containers; or the Fifth Inning Drag, where three ugly guys dressed in ridiculous wigs and dresses drag the big rakes around the diamond to smooth the dirt.

Well, that's the state of America's sport. Not exactly the intensity of soccer or the grace of basketball. The fans are sleepy and as engaged in gossip as in runs. The players are paid as poorly as teachers. They fight for their concentration against passing trains and ludicrous promotions. But, wobbling my way home on my bike toward the late afternoon sun, the back of my neck already burning, I'm pretty well satisfied.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Travelogue #26 -- July 18
God Loves

I'm finally settling into the rhythm of this place, easing into the strange, am-I-awake-yet peace and comfort of mid-America in summertime. So, in the spirit of my re-found native soul, I offer up a cool walking tour of downtown. It costs nothing but the cost of coffee and a muffin, and that much because the tour begins in Taraccino's Café on East Hennepin. This is on the east side of the river. The neighborhood is called Northeast, a venerable old piece of city with working class history. Taraccino's may be a bit overdone in coziness, but they make their own muffins, and Jerry, the owner is always around to chat you up about baseball or community politics. Do it right and be up with the summer sun, by 5am or so, and be waiting at their door at 6:30 when they open to get the freshest muffin. By 7, you're out the door and walking down East Hennepin toward the river. If it's the weekend, you'll have the city nearly to yourself, (though you'll have the constant company of the bunny rabbits that have overrun this town.) Take a left on 2nd Street and take a look at Minneapolis' oldest standing church, Our Lady of Lourdes, a fun amalgam of stone, brick, and wood. It's little, green and yellow steeple is a landmark on the east side. Across the street is a stairway down to the river. Directly ahead of you is your first Kodak spot, the small trestle bridge crossing to Nicollet Island that dates to 1889. You stop in the middle and stand on the planks of the bridge's sidewalk, leaning into the iron railing, and you gaze into the calm, green current. The cottonwoods on either side are dropping bits of fluff into the water. The surface curls in lazy eddies dotted with jumping bugs. In the distance is the white Third Avenue Bridge and a hint of the falls. Sufficiently soothed by greenness, you carry on. If you take the right after the bridge, you'll eventually come to a beautiful bit of dirt road by an old railroad bridge. This quarter mile of road is a gorgeous stroll in summer, under a canopy of sunlit leaves. If you go left instead, you'll soon swing around the tip of the island and be rewarded with some nice views of St. Anthony Falls. I should explain that now you're looking at some serious Minnesota history, (even if nothing actually looks like it used to.) The Falls were the attraction for the white settlement that became Minneapolis. It began in the 1820s with an army outpost. By the 1850s, we had our first saw mill using river power. By the 1860s, the flour mills were rising that would make Minneapolis a dot on the map. We started tinkering with the falls early, building dams and channels to maximize power. What you're looking at now is not a bit natural; it's all concrete spillways. The water is directed down in two levels in the part of the river we're going to see. From the island, you see the first spillway, a half-elliptical arc of pouring water. About two summers ago, someone got too close with his motorboat and got stranded on that ledge. He was saved, but the boat remained all summer, seeming always to teeter on the edge. You continue around the end of the island. You pass some nice decks with picnic tables where you can sit and compose odes to falling water. Heading back upstream, you pass the Nicollet Island Pavilion. At 7am, you'll see nothing here but Canada geese leaving quantities of dung in the grass, and maybe a homeless person on a bench. If you're here later, you might catch a wedding party come for a photo backdrop. They'll be more casual than an Ethiopian wedding party, strolling around with easy smiles, maybe barefoot, the photographer following along in a tight tux, holding a long lens lifted to the heavens, waiting for that magic moment that, once captured, will provide fortitude to the aging couple. Follow the meandering asphalt trail up the hill, and you'll find some more of that public art that makes city life so inscrutable. This one is nicer than most. It's a gift from our sister city in Japan, Ibaraki. It's a bronze arch set in stone. Embedded in the top of the arch is a bell that you ring as you walk through. It's supposed to be a prayer for world peace. Be careful of rousing the guy on the bench, however. Cross the road ahead of you and head for the stairs up onto the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. It's a classy bridge, you'll notice, a suspension bridge with two square supports covered in tan stone to match the limestone motif of much of the riverside downtown. The cables are green. The supports have green lights on top that add a nice touch to the view of the river at night. Climbing the stairs, you stop where someone has stenciled in black paint, "God Loves Ugly." "Loves" is signified with a heart, of course. Take that with you as the seed of today's meditation. What's a walk without a bit of philosophy to chew on? Halfway across, stop and feel the breeze. Look behind you at the famous old Grain Belt billboard, a bottle cap hanging above the bridge. Ask yourself if God loves ugly. Look the other way at the skyline. You can't see too much of it here yet, but I think it's a nice one -- the prevalent tan and green motif mixed with icy blues for winter. When I first moved to this town, the only skyscraper was the IDS building, the blue bulging domino there in the middle. Now they have a Mary Tyler Moore statue across the street from it. Does God still love ugly? From this bridge, you can't see much. Most of it is obscured by the bulk of the main post office, a beauty from the 20s or 30s, tan and carved and a cool time-travel on the inside. Take a detour from my route here to go inside. Buy some stamps from the machine and get dollar coins for change -- Susan B. Antony and Pocahontas. Part Two on the walking tour next time...

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Travelogue 25 – July 13
13 Worms

My brother wrote to me, referring to one physicist’s theory that time is a series of independent moments, frozen universes we somehow move through. He says he has trouble believing it's true, and so do I. But it's a convenient metaphor for how life feels to me.

Our picture was in the paper Saturday, Leeza's and mine. The foundation had a fundraiser for the school the same night. The photo is one of several I was able to find for the reporter in the hard drive of my old Imac. It dates from our trip to Rome two years ago.

I ran the marathon on that trip. Now I can barely finish two miles. I jog Sunday morning, out along the Mississippi River, a piece of my old training course. It's early enough to avoid most of the weekend traffic, Midwestern city dwellers determined to find recreation. The sky is hazy, mottled, muggy. There's foam on the river's surface from the falls behind me. The high banks are that vivid shade of green that always seems impossible to my California sensibility. A group of well-fed, smiling people have gathered by a bit of grassy beach. Canoes are drawn up at their feet. A man whizzes by on his bicycle, coated in all the latest gear, looking like an android. The smiles go on.

Culture Shock wants to tell me this is a forlorn town. It has all the atmosphere of a twelve-step meeting -- coffee and donuts and fluorescent lighting on formica. What is man-made is so planned it tastes like chewed food. And the natural beauty is the brooding type of the plains. It lowers at you when you leave the house. It disdains any talk above a whisper. This is where she died.

You walk along the Mississippi River downtown. It's a melancholy weekday evening, cool for summer, still a bit cloudy. The peaceful surface reflects back the deepening blue of dusk. You stop to watch fish feeding on the myriad little water bugs. You see the fish tails; you see their mouths. Across the water; across the first, shallow drop of St. Anthony Falls, you see the trees of Nicollet Island, and the old brick buildings on the other shore that date to Minneapolis’s mill town past. It's quiet. There's not another soul along this new concrete promenade -- other than the cluster of rough-looking guys hiding out among some park trees. One of them is shouting about how he was knifed. You come to something inscribed into the sidewalk concrete: "Can you find 13 worms?" You ponder. Is this a conversation the city is having with its fishermen? Is it an academic puzzle, a kind of existential koan? Is it meant for kids? As you progress, you pass a series of bronze turtles and frogs placed on top of a short concrete border along the city side of the walkway. But where are the worms? The odd puzzle dissolves without any answer. The cloudy city’s existential riddle.

Culture Shock takes lots of walks.

But at night, we go out. One night, it's to Mannings, a classic American corner bar. A row of three tables between booths and bar. Beer and wine and grill, TVs in every corner. On one, we watch the Tour de France. On all the others, the trivia channel. You order a board, punch in your answers, and compete with bars across the country. We sit with Doug, a grey-beard with an enormous gut in a cardinal red T-shirt. It's seven, but his eyes are bleary; his voice is bleary. We sit with Joanie, small and plain, smoking and teasing. I can spot the moment she decides I'm gay and forgives me. While pitchers keep coming at an alarming rate, we play the game. I'm useful once or twice -- Parma is the only inland city among the list of European names -- but most of the questions are about TV shows and sports. I fall into a daze watching the riders, pink and blue and green, coasting through the rain in Brittany. Distantly, the question reverberates, 13 worms, 13 worms?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Travelogue 24 – July 8
Bikes and Clouds

It's raining. I carry it around with me like my shroud, this rain, wherever I go. Ethiopia or Minnesota, the sun will not shine on me. But I'll say this for Minnesota rain. It's soft and warm. It's the kind that won't deter you from getting on your bike for short trips.

Craig and I go to watch a band play outdoors at the university. His house is a few blocks from the university. I should explain a few things about Minnesota. First, there's the summer mania. When the snow melts in April, and the threat of snow melts in May; when the first buds open in May; when warm weather appears in June, Minnesotans become a bit giddy. They're running around in shorts as early as March, and by summer their eyes gleam like drunks'. The festivals begin. By July 4th, festivals are popping in the Twin Cities at a stellar rate, three or four per weekend -- parades, art festivals, outdoor stages, dances, shuttle launchings, what have you. It becomes distracting.

I have the good fortune of having in Craig the ultimate guide through the maze of activities. If it's cheap and interesting, Craig will be there. He has an uncanny sense for the best and the most fun.

We sit in the gentle drizzle in the plaza in front of the Northrop Auditorium. The band is nestled in among the massive Ionic pillars of the façade. It's a stately, huge building, about a hundred years old, part of the mall that forms the center of the original university. If you're trapped in Minneapolis, the mall is a worthy sight, -- classical, venerable, green -- something of the old respect we had for academia.

Blithely we sit among history and the drizzle, and we listen to a French tune almost fifty years old. Front and center is the accordion player. Behind the right pillar is a guitar player, and behind the left one is the violin/mandolin guy. And behind the audience is the soaked stage they were supposed to occupy. The musicians are unruffled. As I listen, I'm reminded of the virtuosity in this town. It's amazing the variety and depth of the talent here. In their one hour set, this band swings effortlessly through jazz and blues, old French pop and old American, adding a dash of their own flavor to everything, and playing superbly. I missed this while I was away. The rain-misery disappears for a while.

It didn't rain on July 4th. If I have any readers aren't familiar with this date, I should explain it's one of America's biggest holidays, -- Independence Day -- more beloved for its fireworks than for its significance. I gather with Josh and friends in Bryn Mawr park, a wide expanse of grass and baseball diamonds just outside of downtown. It's our tradition to play croquet, usually in a state of advanced inebriation. It's a glorious afternoon. The big clouds above are white and unthreatening.

If I were to recommend Minnesota as a tourist site, prominent in my recommendation would be the big summer clouds. There's something magnificent about them. Maybe it's the big sky here, the horizon being so flat. They have plenty of stage for their procession. Clouds like these are often compared to great ships. It makes perfect sense, with their stately movement across the blue sky, their massive hulls and sails. They lend themselves readily to long meditations. Their white billows pile upon each other intricately, and take on icy blues and dark grays, suggestive of the next thunderstorm. They're the soul of summer.

Underneath the flotilla, we take to the beers and the mallets. I actually win my game, without one sign of skill. I demonstrate the same lack of grace when we try a game of soccer. I'm excited because of my conversion to soccer overseas, and I run around like a fool, kicking wide every time. I'm immediately winded, and it's back to the clouds.

Biking is another pleasure I can recommend for this town. I pedal across town after the croquet, heading for Emily's house where we will sit while the crickets start up outside -- and then the booms and whistles of Independence Day. It's a long way from Bryn Mawr Park, but easy by bike because of the "Greenway": a railroad track converted into a bike path that cuts east-west across Minneapolis, starting up among the city lakes. I'm happy. You have to give credit to an American town that recognizes the sublime pleasure of the bicycle. It seems like I'm following the clouds as I go. Stately they may be, but they're making good time.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Travelogue 23 – July 3
Is It a Dream?

It's a Minnesota summer: hot and muggy. Fluffy clouds drift lazily, threatening an afternoon thunderstorm. I'm alone in the back of the taxi bearing me away from the airport. No yelling, no bargaining, no squeezing by others huddled together in the van seats. It's just me, and the taxi charges by the sixteenth of a mile. The driver makes his sleepy way down residential streets.

The city is spooky quiet. A few sleep-walkers are out, looking intent in their inscrutable purpose. The adults look like kids in their khaki shorts and neat, white sneakers. The teens prefer to play the part of zombies in their dark tatters and tattoos prematurely blurred. It doesn't play too well, though, in a town that looks like a miniature golf course.

The green carpets of house lawns are squared to the millimeter. The houses themselves flow by like stock background celluloid for a TV cartoon. Is this David Lynch or is it Warner Brothers? I'm not sure, but I struggle to awaken. Do people live here, or is it a quaalude retreat for the reality-challenged?

I'm dropped at Craig's, and we sit on the porch and catch up. We watch the clouds gather up the last daylight. We stare at the occasional jogger, whose back is erect and who turns perfect ninety-degree corners. Just as occasionally, an SUV guns its engine as it launches into our block.

I'm enjoying seeing the rabbits and squirrels again. They seem to manifest more purpose than the humans. A robin has built a nest above us inside the porch. She's jealously guarding her blue eggs there, flying in and eyeing us, then swooping away and scolding insistently from the lawn. BBQ and beers. The world seems almost right as the sky glows a dark, richer azure, and the mosquitoes collect for their feast. A long day's travel weighs everything in me into the deck chair.

The next day, I get the tires on my bike filled with air and I take a ride. It's what I most missed about this place, cycling around the clean, flat streets, crossing over the river and through this city's green and peaceful parks. It feels good to pedal, but again I feel as though I should stop and rub my eyes. There are cars downtown; they seem to be in a hurry. I see people emerging from offices; they appear serious. So why does everything seem so insubstantial? Movies set in America feel more real than America. The thousands of unemployed drifting along Addis Ababa's streets have more presence and project more purpose.

I stop at one of my old cafes, one of my most comfortable haunts before. I try to drink tea and write, but the tea doesn't taste right. The writing is trivial. The chairs are cushioned. The floor is carpeted. The walls are picturesque brick. The barista has thought too much about his hair. His T-shirt is tight to just the right degree. He wears cheap bracelets that he measured quite precisely for their effect. The loud banter with his co-worker is calculated to be frivolous. The music is clever and produced to sound unproduced; it's contrived to throw ironic light on contrivance. I'm distracted by trivia; it intrudes upon my mind like benign, popsicle-colored viruses that chatter meaninglessly.

I peer into the boxes of stuff I left behind. It's all a bit alien. This person collects kick-knacks! How did this happen? When I left America, I culled my possessions down to about twenty boxes. More than half of those contain only books. How did the knick-knacks get in here? I'll look again later. The Fourth is tomorrow; maybe I'll have recovered America-vision by the end of the day. It'll make sense on Independence Day.