Sunday, August 29, 2004

Travelogue 33

I emerge from my basement cubbyhole. It's not all that early, but Dinkytown is quiet. It's Sunday morning. I heard Craig get home after bar time last night and crank up his P.J. Harvey. This morning, on the porch, there's an open bottle of dip beside the chair, and an empty can of malt liquor.

My party yesterday died with the light. It was a barbecue at Abebaw's place: chowing on chicken legs and beef strips while we sit in a circle in the lawn out back. Those Midwestern monster clouds are floating overhead, making us shiver and making the Canada geese squawk like winter's coming as they fly by. We're listening to DeJunius, the neighbor, tell us about traveling to Madison to see Otis Redding play in 1967, only to find out Otis' plane had crashed that afternoon. He's been working on a documentary about that event for some time. He's a film maker. He's almost 70, but you wouldn't know it. Maybe his moustache is gray; maybe he's a little bent when he walks, but his skin is clear and smooth. He looks you in the eye with a generous smile and asks you where you're from.

My daily routine begins with a bike ride to the coop. Minneapolis is a town where you can be very healthy. There are half a dozen natural foods coops around, four of them within biking distance of my house. I dodge around the plentiful bottle glass in the roads, another sign of the return of college season. Crossing the bridge, I listen to the geese still complaining, and I watch the lone woman skulling upstream. The coop is empty. I wander among the bins of fruits and vegetables, among the bins of bulk grains, by the shelves of advocacy and Bush-hatred. Just yogurt and a muffin for me.

My café is also quiet. It's family time. Little kids with their parents, big kids with their parents. A couple old-timers work on crossword puzzles. I glance over an article in the paper about a local wrestler. Not Greco-Roman, mind you. Apparently, there are a set of clubs for novices in "professional" wrestling. I hadn't thought about it, but I guess beginners have to start somewhere. There's a huge picture of a scrawny guy grimacing, spread over the ropes at the side of the ring with a shoe across his throat. The quote in bold below the picture is his. He's saying wrestling is "finally something I could do." In another story, I see the comedian Joe Piscopo is considering a run for the New Jersey governorship, taking over from the man who had to admit, (with his wife standing loyally behind him,) that he was gay.

By afternoon, the place will be back in its regular swing. The 80s music will replace the soothing Latin crooning. Style will re-emerge: mop-tops and midriffs, retro shirts with unbuttoned cuffs and the right boots, ironic pigtails and painfully unironic ponytails. Laptops will swing open on every table. To the tune of "Turning Japanese" you order from the big guy with silver-painted fingernails. He's declaring that he wishes Madonna and Prince would make a suicide pact. "They're done." But he goes on to defend Madonna's voice from a mop-top's attack, proceeding to warble "Border Line" for him as rational proof. Kramer gazes from his oil portrait over our heads, bemused.

I think about silence. I was talking the other day, sitting in this very seat, with a guy who had been through a meditation camp. For ten days, he meditated from four in the morning until nine in the evening. And for the first nine days, he wasn't allowed to talk. His eyes are bright with wonder and gratitude as he describes the rigorous practice of this meditation, as he describes how his life is changed. He's sure he will never need crack again. He says he's never felt that way coming out of conventional treatment programs. His eyes waver a bit with shame. I'd like to tell him there are better reasons for shame, but silence seems best. Around us, the chatter churns on. The man with the long, red ponytail who works in the magic shop down the street stops to adjust his kilt.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Travelogue 32
Wheezing Signs of Life

The touristy thing for Minneapolitans to do this summer is to ride the train. This spring, the first light rail commuter line took to the rails in Minneapolis, running from downtown toward the airport. It won't actually reach the airport until the end of the year. They haven't finished that part yet. But they will, and when they do, you can even ride all the way to that hideous growth on the landscape, the Mall of America, the blight that much of the world thinks is Minnesota's true tourist excuse.

It's been fun to watch the train go by and hear the bell. Such a minor addition to the city scene, it has significant power to change the atmosphere -- two yellow cars humming through downtown, stopping at tidy little rail stops. I came up with an excuse finally to ride. I boarded with my bicycle -- the cars have racks for bike-riders. Ding-ding, the doors close, and we slide by the high rises of downtown. It's a totally new perspective. A group of round grey-hairs board at the next stop with loud gusto. It's obviously their first ride. They crack corny jokes. One of them reminds the others that it's Jesse's train.

You all remember Jesse Ventura, of course, our former governor, the pro wrestler. Well, this was his gift to the state, finally pushing light rail through the legislature. And it's a hit. They're debating the next line to build -- expanding mass transit under a Republican governor. Imagine.

Leaving downtown, the train picks up speed. One grey-hair shouts, "Here we go!" The rest of them squeal. We rise above the road and watch the peaceful neighborhoods reel by.

This place is crazy peaceful, kind of spooky. When I run, I'm alone. The sky can be blue and diamond clear, the river ever so beautiful, I'm on my own. Today, as I'm crossing back over one of the university's bridges -- this one's a nice one, another old railway span -- I'm joined from the other direction by a young lady who could be twenty years my junior; she's running with a friend who's on a bike. She's running at about the same pace as I am, and I immediately react like any foolish male would, picking up the pace. I should take this as a sign that my spirit is bouncing back. I was always stupidly competitive, and would run myself into a muscle-burning, wheezing mess if I had a good rabbit. The difference is, I used to be good. I was training for another marathon when Leeza died. Then I stopped cold. And now, when I'm lucky to finish two miles, I'm speeding up at the sight of a teenager. That's got to be healthy, don't you think? Isn't a capacity for playing the fool a sure sign of life? I beat her across the bridge and bounded up the road toward Craig's house at a strong pace. Five blocks later, I'm a wreck. But happy.

The students are coming back into town. The younger ones wander in aimless confusion. The older ones strike disdainful poses along the main drags of Dinktown. Dinktown is the college area, abutting the east bank campus of the university. Dinky it is -- a square mile or two maybe, full of cheap apartments and bars. There are still vestiges of the coolness that used to characterize college towns before the 90s, bits of history among franchises. There's the great used bookstore and the ancient breakfast place squeezed between buildings that literally has room for a counter and a grill. People stand directly behind you waiting for your stool. Next door is the café where I've become a regular. That's a dubious privilege in Dinkytown, which has its share of oddballs, just like the hangers-ons in any American college town, I suppose -- sad, aging men, unemployed and quirky, most of them. Yep, I fit right in. Cars with trailers pass by in slow procession, dads leaning out the driver's window, looking around with weary irritation. It's just about fall.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Travelogue 31
The Ice Age is Coming

We had a few days this week that were cool and autumn-like, in that inimitable hushed and expectant Minnesota way. I enjoyed them. I wanted a taste of fall before heading back to the sun of Ethiopia; it's my favorite season. But there was also that instinctive response inside. No matter how much a Minnesotan enjoys winter, a cool day in August is alarming. We only escaped the threat of cold three months ago; this is wrong.

If you are looking for a good spell of brooding, then you really should visit Minneapolis in early fall. There's nowhere like Minnesota for the quiet walk under overcast skies, when the air is crisp and you feel the snow coming. I'll recommend, in particular, Loring Park, just south of the downtown core. Bring your Russian novel for fortification, and by the end of this tour, you'll have life figured out. If you’re stuck, you can consult the elderly Russian immigrants who favor this park for strolling.

I'm fond of this neighborhood. For me, it's the heart of the town. For a while, I took my walk through the park almost every day, usually in late afternoon. It's our Central Park, bound by city blocks and busy streets. It has little vistas from almost any part of it: the downtown skyline, the monolithic old basilica, gardens and two small lakes. In the last five years or so, they've let the reeds and cattails grow along the shores of the lakes, sometimes so high as to obscure the water. But you come around to a clear spot and look at the calm, white egrets, or the loons afloat on the surface. Eric would try to speak to the coots if he were here. It's five, and nearby Hennepin Avenue is clogged with traffic, but the paths here are solemnly quiet. The sky is low; the light is dim. You've just about got the answer to the riddle….

With a little more time to kill, you might take the bridge out of the park across Hennepin and across the highway, taking time to read the Ashbery poem along one of the top beams. On the other side is the sculpture garden. Take a right and follow the edge of the green lawn, filled with odd pieces. The predominant one is, of course, the huge cherry and spoon by Oldenburg and Van Bruggen, a landmark in this town. You'll want to run to the other side and snap a photo of you and your new Russian friends in front of the sculpture with the skyline in the background. It's Minneapolis' face to the world. There's hardly a moment of the day when someone isn't there with his/her camera, and it's featured in any promotional material about the city. There are other sculptures to see, most of them vaguely or outrageously ridiculous, but you head onward toward the small garden in back of the lawn, which is always beautiful this time of year. You walk the whole fifty feet of it or so, underneath an arched trellis, enchanted by the variety of blossoms. Come back to the east end of the walk and spend a few minutes with the one sculpture in this section worthy of some attention: "Without Words" by Judith Shea, a piece with some dignity, and something of the melancholy befitting the place. Back on the bridge, you look west toward where the sun should be setting. It's hidden by the leaden sky. Two observations are inescapable: The horizon is so flat; winter's coming.

We went to the two-dollar theatre last night and watched some movie about the next ice age descending in seven days while a Cheney-like vice-president smirks at sage environmentalists. Cool special effects. Hollywood has marvelous powers. We all felt chilly coming out of the theatre. We're looking at the skies nervously. Maybe the big California producers are correct assigning their sixth-grade daughters to write the scripts. We didn't go to watch Dennis Quaid choke up as he thinks of the mistakes he made as a parent. We went for the tornadoes tearing through LA skyscrapers. And who buys Hollywood stories anymore, anyway? Actors onscreen ceased being anything but actors onscreen a long time ago.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Travelogue #30
History in the Dirt

I've got sore arms today. Yesterday I went at history with a pickaxe. Emily is volunteering at an archaeological dig -- in downtown Minneapolis. It's in a rundown neighborhood that's trying its best to gentrify. Round about are handsome, turn-of the century, red brick buildings with names like the "Adirondack". This particular plot of land is part of a larger chunk that will soon host new condos. Someone in the neighborhood felt like there could be some history underfoot. Craig and I bicycled up to the site. About ten people were there, fooling around with dirt -- digging it up, sifting it, squatting and studying it in deep, square holes. There were traces of a house's foundations exposed -- a line of limestone blocks a couple inches underneath the surface of the soil. The house was built in the 1870s, apparently, and was torn down in 1947. I watched the work a minute, and then was seduced by the pickaxe. (I had had a frustrating couple of days before this.) "May I?" They were happy to indulge me. Craig felt obliged to pick up a shovel, so we set upon the incomplete line of the foundation. Almost immediately, we hit a dead end. Real archaeologists gathered to consult. I was so proud! It looked like the wall may turn at this point, so we went to work. There was a stone laid in that direction. I demanded that this be called Dana's Jog in the log entries. We came upon nails and glass and bits of roof shale. I claimed credit for those, too. My jog went nowhere. The experts conferred again. They murmured over maps and diagrams. This wall should have continued, they announce, so we try again, in the former direction, I with enthusiasm and Craig with a grumble. Eventually, we strike gold, or limestone. I halt and demand this be called Dana's Gap. I wouldn't budge until they agreed. Don't pencil this into your Minneapolis tour, though, since in a few days, they'll be building on top of it. Maybe you can stop by the archive or vault where they describe our adventures. Pretty interesting, though, to see how quickly life history sinks into bone chips, shards of porcelain, and some detective work.

What might be fun on your tour is to hop on your bike at 7am in order to go to a dentist across town. You can pedal across the Mississippi River on the Stone Arch Bridge, the old limestone and granite railroad bridge that has been turned into a pedestrian bridge. You'll stop halfway and gaze dreamily at the steepest of the spillways of the falls. It's straight and it's high, and it creates a good mist. On the other shore, (the west shore,) underneath the bridge are some ruins. They call them "Mill Ruins Park". Lots of limestone down there: the remains of the old flour mills that made Minneapolis the big town it is, operating through the last half of the nineteenth century. Above, the elevators of the Washburn mills still stand, along with the broken walls of the A Mill. The latter's been turned into a museum. We're all just archaeology-crazy here in the Midwest.

Keep riding, up through downtown. It’s fun to do before rush hour. You get your five or six blocks of high-rise buildings, staring up at the nicely carved cornices of another age, or at the glass of ours. And on you go, uphill to Uptown, usually the destination of young hipsters looking for fun and expensive meals. But for us, it's a bit of early morning pain at the hand of a friendly hygienist. She apologizes a lot, if you're as old and negligent as I am. She single-handedly conducts a conversation, a conversation that is disturbing on two counts: first because she keeps asking questions while she's scraping cold metal against the inside of your molars, and secondly, because she's praising the movie "Troy". Of course, Brad Pitt seemed kind of mean at first, she says, but it’s always nice to have history explained like that. Some things she knew about already, like the thing about the heel. And she had always wondered about that horse.

You console yourself with a trip to the Institute for the Arts, which isn't far away. You might stop at the little Fantin-Latour portait of his friend Legros, as I always do, finding something fascinating and genial in this pre-Impressionist impressionism. Or you may loiter in front of Corot's canvases of sullen young ladies, wondering how he achieves that grey shimmering quality so reminiscent of Europe in early spring. Maybe you'll rub your sore jaw and contemplate one of the Rodins, and try to imagine how it feels to mould a human form in your fingers.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Travelogue #29
Diverse States

A month in Minneapolis has past, and only a month is left. Just when I'm beginning to contemplate my farewell, we celebrate Ana's. Ana is Craig's ex-wife. She's moving back to the Czech Republic after having earned her Ph.D. What she wants is a party at Craig's house, with a keg and night-long stream of guests. This he manages to provide. The event starts at 3 in the afternoon, and, as far as I can tell, I'm the last man standing at 5 am. In part, that's because I sleep in the basement and the basement is where the keg is kept, about ten feet from my bed.

Ana's party has a Czech theme, of course. Most of the American guests have some connection to the place. Craig and I have lived over there. (Truthfully, I was next door in Slovakia, but I visited Prague often.) One guy has a Czech wife. Abebaw, Leeza's cousin, was Ethiopian, and is now American, but he studied and lived in Prague for twelve years. We all get a kick out of listening to him speak Czech. We imagine the reactions of locals when he comes out with perfect Czech. We're planning a trip to Prague in May just so we can see. Abebaw has taken the nickname "Topinka" among the Czechs. It means "toast".

Robert, Ana's current husband, says that this is what he'll miss the most about America: the diversity. There's a word that normally raises the hair on my neck. I've spent too many years in the American educational system and working near social services. But in his accent, it's wonderful. "Diversity". The bunch of us on Craig's front porch are a pretty picture of it: old and young, a Buddhist monk, Chinese, Czechs, Ethiopians, and the stiffest of Norwegian-Americans.

The evening shows finer stripes as the hours wear on. Ana peaks and passes out before the sun is down, but not before dancing, crying with parting friends, and playing Johnny Cash's "Your Own Personal Jesus" once for each chapter of the Good Book. I should explain the beauty and the terror of Ana. She is petit and charming, and sexy in a mischievous way. She has a sharp tongue, and holds nothing back. She's taken me to task for more personality flaws than I have bones in my body, and shouts at me like a football coach that I have to get over Leeza's death. I've had to watch her drink my friend Josh into a stupor. Aside from having almost a hundred pounds on her, Josh is a proud Scotch-Irishman, and still he had no chance. He made the mistake of claiming some kind of ethnic edge in drinking. Well, she led him to the keg that night, and what followed was a bloody rout, peppered with many withering sarcasms about Josh's manhood. Anyway, tonight, she's been weakened by emotion and a long day without eating. She's out cold. Friends arriving late file past her like she were a president in state. We carry on in her memory. Robert tries to convince me Bush has charisma. Craig tells the following joke. "What does one cannibal clown say to the other? Does this taste funny to you?"

A few hours later, the front door bursts open and Ana appears on the porch, hair rumpled, mascara smeared, and she's ready to go. She takes a central seat, and Robert holds forth for twenty minutes on how this is a greater miracle than the resurrection of Jesus. We toast to a happy Easter.

Night progresses and disorder gains. It's a form of diversity, really, expressing itself in degrees of nonsense. Robert has to explain to another Czech at the party what a wedgie is. He decides it's easier to demonstrate. "Do you want to be an astronaut?" It so happens this Czech is in America to study astrophysics. Parties and bars are closing around the neighborhood. Kids are wandering by in clusters. Some want our beer. One, a cheerful young lady, wants to tell us she's been to Prague. Unfortunately, it's just when Robert has decided he's "Veggie Man". He's wearing the Czech flag as a cape and has decorated himself with hors d'oeuvres. His only reply to her is, "Well, what do you think of this?" as he pops a broccoli into his mouth and smiles. Her friendliness falters.

After we put Ana down for the last time, things wind down. The conversation in the kitchen gets maudlin. Diversity suffers: we discuss love, and we mean it. Some of us stare with teary-eyed vacancy. Some creep toward sleeping nooks. Craig ends up on the patio bench. I make it to my bed, and have reason left at 5 am to read. It's Robert Louis Stevenson, and I'm being pursued across the heather. I dream of strange cities.