Sunday, November 30, 2008

Travelogue 250, November 30
Elliott Park

I’m just a block or two away from my neighborhood, the one I want to live in. My address is on Elliott Avenue, so I had assumed I was in Elliott Park. If I’d only landed on the other side of the highway, I’d be there.

That’s Interstate 94 I’m speaking of, the muscle-bound silver river god separating me from downtown. Yes, the cold, white water 94 that conveys me to work every morning. When I get up, I glance out the window to measure the mood of the insomniac beast, watching the tops of trucks being swept along by the flood.

This morning, when I look, Nature’s pulled a prank. I’d been looking forward to a brisk Sunday morning cycle ride at first light through empty downtown streets. But snow has fallen. Everything’s white. My will fails me.

The streets are dry yesterday when I get my urban geography lesson. There’s a café just down Portland, across the great river bed, Father of Carbons, down Portland to Tenth Street. It has an inviting green awning among anonymous, barren blocks of proud new housing and stuttering old housing, all of them signs of the neighborhood’s fortunes.

Apparently, the café is a kind of hinge between old and new. Things were a lot better five years ago, says the café’s co-owner, who is working the counter. She classifies herself as a hippie. Five years ago, Elliott Park stood up to a hippie’s most stringent standards: diversity, arts, a history of neighborhood action, and a lot of potential for improvement.

She looks the part of a hippie, with untamed graying hair, frumpy sweater, and sleepy ways. The café features a tiny, ad hoc shop, partitioned off by its displays, where you can buy locally crafted, beaded and knitted gifts.

There are shelves of used books along the length of one wall. There’s a small stage with a piano in one corner by the window. On most days, the main feature onstage is a TV, usually tuned into permanent jazz. Today it features the concert to celebrate John Mayall’s seventieth birthday party five years ago. Mick Taylor makes a sullen appearance. Clapton shows up. On and on it goes.

So the hippie and friends open this café. They join the Elliott Park community organization. They are players in the heyday of Renaissance planning for this historic district, neglected for so many years, after it was stage-by-stage walled off from the rest of downtown – by General Hospital, which grew into the huge county medical center; by our glorious interstate; and finally by the Metrodome.

Integral to revitalization plans were a couple high-profile condo high-rises. Sadly, condos were everyone’s antidote for the neighborhood blues. So, while the first building has turned out very nicely, and adds a warm touch to a southern view of the skyline, sales in the second development, (right across the street from our café, coincidentally,) have slumped. These days, the café-owner has a dim view of the state of the neighborhood.

She has no plans to move out. In fact, she’s shopping a plan for a non-profit to be based in Elliott Park. This will be called ‘SOMA’, Sounds of Mid-America, and it will be ‘a non-profit museum founded to recognize, celebrate and preserve the diverse music community of Middle America’. It will be home to classes, events and archives.

Let’s wish her well. More power to our cities’ forgotten neighborhoods.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travelogue 249, November 23
The Shade of Dharma at Dusk

It’s dark by five. The clouds are brooding in week-long fits. Temperatures hold at prime number 29. Flurries come and go. Snow stuck just once, yesterday. I wobbled through it on my bike, happy it was melting.

When darkness gathers and moods are plunging, head down Eleventh Avenue. A swarm of crows is swirling chaotically over the park in front of the restored Strutwear Building on 7th Street, pausing in the bare branches only to launch again. They’re calling to some unsanitary power.

Holidays are approaching while sunshine and warmth retreat. The winter star of stoic duty rises, and we hunker down into our fates. Our lives are grim shadows of the super-ego at our shoulders.

After one of my Tuesday classes, a clownish kid named Nicky lingers after the others dash out. He hunches forward with a shit-eating grin, hands in his pockets, and he issues giggling insults at me. He has no audience. I don’t understand. ‘Is there something on your mind?’ I ask him, sitting wearily on the edge of my desk. He giggles, looking at his shoes, and delivers another mumbled insult. ‘Right. I’ve got to get going now, Nicky.’ He finds that hilarious. I pat him on the back and turn out the lights as we depart.

Wednesdays start with the class lost in slack-jawed trance, moves into my Mardi Gras class in which the bright-eyed gay couple ask if it’s time to undress, tumbles into the roar of my pre-lunch Homecoming bunch, and rounds off with the too-dark-for-Goth young’uns and their frank confessions of talk-show-standard bathos.

Thursday, the one angry rash hanging on as a caution from Hell is changing colors from instant to instant like a TV during solar flares. I watch it with wonder and dread instead of working, while the crows call down the Furies outside.

While I’m counting the foundation’s dwindling pennies, contemplating my life in the afterglow of the dreary demiday, Menna is stranded in Bahir Dar waiting for father farmers who break appointments with our lawyer, stalling the process to create for them a non-profit entity for their own advocacy. We hope that NGO status will get them land, more schools, and work. When Menna first visits the school that we’ve funded, she’s shepherded off the premises by an unfamiliar ‘supervisor’. She waits.

And yes, I’m contemplating my life. I have space! That means a large subletted living space to myself, where I can pull together my possessions, condensed into boxes carrying five years of dust from several friends’ houses. It’s an odd experience to exhume the past this way. It seems like the first time my gaze back through time has broken through the barrier of Leeza’s passing. Feelings are released, as though from jars unsealed.

I think about Leeza. Ours was a romance born in November, now that I think of it. I’m finding notebooks from our time together, thoughts and daily events and dreams like notes from beyond my grave. I’m collecting and arranging them, and I’m haunted by a story: Leeza and I dream about Ethiopia. In the dream, children gather in a schoolyard, singing and clapping their hands. It seems so real. I’d like to record it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Travelogue 248, November 7
Vessels of Porcelain

Kayla is one of my students at the college. She’s telling us how she went to a strip club for her birthday. She has pictures of her lap dance. The boys are telling hunting stories. They have lots of absences this semester because of all the season openers. Kyle shows me photos of the carcasses. This is Kyle who writes in the margin of his test, ‘Hitler wanted change, too’. Pretty Samantha wants to tell us about scraping the poop out of a dead deer’s anus. I ask wide-eyed Katya is she’s happy she immigrated from Russia.

These are the suburban 18 and 19 year-olds of our time. Journal paragraphs are harrowing to read, not so much for their stories as for the consistency in the story elements: drug rehab, violence at home, a restless wheel of trivial employment and trivial passions. And there’s a strange innocence about what happens in a classroom, an almost charming void where once might have been reserve or dignity. Grades are too abstract, and the classroom is fundamentally no different than any other room: part of the revolving set for frivolous conversations.

But I have to admit that I do enjoy them, and it’s precisely because they are so innocent. They would like to include me in their rumpus room fun. Their smiles are warm and eager, and admit no resentment. When I scold, it rings false. There’s a note of indulgence. There’s recognition. In America, we’re all jokers. It’s why God loves us best.

Cassie stands unsteadily before us, and declares, “I’m twenty-one! Can you believe it?” No one in the bar can, to judge by their vocalizations. She sways before us, grinning silently for another ten seconds before a male friend leads her away to the other side of bar, where she doesn’t hear the band’s tribute to her, changing the name of the protagonist in their song, ‘Meg Likes the Weed.’

The band is Scottie’s. The night is Wes’s. Wes is releasing a CD and he’s lined up four bands, including his own, for the celebration. It’s Northeast Minneapolis on a gloomy night of icy rain. I’ve biked across town again. I’m happy. The crowd, the music, and the gin are cheering.

Scottie’s band is guitar, bass, drums, and … oboe. Scottie’s girlfriend is on guitar. She disappears during solos: the plug to her amp keeps falling out of the wall. She’s a good player when she’s plugged in. She was the nun in a band of local repute, the Sandwiches. My favorite song of this band’s is ‘Some people are dumb.’ The next band is a young trio with lots of energy. The bass player has an instrument crafted by a violin-maker. It has a pretty scrolling head at the top of its long, sleek neck. Wes’s band, the Middle States comes out of the gate at 12:30 rocking. They have a powerful and likeable sound. It’s Friday night, and Wes sings about Friday night. There’s a girl leaning against the pool table mouthing the words.

At that late hour, everything is a still life, especially the music, like a wave caught rolling through the bar’s dim light and the haze of everyone’s alcohol. Time is blessedly compromised. It could be any year, and nothing has ever happened in life. This is Stasiu’s, one of those working class bars in Northeast, small and cozy, where the drinks are strong and cheap. Everything looks like Christmas colors now. Maybe it’s the glimpses of snow outside.

Stasiu’s has two of the most impressive urinals in town, monoliths of porcelain, massive. Scottie says they’re from a train station. I make Todd take a photo of them for me on his iPhone. I tell everyone I want my ashes to be sent into space inside one of those urinals.

The sound is finished, and I find myself back on the bicycle, chill wind in my face. Icy pellets strike my cheeks. The sky is no color. It’s the void, gathering up all our breath in swirling blue vapors. But the new 35W bridge is lit brightly with turquoise. That’s a cheery sight just for me as I labor across the Stone Arch Bridge, the catastrophic sound of the waterfall on my right. On the other side of the river is the midnight blue of the sleek walls of the Guthrie. The playwrights are stern, their faces blown up into photographic walls. And next door, in the new park, the benches glow with cobalt lamps inside. I’m huffing and puffing home through a silent, capsized season. When I make it, my cheeks are damp and red. I look at the clock in my mirror.