I’m blindfolded in my wife’s car, moments away from being dropped off in an unknown location. The two things I’m certain of, as the car slows: I’m somewhere in Minneapolis (a city I’ve called home for most of my adult life) and, regardless of where I am, I’ll have to walk a lengthy southern route to get home (I live in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis).
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my wife, Nicole, says.
“Yes,” I say, lifting the blindfold, squinting and smiling at intersected street signs. They read NE 3rd Ave., NE 6th St.
It’s Friday, September 27th with a temperature of about 72 degrees. Pretty humid, too. And the clouds are bumpy, gray cataracts plump with fluid. The dashboard clock says 11:13 a.m.
“Okay,” Nicole says as I get out of the car. “Call if you need anything. Be careful. I love you.”
I shut the car door. Identical gray condominiums, single-story and ensconced in screened porches, huddle around a cul-de-sac. A sign reads DEAD END. It starts to rain. Epic adventures are subject to such dreadful omens. My wife drives away and I’m alone.
“I love you, too.”
PART ONE: TERRITORIAL PISSINGS
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.”
There’s a chainlink fence at the end of the cul-de-sac and DEAD END. It’s a flimsy barrier, not even six feet high. I run to the fence with adolescent eagerness, squeezing my right foot into the wet metal lattice. The chainlinks clang and ululate under my weight as I throw my left leg over the top. I’m on top of a fence in a strange place and I stop. There’s a brick and wood foreground of condemned buildings and orange-clad construction projects rotting peacefully in contrast to the sterile postcard of glass and steel towers miles away and hundreds of feet in the air. I smile and jump onto the other side. I land in a puddle and the splash announces the adolescent triumph of fence climbing, a pleasure I haven’t experienced in over fifteen years. The gray-water baptism reminds me of why I wanted to do this in the first place, why I wanted to slowly pass through the entrails and byproducts of a city I purportedly know: adventure!
Men approaching middle-age have a tendency to view life as a downward slope of predictable scenery. There is a cessation of open-ended narratives, of anything that can truly be christened as “NEW!” So thus our children become our vessels of exploration and curiosity; they are electric with the pulse of discovery and we devour their nascent experiences with a vicarious glee: the way their eyes bulge as a grasshopper jumps from their hand or the shape of their mouths when an airplane flies directly overhead and consumes all their senses. Our popular culture satiates us further; we experience life and all its action and conflict, we truly LIVE, through the sword of Achilles and the legs of Adrian Peterson and the drumsticks of Dave Grohl. The guy in his thirties looks around and sees that all his prairies are tilled and the wilderness has been replaced by a bland (if mostly comforting) expanse of sturdy cottages and manicured cornfields. But sometimes we need to see the homesteads burning; sometimes we need to walk into a horizon of untamed frontiers, where inclement weather flash-freezes our blood and mythic denizens stalk our flesh in hues of blue-black midnight. Sometimes we need to dispense with the safety of the whip and chair and put our head into the lion’s mouth.
Looking from right to left to make sure no one spied my fence jumping, I walk/creep with a guilty but giddy quickness through a strip of grass and blacktop purgatory. Train tracks are on my left, some stunted trees to my right. I end up on NE 5th St., going south. The rain falls cold and hard on my neck. Guess I’ll just keep going this way. My plan is pretty simple: get home on foot (which is basically going south), using an extemporaneously created route. Some simple geographic knowledge combined with adherence to Thoreau’s wisdom on walking should make do.
“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
It will be a long journey of unconscious yielding, so I packed light and utilitarian. Now every adventurer needs tools in order to ensure safe passage, but I purposefully exclude three things that would normally be deemed important in the extreme: food, water, and a map. So I omitted food and water for one obvious and one not-so-obvious reason:
OBVIOUS: Food and water are plentiful and easily accessible within the city limits of Minneapolis.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS: A complete lack of food and water on my person forces me to search for food and water in strange and unsuspecting places, thus increasing the chances for a deeply fulfilling and interesting adventure.
The absence of a map and predetermined route home also lend to the aura of serendipity. I’m attempting to construct some narrative of authenticity, a narrative that requires a great deal of suspended disbelief. My epic needs to have a trace bloodline of adversity to overcome, of yellowed papyrus, of bandits lurking in the shadows. Shit, if Herodotus, the Father of History, didn’t need a modern map to gallivant around a treacherous ancient world, why did I need a map to navigate the organized streets of Minneapolis? So I continue south on NE 5th St. I cross over a stone bridge with railroad tracks 20 feet below. At the bridge’s crest, a tangle of city and possibility unfurls on the horizon, and the fabulist in me remembers that Herodotus, that intrepid traveler, was also known as the Father of Lies.
Another obstacle at the genesis: two signs that read DETOUR and SIDEWALK CLOSED. The world can be pretty inhospitable to walkers, even in cityscapes teeming with pedestrians (I’m not even counting the suburbs, a land bereft of sidewalks that bows at the altar of hydrocarbons). Yeah, there are still broad sidewalks lining residential areas and walking/running paths in the more affluent areas around lakes and parks, but the concerns of reflective and observant citizens on two feet seem dwarfed by the concerns of hyper-efficient automobiles and their estranged, confined, and often self-concerned pilots. Although I dislike driving, I own and use a car and recognize its myriad benefits, so I can assure you my walking adventure isn’t a thinly-veiled screed against automobiles. But our civilization is at the mercy of a singular mode of transportation that makes us fatter and angrier and our world louder and filthier. Guess I’ll walk in the street.
Two minutes into my adventure and I already have to pee. Pee badly. Historians and travel writers, at least the ones I’ve read, seem unanimously against the desire to discuss urination/defecation in detail. The rain isn’t tempering the sensation so I guess I’ll rectify the dearth of pee writing. Where to go, though? On the other side of the bridge, a building of boarded windows, faded red brick, and tawny wood is on my left. The derelict building is asymmetrical and haggard and without a front door. A construction permit is stapled to the frame. Nothing in front or behind, to my right or left. No cars, no people. Nothing moving. Nothing living that could write me a ticket or tattle on my exposed member. My heart is coiled wattage while my thighs tighten to stuff the urge. Around the sidewalk barrier and in I go.
Heel-toe, heel-toe upon a floor stripped to fibrous ribbing. Minimal sound. I’m a fucking ninja! I find a corner of shadow and sawdust and plaster clutter. Untouched for years. One last swivel of the head and my fingers are on my buckle. Zip, grab, aim. Ahhhhhhhhhhh. There are few finer sensations than the complete erasure and absence of biological necessities. I darken the hardwood with an impressive puddle. A puddle that encroaches on a cluster of footprints in the sawdust. Dozens of footprints. Dozens of very recent footprints. There’s creaking and the ceiling yields an oaken whine. A hammer slams against some elder surface on the floor above me. Shit.
I count three, possibly four humans stressing the floorboards on the second floor. Must be wearing boots. Four large men wearing boots and wielding hammers. And powertools! Fuck, dude! PEE! The fact that I didn’t notice the footprints completely negates the rad ninjitude I displayed moments earlier. I want to expedite the urine ASAP, but my nerves strangle the effectiveness of my urethra. Shuffle, step, hammer, drill. An unseen cigarette is toxic and voluptuous in my nostrils. A muffled conversation containing lilts of camaraderie and mirth. And the voices are getting closer! But there’s still so much urine left!
There’s movement with a purpose above me. The floorboards groan, “Run! RUN!” I cut myself off. Grab, stuff, zip. Footsteps, footsteps, FOOTSTEPS! My paranoia wins and I sprint like a thief out of the building the same way I entered. I cut into an alley, lungs and heart dilated and drenched with the output of adrenal glands.
“ACT NORMAL! ACT FUCKING NORMAL!” is the refrain in my skull, repeating and spinning like a cellophane newsreel. I take my time through the alley, because nothing I’m doing is out of the ordinary. The alley is a typical and menacing example: decayed cobblestone, near-claustrophobic narrowness, filled with the municipal detritus of wooden palettes and beer cans and dumpsters gilded with graffiti and blackened blankets that serve as a pastiche home. Natural light is suffocated and devoured. Alleys are the urban equivalent of secrets; they’re the little and dirty truth rutted into the glorious façade. They are ugly and undignified, the place where our collective imaginations go to create nightmares, the place where Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, the place where we spy the rat as large as a dog or the slumping prostitute clad in fishnets. The city presents to us as an unblemished colossus of civilization’s triumph, a tangible edifice to the glories of finance and engineering and just governance. As the whole of our lives are not our resumes or degrees or whitewashed nonfiction told to our in-laws, Minneapolis can’t be fully translated using the blue fractals of the IDS Center or the hewn stone of the Foshay Tower. Urban revisionism dies at the entrance of its alleys, its interstices of trash and narcotics and the sleeping homeless. We hate it, we want to hide our embarrassing secret and pray that it’s forgotten. Because it’s the truth.
Check in next Thursday for Part Two: The Things (I Carried)!!!!!!!!