There’s a pitbull about 30 yards in front of me. I’m trotting southeast on N 7TH St., toward the City View apartments, so I can simultaneously investigate some living quarters while also pointing my compass homeward (I live in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is in the city’s southeast corner). The pitbull is (not really all that) controlled by an African-American man grasping a silver chain (a seriously thick, tow-grade gauge of chain). He wears insectile shades and a stoic countenance. The veins in his forearms are impressive. About fifteen feet away, the pitbull begins huffing air through his nose in an attempt to read me. The sidewalk beneath my feet, nominal to start, transitions into boulevard and then curb as I attempt to put as much space between me and the dog as is possible without looking like a total wuss. The pitbull is brindle skin thinly laminated over muscles that are more cyborgian art than organic instrument. And green eyes that are 109% open and nearly pupil-less with some kind of canine emotion that exists exactly between focus and rage. No growl, no bark. Ears sharpened with alertness. Oh, and jaws that could pretty much kill anything. So, yeah, the pitbull scares the shit out of me. We’re right next to each other, me in the gutter, basically, and the dog spins at me, cyclonic and determined, all its feet in the air and its boulder-esque head less than a foot from my (recoiling) right arm.
“Monty!” the African-American man says, pulling hard on the chain, moving the dog about eight inches further from me.
And Monty, Satan bless him, doesn’t avert his death-gaze. He never really snaps at me, but as we part ways my stomach has this awful, sinking sourness. I realize that life won’t end well for Monty. Welcome to the City View apartments!
They aren’t pleasing to the eye. Faded gray, three stories but squat, as rectangular as can be. The City View apartments don’t really offer much of a view, either. Just a bunch of other ugly buildings in close proximity. I’m almost in the parking lot of the apartments when a Latina woman, walking briskly from her parked car to the vestibule door because of the light rain, notices my slowed pace. And then, cocking her head of burnt-orange curls, her black eyes fixate on my open writing notebook.
“You no live here,” she says, putting the open door between us. The woman utters this low-octave phrase as a rock-ribbed imperative, bereft of any question or welcoming smile.
“No,” I say, taking a step back. “I don’t, but…”
I resist the urge to run, but I feel so much guilt for some reason that I babble in a state of sheepish and defensive shock. Midsentence, the woman closes the door with an inhospitable thump and makes her way inside. I shuffle back to the absolute farthest part of the sidewalk, awash in a strange sense of rejection while continuing southeast on N 7TH St. This time, instead of some psychic flagellation as I label myself an interloper, I’m actually branded an interloper by a paranoid woman and a fighting dog. But why? All I’m doing is traversing a city that I’ve called home for years, writing a quasi-sociological travel essay. In the window of one of the City View apartments, there’s a Dora the Explorer blanket. My daughter loves Dora, too.
But perhaps I am the enemy. Digging into the Latina woman’s persona, I can see that I am the outsider. I wield exploitative propaganda masking as art, these vivid pictures of reportage that are absent of names. But not absent of places. No, the entrenched upper classes (one I am certainly a part of) need to know where to put the wall, where to plot the reservation, where to label the ghetto, where to construct the housing project. I am the tally man’s partner in crime, yet instead of numbers, I dredge scenery. Statistics of poverty, crime, and incarceration rates are reinforced by what I describe. I give teeth to the pejoratives used by suburbanites and wind to those flapping their wings in “white flight.” Goddamn, it hurts when you’re the enemy.
Yet whether I’m lifting the veil of ignorance or nailing it more securely to faces, I have to get home on foot and, sure-as-shit, I am gonna write about what I see. I’ve invested an entire day off from work, a bunch of miles walked, and dozens of pages in a notebook on this project. And I have to convince myself this is a worthwhile project. Here goes. Shit, maybe the Latina woman just thought I was a pervert or a drug dealer or an undercover cop. Or maybe she was just an asshole. And the pitbull: fuck that dog. It was clearly ‘roided out of its mind and insane. I’ve had four friends’ dogs (four!) attacked by pitbulls, which is more than enough empirical evidence needed (along with mounds of anecdotal evidence present in the media) to form a conclusion that pitbulls, regardless of owner maltreatment, are a breed of dog possessing both volatility and the means to make manifest that volatility with sometimes lethal consequences. So, fuck the PC backlash, I don’t like your antisocial bear-trap posing as a pet. Thus the interloper continues on his way.
A bandana-ed white guy is behind me. I’m indecisive, moving slow, and so, although Bandana Guy is walking at an average pace, he’s catching up to me pretty quickly. Diminishing sidewalk options at the intersection of N 7TH St. and EAST LYNDALE Ave. N cause a solid amount of vacillation (southeast on N 7TH St.? Straight south on EAST LYNDALE Ave. N? Double-back and take something else?) as I-94’s swath of never-ending progression once again appears below me. Back to Bandana Guy: he’s wearing a ratty blue t-shirt w/o sleeves and a massive nylon backpack tilts his shoulders into a hunch. I’m always at a loss of what to do in these weird social situations. Should I let Bandana Guy pass me? Should I walk faster? I certainly can’t allow him to equal my progress and then begin my pace anew. We’d be right next to each other. It would be like we’re married. And, who knows, maybe Bandana Guy’s a serial killer. I don’t want to be married to a serial killer, so I decide to walk fast (my usual pace, as I’m fleet of foot) and go straight south on EAST LYNDALE Ave. N. Although I’ve (seemingly) bitched about sidewalks for this entire walking adventure (the shitty-ness of them, the lack of them, and all manner of socio-cultural extrapolations related to them), what I’m walking on can hardly be classified as a “sidewalk” at all. More like a extended curb. The philosophy of “pedestrian-as-afterthought” is spectacularly showcased by the strip of anorexic concrete under my cross-trainers. I feel like the imperiled dog on the cover of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, like the city is deteriorating beneath me. Betraying me. I can see it now: inside a government chamber, some portly, cigar-chomping, Tex Avery-drawn, dog-like County Commissioner, planning the EAST LYNDALE Ave. N sidewalk.
COMMISSIONER (sitting atop a pile of money and plump sacks emblazoned w/ “$”): So those pedestrians want a sidewalk, huh? Ernie Engineer! Make a sidewalk that forces those pedestrian galoots into traffic! That’ll show ‘em! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
ERNIE ENGINEER (an industrious but neurotic raccoon wearing white gloves but no pants): But sir, we only have six dollars left in the budget. We can’t build a decent sidewalk with six dollars. Just thinking out loud here, sir, but maybe you could donate a few dollars from your, um, personal account…
COMMISSIONER (producing a cartoonishly large revolver from out of nowhere): To hell with ‘em! (Shoots revolver in the air) To hell with you, raccoon! I’ll do it m’self! (Shoots ERNIE ENGINEER multiple times; he bleeds profusely and an “X” appears over each of his eyes) HAHAHAHAHAHA! Looks like you’re dead! Now gimme some poor peoples’ brains that I can eat for power! (A PORCINE FACTOTUM, also eschewing pants, enters and bequeaths to the COMMISSIONER a platter of poor peoples’ brains; the COMMISSIONER devours the brains; he then shoots the pants-less PORCINE FACTOTUM as well) HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Although extremely fulfilling and highly realistic, my daydream does little to assuage my need for a proper sidewalk. EAST LYNDALE Ave. N, with little will to support a person on foot, essentially forces me next to the iron-clad calamity that is I-94. Buildings and empty lots to my left frame the cobalt monoliths that are Downtown Minneapolis. Barbwire is everywhere and it’s doing a great job of protecting abandoned grocery carts and mounds of rotting fabric. Exhaust becomes a substitute for oxygen. Wind from the traffic elicits tornadic mini-gusts, sending another grab-bag of urban detritus a-whooshing at my toes. Cigarette butts, wrappers, etc. A compact disc hits me in the shin. Squatting down, I check it out. Maybe it’s worth claiming. It says, “INGRAM POWER PREVIEW.” Some kind of videogame demo thingy. I put it back where I found it. Carefully for some reason. There’s a dead bird, a sparrow of some kind (song or house sparrow, probably; too decomposed to tell), next to my right foot and it makes my fingertips tingle with a combo of revulsion and pity. Not four feet in front of me, there’s another dead sparrow. And then, a few more feet away, another. And another. I stand from my crouch and Bandana Guy, venturing into the street, passes me. A red sedan in the right lane adjusts itself, so as not to hit Bandana Guy. It’s not a swerve and no tires screech, but the driver in the red sedan slows and rolls down his window.
“Assholes!” he says, looking at Bandana Guy but also (for reasons of proximity, I suppose) implicating me as some type of accomplice.
All I see of the driver is a blur and an absence of eyes, of hair, of anything identifiably distinct. Mostly just a tangle of teeth and tongue and a scowling mouth. But Bandana Guy, red nylon backpack in tow, doesn’t even acknowledge the driver or me, much less the garbage and dead sparrows. Calluses are built over time and in this moment, as Bandana Guy fades with the red sedan, I’m envious of his.
I pass a bunch of lifeless roads that are probably no longer used as thoroughfares for light industrial activity. At the intersection of EAST LYNDALE Ave. N and OLSON MEMORIAL HIGHWAY, I’m fully consumed by the hulking shadow of I-94, which is raised about twenty feet off the ground. The freeway is supported by a system of broad concrete columns and supports, creating a tangle of underpasses. Beneath I-94 is teeming, but it is a shrunken and depleted teeming. It’s of activity that is hidden or, much more accurately, ignored (and I’ve certainly been party to such willful ignorance).
A young couple dressed in black, a man and woman, stand on a median, holding a sign that says, “Homeless and hungry/ anything helps/ God Bless”. The man wears a hoodie that’s been repaired with a shoelace. The woman drinks a Monster energy drink. I get close enough to tell that the energy drink is red; its fizzy pop is the most lively thing underneath the freeway.
“Hi, guys. How’s it going?” I say to them, instantly regretful of my greeting.
“Hi, honey,” the woman says. The man smiles and his dental health gives me a good idea of their predicament. Their faces are sunburned and threadbare.
“Where you from?” I say.
“Omaha,” the woman says, as if it’s a curse word. “Cousin said they’d set us up.” She smiles a little, devilish and self-aware. “Fell through, though. Shit happens, right? Where’re you off to?”
“Home,” I say. “Good luck.”
She hugs me, flabbergasting me into a state of motionlessness. The man then gives me a handshake-into-bro-hug and I’m even more floored. I’m surprised that they only smell like cigarettes. Twenty feet later, I check for my wallet in a (hopefully) nonchalant manner. It’s still there.
It eats at me, though. In order to maintain the status-quo of modern civilization, why must there be so many interstices of lifelessness? It’s amazing what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to achieve a semblance of progress. And they’re not insignificant, these shrines of inhumanity. How many paved fields? How many dead sparrows? How many ignored people? I’m not naïve enough to believe that the world is somehow a more terrible place now than at any point in history. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and a slew of other sources successfully reinforce the thesis that we’re better off than our parents and much better off than our grandparents. And I’m not cynical enough to think that our problems are beyond the pale of human recognition and ingenuity. But how much death and concrete and waste can we tolerate before we recognize that thousands of accreting outliers represent a single and significant cultural malignancy? Niche design catering to appetites that need immediate gratification leave a bunch of empty lots without customers and compact discs without purpose and fighting dogs without anything to bite. Fuck, maybe the City View apartments are the most honestly named locale in Minneapolis. Sure, from that vantage point, if you squint a bit, there are the skyscrapers and their neon hearths, those symbols of comfort and ease and civilization’s bounty. But look a little closer. The carrion festers. And it’s all here for the viewing.
Check back soon for Part Nine: A Walk in the Park!!!!!!!!