Part Eleven: Water in Polychrome

July 17, 2014
Andrew Blissenbach

So this is LAKE St. Anything organic and sensorial is consumed by its steeled tide of traffic. Car alarms and police sirens are the street’s cicadas. Blobs of gum dotting the sidewalk, long ago turned black, are like the animal tracks of a nervous and overwhelmed subspecies. But it works somehow; however inured we are by its unnatural and artificial milieu, there is a hum and vitality. Businesses grow plump with the glut. All kinds of businesses, too. White Castle and K-Mart rub their macro-shoulders against Ainusham’s Halal Foods and El Potro Boots and Western Wear. LAKE St. is a testament to human tenacity and adaptation and triumph. And it’s all I can do to just take pictures and put one foot in front of the other.

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While going east, a guy with dreadlocks and resplendent brown skin almost runs me over with his bike. I say, “Excuse me” in the knee-jerk way that conflict-adverse Minnesotans have perfected. He doesn’t respond or even turn around, but it occurs to me, as Dreadlock Guy pedals away, that dispensing with the Midwestern virtue of cheek-turning might be a pretty good way to make this final leg of my journey noteworthy. But it also occurs to me that acting out of one’s natural character is the quickest way to instill a whiff of dishonesty in a work of nonfiction. So I’ll just keep walking and let the drama come to me. Should come any second now…

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On LAKE St., there are so many moving parts, so many variables, so many surprises, that, eventually, a springboard for narrative has to present itself. Herbert Asbury unearthed the roots of systemic poverty while covering criminals in Gangs of New York; Peter Matthiessen wrestled with inner-peace while he searched for a feline in The Snow Leopard; Ian Frazier learned acute perception while trudging through empty expanses in Great Plains. Rarely does a (good) narrative focus only on a definable quarry. The gangs, the rare cats, and the abandoned missile silos are just the concrete starting points, the “springboard,” for bigger and better things. Yeah, Minneapolis is my subject. But, now that this adventure is quickly coming to an end, where is the big payoff, the cherry on top, the single ingot of refined truth that the reader can carry like a magical talisman?

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I’m under I-35 (Minneapolis’s other major clusterfuck freeway), fighting my way through a substantial gauntlet of foot traffic. There’s an aortic vibe where LAKE St. and I-35 meet. A silver Mercedes-Benz rolling west (towards the hoity-toity parts of Minneapolis) bisects the throng of panhandlers, bus riders, and Uptown bike hipsters. I’m behind a pair of black men, one of whom asks the other for a cigarette. They see me, and my conspicuous notebook, and give me the wary head-nod one gives an undercover cop.

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I go past 2ND St. and 3RD St. and CLINTON Ave. and 4TH St. and PORTLAND Ave. On my right, I pass two separate businesses (in close proximity) with the same name: Milagro’s Beauty Salon. Inside, Asian and Latina women with complex coiffeurs and predator-length nails attend to (104% female) customers, many of whom are sitting under hairdryers that resemble torture devices conceived by a 1950s science fiction writer. At their open door, I stop just long enough for a petite and smiling stylist (with a black-lacquered up-do that must have been created using trigonometry) to say, in a vanishing Central American accent, “Manicure/pedicure, yes?”

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The question sloshes in my mind. “Abso-fucking-lutely!” I want to say. I’ve never had a manicure or pedicure before (I chew my fingernails a bit and neglect to cut my toenails at regular intervals, so they would have something to work with). I’m reminded of my lengthy dumpster-diving a few blocks back and the words of E.M. Foster in Passage to India: “Adventures do occur, but not punctually.” But there’s the little business of picking up my daughter and it’s (Shit!) 3:05 p.m. So…

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“No,” I say. “Just taking a look. You wouldn’t want to deal with these feet anyway. I have this weird, really long second toe. Ug-ly! It’s from my mom and…”

At this point, she scruntches her brow and says, “No? For the feet?”

“No, thanks, I’m good. I don’t have time. I’ll go. I’m going. Thanks.”

Or the interaction resembles something like that, I don’t really know, because I retreat with the haste of an escaped mental patient.

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Okay, so that was about as awkward as a meth-addict’s seventh-grade dance. I power-walk past OAKLAND Ave. and PARK Ave. and COLUMBUS Ave. I’m slowed, however, by an African-American man on a bike. Although I’m pretty sure riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is illegal (says the trespassing/public-urinating/J-walking/dumpster-diving writer), I wouldn’t brave the schizophrenic phalanx that is LAKE St. traffic, either. The dude on the bike is careful and slow, though. And he seems to be trailing someone: an African-American woman with a…generous posterior (“apple bottomed,” as the parlance goes, although I have neither the street cred nor the scrotal constitution to ever utter such a phrase out loud to a black woman).

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“Hey,” the man on the bike says to the woman, “my name is Charlie, but they call me Eddie Murphy.”

Now I realize the convention of creative nonfiction leads writers to cobble together approximations when rehashing dialogue. Give readers the “spiritual truth” of what people say, as one of my favorite grad-school professors told me. There are no “approximations” here. This is 100% of what he said. And the man’s dialogue is so insane and perfect that it shotgun-blasts my brains all over LAKE St., stopping me fast.          

“O-kay,” the woman says, as charmed and stunned as me. “What’s up, Eddie Murphy?”

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I get my motor skills back in quick fashion and walk by, out of respect for the budding romance between Eddie Murphy and his posteriorly proficient ingénue. But what does he mean by, “my name is Charlie, but they call me Eddie Murphy”? Is it just a clever ice-breaker or pick-up line (but it’s too good to place the modifying adverb “just” in this sentence)? Is he as funny as Eddie Murphy? And, if so, is it the Raw/Saturday Night Live/Trading Places/Beverly Hills Cop-era Eddie Murphy or the Doctor Doolittle/Daddy Daycare-era Eddie Murphy? Is Charlie/Eddie Murphy a sleazy asshole? Is he insane? Is he a genius? Perhaps there is no answer to the question. Some things are destined to remain a mystery, like the exact formula for Coke, or the popularity of Robin Thicke, or the birth of human consciousness. And, of course, the reason for introducing yourself as a famous person you are clearly not.

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I arrive at the corner of CHICAGO Ave. and LAKE St., one of the more infamous places in Minneapolis. The intersection isn’t as dilapidated and seedy as it used to be, but in the late 1980s and early 90s, during its peak of prostitutorial and junkytastic shittiness, my parents would always warn of the corner’s dangers (“Real fuckin’ pieces of work” my dad would offer) as if it was the birthing center for Freddy Krueger’s offspring. Of course, it ended up becoming my intersection of choice in high school, mom and dad’s advice be damned, as it is the location of Chicago-Lake Liquors.

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I can attest from many hours of formal empirical study (i.e. waiting in my friend’s car, dubbed the “Shit Missile,” while his dad or some good Samaritan bought us Mickey’s grenades and Silver Wolf vodka) that Chicago-Lake Liquors (at least the parking lot) is an emporium of drifters, hobos (mostly the “stabbing” kind), and Listerine-swilling alcoholics. While waiting for the fermented goods, I was treated to such enticements as:

  1. A bike for twenty dollars (estimated retail value of the mountain bike: $300) that “my friend found.” I somehow resisted the temptation.
  2. An eighth of seed-and-stem laden ditch weed for twenty-five dollars (estimated street value: whatever oregano in a Ziploc goes for) that “wasn’t laced or nothing, bro.” Two words of Latinate wisdom: caveat emptor.
  3. A blowjob from a mostly-toothless, cross-dressing paramour for thirty dollars (estimated street value: dignity, in bullion) that, I was assured, would be “the best b.j. ever.” Reaching for any improvised weapon, but still smiling politely, because, hey, this is Minnesota, only two words of the non-Latinate variety were necessary: “Fuck. Off.”

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But for every ne’er-do-well, there were ten desperate and defeated citizens in need of genuine sympathy (and, all kidding aside, you only have to see blackened, frostbitten fingertips once in order to appreciate their circumstances; living as a homeless person in Minneapolis during the winter is some Ernest Shackleton-level shit and all our harsh opinions should be replaced by a Presidential medal and some appalled humanity). Judging from the robust lines at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, however, people still come in droves to get their drink on. Yet, as I make my way past the liquor store, there are no dubious sacks of marijuana offered or amorous propositions or (embarrassed for the following slice of daydreamed melodrama) hold-ups or gun battles or any scene of bombastic conflict that a wandering scribe could detail. Only a bunch of boring and orderly commerce.

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There are still plenty of gifts for the perceptive on foot, though. Murals (dozens, actually) decorate the sides of most buildings that I pass and so I do my best to capture their color and beauty with my camera (because describing all these glorious paintings with words is time-consuming and tedious). At this point, I’m resigned to the fact that, unless I run, there is no possible way I can get home on a sidewalk (in an hour) with four-plus miles to go. I might as well document my adventure with a decent degree of accuracy.

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Taking pictures like a talentless, stroke-addled Ansel Adams, the rubbered revolutions of skateboard wheels approach from behind. The rolling sound of a deck stops and a boy, tanned and lithe, strolls by at a polite distance, carrying his board. His elbows are knobby and a chain wallet rhythmically beats against cargo shorts. Scorching my retinas with his florescent tank top, the boy smiles, nods, and, motioning at my arms, pantomimes like a bodybuilder at a competition.

“You should start lifting, bro,” he says, walking backwards. “Get them bitches, yo!”

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He gets back on his skateboard and glides away. I laugh at the sky and flex my biceps, feeling like a Greek titan or a pro wrestler. “Little fuck’s a ray o’ golden sunshine,” I say to my camera.

Cutz Too Barber Shop is on my right. I’m past BLOOMINGTON Ave. S, 16TH Ave. S, and 17TH Ave. S. It’s 4 p.m. exactly when I overhear a man in a white barber’s smock say to a customer smoking outside, “Take in LAKE St. long enough, something stupid bound to happen.” It’s a total gem, a moment of synchronicity so shocking it’s as if some higher power ordered this veteran of the street to throw glory from his lips. I let the barber’s words baptize me and, after a halting nod to him that feels like a genuflection, absorb their scripture-esque significance. I continue east, walking over 18TH Ave. S and CEDAR Ave., thinking, “Yes! YES!” Because that’s what I want: something stupid! Something dramatic and action-packed, a fitting climax and denouement! Oh, to put a big, fucking bow on this whole thing!

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PIONEERS AND SOLDIERS MEMORIAL CEMETARY, the oldest existing cemetery in Minneapolis, is to my left, across the street. Headstones jut from the earth like teeth from a child’s mouth. I take a picture of the cemetery and the thrust of a shoulder bone bites at my right flank. An Indian boy, possessing the exact dimensions of the skateboarder, ricochets off my body. I’m not hurt and neither is the boy, but our momentary collision conjures an adrenalized splash of territorial confrontation.

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“Watch it, fucker,” he says, looking through my face. And some primal masculine force digs his shoes into the sidewalk. Two feet from me. The fucking audacity, so…

“You lost, son?” I say. Smiling. My shadow weighs more than him.

“Ain’t your son,” he says, clenching his knuckles. The boy is black eyes beneath a furrowed brow, a perfect statuette of a pose that teenage boys the world over practice in their mirrors.

“Go home to mommy, then” I say, turning completely away from him, giving him my entire back to either punch or stab or shoot. I do my best to hide my ballooning heart rate. One second. Two seconds. Nothing happens.

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He leaves our shared square of concrete. Obstinate and full-postured, sure, but he leaves, heading west. Even though I’m old enough to be his father, I imagine we share a similar phantasmagoria of violent imagery that is stupid and reactionary but transcends age. In my head, he’s bloody under my fists. In his, I’m dying in the gutter. Today, we’ll return to our opposite ends. Tomorrow, it could be different.

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Amped to the gills, I put my camera and notebook away. Adventure, like this stretch of road, runs the gamut. Grinning skateboarders and their doppelganger hoodlums bump by, scrape by, grind by. LAKE St. teaches me a lesson about the dark underbelly of cosmopolitan interaction. And about how good art is forged. Truth requires full access to the spectrum of emotion; elation and misery, enlightenment and doubt. We need to be able to cavort with leprechauns and their gold at one end of the rainbow and, at the other, flail at ephemeral tendrils of nothing-color, vexed and wanting and eluded and abandoned, bereft of answers or even questions. Drama, art, adventure, life: all different words for the same arc of water-borne polychrome.

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HIAWATHA Ave. and the LIGHT RAIL STATION are only a few feet away. At the intersection, I take the necessary steps: push the stupid red button, wait like a powerless rube. I notice a few neat scenes, so my camera’s back out and I take a shot or two. A Caucasian man in a Baltimore Orioles jersey waits at the light with me. He’s about my age, wearing sunglasses.

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“Nice city,” he says to me. A golfball-sized dip pulsates in his lower lip. He spits.

“Yeah,” I say, “lived here my whole life.”

So, while waiting for the light to change, we have a conversation about the fates of our favorite baseball teams. Solid for him, bad for me. But things are looking up for the Orioles for once.

“Hey,” I say, “mind if I score a dip? I’m a big fan of the mouth tobacco, but I don’t get to do it much. You know, the wife and all.”

“Yeah, I hear you about the wife stuff. Here,” he says, grabbing a tin of wintergreen Skoal from his pocket. “Take as much as you want.”

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Acting like I know what I’m doing, I pack the tin good and stuff a pinch in my mouth. The light changes and we separate with a stilted but genuine wave. The nicotine punches at my gums and goes directly to my head. Some abstract vision of Minneapolis blooms from the rush. Its lakes and rivers are blue blotches and crooked lines. Disparate entities connect on a street representing the tenuous idea of urban America. LAKE St. becomes a tether, a straight line holding in its gravity a series of heavenly bodies as large as Lake Calhoun and as small as a Latino boy grasping the pinky finger of his mother. The sun rises and sets on all of them, kisses and burns all of them, in a city named from a Lakota and Greek hybrid. Minneapolis, the City of Lakes, a speck in my skull and a sprawl in reality. All the same, really.

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I take a breath and a few more steps and it hits me. I take. Bites, steps, breaths, chances, notes, pictures, looks, time, some chewing tobacco. We take a lot from this city, this world. Humans are notorious takers (particularly us avaricious men). How do we pay something back that is responsible for every facet of our existence? Homage is a mural, perhaps, or maybe even a splatter of words. A small gift in order to reap the rewards of civilization. Art-as-sacrifice. I imagine it’s why we painted pictures of buffaloes inside caves, why stories venerate things that were “Once upon a time.” Visions of “could be.” And most certainly “should be.” Art is respect for what we’ve taken; a distillation of reverence. Guess that’s as close to a fanciful bow as we’re ever going to get.

It’s 4:15 and I need to get home. My bladder is about to explode; my feet are brambles. My brain is kaput. I hop on the train at the HIAWATHA Ave. LIGHT RAIL STATION. Adventure doesn’t always go the way you want it to.

My wife, Nicole, calls as the train door closes. Our conversation is brief and blurry and all I remember saying is how my walkabout went “great” before adding some Ernest Hemingway-lite shit about how “the world is a good place and worth fighting for, yes?” At least it’s worth writing about. To Minneapolis. From Andrew. Going home now. Love ya.

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Check back soon for a NEW essay that has nothing to do with walking in Minneapolis, Life and Death in Increments of Iron!!!!!!!!!! It’s about lifting weights (and soooooo much more)! And be on the lookout for the first-annual MANDREW’s Blissenblog Essay Contest! Lots of money and prizes up for grabs! $$$$ STRAIGHT CASH, HOMIE! $$$$