“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book–a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
The elevation of E HENNEPIN Ave. crests shortly after I leave Pizza Nea. Going southwest, the landscape sinks into the rut carved by ancient glaciers and the Mighty Mississippi. To my left is Nye’s Polonaise Room, a Polish eatery festooned in 1950s supper-club kitsch, with a polka lounge to boot. For me, attached to Nye’s is always this reminder: one of my friends from high school killed a bouncer there by shooting him in the back four times. I mention this not as a shocking or cavalier footnote, but to give an example of why adventure is necessary in the first place: to leave the familiar, leave the scars, leave the palimpsest scenery that contains the horrifying and mundane jottings of a life lived in familiar locales. It’s hard for us to escape reality and find blank pages in a place we’ve called home for so long. There’s always those rattling chain links, connecting us to previous installments, to history itself. Like the Mississippi, it’s difficult for me to look at Minneapolis anew, without the baggage of 35 years.
In the Mississippi, I see the slate and mud currents as a constant divide between my two favorite cities; the way the river smells like a rotting carcass in late July (hence the colloquial use of “river stink”); its symbology as muse, as touchstone, as America itself, in the pens of Twain and William Faulkner and Garrison Keillor; the way it was my traveling companion while riding on RIVER ROAD, preschool at the University of Minnesota my eventual destination; how the letters M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I (the first “big word” every Minnesotan child learns how to spell) jumped from my grade-school lips like prideful popcorn; the times my dad would throw rocks across the gray waters, a distance that seemed like miles when I was younger. I didn’t want any more of the memories. I wanted to get lost. But it’s not easy.
Before crossing THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE, there’s Nicollet Island down and to my left, a strip of land where I’ve gotten drunk a half-dozen times before Twins games. Once, the gang I was with even managed to keep a hungry raccoon (and, because the raccoon was so active and bold during the day, a likely rabid raccoon) from rending six or seven goslings. THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE also dredges the memories of how I used to hate crossing over bridges during my elementary school years. If I was traveling in a car, I’d force everyone I was riding with to close their windows while I covered my ears and chanted “DADADADADADA” in the throes of some serious back/forth rocking. The worst was when I actually had to walk (WALK!) across the Ford Parkway Bridge, over the Mississippi at a very thick juncture, from Minneapolis to St. Paul. How did it get to the point of me walking across a bridge I hated to cross?
Pardon the flashback: I was in fourth grade and my brother Alex, in third grade, had just finished celebrating his November birthday with his classmates. On our trudge through the schoolyard snow to meet our dad (who was parked about fifty yards from the school), Alex and I enjoyed a few of the extra chocolate cookies left over from the party. Brent, a husky and freckled kid who was in my grade (although he was a year older as he was held back), was waiting for a ride and approached us as we made our way to dad. He asked in a genial but assertive way if he could have a cookie. Brent was a friend of mine, but he was a kid who could play the role of antagonist just as well. Alex and I exchanged nods of approval. We weren’t total dicks, so…
“Yeah, you can have one,” I said.
“But just one,” Alex said. I didn’t think emphasizing the conditions (“just one”) was necessary, but Alex lacked my tact, especially when it came to kids larger than us.
Brent smiled, grabbed about five cookies, stuffed one in his red maw, and sauntered away. I huffed a bit, but was resigned to do nothing. They weren’t my cookies and who really cares, right? Let the fat kid stuff his face. Alex, however, didn’t approve (remember, he didn’t concern himself with social graces). Brent continued walking and, at about twenty yards away, my brother dipped to the ground and mashed a snowball into shape.
“Brent!” was my brother’s only warning. The snowball was in the air, without arc, and it detonated like a cluster bomb on Brent’s cherubic face. He was on his ass, chocolate cookies scattered like offerings to the Norse gods. To this day, Alex’s throwing accuracy in this instance is still celebrated. Nevertheless, Brent got up. Fast. He stomped through the white distance that separated us in about two seconds. Alex charged, unafraid of my friend who was known to have more than a trace of bully in his blood. Brent outweighed my brother by a good 20-30 pounds, but Alex was one of the fastest kids in school and a champion gymnast who could do 50-some (yes, 50-some) pull-ups. They met in a scrum of swinging limbs.
“Whoa!” I said, wholly unprepared for the conflict’s swift escalation. “Alex! Brent! Whoa! Stop!”
My brother slugged Brent in the face a few times before they tumbled to the ground together. Brent whimpered and strained and some empathetic organ in my innards felt sorry for him. I reached in to the fracas with the whole of my upper body, hoping to finally pry Alex from the now-crying Brent. A pair of thick hands pushed me back and dislocated my brother from his adversary. Dad was between them, a massive peacemaker in a black trench coat.
“Hey! Enough!” was all that was needed. The boys sunk into their private peripheries, chests huffing and hands still clenched.
“It’s not fair!” Brent said, his face a swollen welt. “Alex hit me in the face with an iceball and he’s way stronger than me!”
Alex was silent and fuming, his hard grey eyes clenched on Brent’s wet visage. My dad then forced some apologies from both boys and sent Brent, not unkindly, away from our family. We walked to the car, my dad smiling a bit, perhaps about the predictable constant of boys acting like warring idiots. Or maybe the smile was my dad reliving how Alex pounded the snot out of a gluttonous twerp. Whatever the smile’s origin, it quickly vanished as my dad patted at the pockets of his trench coat.
“Where are the keys?”
Some more patting at pockets. Digging in pockets. He stopped walking and his hands became frantic.
“WHERE THE FUCK ARE MY KEYS?!!!!”
An hour and a half later we were home. When we crossed the Ford Parkway Bridge, trekking from south Minneapolis to our house in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, I managed not to shit myself by
- Closing my eyes.
- And certainly not looking down.
- Squeezing my dad’s hand.
- And asking (with annoying frequency), “Is the bridge going to crash into the river?”
Two weeks after walking over the bridge, I wrote a story about it for a class project that was entitled FACING YOUR FEARS. I remember my classmates possessing some really dumb-shit phobias (a fear of pillow cases and a fear of tap water is what stuck with me), but the thespian verisimilitude with which I conveyed my coping methods (the “DADADA” chants, the rocking, the ear plugging, etc.) earned me the heartiest dose of laughter (50%, I estimate, was of the “laugh at” rather than the “laugh with” variety). I’m fairly certain this public shaming had a good deal to do with overcoming my bridge-crossing phobia, as I don’t remember getting too anxious about it after that. A medical miracle, all thanks to a fat kid fighting my brother! Fin.
So I walk across THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE, a beige expanse of stone arches that is as plainly attractive and welcoming as Minneapolis itself. Lining the thick strip of water: the Gold Medal Flour sign, condos for the bourgeoisie, and the cobalt blue cube that is the Guthrie Theater (complimented by its cantilevered bridge dangling over the banks like a parallel cliff diver frozen in time). My wife and I saw Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie. It was awesome.
And of course (my favorite), the Grain Belt Beer sign, which looks like a giant bottle cap with the aforementioned brand emblazoned across its entirety. I’ve been absurdly drunk on Grain Belt (“The Friendly Beer”) so many times (courtesy of the Tall Boy, as real men demand an extra 4 oz. of liquid gold when crushing brews) that I’m certain a quart of my blood would qualify as Friendly. For starters, it’s brewed in New Ulm, MN, at Schell’s Brewery (a collection of firebricked buildings where peacocks roam the premises), the second oldest family-owned brewery in the United States (New Ulm also happens to be only a handful of miles from where my wife grew up and is also home to a fantastic, 27 ft. tall statue of Arminius, aka “Hermann the German,” the leader of a coalition of Germanic tribes who kicked Rome’s ass during the Battle of Teutoburg in 9 A.D.; he is one of the many people responsible for halting the proliferation of the soft-tongued Romantic languages that infect Spain, France, and Italy). Grain Belt also has the slamability of a light-bodied macrobrew yet finishes with a hoppy tang and citrus flavors, making it distinct (rather than bland and disposable). All this information, however, enforces the fact that I know the city from this vantage point. So far, I’ve been in the mind of adventure; I want to be in its hands, its feet, its clenched jaws, its beating heart. I’m determined to let THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE take me to the unknown, to a land bereft of association and the weight of ephemeral memories. Sometimes we need to hide, to run away from ourselves, in order to find solace.
The Mississippi tumbles over itself under my feet, perpetually shedding; always cascading, always new. A muse, indeed. Time to get lost.
Check in next Thursday for Part Six: …And Through the Woods!!!!!!!!!!!!!!