Traveling west on N PLYMOUTH Ave., I’m once again surprised by how quickly Minneapolis can transition from wooded alcoves to an industrial blandness colored Dickensian gray. The clouds, the sidewalk, the roads: all the same un-color. Photosynthesis to propylene glycol. This is the gateway to North Minneapolis.
On my left is the Star Tribune production facility (the Star Tribune, for those who don’t know, is the largest daily newspaper in Minnesota). The building itself is a sprawling footprint of red brick and shipping doors behind a tall fence. Considering the space the production facility devours, very little seems to be going on. Although I was an avid player of Paperboy on Nintendo’s 8-bit system, I know next to nothing about the production cycle of a massive newspaper, so I’m not going to suggest that the lack of scuttling news minions is some sign of the paper’s slow regression into obsolescence. Pretty sure the Star Tribune ain’t totally fucked. But it is kind of unnerving that such an impressive facility houses only the echoes of my footsteps. I pray for some guy in suspenders (Brylcreem in his hair and Chesterfield on his lip) to yell, “STOP THE PRESSES!” For some reason, my prayer goes unanswered.
A bit further up, storm clouds coalescing, there is a garage-ish building on my right where the occasional power-tool squeal issues through a motor-oil musk. As a man who’s always been a bit insecure about his absolute lack of mechanical know-how, I do my best to initially avoid the eyes of men who actually know how to do something. So I puff my chest out a bit, flex my guns, and do my best, “I’M A MAN! A STEAK-SNORTING, TRUCK-FUCKING MAN!” facial expression. I turn my head and look into the garage. There’s a man with his back to me, dressed in a blue mechanic’s suit, a filthy rag stuffed into his back pocket like a trophy. Above him, there’s a sign that reads, “Robo Lube.” Robo Lube! Did Isaac Asimov ever explore robot masturbation? Guess I can subsist on immaturity and book-learnin’ a tad longer.
I’m a few steps away from the bridge that crosses I-94. The gargantuan freeway, four lanes in each direction, is truly a leviathan, an engineering feat that (like all truly grand engineering feats) makes a lone onlooker feel impotent in comparison. Before traversing the bridge, big drops of precipitation stain my writing notebook. In humidity like this, odors tend to linger and cling. The exhaust. The slightly ferrous smell of pre-rain. Cigarette smoke from somewhere close. I turn my head slightly and there’s a white, multi-story warehouse. It’s a business called Chandler Industries. Two men, about thirty yards away, inhale as much smoke into their lungs as is possible during a fifteen minute break. Their affectless surveillance latches onto me, following my progress in unison. I sense their suspicion turning into outright hostility. People tend to get a bit tight when strangers creep around their work while furiously scribbling. Flushed with a narcotic defiance, I keep walking, keep writing things into my notebook, and give them a curt nod. They keep thoroughly eye-fucking me. And I get no greeting in return. Except one of them throws his cigarette. The gesture of an asshole. I clench my hands. Slow down a little. It’s hard to tell their size from this distance, but nothing about the two men’s physical presence intimidates me. My brain gives its emotional fangs a red-meat fantasy: I’m punching them, turning their faces into blood and splinters and pulp, robbing them of features that took a thousand generations to refine. We watch each other until melting into just another industrial byproduct.
Such massive and ugly architecture, in combination with the thousand-layered mecha-hum of I-94, lacquers my synapses with hostility and saps me of my want to interact. I contract again, awash in estrangement again, another victim of inorganic, monochrome suffocation. Car after car after car flows beneath me, cuts me down a little more. I return to my notebook and try to transmogrify poison into some trinket of understanding. The rain comes down and it reminds me of my purpose. It touches my skin. Cleans my wounds.
My trudge west along N PLYMOUTH Ave. continues. Although the rain has seemingly kept most of the foot traffic indoors for a bit, there’s still a sizeable contingent of people that have to get somewhere, regardless of inclement weather. A police siren infects the air with electro-agony as a Somali woman moves at a steady pace toward me, dressed from head-to-toe. She wears a Muslim hijab (a garment that covers all of her hair and head, except the face) that morphs seamlessly into a black and red dress that nearly brushes the sidewalk. She speaks a language I don’t understand into a cell-phone. Her brown eyes turn down, heavy and burdened by a pain that seems domestic.
There are pockets of Somali immigrants throughout Minneapolis, so the sight of her certainly isn’t rare (Minneapolis/St. Paul is home to more than 20,000 Somalis). But I always initially wonder how Somali women (and all Muslim women, really) endure the heat and humidity of summer while being blanketed from scalp to ankle. Must be uncomfortable. And the winters in Minnesota? Why would you want to come here? Since most of my knowledge of Somalia is lifted from Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down, I’m guessing the answer is: -40 degree wind-chill and mosquito-breeding humidity don’t have shit on Mogadishu warlords and their stink of phosphorus and bullet lead. She’s in front of me, so I smile at her. Demurely, she returns the favor, her teeth the color of fresh struck lightning (not to be fetishistic or demeaning or racist, but I’ve always loved the contrast of a really white smile with dark skin; it’s scintillating and cool). And then the smile is gone; she returns to her phone, walks past me, and, without touching her, I feel her insularity.
The rain falls harder and more people seek shade away from the sidewalks, so I’m forced to interact with a glut of tiny ruin at my feet. Scratch-off tickets, empty cigarette packs, faded wrappers that used to house Skittles and Snickers and Twizzlers. Crushed Styrofoam once shaped like cups, like plates, like those to-go containers that can fill a garbage can in an instant. And, Jesus Christ, enough cigarette butts to nearly clog the gutter. There are so many husks of low-end consumer culture, so many discarded totems to lives lived gasping an inch above water. An awful shrine to a lifestyle without horizons or tomorrows. Walking west on N PLYMOUTH Ave., I step through a graveyard where the headstones recall only a cyclical existence born in the present and dying not a moment later.I kick a bottle of Miller Lite and it shatters in the street and it sounds like broken hope made manifest.
The middle-class, bourgeoisie part of me resists the urge to catch raindrops on my tongue. I only feel a little guilty, as the precipitation truly looks and smells grosser in North Minneapolis. (And, really, what grown man catches raindrops on his tongue in a public street?) The wetness, along with my enervated surroundings, makes me uncomfortable and so I move faster, even though I have no idea where I’m going. Still walking west, I cross N ALDRICH Ave., N BRYANT Ave., and N DUPONT Ave. The only thing that really sticks with me, as I move with alacrity and my notebook really starts to smear, are three buildings to my right. The first is the Minneapolis Nutrition Center, the second is the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, and the third is Catholic Charities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. All of them are humble, rectangular constructs of utilitarian color and design. But it’s the names of the buildings, not their aesthetic, that jolt the part of my brain that recognizes patterns. All have the mark of charity, of the public good, of giving. The flipside of such services, and their clustered proximity in a poor neighborhood, also signal an air of desperation, of dependence. Such auras of unrequited patronage fuel the landed gentry’s reactionary vitriol. But here, at ground zero, if you possess any trace of empathy and understanding, that shit goes out the window. An elderly black man, maybe sixty but looking crevassed and dog-eared and damn-near eighty, puts most his meager weight against the street-facing wall of the Catholic Charities building. His beard looks like unbleached cotton and I fail to look him in the eyes for more than a half-second.
I slow down at the intersection of N PLYMOUTH Ave. and N EMERSON Ave., waiting to cross the street. I push the little red button to indicate that a pedestrian wants to cross. And I anxiously push it six, seven, eight times. No fancy robot voice. It’s just an implement of pacification, a social placebo to keep us content while dozens of cars (most late 1990s models and in various stages of rusting decomposition) spin through the puddles and potholes.Behind me, an African-American woman sings a gospel or soul song I don’t recognize. She’s also crying; sobbing really. I stand there, unable to turn around, afraid, actually, to see what such sadness can do to a human face. Her sobbing continues and so does her singing. The aural torture goes from my head to my chest and it wrings every drop of cold detachment from my entrails. I exhale.
“You okay?” I say, turning around.
She sucks in. Stops singing. It’s hard to tell how much of her face is wet because of tears or the rain. Her cheeks are high and plump. Hair braided with strands of red. Gold earrings, huge gold hoops, pull her lobes down. She’s dark skinned. Beautiful, really.
“God willing, honey,” she says.
The light turns green and she keeps on walking and singing and crying. I just stand there, unable to translate, “God willing, honey.” There’s a place called Mickey’s Liquor across the street. Conveniently located next to a MoneyGram. A police siren again and it melds with the woman’s sobs, the woman’s song, and the concrete and the din are a singular chorus and it all becomes the same thing.
Finally crossing the street, I make my way west, toward N FREMONT Ave. There’s a partially enclosed bus stop at the corner. A dozen or so people overflow from the cover and are forced to stand in the rain. Before I know it, I’m in the same corner scrum as them; waiting for a light to change, waiting for a bus. It doesn’t really matter. We all stand with a bovine placidity. And it’s here, in this mass of people who reside in North Minneapolis, that I feel different. Feel like an interloper. But it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m (again) the only white dude in eyeshot. No, it’s not my whiteness, my advanced degrees, or even my socio-economic standing that makes me feel like an interloper. The rift lies in my transient nature, the fact that I can taste .000001% of something and report back with a manner of knowledge or authority and then leave and go back to my version, my reality, of Minneapolis as if I grasp some truth. No, I’m worse than an interloper. Like David Foster Wallace describes in his essay, Consider the Lobster, “tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way-hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.” Yep. I’m a fucking tourist.
“Lost, son?” a man sitting in the enclosed part of the bus stop says. He’s leaning on a walker. An African-American gentleman of generous proportions, wearing an olive drab military jacket and a worldly smile. The jacket has a bunch of cool patches on the chest and sleeves.
“No. Not really,” I say. “I like your jacket.”
“Thanks,” he says, motioning to a man on his right and left, both of whom are also propped up by canes or walkers and wearing similar military attire. “Viet-nam.” A pause. He raises a gray eyebrow. “You don’t live here?”
“Just taking a walk. I live a little south of here. Figure I’ll walk down North 7th. Shit, maybe walk right onto I-94. Really, I kinda wanted to see what North Minneapolis was like.”
“It ain’t so bad,” I say, laughing at the awfulness of my lie.
“Yeah,” he says. He winks and laughs and all of sudden, for only a needle of time, we share the same Minnesotan wavelength. “Could be worse, right?”
Check back soon for Part Eight: A Shrine to Inhumanity!!!!!!!!! Only four parts to go!!!!!!