PLEASE WAIT! PLEASE WAIT!”
A flashing DON’T WALK sign on CENTRAL Ave. says this to me. Well, I guess it’s not the sign, but some speaker commands me to wait. I take umbrage not with the coercive language, but with the urgent inhumanity of the tone, like it actually has an interest in my well-being.
“You wait. Ass,” I say. I cross the street, sure that the voice’s feelings are sufficiently butthurt.
The sidewalk once again becomes an afterthought. I travel between a concrete barrier and a fence as a jackhammer punches stone to dust in staccato intervals. My olfactory system is awash in tasteless gray silt. A flock of pigeons, a single organism really, flee from the inorganic and offensive noise. I feel a bond with them for a thread of a moment, these constant refugees inhaling the same inhospitable and colorless flux.
When I feel alone and psychically estranged from the human race (as I’m feeling right now), I have a tendency to put my antenna away and look down, like the ground will ameliorate me from my existential micro-crisis. But there’s grist for the ol’ brain-mill on the ground, especially in the city. For example: what’s with all the spray paint lines on the sidewalk? They probably mark water mains and gas lines and other practical, infrastructure-ish stuff, yet I’ve always kinda hoped that they were some type of code, some type of secret-society cant, that describes what lurks underground. Do red lines mean I should look out for a Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller (or C.H.U.D. in acronym form)? Do green lines indicate ninja turtles? How about a combination of red and black? Are those the markings of a subterranean French revolutionary? And what about a mole person habitation being nearby? What color would they receive (I’m guessing some combination of brown and purple)? Do blue and black indicate a rat’s nest, one to be poisoned in the near future (which will thus create the need to put our toilet seats down [according to my mother], lest the desperate and convulsing vermin crawl through the pipes and enter our homes, wet and scurrying and rabid and gnawing)? My want for human connection combined with a curiosity about the tribal markings of public works (plus a vindictive urge to window-shatter my childlike notions of underground communities) make me approach Jackhammer Guy. Well, not so much “approach-Jackhammer-Guy” as “cling-to-the-fence-and-shake-it-while-shouting-HEY-at-a-bewildered-Jackhammer-Guy.”
“Hey!” I say (to my astonishment) only three times.
“Yeah, how can I help?” Jackhammer Guy says, unplugging his ears. He answers me in such a genuinely concerned manner that I feel like a total douche for yelling “Hey!” at him like he was a half-deaf lunkhead.
“Hi. I’m not a dick or weirdo or anything, just so you know, but I was wondering what the deal is with the spray paint lines on the sidewalk? Like, what do they mean?”
“Oh,” he says, a white smile and soft black eyes cutting through the grit mask of hard labor. “They mark public utilities. Storm drains, water mains, fiber optics, street lights. Stuff like that. Wish I could tell you more. You know, about the colors and what they mean. Anything else I can help with?”
“No. Cool…That’s it, I guess.”
I’m so blown away by how patient and articulate and downright charming he is that I don’t really know how else to respond.
“Great,” he says. “Sorry I couldn’t answer your question better. Have a great day!”
“Yeah,” I say, the sun on my grin again. “You’re awesome, man. Thanks!”
It’s 11:37 a.m. and I take a slight right on to E HENNEPIN NE Ave., which means I’m walking to the south and east. I start passing businesses that serve food and quickly learn that E HENNEPIN NE Ave. has a wide array of sumptuous choices, and I am just starting to get hungry when I walk by the fire-born odor of tomato, basil, and mozzarella cheese. I am rendered powerless by the smell, so much so that I actually start rationalizing why I need to eat an obscene amount of pizza prior to crossing the Mississippi (Northeast Minneapolis exists east of the Mississippi, unlike the majority of Minneapolis proper). Here’s the gist of the rationalization: most great adventures are preceded by a great meal. The annals of literature practically beg me to gorge myself before setting off into the shadowed unknown. There’s Kerouac’s consumption of ice cream and apple pie in On the Road; Queequeg and Ishmael’s hearty helpings of chowder in Moby-Dick (a meal so important that Herman Melville titled an entire chapter, “Chowder”); the heroic breakfast of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, eaten before his trek through Dublin, a meal consisting of “the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” But instead of cod or clams or stuff that tastes like pee, I’m going to devour Neapolitan pizza.
Pizza Nea is a black awning and square brick nuzzled between other square bricks on a block composed of similar, intimate places. On the compact sidewalk patio a chalkboard extols the wonders of half-price wine. I open a glass door and cross Pizza Nea’s threshold. Time for some American-sized gluttony by way of Naples, Italy.
Olive green and mustard yellow are the dominant colors. A yawning firebrick oven engulfs the back part of the restaurant; it glows hot with miniaturized hellfire, one that would earn Dante and Milton’s approval. Although it seems like an easy description, the word “rustic” is appropriate, what with the earthy warmth and organic, rough-hewn décor. And while I’m one of five people in Pizza Nea, I imagine the coziness of the seating arrangements to be a knees-constantly-touching-asses type of detriment if it were busy. It seems strange, but most of the other Neapolitan pizza joints that I’ve dined at in the Twin Cities (Punch Pizza, Pizzeria Lola, Black Sheep Pizza; all are excellent, by the way) also favor mosh-pit intimacy. Perhaps the Neapolitan pizza craze also tries to import the close proximities of European dining, what with their squished urban cafes tumbling over one another on narrow streets and balkanized communities containing dense populations. Such shoulder-rubbings are foreign to us Americans and our “Atlantic-to-Pacific” sense of space. Our Manifest Destiny isn’t confined to our landmass proper; we are a country of suburban buffets that appear to encompass multiple zip-codes and acre-spanning steakhouses that allow customers a mini-fiefdom for their 72 oz. blood-red slab and baked potato. But all this Italian dining sensibility is cool with me, as I’m pretty much the opposite of an agoraphobe. Still alone, though, at a table for two. Alone, that is, until she shows up and my body becomes a blush.
Check in next Thursday for Part Four: Blue Friday!!!!!!!