For years, successful men have reckoned
By this system, trained the self
To follow Lyndale and hang a Ralph
At Fiftieth, into a neighborhood
Where homes are stable, children good,
Earnings are high and soundly invested
In products Consumer Reports has tested,
Where life is not paranoid, moody or radical,
But Republican, Lutheran and Alphabetical.
That is the way Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion once gave directions to my old Minneapolis neighborhood, where the north-south avenues followed the alphabet, the largest Lutheran parish in the world held sway, and the 13th ward voted for conservatives (and against on-sale liquor).
For almost a half-century, my folks owned a home at 50th and Xerxes, in a far southwest corner of the city, bordered on two sides by suburban Edina, once known as having more two-car garages than any place in the United States. You always knew where you were in my section of town if you could count and knew the alphabet. At 5032 Xerxes you were between 50th and 5lst streets and between Washburn and York avenues. In northeast Minneapolis, you had to know the presidents in the order in which they served to locate your street, and across the Mississippi River in Saint Paul, it was hopeless. There was no alphabetical order in the state capital, and house numbers changed in the middle of the block. A recent Minnesota governor who was once a wrestler caused a ruckus when he said Saint Paul was laid out by drunken Irishmen.
I have lived half my life elsewhere, but my memory of where I grew up has a density of specificity. I remember the way the tractors came every other year to tear up and regrade Xerxes, and I can smell the midsummer tar as keenly as the apple pies my mother would cool in the open kitchen window. The streetcar no longer wyes at the corner, but I recall exactly how it parked next to Hanson’s Pharmacy. Mr. Hanson spent long hours in a back room, wielding mortar and pestle while surrounded by oddly shaped bottles and wooden drawers containing old prescriptions, an archive of neighborhood maladies. He still metes out pills in my mind’s eye, and over at the soda fountain Alice’s thin fist is on the phosphate lever. And in the drugstore’s sidewalk window is summer’s harbinger—plaster-of-paris replicas of sundaes and banana splits, each concoction revolving slowly on a lazy susan against the backdrop of a multifaceted mirror, hummocked whipped cream cut by painted rivulets of chocolate sauce.
About the only remaining business still on the corner is the barbershop, a two-seater where high school sports were discussed with the seriousness later transferred to such professional teams as the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. There once were two bakeries, one Catholic and one Protestant, as well as a Hudson dealership with cars you stepped down into. A dentist was above the five-and-dime, and there was a hardware store, a plumber, a shoe repair shop, two grocery stores and a hamburger joint whose french fries have yet to be duplicated. The vacant lots of youth are gone, too. I could walk to Saturday matinees at the Edina Theater through vacant lots, each of which had its own character, with only one backyard to traverse. Antique shops took over the corner, but in recent years the robin of gentification—a coffee house—arrived, and a few blocks south on Xerxes a French-menu bistro, Cave Vin, is getting good reviews. The family house we sold for $90,000 in 1991 came back on the market a decade later (albeit with some improvements) for $250,000. The neighborhood is doing well, but none of the dozen lawns I used to cut look as good as when I mowed them.
I could take you today to the Linden Hills library, right to the spot in the basement of the English Tudor style building where in the 1940s I discovered marvels like Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster and the sports books of John R. Tunis. Libraries are sacred places, especially branch libraries, the smaller venues where the geography of the imagination is first mapped and nurtured, before books and where they are kept come largely to mean research and learning. Going to the Linden Hills library meant biking up a steep three-block hill in the days before 10-speeds, but coming back with books nestled in the wire basket was a comfortable coast for a boy excited by his discovery of the delight that lay in words.
Christ the King School is a block from the family house. The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet, some of them without a college degree and facing classes with as many as 60 pupils, toiled against ignorance there. I fell in love with such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in this brick building, with its wintertime odor of wet galoshes drying next to classroom radiators. And there I began to speak my native language of Catholicism, although it happened to be the Latin of altar boys. Father William P. Driscoll was the pastor who, in the coolness of the sacristy following early morning Mass, would press a half-dollar into my hand and gruffly invite me to buy a soda. He would then light up a cigar and head for breakfast. No one in those days expected a theologian in the pulpit, an educator in the school, a psychologist in the confessional, a social worker in the neighborhood, a CPA in the rectory.
The Lakes, the Lakes
What gives southwest Minneapolis its character—and what drives its real estate prices—are Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, reminders that one in four of the city’s 6,385 acres of parkland is under water. Harriet, 2.75 miles around, and Calhoun, slightly larger, are the quality of life for surrounding residential areas—two watery lungs. There is a poignant time of year when the faint perfume of spring brings hundreds of citizens onto the lakes’ walking paths, released from the prison of a Minnesota winter. The lakes look remarkably the same over the years; the park service tends to them carefully, knowing how important they are to the collective urban psyche. As for the weather, meteorological spring comes a week earlier than it did when I left in 1967, another sign of global warming. However, there continues to be very little street crime in January.
I did a lot of growing up on the shores of Harriet and Calhoun, and every time in my 36-year adult absence that I would visit, I would walk one or the other. It would be like running a reel of my life backward. On Harriet, I knew the spot where the children’s beach used to be, where the trees from which we speared carp hung over the water, the location of the spring-water pump where the family would fill huge containers when city water turned brackish in August. Calhoun occupied older memory banks. There was Thomas beach, our hangout as young adults; the Calhoun Beach Club where our high school prom was held; and Uptown, a once-funky, now-chic commercial area just off the lake where one of my sons would later have an apartment. I courted my wife in a rented Calhoun canoe, paddling into adjacent Lake of the Isles on hot summer nights when the quiet could hurt your ears and dusk came late and splendid.
Calhoun and Isles were within walking distance of my two grandmothers’ homes, located a block apart on Colfax Avenue (still in alphabetical Minneapolis, between Dupont and Bryant). In addition to the childhood memories of both their homes, I had a bachelor’s flat for a time in the duplex owned by Claire Keeler, my maternal grandmother. So my grandmothers’ neighborhood, known as “The Wedge,” is also imprinted in my brain tissue. No matter where I am on Saint Patrick’s Day, I always recall Irish whisky neat, shared with Claire every March 17. Deserted by her husband many years before, she lived alone. It would still be cold in mid-March, often with snow on the ground, but muted sunlight would sometimes slant into her kitchen. We drank Power’s because, she said, Bushmills was distilled in Northern Ireland and she heard Protestants owned Jameson in the South. We talked baseball; Claire was always worried about Twins’ pitching. In a few months, she would be listening to baseball on the radio, sitting in wicker furniture on her screened-in porch, serenaded by crickets.
Grandmother Gert lived down the street, and she and her husband had boarders. One was Ray, a sad, taciturn man who lived in the furnished attic. He did not have a job, receiving checks for a mysterious wartime disability, and he played classical piano. As a boy on a summer visit, I would slip up to his garret and invariably find him bent over an upright piano under the east window, playing I know not what, being unable at that age to tell Beethoven from Bartok. The verbally inchoate Ray communicated by music, sending elegant passages of sound out over The Wedge. We never talked on these occasions. He played. I listened, arriving in silence and leaving the same way. Years later, in a canoe on Lake of the Isles, I sometimes wondered whether his music ever reached that far.
When it came time to move back to the Twin Cities after retirement to rejoin family on both my and my wife’s side, the question arose: Do we live in Minneapolis, where I grew up, or in Saint Paul, in whose environs my wife had been raised? There is only one place in the metropolitan area where one can see the downtowns of both Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It is a bluff above the Mississippi River sacred to the Dakota Indians and once useful to boats plying the waters below. It’s called Pilot’s Knob, and it’s located in a first-ring suburb called Mendota Heights. We moved to Mendota Heights.
It is the first suburban experience for us, and we are a little nonplussed when our daughter in New York City asks what a “berm” is, when our Saint Paul son complains about no sidewalks, and when we read in our neighborhood association covenant that no political signs are allowed. But our suburb, originally called Friendly Hills, went to school on Minneapolis’ respect for land and carved out hiking trails, nature preserves, set-asides for woods and ponds, and built what seems like a tennis court for every 10 residents. We have enjoyed re-entry into the calendar of family life—weddings, funerals, births, birthdays, First Communions. Our niece responded to a First Communion gift of a children’s Bible thusly: “I have started to read and am up to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Thirty-two years ago, Time magazine lauded Minnesota in a cover story, noting that “if the American good life has anywhere survived in some intelligent equilibrium, it may be Minnesota.” Things have held up well in the land of 11,842 lakes and many more loons. Either the state or its largest city rank near the top in crucial quality-of-life indicators—educational level, literacy, culture and the arts, personal income, health, clean government, business entrepreneurship, electromedical technology, corporate philanthropy, and so on. One survey even voted Minneapolis as the “most fun city” in the nation; Las Vegas was 25th. As for “Minnesota Nice,” my son Marc became a believer after witnessing a waitress in a downtown mall restaurant lose all her tip money while serving an outside table. Patrons scrambled from their seats to recover the bills and then waited in line (emphasis his) to return them to the grateful waitress. However, we also rank high in things like taxes, inadequate transportation infrastructure and prison population growth, not to mention Jello desserts and passive-aggressiveness.
So home is now a palimpsest. Where most people see what is on the surface, I see what has been erased underneath.
This was perhaps most evident last fall when I attended the 50th reunion of my Minneapolis DeLaSalle high school class. The school is located on Nicollet Island, which in the 1950s was part of a lower-loop skid row featuring flop houses, panhandlers and shattered muscatel bottles, presided over by a pickle factory. It is now upscale-urban with a nice park, posh restaurant and horse carriages. DeLaSalle, true to its urban mission, stayed on while Catholic high schools sprouted in the suburbs. It now wants to build its first home athletic field and is opposed by residents who, by and large, moved in after the island was tarted up, some settling into rehabbed brownstones rumored to be brothels in our day.
And on my way to Lake Harriet, where I still walk on nice afternoons, I drive past an empty lot on the Lyndale avenue mentioned by Keillor. But it’s not an empty lot to me, and never will be. It’s where my dad took me every year to buy a Christmas tree. It always seemed the coldest night in December. The “Y’s Men’s” tree lot was framed in white light. The men wore heavy boots and the wool-lined parkas favored by deer hunters. The snow had been trampled to ice-hardness. If you stood too long in one spot, the cold gripped right through your overshoes, threatening to root you next to the $3.50 balsams. When the purchase was made, the money was passed from exposed hand to exposed hand in the flickering light of a flaming barrel. Sometimes, a flask was passed, too, but I do not think the YMCA ever knew.
Dick Conklin retired as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame.