The two and a half acres of Stevens Square Park are home to a few dozen oaks well over a century old, a pergola, a playground, a basketball hoop, a pump-handled well—also almost a century old—and, for two nights last week, about two billion crows.
I moved to Minneapolis in May 2010, the year Bicycling named it the best cycling city in the country. That summer, unemployed, I sat on my girlfriend’s second-floor balcony and watched the bikes go by: Trek Antelopes, Surly Steamrollers, Specialized Allez’s, and legions of vintage 10-speeds: Raleighs, Fujis, Panasonics, Peugeots, Schwinns. Just three blocks from our building, I could join a stream of cyclists on the finest urban bike trail I’ve ever seen: the “great, vast Greenway,” in the words of the Bicycling writer.
Minneapolis is home to the most poorly timed traffic light in the universe. It controls the intersection of 42nd Street South, Hiawatha Avenue, and my beloved light rail line.
Minneapolis is divided into four parts: Northeast, Downtown, North, and South. Northeast—formerly a destination for East European immigrants, now for middle class families and hipsters—is cut off from the rest of the city by the Mississippi River. Downtown—formerly home to prostitutes and semi-destitute single men, now to a few young professionals and hip retirees in luxury apartments—is a triangle between the river to the north and I-94 to the south and west. North—home to most of the city’s black people—has I-94 to the east and Theo Wirth Park to the west. And South—the largest and most diverse part of the city, home to immigrants, middle-class blacks, and most of the city’s whites, including its wealthiest—is bordered by the river, always the river, and Route 62 to the south. Instead of skirting the neighborhood, like the highways in other parts of the city, I-35 runs right through the middle, straight as a surgeon’s incision.
When people learn I lived in Kenya for two years, they often ask me, “What was it like?”
For a while, I found it nearly impossible to answer this question. But I’ve gradually whittled down an answer that is fairly succinct: I tell people what it was like to walk around town. “The ironic thing,” I say, at the end of my little spiel, “is that in America, the only way to recreate the kind of community you have in a Kenyan village is to live in the most crowded city you can find.”
In July, Liz and I canoed for four days through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—a million-acre tract of boreal forest, glacial lakes, and Precambrian bedrock that covers most of Northern Minnesota and elides into Canada’s even larger Quetico Provincial Park.
I sold my car in 2007 to spend more time outdoors. The decision has worked out, but it’s meant that nearly of all my outdoors time must occur within a bike-ride of where I live. It had been two years since I’d spent more than a night in the woods, which probably explains why I was inordinately impressed by one of the wilderness’s most basic features: everywhere I looked, nothing was the same.
Of course, mechanical repetition was one of the major things Liz and I had come to the Boundary Waters to escape. But the randomness of the wilderness did not come as a complete relief. For one thing, perfect randomization is pretty much indistinguishable from perfect repetition. Liz can identify most trees in the North Woods, but to me the forest was a multi-million-acre mass of slightly different shades of white and green. On a long paddle, the shore became monotonous.
Sometimes I imagine eternity. Not often. Once or twice a month at most. It can happen while I’m lying on my back and Liz is leaning in to search my chin and jawline for the painful in-grown hairs I get from shaving, a moment so full of intimacy and attention it’s almost unbearable. But I usually imagine eternity during the traditional time for existential dread: the middle of the night. One innocent thought fits into another until I find myself trying to imagine what it is not to be and how this youth I feel right now, this sense of endless promise, my life with Liz, asleep beside me (her powerful heart, her miraculous enormous brain, her warm delicate veins, her smooth cool skin) will pass so unbelievably quickly that one day she and I will be lying in bed just like this but old, contemplating the prospect of one of us joining eternity before the other.
“It is awfully easy to be hardboiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing,” Jake Barnes declares at the end of chapter four of The Sun Also Rises. I think about death often in the daytime. Other people’s. My own. And it doesn’t bother me particularly. People die. They slip away. I could too. At any moment. All the more reason to enjoy what I’m doing. But it’s different when I imagine eternity.
I went swimming one night at a beach in Kenya called Watamu. It was my first immersion in a tropical sea, and the warm water had the unmistakable comfort of the womb. The sea was black, and the sky would have been black too if it hadn’t been hemorrhaging stars. Imagining eternity is like floating at night at Watamu, if you take away the white curve of the beach, and the hard sand a few inches below your feet, and the friends floating all around, and the stars. I don’t panic when I imagine eternity, but I don’t feel calm, either.
In the early spring of 2002, I had a vision in the West Virginia mountains. I’d wandered away from the meadow where my friends were enjoying the afternoon sun after the freezing temperatures that had frozen our water bottles solid the night before. I followed a path along the ridge. After only a few strides, the meadow was invisible. I glimpsed the sun through the trees, threw myself down among the tree roots, and understood that happiness was not only possible, but that I could have it for the rest of my life. The wind came down the valley and crashed in the trees like ocean surf. Invisible particles surged through me unimpeded. It was the purest joy I’d ever experienced. I was, as they say, one with the universe.
“But what is there to write about when you’re one with the universe?” my own voice asked.
“Shit,” I thought.
Bob Marley was floating above the valley where the sun had been. “I can’t do this,” I told him.
“Yes you can,” Bob Marley said.
January! Month of hope and empty promise; month of bright and biting sky. Hump month. Midwinter. Month of cold clarity. Gin month.
For a thousand years or so, when an artist in Britain, Holland, France, or Italy, wanted to represent the month of January in pigment or in stone, he would almost invariably resort to the same image: a man or woman warming themselves by a fire. Sometimes with a feast, sometimes without. In the Middle Ages, January was a month when almost all agricultural work was impossible. But in downtown Minneapolis, our labor goes on uninterrupted via the longest climate-controlled tunnel system in the world. The cold and darkness can feel claustrophobic, but January has its rewards. If you can leave the office by 4:30, you might catch a column of steam pouring up from a rooftop vent past a sky the exact bright turquoise of a tropical lagoon.
And then there are the mornings, walking Matilda in Loring Park, sunlight falling on brick and glass, the snow still blue in the shadow. In January we wake from the cozy fever dream of Christmas—Middle Eastern legends, pagan rituals, Victorian poems, American lights, silent nights—to frozen lakes beneath blue sky. The solstice has passed. The darkness is still at its peak, but each day lasts a little longer than the next. The future seems palpable: I will be slimmer, stress-free, more compassionate, more disciplined. At Christmas we anticipate gifts, but at the New Year we expect transformation.
I’ve lived in Stevens Square for eighteen months, and I’ve never seen anyone eating chicken wings and walking down the sidewalk. If this doesn’t surprise you, you’ve never walked a dog in Stevens Square.
A dog walker’s environment is defined by landmarks the casual pedestrian never notices, all of them disgusting: squirrel heads, pigeon wings, dog piss, discarded food, human vomit. So much human vomit. All appearing as if by magic. Matilda will chomp a small stick with the same relish as a chicken bone, so it requires a certain amount of discernment to know whether I need to grab her chin and start fishing around in her mouth with two fingers. If I can’t I.D. her prize immediately, I only need to wait a second or two. If she has a stick, she’ll begin a proud/delighted prance, not quite as proud/delighted as her wad-of-soiled-paper prance, but easily distinguishable from the ecstatic/furtive crouch reserved for items so delicious they must be forbidden.
I never see the fried chicken tossers, the upchuckers, or even the dog owners nonchalantly strolling away from their dogs’ feces; yet the evidence is there. And, in Minneapolis, the evidence is especially there in winter.
In summer the city seems cleaner. Maybe it’s the desiccating heat and rinsing rain. Maybe the birds and squirrels are more active scavengers. Maybe the textures of tall grass and leafed-out shrubs just hide everything better. At any rate, the beginning of winter is not so bad. The first snow falls and the city is as clean as it will ever be. Then the temperature rises, and things get drippy. The dog is in ecstasy at the end of her leash. Overwhelmed by the plethora of smells, she compulsively zigzags from one melt-hole to the next until she finally pokes her delicate nose into a snow bank and pulls out a turd, which she eats before you can stop her. The snow falls again, the city is lovely and quiet. Then you are in February.
On September 1, 2010, I woke up at six a.m., as usual, made coffee, and carried it out to the garage, where previous owners of the house we rented had built a little roofed-over patio with a concrete floor, just big enough for two plastic chairs. There were some broad-leafed shrubs and climbing vines growing from the dirt beyond the concrete, and these, combined with how the owner had painted the lower half of the garage wall teal and the upper half white, and the promise of idleness inherent in two plastic chairs sitting side by side in the shade, reminded me of Kenya, where I’d lived for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I called this spot Kenya, and I went there every morning with a cup of coffee and something to read. It was my favorite place in Minneapolis.
That morning, I hadn’t brought anything to read. It was my thirtieth birthday, and I planned just to sit and reflect, something I’m not very good at. After a few minutes, I thought about a book I hadn’t opened in ten years: What Work Is by Philip Levine. By the time I found it and brought it back to Kenya, I only had time to read a couple poems. I had to be at the moving company by 7:15, and it was a twenty-minute bike ride. The job was the reason I was reading the poems. I was feeling ashamed of being a mover.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
I’d forgotten the title poem was misleading; it was actually about what not working is, which made it even more appropriate that morning. Levine described standing in line for a job at a Ford plant in Detroit.
It’s April in Minneapolis, when forecasts for a rain/snow mix materialize as sweet, simple, snow-melting rain; when highly localized sandstorms mark the progress of the street sweepers trundling along on their civic spring cleaning; when the dog sits obstinately on the path beside the pond to stare, transfixed, at a red-winged blackbird singing in a bare tree; April, when people’s thoughts all turn to one thing: money.
Federal filing deadline not withstanding, thinking about money has no season. It’s a year-round pursuit. I’ve been thinking about money in the office; thinking about money on my yoga mat; thinking about money on my bike downtown in rush hour traffic a foot or two from passing cars when all I want to do is feel, for the first time since morning, the sunlight pouring from the bold trapezoids of sky.
My paternal great-grandmother, Banga, used to say, “It’s only money. It only buys things.” And this is true, confoundingly true. It is a universal, nearly tautological, theory of money that applies, when you really think about it, to a startlingly small number of actual situations. It’s true, as long as you still have plenty of money to buy other things with, and as long as it really is “only money.” But money is almost never only money. In fact, most of the thinking we do about money isn’t really about money at all.
The first thing most of us think about when we think about thinking about money is the stress caused by not having enough. There’s another essay to write about the fraught definition of “having enough” and the challenge of living within our means and defining ourselves by non-monetary measures of success.
The summers of my childhood were defined by the great, triangular car trip my family made each year to see our scattered kin. We’d leave our home in southern Virginia heading west on I-64 to my maternal grandparent’s cattle farm in Kentucky, then northeast to my other grandparents’ house on the coast of Maine, then home down I-95. On the way, we’d usually stop for a day or two in the tiny town of Pike, where my Uncle Doug lived with his family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Doug was, and remains, an inveterate organizer of expeditions on foot: from the thirty-minute circuit-hikes he plots from every doorstep he’s ever called home, to the rare “epics,” which require not only great ambition in their intention but disaster in their execution. (To wit: the time in Morocco when Doug took me and my buddy Chris in a taxi from Marrakech to a village in the High Atlas Mountains where we could hire a donkey for the hike into a remoter village where he knew a Peace Corps Volunteer we could stay with and with whom we set out to blaze a trail up a 14,000 foot peak only to get lost in the dark and separated from each other and spend hours wandering across the mountainside before we stumbled over the trail was, in Doug’s final judgment, “almost” an epic.)
So of course, when we came to Pike on our family vacations, Doug would pick a mountain for us to climb, each one higher than the year before. The switchbacks at the base always seemed endless, but eventually the hardwoods gave way to pines, and the pines shrank imperceptibly until they were at shoulder height, then knee, then running flat along the ground. Finally we’d step onto granite. The wind blew hard in that fragile environment of lichen, moss, and tiny wildflowers, and there was something very special, for a boy from the Virginia Piedmont, about the moment when we threw down our packs and pulled out our fleeces and windbreakers.