Everywhere a stranger


I am a stranger here. Four years ago, I’d never heard of Foshay Tower, James J. Hill, or the Jucy Lucy. Hennepin the missionary explorer? I think I heard about him in Catholic grade school. I-94 has never been more than five minutes from any large city I’ve called home, be it Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis. I-94 dissects these cities just as it does Milwaukee, the city of my birth and youth. Call me a Midwest vagabond, vintage “94.”

How does a stranger adjust? Change takes time. Assuming the outsider mindset is my fate for now.

Four years is but a blip in adjustment timeframe, especially when you’re over 50, with family, of “mature experience” and between jobs to boot. Being turned down for five times the number of jobs than the three time-limited ones you’ve landed has a way of slowing adjustment as well.

Do we get out of the house very often? Every day.

Walks around Powderhorn Park remain essential. The bike trails connecting these dandy lakes are quite nice. The quickest way to learn that Minneapolis and St. Paul are of many cultures and incomes is to hop on the Metro Transit 21 or 10 bus lines. I’ve found many retail amenities. High end ice cream and strategically located liquor stores are two that come to mind. Nice restaurants, too.

Yet I remain a stranger, daily.

Who knew there was a north Minneapolis, a south Minneapolis, Lake Harriet, Tangletown, Noreast? That damn near every neighborhood had a name and a “rep.”

That the “Twin Cities” was rooted in a marketing gimmick, somehow meant to soft pedal the cultural, development and generational history that made one Minneapolis and one St. Paul.

Suburban sprawl? Expected. Welcome to America, pilgrim. You can’t have freeways and quick routes to a Mall of America without the suburbs first. Or is it the other way around?

Minnesota Nice? Had never heard of that. Though Gene McCarthy, Humphrey and Harold Stassen were just the awfully nicest, approachable politicians you could imagine. Mondale, too. I once heard the Senator at the time give a great talk to a Milwaukee college class about how the government shouldn’t be bailing out multi-national corporations like Lockheed. He was passionate, yet very nice.

If you had any kind of political pulse during the 1990s, you knew who Wellstone was. The one and only time I saw him was the day after I arrived in 2002. Up on the stage at the Labor Day program in St. Paul, here’s this little guy hopping around in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. He wasn’t from Minnesota. You could tell.

The Republicans tried to push a “negative” of this bouncy, progressive character with a much repeated TV ad of four years ago showing a series of video clips with an animated Wellstone pointedly gesturing and shouting, as if he were on a socialist soapbox after the big strike in 1934. The ad’s voice-over suggested Minnesota couldn’t trust him. He’d said two terms and here he was, running again. That wasn’t very nice.

Who knows if it worked since they won by accident.

A friend told me Minnesotans either loved or hated Wellstone. There was no middle. After all, he wasn’t from here.

So what is Minnesotan? I’m sure only a snippet of the character can be found in the Cities – the true “nice” character in that phrase has perhaps become a memory of some small town family on the farm, responsible stewards of the land, safe hunters, who welcomed cabin “tourists” as long as they didn’t stay very long.

We live in Powderhorn. Know a few neighbors on the block. Live next to a rental duplex where the tenants have changed at least three times in the last three years. Our house used to be owned by probable addicts – they were smokers and gamblers.

Within walking distance are such attractions as Mercado Central, Ingebretsons, the May Day Café, Matt’s Bar and the Lake St. YWCA.

In Detroit, my home for more than 26 years, we could walk to Dutch Girl Donuts, Sydney Boggs candy store, and the Chaldean (Iraqi) business area on Seven Mile.

One never walked very far in Detroit. In Detroit, you drive everywhere. To the grocery store, the movies, to work, to church, to go nowhere in particular. Ninety percent of the time, you’d be driving to the suburbs, since there were barely a few full service grocery stores, no services of any kind – save for the hardware store – no movie theaters.

One of the mayoral candidates in 2001 ran on a platform that included encouraging national chain restaurants to open a franchise or two in the city. “Eatin good in the neighborhood?” Applebees wasn’t doin it in Detroit. A ton of fast food, some fledgling small businesses with curious names like “The Big Bite,” but no TGI Fridays, Perkins or Chipotle. The candidate didn’t survive the primary.

Once here, it didn’t take long to quickly learn that saying you were from Detroit was a conversation stopper. A white person would kind of probe for the next explanation – “what suburb did you live in?” A black person would require a quick description of your Detroit neighborhood – maybe even an address – to confirm you really lived in the city.

I’ve heard the same thing can happen if you live in north Minneapolis.

I’m not surprised few would want to talk about Detroit. Its half-century of economic decomposing, a middle and working class exodus that left block upon block of abandonment, and the well-known crime rate – simply leaves no good impression – first or last. A Detroiter would acknowledge all this, but rarely dwell on it. It’s there, the image is depressing, but I’m still here. What’s next?

Community is hard to find. After nearly 30 years in one place, you just ain’t gonna replace it. That’s not Minnesota’s fault. Not Detroit’s fault, either.

Community. That missing link of privatized life. We often complain about it being gone. Then we go home. We live in a world increasingly defined by what we do and what we spend – not by the community where we live. Our privatized, market-segmented lives have become a pollster’s field day – the subject of studies, trends, worries and potential niche markets.

It’s no wonder we drink a lot.

Do we stay? For the time being, why not? We may be strangers. We’ll never be Minnesotans. Yet, there are lots of us.

Tom Lonergan is a freelance writer living in Powderhorn.