Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ode to a Broken Down Palace

Everyone wants someplace to call home. But for me back then the house on Randolph Avenue had long since ceased being my home. After living in Europe it was simply a place to crash while I waited for my life to take some semblance of order. It was where I was raised but no longer belonged.

So finding that sad old relic of better times on University Avenue marked the beginning of another world I was about to enter. A cauldron of cast-offs and bottom feeders which accurately reflected where my head was at and where I was going…in no particular order. Disheveled, messy, chaotic and rudderless yet always angling for a better direction.

The Twin Cities has a long history of collecting enclaves of immigrant families and other bottom feeders who haven’t yet assimilated into modern day society. This apartment building was just such a place. It was Swedes Hollow, the Bohemian Flats, Little Italy and the West Side Flats all wrapped up in a half dozen squalid cut-up apartment units. As time progressed that area around the University of Minnesota, especially around Dinky Town and the West Bank, became my own microscopic version of Greenwich Village.

And as the song lyrics go ‘most of my changes were there.’

It’s become part of my lexicon now. Not because of some foolish notion that it represented my ‘glory days’ or the ‘best years of my life.’ And hopefully not because it might sound like the musings of an old man. It was, instead, a moment in time long since gone but still captured in a few faded photographs and dusty vinyl jackets which help poke probing fingers of inquiry into that slowly fading memory bank cached inside my head. For those places and people and events all help define who and what I have become…and strive to be.

That white ghetto came to represent all those individuals I knew and loved and lost touch with over the years. It was the silly and foolish things I did and thought. It was all those wild aspirations and stumbles I took in the right direction. It was accidents that didn’t happen and a few that did. It was all those seemingly innocuous events that changed my life and laid the groundwork for a lifetime of story-telling in one form or another.

So while some oldsters may lament their sometimes checkered past or lost years I choose to embrace them as a reflective exercise. While some may scowl at rekindling the past by saying ‘it’s best not to look back’ and ‘let the past be,’ it is for me very personal.  It was a time of my lost years.

That’s a lot of accolades to pile on a rundown hulk of a building in a poor part of town. When first constructed around the turn of the century the building was reflective of an expanding and prosperous Minneapolis. The huge structure was home to a prominent businessman and his growing family. By the time I moved in it was owned by a shady real estate investor from Saint Louis Park who would never dare venture into that neighborhood at night. I had to go to his ethnic enclave of real estate ‘bottom feeders’ to sign my lease.

My unit on the second floor had been carved out of a once spacious master bedroom. The building had been chopped-up, divided and then subdivided into probably illegal apartments for whoever could afford the cheap rent.

There was a group of graduate students from Pakistan below me and odd assortments of humanity in the other units who seemed to come and go with the seasons. The building was, at once, a rundown hippie hangout, a nightly excuse for under-age drinking and sexual affairs and a sketchy abode for a wandering soul.

The overall mantra of the place seemed to be “Say Hi,” don’t ask questions and ignore what’s going on unless you think the place might burn down. In retrospect, I think I was nuts to live in such a dump but it suited my lifestyle back then and my frame of mind. I thought of my place as bohemian chic. Visitors might have had a different impression. Shortly after I moved out, they tore the building down and left an empty field.

Three women encompassed my frame of reference for that period.

First there was Sheila who had moved on with her life by that time while I was still trying to find mine.

Then there was Susan who was seeking the holy grail of life’s direction just as I was. She needed focus in her life and together we helped one another search for that shining light. Susan and I used to sit on her creaky front porch and waxed philosophically about life and love and what the future might hold for us.

She was significant in my life for several reasons, not the least of which was that we were both seekers. It was a collision of my time and space with hers. For a long time we were in the same orbit, thinking and living life alike, and traveling that strange road to maturity. We were both hungry. And with similar family backgrounds, we both found ourselves struggling to grab a handhold on that slippery ring called a career.

And finally there was Sharon waiting in the wings until such time as fortune brought us together at KTCA; the Public Television station.

After a couple of months working/writing at the Public Health Department, I ventured down Como Avenue to the studios of KTCA. They weren’t hiring at the time but they were glad to use my volunteer services in the evenings. I learned the craft of television from the ground up. It became my first real job where I never felt like I was working.

As significant as that old television building was in my life, even more prominent was a bar on the West Bank. That den of ear-busting music, sweet-smelling haze and questionable characters figured prominently in one of my first novels entitled “Love in the A Shau.” On the surface the Triangle Bar was a rundown three-two joint with intoxicating music, cheap beer and loud crowds that came to see, be seen or just smoke a joint in the corner. Beneath the surface it was my baptism into another life

During its heyday, the Triangle Bar became the flash point for a burgeoning music scene centered on the West Bank. Since they didn’t card, the bar attracted a lot of U of M students. I’m guessing the term ‘jail bait’ was first coined there.

But beneath that surface melting pot of hippies, junkies, college drop-outs, undercover cops and other assorted flotsam from civilization came a wonderful collection of lost souls and seekers. Every night brought another stimulating conversation with some colorful character who usually gave a false last name, lied about their background but presented fascinating suppositions on life and love and war and college and our future in general. It was a true college education outside of the classroom.

They’re all gone now. Removed like push pins off a bulletin board of icons long since dis-appeared. My apartment on the avenue, the Triangle Bar, the old Public Health Department building on campus, crumbling Dinky Town, Newman Center with its folk music, the Grandview Theater and its foreign films and a dozen other sad-eyed structures all razed by a bulldozer called time. It was a sometimes conflicting confluence of attitude and interest, circumstance and focus, goals and objectives. And ultimately it led me to the stability I found in another human being who was opposite of me in almost every way.

Isn’t life strange that way?

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