Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Where the Penguins went to Roost

It began innocently enough. Just another Saturday morning bike ride to discover or rediscover parts of the Twin Cities I hadn’t been to for some time now. The response from my blog
On the Corner of Fairview and Summit got me to thinking about those parts of the city that had affected my life just as that street corner had for so many years.

First stop on my journey of discovery always begins at the Dunn Brothers coffee shop in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis right across the Lake Street bridge from Saint Paul. The earlier in the morning the better. It’s before most normal folks are out and about. The perfect time for insomniacs, running and biking fanatics and one oldster reclaiming his past.

After a less than nutritional breakfast and some reflection, it’s time to begin my jaunt. It’s a quick decision to head east toward the rising sun and my old haunts in Saint Paul.

F. Scott. Fitzgerald used to live in the row house with the plaque before fame and alcohol cut short his writing career.

There’s a story here (from later on in my life) and a poem too (Under Cathedral Dome). But that was another era long since past. It’s probably best left unspoken now…unless it shows up in some future novel.
Mother, Marlene, and I 1946

Then it was a drop down off of Ramsey hill to what was once the edge of downtown Saint Paul.
This would have been the first of several marginal rental properties we lived in before my mother build our home in Highland Park. Not surprisingly, the entire neighborhood has turned over several times now or morphed into empty lots. The playground in the background is now United Children’s Hospital.

Frenchy's Eats 1944 St. Paul, MN

My mother’s first and only grasp at entrepreneurship came right after she got married. It was a small cafĂ© they called ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ named after my father who was French-Canadian. The venture failed miserably because, according to my Mother, the help stole from her and my father drank away the profits. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if it had been successful.

At the other end of the block from ‘Frenchy’s Eats’ is the bar where legend has it my father drank almost every night. It was a half a block and a total lack of responsibility away from my mother’s dreams and aspirations.

I’ve written a play entitled’ Frenchy’s Eats’ which explores that period in my mother’s life, my own life later on and the ensuing repercussions that flowed downstream. I’ll probably never produce it; too depressing for even me to watch all over again.

Marlene and I 1950-ish

The only memory I have of this rundown six-plex is a phone call my mother received one evening. She started crying… then my sister started crying…so naturally, I started crying. I was six years old at the time.

I found out years later that the phone call was from a grandmother (on my father’s side) informing my mother that my father had just died in some old flea-bitten hotel in Missoula, Montana. My mother always claimed he was on his way back to Minnesota from the west coast with our Christmas presents… after an absence of four years from our lives.

Hell of a way to find out you’re suddenly a widow with two small kids, no marketable job skills and little in the way of a family support system. The fact that she was able to pull herself up after that (with little support from her sisters) and build a home on Randolph Avenue was quite remarkable.

We were always warned not to talk to or go by the DPs. They were displaced persons mostly from Eastern Europe who were resettling in Minnesota after the war. I learned much later the building was a way-station for these refugees because they had to be quarantined for a certain period of time. Like they were much better off than we were at the time…not! The units are all condos now.

Marlene and I 1949 or so

The Little Sisters of the Poor have been doing God’s work since 1855. They were feeding and housing the poor long before I was born. They’re still doing it today.

Wilder Nursery 1949
Wilder Nursery was one of the few formal day-care operations for indigent folk’s way back when. For my mother it was a God-send. Two memories stand out there.
Newspaper Clipping 1948

There was this older black woman who was a playground supervisor. She liked me. Kids can always tell when an adult likes them. She called me ‘butterball’ probably because I wasn’t the thinnest kid on the block. It was my first taste of affection from another human being and made me feel warm all over.

At the other end of the spectrum was this youth counselor who didn’t like me for one reason or another. So under the guise of health and wellness, he made me participate in a boxing match with this big black kid. I’m sure he was hoping the kid would beat the stuffing out of me. Turns out, the other kid was as scared as I was. We just punched each other in the shoulders and other body parts until we both got black and blue and tired. I’d love to be in the ring with that counselor today.

On our sporadic outings from Wilder Nursery, we would go down to Irving Park. Back then, it was old and tired and a sad reminder of its glory days back in the twenties. I led my gang of four year olds from the nursery. We would run around and scream at the other kids and pretend we were cowboys. I had a vivid imagination even back then.
My Childhood home 1955

I’ve often said I’m grateful that my mother gave me life and raised us in this house instead of an apartment. There are a lot of memories there. Mostly good ones and I never once felt different from the other kids on the block because I had a house to live in like they did.

The nuns were housed in this large building across the street from the little French church downtown. My sister and I had to walk by the nun’s residence each morning coming up from the streetcar line. We were always worried we’d meet up with the nuns on their way to school. Dressed in black and white, strict, stern, never-smiling, a walk with them for any distance was pure torture. But by eight grade, as only a group of smart ass boys would agree, that was where the penguins went to roost each night.

I was conscripted into service as an altar boy right after fourth grade. My slot was the 11:30 mass every Sunday. So for years I’d get up at 4:30 to do my paper route and then waste a good part of the morning until I took the bus downtown for mass. I argued for an early morning slot but the priest liked the schedule just as it was. It pleased my mother to see me serve God every Sunday but it sure screwed up my Sundays for other things.

Because we got to school an hour before it began, my sister and I were gently encouraged to go to mass each morning in the chapel…like we had a choice. It kind of spoiled me on the whole concept of organized religion after that.
St. Louis Grade School 1950

St. Louis grade school was run with an iron fist by the French nuns. The entire school consisted of four large rooms, two per floor. There were two grades per room. The bathrooms and cafeteria were in the basement. Some of the nuns were nice but never overly friendly. Some (in retrospect) were psychotic and dangerous to small children and helpless animals. But that was a different era.

It was in first grade that the dear old nuns informed my mother that the French spelling of my name was Denis, not Dennis. I’ve been Denis ever since. I learned at an early age that one doesn’t challenge French nuns.  Shortly after I graduated, they tore down the school and put up a parking lot.

I have two memories about the rectory. There was a breeze way between the church and the rectory. That was where the more daring of the altar boys would finish off the wine, right out of the chalice, before returning it to the rectory.

That was where a young battle-scared chaplain from the Korean War ambushed me after my mother called him to say I was acting up at home. I’d never been chewed out before without the benefit of the doubt and any opportunity to defend myself. It made boot camp late on in life seem like a breeze after that

Cretin High School 1957

Cretin High School was a true turning point in my life. I was lost and scared and absolutely clueless. But somehow I made it through four years and got a good education. After that, there was no turning back. While I was done trudging up the hill and avoiding the penguins, I was still on my quest for a lifetime of learning.

My kids have already thanked me. My grandkids can thank me in the future.

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