Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Found Susan's House

Ever since I posted one of my first blogs entitled: “Looking for Susan’s House,” I’ve been thinking about that early morning bike ride and my quest to find Susan’s place. The search was as much revisiting my past after forty-four years as it was finding an old rundown duplex in a sketchy part of town. 

The feedback to that initial blog was very positive. It almost felt as if my readers had also heard the same Sirens call as I did in that first blog. Of course, I have no idea what I would have said if I ever met Susan again.

“Hello, Susan, how are you? I’ve had a good life…I hope you have too.” 

No, I think I would worry about her answer. As resilient as she was and as much as attitudes were changing back then, it was still a tough road for many immigrants and Hispanics to travel.

So this fall, I returned to my meandering route through that neighborhood bordering the University of Minnesota. It was just part of a much larger circuitous bike ride that particular morning. There are still a lot of good memories lingering back there in the hood even after all these years.  Once there, I thought I’d give my search for Susan’s house one more try.

I was about to give up my search for a second time when I rode past an old red brick row house and immediately recognized it as the spot where I used to turn left to go to Susan’s house. Even after forty plus years, the memory of that trail marker still stood out like a homing beacon. Now I knew exactly where Susan’s house was.     

Only it wasn’t.

A large apartment building now took up a good part of her old block. Not surprisingly, at some point back in time, a developer had come along and put up an apartment building where Susan’s house used to stand. Any sign of Susan’s home or her neighbor’s homes had been erased forever. 

 While I didn’t find Susan’s house, I did find something more profound. Just as Susan’s house had disappeared under the guise of progress and development, so too had most of the other vestiges of my existence back in that neighborhood. Everywhere I rode, the old buildings were gone or had been refurbished into something else.

From my first apartment to my first job, my first second (volunteer) job and so forth, the old familiar was now gone. Even the venerable village of Dinky town, famed for Bob Dylan’s coffee house start, fraternity panty raids and late night romantic liaisons had morphed into something totally different.

Dinkytown (c. 1960s)

Dinkytown (c. 1970s)

What had been once a rundown artistic bohemian neighborhood had slowly evolved into a sad morass of fast food chains, a U of M t-shirt shop, a drug store turned fu-fu restaurant and a poor excuse for a coffee shop (c. 2013). 

 Even more development is now threatening to wipe out the last remaining vestiges of edgy urban living. All in the name of progress.

  I still have a great fondness for my first apartment building. That whole period in my life was really a preamble for things to come from career choices, traveling, friendships, writing and finally love and family. The building, like my apartment inside, was nothing to brag about but it provided me a place to sleep, a place to write and a place to experience life on so many different levels.

 My unit on the second floor of that rundown relic had been carved out of a once spacious master bedroom. One hundred years earlier the building had probably been someone’s elegant home on University Avenue. By the time I moved in, it was a chopped-up, divided, subdivided and probably illegal set of apartments for whoever could afford the cheap rent. 

 There was a group of Paki’s downstairs. They were all graduate students who were probably as suspicious of me as I was of them. I hadn’t been educated on race relations back then and that probably didn’t help my cautious nature either. I don’t know who lived on the other side of my living room wall but the nighttime noises indicated it was either Charley Harper or one of his protégés. The front of the building housed a strange assortment of folks who came and went with such regularly they might have been renting by the evening or weekend. 



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 it an empty field.

Having found the spot where Susan and I once sat on her creaky front porch and waxed philosophically about life and love and the future, I thought I would venture back on campus and find the spot of my first job after college and Europe. It was working as a writer for the Minnesota Department of Public Health. What a surprise, that too was gone. The old building overlooking the Mississippi is black dirt now and the operation has moved to the other side of campus.

Site of old Public Health Building

New Public Health Building

 My boss was Mrs. Ford. She was a warm-hearted cranky old woman who smoked unfiltered camels like a sailor and loved to talk about the good old days when her husband, a college professor and department head, was the big man on campus. Sadly for Marie, those days had long since passed and so she spent most of her waking hours reminiscing about campus events where she was one of the star attractions. She also wasn’t too fond of young men who had mustaches and sported longish hair. We got along well because I listen to her stories and she was always trying to make me over. 

The Newman Center on campus was the quasi-hippie hangout and folk mass center for those of us struggling with the residue of twelve years of Catholic education. We were a motley collection of wandering minds that were just starting to ask a lot of questions that the high-ups couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. 

 At mass, I was so cool in my pressed jeans, white turtle neck sweater, herringbone sport coat and love beads that Susan gave me. It was a little bit hippie, a little bit chic and thorough mod. The camaraderie, warmth and genuine friendship we felt at the coffee clutch after mass was some-thing I’ve never experienced in another Catholic setting ever again.

There was someone else in my life at that time. Someone who had captured my imagination, my mind, my sexuality and my sensuality. Rainbow images filled my mind whenever I heard her name. It was ‘Suzanne’ who took me down to her place by the river. But she had already been claimed by this Canadian named Cohen. So I and the others paid tribute to her every Sunday at mass and dreamt wonderful dreams about that mysterious woman. To this day, that song can make my toes curl. Another classic by Cohen ‘Hallelujah’ does the same thing to me.

New Newman Center
 It didn’t take long for the folk mass to gain in popularity before the archdiocese decided to move the entire operation off campus. With that move, they lost whatever magic they had in attracting those cafeteria Catholics like myself. It was never the same after that.

After a couple of months on at the Public Health Department, I ventured down Como Avenue to the studios of KTCA; Twin Cities public television. They weren’t hiring at the time but they were glad to use my volunteer services in the evenings. That worked for me. I learned the craft of television from the ground up. It became my first real job where I never felt like I was working and it was where I met my future wife. 

Old KTCA Television Station

TPT Television Station
 That building is now another local station and Twin Cities Community Television which became Twin Cities Public Television which became KTCA which finally morphed into TPT moved to their new building in downtown Saint Paul back in the late 80’s.

As significant as that old television building was in my life, even more prominent was a bar on the West Bank. That den of loud music, sweet-smelling haze and questionable characters figured prominently in my novel “Love in the A Shau.” On the surface the Triangle Bar was a rundown three-two bar with mediocre music, cheap beer and loud crowds that came to see, be seen and smoke a joint in the corner.

Triangle Bar (c. 1960s)

Former Triangle Bar Building today (c. 2013)

During its heyday, the Triangle Bar was the flash point for the 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. Not me, I either went there alone or with Susan.

But beyond the surface of that 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. The bar died in the 70’s along with the whole hippie scene.

That period in my life which I’ve euphemistically labeled my lost years encompassed a lot of lost real estate, friends who have come and gone, several women I truly cared about and ultimately marriage and a lifestyle that has sustained and nurtured me for many years. The loss of those buildings was probably the most visible manifestation of my own change and evolution
I never really had a goal in seeking out Susan’s house for a second time. It was just an excuse for exercise and a nostalgic trip back in time. It’s always interesting to wander back to that neighbor-hood north of Dinky Town and see the continuing changes there. But, like attending the Minnesota State Fair, traveling back there once every ten or fifteen years is just about right. 

Deep down, I never really expected to find anyone or anything there from my past.  Still, I’ve got a couple of pictures, fragmented memories and just enough foolishness left in me to think of it as a great period in my life. A time when I was young and dumb and poor. What better ingredients to fertilize the mind of an aging writer. 

Oh, the stories I could tell.

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