Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Where the Natives Gathered

Down through the centuries, every city has had them. Small enclaves of residential housing, usually no more than hovels and shacks, where succeeding waves of immigrants first established themselves in a new town. The Twin Cities are no different. Each has had its own pockets of poverty where first timers got their start before moving up through the generations to someplace better.

Most folks my age are locked into their own generational history and their own decades of living in that black and white world of their parents homestead and first neighborhood. As such, it’s easy forget all those who came before us. Those early settlers who established their own little enclaves of like-minded souls after the frontier had been established and towns like Saint Paul and Minneapolis slowly began to grow into metropolitan areas. Through the decades and multiple generations, immigrant populations all found their own areas of settlement.

Unbeknownst to me back then, I was on the tail end of the slow demise of a lot of those early settlements in the Twin Cities. Back then it was my world. It shaped me. It formed my work ethic, drive, insecurities and hunger for more.

While our family was still whole, Irvine Park became our second neighborhood to live in after the duplex on Smith Avenue.

Our ancient six-plex apartment building was next door to Little Sisters of the Poor. The Wilder Playground and daycare was up the street. DP (displaced people from World War Two) lived in tenement housing just down the block. There was the Gem Theater and a small ethnic neighborhood grocery store within walking distance. Out my second story window, I could see low-income housing across the street and the Ramsey house on the corner.

Old East Saint Paul had all but disappeared by the time I was a grade school commuter to downtown Saint Paul. Our relatives (mainly aunts and uncles) in East Saint Paul would hardly acknowledge its existence. By then, the Swedes and Norwegians were being slowly replaced with brown-skinned immigrants from south of the border. My relatives were either isolating themselves from those newcomers or had moved on by then.

The West Side of Saint Paul was OK but we were cautioned to keep away from the flats. By that time the Jews and Poles had moved on and the Mexicans had moved in. I learned early on that my Mother still harbored the ignorance and fear of her rural forefathers for others not like her.

Little Italy was a tiny enclave of immigrants from Italy who worked at West Publishing, Schmidt Brewery and Hamms Brewery in East Saint Paul. I can remember walking along the Mississippi River and hitch-hiking my way downtown. Yearly spring flooding finally forced the city to condemn the entire area and raze all the houses there.

Bohemian Flats came first and then was followed by the Gateway District. Both areas attracted the bottom of the immigrant barrel. Both succumbed to newer generations climbing up the economic ladder and leaving the area.

Above the Bohemian Flats, the West Bank neighborhood sat across the Mississippi from the University of Minnesota. By the time I arrived on scene (during my wannabe hippie phase)  it had been slowly crumbling away for decades. By the mid-sixties, it had become just a sad reminder of working class neighborhood it had once been.

The Lower Town part of downtown Saint Paul was just beginning its transformation from decrepit to decidedly middle class when my employer, Twin Cities Public Television, moved its facilities from Como Avenue to Lower Town.

Now in the autumn of my years a new frontier has been established in North East Minneapolis with the convergence of the Northrup King manufacturing plant into artist studios. The grain-milling plants, small factories and Eastern European enclaves are slowly being replaced with artists’ lofts, new apartment buildings and commercial development along major corridors. This time around, the artists as well as newly arrived immigrants are forcing the changes in the area.

In so many ways, it is still a melting pot like so many of the enclaves that came before it. Areas of exclusion from the cookie-cutter mainstream of society. A place for those who don’t live a nine to five existence, white picket fence and chicken in the oven kind of life. A bit out of the mainstream and happily creating new currents of their own.

Welcome home again.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

My Back Porch

Some of us are fortunate enough to have that special place where we can get lost inside our head. My son finds it at around 14,000 feet high on some mountaintop in Colorado. My daughter can get wrapped up in those euphoric moments in the middle of a long run - winter or summer.

Mine is not so adventurous or strenuous. It’s a quiet place, wrapped in warm colors, bird sounds, and the hush of rustling leaves that surround me.

All spring, summer, and fall, I spend most of my time outdoors except when I sleep or tap-dance over my computer keys. Morning, noon and night. Cold and freezing, warm or windy, my porch is like a close friend.

Out West a backdrop tapestry of mountains wrapped in colors of the moment provide my sanctuary of contemplation. In Minnesota, I have my indoor / outdoor living space to enjoy every day.

This temple to my mind began its life as an octagonal deck. The deck lasted for several years before being transformed into a screened in porch and deck. It became an extension of our outdoor living space.

Each day comes with changing temperatures, different lighting effects, mood, and purpose.

It is at once, my reading room, a soccer practice field with the grandchildren, a nerf battleground with Brennan, breakfast nook, lunchroom and quiet evening dining spot. Most importantly, it is an early morning respite from reality, a nighttime solitude before bed and daily place to watch the birds feed.

From my sanctuary I can watch the kids in their favorite climbing tree, birds bathing in the birdbath, the occasional art patron and other nocturnal critters scampering about. It is a celebration of all that makes life exciting and satisfying.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Angels are Singing this Weekend

When I was finishing up my play ‘The Last Sentinel’, I knew there had to be something special to enhance its message of aging, friendship and the meaning of a life well lived.

So I contacted Tony Sasso, who in addition to performing in musical productions for over 45 years, is a talented actor and singer. In just the last six years, Tony has been in seven musicals and four dramas, holding lead roles in each one of these productions. In 2017, Tony had a lead role in another one of my plays entitled ‘Club 210.’

Tony had just the musical background and expertise that my play needed. But there was a catch. Tony’s summer acting schedule was such that he couldn’t stage another musical in the near future. Fortunately I was able to convince him that ‘The Last Sentinel’ would be different. It was a play with music in it. Tony agreed to become my musical director for ‘The Last Sentinel.’ It was Tony’s first time in a production role backstage versus on-stage.

The story-line for ‘The Last Sentinel’ is simple enough. Four old women in a nursing home are facing the end of their lives and not handling it well. A mysterious woman (the scooter lady) appears out of nowhere to offer advice on the here-after. That’s when the conflict, chaos, and fun begin.

In the story, the women make a pact to stick together and be there for one another until the end. It’s an agreement they struggle to keep. They nag at one another and yet show love and compassion at the same time. They all face the inevitable in different ways and reveal to the audience their true colors. They are irritable, persnickety and remind us of people we all know, knew or want to forget. But in the end, the four ladies represent a realistic portrait of individuals facing that ultimate test in life.

‘The Last Sentinel’ is a celebration of the human spirit when it is needed the most. It is a rich tapestry of life recaptured, the power of friendship and self-actualization celebrating life. What better way to remember someone’s final good-bye than with a smile on your face.

I told Tony ‘The Last Sentinel’ needed Angels: singers who could capture those poignant moments in the play and transform them into an emotional experience. Tony had just the answer.

As Cantor for the Choir at Saint Michael’s Catholic Church in Farmington for the last ten years Tony had a talented, experienced, and eager group of singers from which to choose. He had his Angels.

The Angels consist of Denise Dow, Karen Giusto, Dottie Knutson, Roxanne Mainz, and Pam Epperly. Carol Severson is the pianist. Denis and Tony did the arrangements for each song in the play.

I knew that the music would set this play apart from other plays I had written. There would be an opening number that sets the stage for the theme, mood and nature of the play. Then at the end of the performance another number would wrap up the cumulative emotions experienced during the play. In-between, there would be five numbers, each one different and each one a poignant statement for the scene being acting out on the stage.

Performances for ‘The Last Sentinel’ will be at 7:00 pm on August 15th, 16th, and 17th at the Steeple Center in Rosemount. In special consideration of seniors and others who might enjoy an afternoon performance, ‘The Last Sentinel’ will have a matinee at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, July 17th. After each performance, there will be a special chocolate reception for all attendees.

Tony delivered on the Angels and now the audiences will get to hear and enjoy their heavenly musical approach to telling the story of ‘The Last Sentinel.’

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Waimea Canyon

 Waimea Canyon, on the island of Kauai, is even more spectacular and aye inspiring than the Grand Canyon. That’s no small feat in and of itself. The canyon, on Kauai’s West Side, has been described as ‘The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.’ Although not as big or as old as its Arizona cousin, you won’t encounter anything like this geological wonder in Hawaii or anyplace else for that matter.

Stretching 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep, the Waimea Canyon Lookout provides panoramic views of crested buttes, rugged crags and deep valley gorges. The grand island vistas go on for miles and miles.

Waimea Canyon Drive, the road to get there, is a veritable roller coaster ride of ups and down, dips and climbs, twists and turns that are enough to make even the most able jet fighter pilot catch his breath.

The canyon is a kaleidoscope of colors splashed up and down the green-embedded canyons, crags and crevices. From our perch we could see tourist helicopters disappearing into the canyons and flocks of birds passing by below. Spectacular waterfalls dotted the landscape.

Waimea Canyon was only one of a dozen magical escapes for the LaComb family on the island of Kauai. Sharon and I were the guests, along with another set of grandparents, on special invitation from our son and daughter-in-law. There were surprises for all of us on a daily basis.

We saw the valley where the film Jurassic Park was filmed.

We enjoyed an authentic Luau one night.

Maya got certified to go scuba diving anywhere in the world. On her second dive, she encountered sharks, sea turtles, monk seals, and one anxious father looking over her shoulder.

Daily sunsets left us in awe.

The best gift of the entire trip was spending precious time with our grandchildren. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?