MONDAY MARCH 27 2006
Went downtown for a Timberwolves game. Since I’m writing a column about it, I will have to defer those remarks for Friday’s Quirk. Went with the Giant Swede and the Crazy Uke; had a grand time, went to a restaurant afterwards and had steak in Man-Sized portions. The restaurant had a bar area with seating and a full menu, and we chose that locale; less pressure, somehow. Interesting mix of clients – since it was the late afternoon, there were families with kids as well as post-game drinkers. The adjacent table had two little girls. It was a high table with high stools, and my parental spidey-sense vibrated constantly. Which was odd, because I had set it on ring. I could see either kid do a header on to the floor, but of course they rarely do. On the other hand, there was a dish on the edge of the table, right where the little girls were busy coloring, and I could imagine that one going straight to the floor as well. Gravity is a cruel god and exacts his tribute from a restaurant every day; if not the kids, then perhaps the plates. I had to stifle the desire to walk over and push the dish back a few inches.
Of course nothing happened; the girls colored, we ate steak, talked of things present and ancient. But I kept looking at the dish. Pointed it out to the Giant Swede. He suggested I should relax. He was right; it was not my dish to nudge.
It felt odd, being out, being downtown, at a bar at five. Too early to have a drink and of course no one smokes, so it felt a bit like an AA meeting at the American Lung Association. We talked about mid-life crises; I seem to be the only one inclined to grab the mike and sing “Is That All There Is,” as the Uke is full of great bright rude cheer – sharklike, he moves ever forward. He’s a salesman; he brings his own chum to the table. The Swede is somewhat more splenetic and practical – he is an engineer, after all. Me, I’m the Artist, which means I’m the crybaby.
On the other hand: the walk to the bar had hints of spring. The sun was still strong at five; you could tell the world had lost patience with winter, and was no longer returning its calls. On the gripping hand, however: Hennepin Avenue looked like a dead zone. A few years ago the area around the Target Center had four large restaurants; all are gone. Copeland’s, the New Orleans-style place, pulled out of City Center, as did TGIF. The Olive Garden is gone, as is the Café Di Napoli, one of those classic red-sauce-and-meata-ballza places with murals of gondoliers. (You know, the famous Gondoliers of Naples.) (You’re running off to Google to see if Naples had any gondoliers, aren’t you.) There’s an old theater that once stood where the loud and ugly Block E Entertainment Complex stands now – they jacked it up and moved it two blocks away, intending to open it as a venue for dance. (And by “dance” I mean professionals doing it in front of people who are sitting down. Which could mean a strip club, I suppose. But it would be a bad strip club. A dancer couldn’t give a lap dance to someone in the middle of a row without doing the whole excuse me sorry excuse me routine to get to the guy.)
Outside the theater: trash. Across the street, where once a restaurant and a “New York Style” pizza restaurant stood: empty store fronts. In many of Block E’s ground-floor windows, pictures of people having fun. Presumably they were having fun elsewhere, since windows with pictures means an empty store front on the other side of the glass. Down the block, the unforgiveable concrete carbuncle of the Skyway Movie Theater, a 70s excrescence that now houses some dance clubs. Next to it, the old Musicland store – vacated four years ago, never filled; on the other side, the slender terra-cotta façade of the Teener’s Theatrical Supply House, recently vacated.
It looks bad. It feels bad.
It’s not permanent. A few new restaurants are coming in; if the disputes are every between over the Skyway’s owners, something new will happen on the spot – the uncertainty is what keeps the other places vacant, I think. (I hope.) But it’s a hard patch for Hennepin. I remember worse – far worse. But it reminds me that pulling for downtown – any downtown in a medium-sized city – sometimes feels like a luxury, a hobbyhorse, a game for nostalgia junkies who believe in some alchemic formula that will bring it all back to life. Sure, it was indispensable once; sure, everyone went downtown. Yes, this was the heart of the town, the big parade, the place where you got your first Sunday suit, got your teeth drilled, had an ice cream with mom in the department store, saw a lawyer, got drunk, met a girl, caught a movie in the balcony on a summer afternoon. This was it, brother.
But it isn’t anymore.
I asked the Swede and the Uke if they ever grew tired of knowing where everything is, of thinking they’ll see the same things in 20 years they see today. Not the right question, perhaps, to ask two guys who grew up here. I’ve lived here for 30 years, minus the DC stint, but that’s not quite the same. The person who grows up in a place and leaves it when he’s 30 knows a place in a different way than someone who arrives at 30 and leaves three decades later. When you’re a kid, you make connections – and if the town’s big enough for you to find your own way, you need never sever them. There will always be room to get lost; always a place that’s home.
Having had enough coffee, I stood to leave for the lavs, and when I pushed back my chair there was a dish-smash crash a few yards away where the little girls were coloring.
“They knocked it off?” grinned the Swede, not turning around.
I nodded. I should have done something. But it was only a plate.
On the way over to the Uke’s I passed the theater I photographed last summer – it was a defunct nabe movie theater, the Ritz, built in 1928. It’s being rehabbed for – yes – a dance troupe. Here’s the old version:
The old marquee is gone, but I realized that the old marquee was actually the new marquee; behind it was the true old marquee, less impressive but more illustrative of the period in which the theater was built. For all I know the marquee will be reinstalled; the website seems to suggest as much, if only through the pictures of the finished product. One of the old photos (first on one the right) shows a confectioner’s parlor that serves Kemp’s ice cream.
I have that brand in my fridge. So if you’ll excuse me: it’s time to end the day with something sweet.
New Match & Quirk; see you tomorrow.