When the storm rolled over and the world fell dark, the neon sign at Grumpy’s popped on. In the old days they weren’t set to turn on when the sun fell away; I suppose a fellow had to turn a switch. If the owner was on duty he’d do it himself, grumbling about the cost of electricity; if it was an employee alone in the store, he’d probably let it stay dim. Only bring in customers anyway.
I was down on Washington Avenue to interview a guy who lives in an old candy store. When he bought the place he discovered a time-capsule - the original shelves, the soda fountain from 1918. It’s quite amazing. I told him he needs to turn it into a soda fountain, NOW, since the hipsters love authentic soda fountains. I’m sorry: they loves them some soda fountains. While looking through his collection of old pictures, we saw this:
His building is on the right, the two-story structure between taller buildings. But hallo, what’s this?
The first thing I thought: White Castle. That’s the shape they used when they couldn’t get a free-standing location. Or White Tower: in fact, more likely White Tower, since they were more likely to redo a facade than White Castle. Let’s check the 1932 list of local Whiteys . . . .
Nope. The photo is from 1934. Could have come along later. Let’s check the 1947 list of Whiteys . . . Nope. So it could be a White Tower. Or someone copying the style of the chain. Sometimes you just have to realize you'll never know; everyone who knew is dead, or doesn't care.
Anyway, the guy’s place was amazing. When I got outside the day had turned churlish; morning sun was gone, and a storm was stomping towards the towers. I liked it. I love that kind of light. Before it hit I snapped a few shots of the desiccated commercial buildings around the area. It’s not a bad part of town - turn around and there’s a tall hotel, bars, theaters.
But then you turn around:
That tree! The long slow mushroom-cloud bloom. The building on the right is an old motel converted into apartment buildings; never found a jot of information about it. Head down the alley, look across the dead trench of the road:
That's the West Bank - from the small and old and quotidian to the enormous and implacable. It’s the University of Minnesota’s neighborhood, after all, and the money that sloshes out of that place flows up and down the blocks. Wasn’t always so; when I first came to the area, Seven Corners was a dump, with a couple fern bars (peanut shells on the floor? We can just throw them on the floor? How exciting and chic!) (That was the Haberdashery, just to jog the locals’ memories.) There was also a big neon cowboy for the Hagens appliance store; presumably, he was roping Great Deals. The sign was later moved to the Holiday Inn bar, but I hear they’ve done away with it. Fools.
As I said, this part of the neighborhood is doing okay, except for this block, the storefronts of which are stuck in different decades. The late 50s, early 60s:
The owners are just hanging on for reasons we can only imagine. Hoping for someone to buy it all and knock it down. It’s a mistake. Before the freeways barreled through, the area was woven into downtown, and the commercial street was remarkably dense. Over the years the buildings fall or burn, and the street now looks like a set of bad teeth. You can walk behind the big apartments and see how it used to be a neighborhood, how the street that dead-ends at a fence is picked up way across the great river of the interstate. It’s like looking across a border of a country cut in two by war.
The freeway had to be built, of course. I’m not arguing about that. It’s just a shame what was required to make it happen.
Speaking of signage: I mentioned that the Neon of Uruguay! Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s not even Uruguay. But I recently watched “The Pursuit of the Graf Spee,” which I’d seen a while ago and enjoyed for its deucedly jolly old English sailor types, pip pip old Fellow and all that. I’m exaggerating only slightly. They don’t say “it’s time to give Jerry what-for, eh?” but they’re close. What’s interesting about the movie is the respect it pays to the Germans. It takes place before the war was truly underway, so there’s the vestiges of civility and honor between Men of the Sea. Probably balderdash; you have to see the opening scenes between the captain of the merchant marine vessel and the Churman kapitan to get what I’m talking about. It’s like a meeting between the brand managers for Coke and Diet Coke. Some minor disagreement about this and that, but nothing to raise your voice over.
There are shots of Montevideo, where the Graf Spee laid up for repairs. It makes any place look civilized and sophisticated, doesn’t it?
Neon means electricity, and that’s a reassurance. When I came home from work today the power was out. The storm, I figured. You can’t shake the electrical habits - in fact you don’t know they’re electrical habits until they’re thwarted. You look at the clock face: dead. You walk in a closet and pull the cord: nothing. The silence of the house without a single engine makes you realize how natural quiet seems unnaturally so.
NOTE: Joe Ohio problem should now be fixed. I have no idea what the problem was. I have removed the problem.
. . . and why it made my jaw hit the table.