With one month left of Midwest residency, I’m scrambling to see as much as I can. Last weekend, a friend and I hit the Twin Cities—a bucket list destination for me, as Minnesota was the second-to-last state I had yet to explore (Hawaii being the final 50th). We spent weeks plotting the trip, prioritizing food and art. Here’s the skinny:
F. Scott Fitzgerald is St. Paul’s sacred son, so our first quest was tracing his route to literary fame through one of the city’s prized neighborhoods. (This helpful site provided the deets.) The historic homes here were beautiful: Queen Annes with scalloped woodwork and wrap-around porches alongside Romanesque brownstones draped in ivy. I especially liked the snippets of prose engraved in the sidewalk, including this poem by Carlee Tressel called “Second Love”:
He kissed the girl
in the ballerina skirt.
It was a long one—
like the kiss—
drenching her sneakers
Most of the sites were scattered along Summit Avenue, which Fitzgerald famously (and drunkenly) ran up and down one day in 1919, stopping cars to inform the drivers he’d just sold his first book. Another site-of-note: the Commodore Hotel, where Scott and Zelda partied late into the night, their baby girl’s sleep schedule be damned.
From there, we set out on our first foodie adventure: Hmong Village Shopping Center at 1001 Johnson Parkway. Though it appeared to be a non-descript cinderblock warehouse on the outside, it transformed into a bustling Southeast Asian marketplace inside, with karaoke kiosks, traditional clothing boutiques, bookstores, acupuncture clinics, herbalist stations, Hello Kitty kiosks, an entire showroom of Asian fruits and vegetables, and a dozen food stalls. Indecision promptly ensued: Should we buy our papaya salad from this 80-year-old Cambodian woman with oystery eyes, or from this Vietnamese hipster fiddling with her iPhone? Mango sticky rice from Kad’s, or passionfruit boba tea from Blueberry? Pad See Ew or Laotian sausage? Egg rolls or spring rolls? Aye!
After sampling two stalls, we continued on to Common Good Books, owned by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame. Though he freely admits he’s lost gabs of money in the book biz, he recently moved to an even grander location at 38 South Snelling Avenue. It was a handsome store of hardwood floors, plushy couches, detailed staff-written reviews, and a sprawling shelf of art and photography books positioned directly in front of the cash register, blocking the staff’s view so that you could browse in privacy.
From there, we traveled to Lower Town, marked by a gorgeously renovated train station, and stopped by the Black Dog Café on 308 Prince Street. Not only was it hosting a Bike Comics art show (which included a stack of paper and art pencils set out for community response) but a jazz concert as well. We ordered Spanish wine and local beer and sat down for some wild-ranging tunes by a cellist, saxophonist, and pianist. Then we headed on to University Avenue, home of ever more Southeast Asian cuisine, and settled in at 422: Little Szechuan. My year in Beijing turned me into a royal Chinese food-snob, so I was skeptical until I spotted yuxiang qieza (that is, “fish-smelling eggplant”) on the menu. Back in Beijing, my favorite take-out place would douse this dish with so much chili-oil, it would eat through its Styrofoam container and ooze into a puddle at the bottom of my plastic bag by the time I reached home. Now that’s hardcore. The St. Paul version wasn’t nearly so intense, but it was tasty enough, as were the dan dan noodles and hong-xiao tofu.
Last call was Nye’s Polonaise Room at 112 East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, widely reputed to be not only the best bar in the Twin Cities but (at least according to Esquire) the nation. That night’s draw appeared to be the “World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band,” but the most spirited ditty we caught was “When the Saints Go Marching In” (and a geriatric version at that). A fast gin-and-tonic later, we were nestled in our wonder-beds back at Le Meridien Chambers.
Next morning, we braved the crowds at Hell’s Kitchen on 80 South 9th Street for lemon-ricotta hotcakes, eggs benedict over bison beef, and (the highlight) Mahnomin Porridge: hand-parched wild rice from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibway topped with roasted hazelnuts, dried blueberries and cranberries, heavy cream, and maple syrup. Oh yes: and Bloody Mary’s and mimosas, toasted beneath some great Ralph Steadman artwork (which the founder of Hell’s Kitchen has reportedly tattooed all over his arms).
A long stroll through Loring Park ensued, and we wound up at the much-lauded Walker Art Center. We’d planned to spend much of our day there, but alas: the collection was closed due to an outdoor concert. We were, however, able to visit the sculpture garden, which boasts one of the icons of Minneapolis: Spoonbridge and Cherry, a 5,800-pound spoon topped by a luscious, 1,200 pound cherry, by the brilliant Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
A bus-and-light-rail-ride later, we arrived at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts on 1011 Washington Avenue South, a must-see for any literary pilgrim. The first floor hosts a coffee-house, an art gallery of “book arts” (including calligraphy, letterpressed broadsides, highly imaginative book-binding, and scores of other books that have been slit, bound, painted, and otherwise turned into art pieces), and a sweet little store that just so happened to sell broadsides of “Meditations on a Tree Frog” by my dear friend Angela Stewart (whose book will soon be published by Sarabande).
The second floor of this magical center was home to The Loft, a community writing center, and the third belonged to Milkweed, an independent press. Though both were technically closed that day, they kept the lobbies open for private workshops. And did I mention that all three floors were connected by a stairwell whose railing resembled pages of a journal, each with its own handwritten script? Seriously: it was a sanctum.
While I was basking in literary bliss, my friend was pawing through a weekly entertainment zine in the café and discovered that an arts and music festival was underway on the Stone Arch Bridge, just a few blocks away. We hurried over and found hundreds of stalls selling paintings, jewelry, hand-stitched clothing, pottery, cutting boards, gourmet mustard, wine, and cheese along the banks of the Mississippi River. After investing in some woodwork, we settled down to shrimp and avocado ceviche and risotto with foot-long string beans at the aptly-named Sanctuary on 903 Washington Avenue.
By this point, my fever for this city was running pretty high, but it all-out ignited when we arrived at the Guthrie on 818 South 2nd Street. I’d read somewhere that Minneapolis’s theater scene was second only to New York City’s, but that didn’t prepare me for the glory that was the Guthrie, which has gathered three stages, a restaurant, a gift shop, and half a dozen cash-bars under a brilliantly blue roof, as well as a 178-foot cantilevered bridge that sweeps over the Mississippi (all sumptuously designed by Jean Nouvel, who aimed to create “theaters in the sky”). Our tickets were for “The Amen Corner” by James Baldwin. Though I’m a huge fan of his essays, I had never known of him as a playwright. Indeed, he only wrote two in his career, this one in 1954 and “Blues for Mister Charlie” a decade later. After witnessing this production, I realize this is nothing short of tragedy. The plot revolved around a female pastor in Harlem (played by the ebullient Greta Oglesby) who was already struggling to keep her family, church, and faith intact when she received an unexpected visitor: her long-estranged husband, who—over the course of the three hour play—slowly died in her bed. The writing was genius, particularly a heated exchange between father and son about the existence of God and the seductiveness of jazz. I wept throughout the final act, overwhelmed by its prose. And the music! We’re talking foot-stomping, soul-searing gospel, all the way through. And the acting! The cast hailed from the famous local African-American theater group, the Penumbra (which also directed and produced the play). I cannot recall ever being so riveted by theater.
We made it back to our hotel to discover that downtown Minneapolis had morphed into one big frat party, with thousands of drunken revelers wandering the streets. We did some excellent people-watching from the patio of Rosa Mexicana, where we counted seven mohawks, two cross-dressers, and an endless stream of scantily-clad women wobbling by on six-inch heels (which made me grateful to have come of clubbing-age in the ’90s, when Doc Martens, ripped jeans, and flannel shirts were sufficiently sexy). Sunday morning, we did a quick art tour of our hotel (which included Jackson Pollack prints and uber-urban Japanese photography) and then headed out to Lake Calhoun for a picnic from Kowalski’s Market. And that concluded 48 hours in Minnesota!
The countdown is now on: four weeks ’til a moving van whisks everything I own to a village 20 miles below the Canadian border. But before that, South Texas, Boston, and Chicago await… Nos vemos!