Thursday, March 2, 2006

Someone's Life Revisited

I walked for an hour in the Mall of America today, and then drove around looking for lunch. Afterward I just drove randomly and ended up, as if by autopilot, downtown in St. Paul where I last lived before moving to Fargo and, a year later, on to Wisconsin. (I often find when in Minneapolis now that my recreational drives will unconsciously follow old bus routes; and so I traced the old 7 line along Hwy 5 toward town.)

I first drove over to the flight school at Holman Field in St. Paul where, I now see, my life took a 90 degree turn that led, these 16 years later, to the very different place I now find myself. I got all of my initial eight flight ratings at this school, and was subsequently hired on as an instructor (this is how most every new civilian pilot builds their flight time). After a couple years of toil in this capacity I was hired into my first airline job. Everything in steps. There's no one I know left today at the flight school except the owner, who was not in. But I roamed a bit around the shabby surroundings and tired little airplanes and watched instructors coming and going with students, all of them in places so like where I was nearly two decades ago. That time now seems like just yesterday but in someone else's life. A reminder of time's swift and unrelenting passage.

From there I drove downtown to the old building where I lived those last three years or so. I've mentioned this building before, I know. It is a hundred-year-old business warehouse adjacent to the Farmer's Market in lower St. Paul, and I rented a 300 square-foot room there on the top floor after my divorce in 1996. No kitchen, no bathroom; just a single room with a door on one end and a window on the other. I was looking for something cheap at the time--I had just been called back to work at my first airline job after a brief furlough, a job which paid only about ten grand a year--and here was basically a storage unit for my shit for $130 a month. A storage unit I intended to live in between hotels.

When I moved out of my house in Northern Minnesota, I originally wanted to find a place down in the city that would accommodate my old nine foot concert grand piano, and I thought an old warehouse would have the space (and, more improbably, the elevator) to make this happen. But after pounding the pavement in both Minneapolis and St. Paul for a couple days, I was having no luck. The warehouses I looked into were not legal for residences, and I did not have the budget for a normal apartment, certainly not one that could hold my piano.

I was drawn to the Northwestern Building before I even entered the lobby. Eight stories high and built of brick (there was actually a ninth floor penthouse accessible only by stairs), it was surrounded by other unimproved or boarded-up warehouses in an old industrial part of downtown, a neighborhood defined by a confluence of rivers and freeways, bridges and old railroad grades. My kind of place. Inside, the tired terrazzo floors and faint smell of industrial cleaning solvents gave it an almost institutional flavor. It was simultaneously worn & tired and yet had a peculiar vitality. Far from being on its last legs, I wonder if the building had ever been busier. Everyone I saw coming and going was a bit eccentric. People in strange, hippie-like dress or paint-spattered clothes, young people with brightly colored hair, people in expensive suits that seemed out of place in that old shack (and soon, a uniformed pilot with flight gear). It was the end of the business day when I first showed up, and a beautiful and very earthy young woman, who took pity on me in the lobby and answered my questions (in spite of being only a tenant herself) assured me that the place was everything I wanted: cheap, illicitly residential, outre.

I went back the next day and met up with the busy building manager, whom I followed around, struggling to keep up, like a scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I remember the "interview." After explaining my situation, the manager said without conviction "We're not legally allowed to let people live here." Then, without a pause, "How much space again did you say you wanted?" I moved my truckload of stuff in two days later, minus the piano, which went to a friend's living room. (The building manager was particularly interested in the piano, and we even toyed with the idea of using an industrial crane for the job before the reality of my income-which-necessitated-a-$130-a-month-room brought us back to planet Earth. But he never stopped inquiring about it the whole time I stayed there.) And so I found myself ensconced behind an unmarked heavy door, nestled between a painter on one side and a ghostly woman on the other who rarely showed her face. The painter was there all the time, and kept strange hours. There were locked doors in both my room's side walls, to enable someone renting more than my tiny room to connect them as a suite. The painter's eclectic music, and compassionate tendency not to turn away any stray herbs that crossed his doorstep, these became part of my new surroundings (I ended up taping off the door leading to his room, as the consequences of second-hand pot smoke for a pilot might be dire in a random drug test).

Moved in, my room contained a big metal desk, a black leather recliner with a reading lamp, a futon sofa-bed, a couple small dressers and a wire basket rack for clothes, and a small table for the stereo and an old Sony Trinatron. The rest of the wall space was given over to my CD collection. That's it. My books and other furniture were in a friend's attic up north, the piano at a different friend's. There was an aisle down the middle of the room leading to the single window which, when I moved in, had a 200 lb. air conditioner caulked and screwed into the window frame. My first job was to remove this so I could have the window open (I nearly dropped the impossibly heavy and unwieldy thing trying to get it out, which, falling eight stories to the narrow concrete sidewalk rimmed with parked cars, would have done damage I now shudder to contemplate). I love the sounds of the city, and I slept with that window open in all but the dead of winter. There were no curtains, but my window didn't face anyone who could look in. Modesty be damned. The room was lit at night with the glowing peach color of the sodium fluoride street lights below.

There was a men's bathroom directly across the hall, which looked not to have been updated in 50 years or more. Three toilets, two urinals, two sinks. Two huge casement windows with frosted, chicken-wire glass looked into a grimy central light-shaft courtyard. There was a little-used shower in what was originally a fourth toilet stall, and one had to leave the water running for 15 minutes before hot water made it up from the basement some nine stories below. It never did get hot, but I'd come back from a run and turn it on while I cooled down and it was tolerable. And it beat the hell out of going to the Y several blocks away to shower. I bought a cheap pair of flip-flops since the shower had never been cleaned in probably 40 years, though I appeared to be about the only person to use it now (my next door painter on rare occasion).

I remember the initial oddity of pulling out my futon and going to sleep in this setting. All the sounds--of the freeways 24 hours a day, of garbage and delivery trucks through the night, of the tugs working the river two blocks away, people shouting on the sidewalks, sirens and stoplight drag races and the bars letting out at 1:am. Saturday mornings in summer the farmer's market was active, and trucks began showing up Friday at midnight. Such a constant theater of sounds.

I love that this odd little place came to seem like home to me. I strongly identified with its quirkiness, and I came to love the eclectic mix of photographers and painters and random businesses that I shared the building with. There was no parking, so regardless of what time I got in, I had to be downstairs at 8:am to plug a meter. Then back upstairs, usually, for another couple hours' sleep. Hundreds of times, in all weather, I slogged downstairs in sweats with a handful of quarters from a jar kept by the door for this purpose. Now and then I'd wake up and find a note under my door that someone from the Eco Education office down the hall had plugged my meter for me.

Before today I had not been back since I moved out in the spring of '99, and my visit was like dalliance with a banned substance to a nostalgia whore. I once again plugged one of those meters and walked across the street to the lobby. I remember so many times driving in from the airport after a trip and wheeling my bags down the street at 2:30 in the morning, seemingly the only person awake in an industrial part of town in the middle of the night.

I paused in the old lobby to soak it all in and to note the changes. A deli had moved into the ground floor (I would have LOVED that!), and there had been some carpet laid and a general freshening of things, but it was still the same old place. I took the elevator to the top floor--I had forgotten how slow they were, and that there was always a disconcerting clunk when passing the sixth floor. Still there. On every floor but the ground floor there was a third elevator door, boarded up. On my top floor you could look through the crack between the wall and the elevator car and see a really old, lattice-sided, manually-operated car parked in that third shaft. How many decades, I wondered, had it been sitting there unused? Today when I emerged on the top floor everything was slightly different. The suspended ceiling was gone, and one of the businesses had replaced the old wooden doors with a huge, '60s glass wall. Stepping around the corner, my room was... gone. All three doors along the hallway were gone, replaced by blank wall. An architecture firm had moved into Ghost Lady's place and taken the whole wing over. Eco Education was gone. My old bathroom was still there, unchanged except someone had capped off the spout in the shower. (With the loss of the water, I thought, went the urge to clean the damn thing.)

I went into the architecture office and asked if I could look around and they took pity on me. Actually, they had been in the building for quite a while, though only four years in this location. So we shared stories and a few laughs. Property values in the area were skyrocketing, and there was a sense that the building's lease on life--at least in its current form--was ominously limited. It remains one of the few inexpensive places for artists and small businesses to rent space, but the pressures which have closed the other similar warehouses in town are soon to reach the Northwestern Building as well.

At the time, I remember being a little embarrassed that all I had to show for 34 years on the planet was, more or less, stuffed into this shabby room in a tired old warehouse. How precious and far away it seems now.


Esbee said...

Very well-written! I can almost see it.

Anonymous said...

What a place! I can remember visiting with my then-three-year-old daughter. For quite some time she could recognize the area when we would drive by and would point out that we were near "Uncle Bil's Dump".

-- Jeffy

wunelle said...

Susan and I very nearly chose to keep the place in hand for occasional visits, it was so cheap. I remember, Jeffy, our loading my stuff into your truck (and a borrowed trailer from Chuck, as I remember) and then unloading in the back with the manually-operated freight elevator. I think we initially put my bed in there too (that was crowded) until we realized it looked too residential to not raise the Fire Marshal's attention. So that got hauled back to Chris's.

I'm just a bit surprised at how strong my reaction was to going back there. I have such an urge to put in for a room when one comes available, just to keep a presence in the city. But I can't hold MSP regularly on the bid, and it's too far to drive.

And in any case, as they say, you can't go back.

Dzesika said...

I remember feeling that way when I went back to the town I'd grown up in, accompanied by a then-boyfriend, and asked him to drive down the street where my grade school was so I could show him ... only to find that they'd torn down this splendid art deco monstrosity to put up a soulless strip mall.

But your old flat sounds so lovely, and I'm jealous even of the memories of it!

wunelle said...

Tearing down history to make way for a strip mall! Ugh!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that. What the mind chooses to keep is amazing.

Sometimes, if I get a chance, I check back on neighborhoods across WI that my family lived in when I was a kid. (Since dad was a railroad engineer, we tended to move frequently as he climbed some railroading seniority ladder to … better routes? Less deadheading?)

There is a house in Fond du Lac that we lived in for only one year, but a little lifetime of details were created in that single year. The place serves as a fully-sculpted point along the timeline of my life. What one second-grader heard, thought, smelled, ate, cried about, ran away from, figured out in 1970, which seems utterly historical now.

But what the heck is that feeling upon wanting to physically trace the footsteps? Footsteps of whom? And to what ends? For a glimpse of a young-again parent? To alert an older sister that I really was sorry and that I simply couldn’t understand? To somehow recognize the day when a neighbor boy went to a Boy Scout outing, and died because of it?

I always think that I’ll be able to see through to something, but I don’t. Instead I notice how the afternoon light is always the same--the way it looked against the house while we played Seven-Up. Or how warm, wet concrete smells when you’re sitting on Kay Michael’s driveway playing jacks. Or how we ate Trix the morning our dachshund, Pepper, died. Or how the soundtrack for the house included, of all things, a TV voice announcing the Jackie Gleason show, (“…live from Miami Beach!”) and the transistorized sound of the Beatles singing “Get Back.”

wunelle said...

Of course, I know that what I REALLY miss is this time in my life, a time when I was uprooted and made to exist, as I am fond of saying, on the balls of my feet. I know I wasn't really so self-sufficient, but there was that period where I had little debt and no obligations other than to my job (which I loved and loved to hate); this little apartment was so perfectly emblematic of this particular life's phase I passed thru. It's fascinating to me that I neither want to return to it nor would trade those years for anything in the world.

I could write quite a number of posts about this little room.