An American downtown skyscraper on a dull Sunday morning. I spent some memorable times in the great Northern state of Minnesota, both good and bad.
I was thinking about this whilst sorting through some old photographs which I have just found in my loft. Going through old photos has been perfect therapy keeping my mind off the MRI brain scan I am off to this morning. I have been playing with my new scanner and trying to get some of my old analogue photographs onto the computer.
This is not only a wonderfully geeky pastime, just what I need right now but it has also revived memories of a lot of things I had long forgotten about. One day in The Twin Cities in particular.
I wrote about my trip to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a couple of weeks ago (20/04/09) but I ran out of time and space and also, I had mislaid some photographs taken on a gloomy Sunday, some fifteen years ago, when I had a day off from my visit to the writer Garrison Keillor who was collaborating on a television project that I was developing.
In the previous blog, I was reminiscing about a sunny Sunday when I was free to roam around these most civilized cities which are Minneapolis and St. Paul.
These photographs show a different picture. It was a week later and the sunshine had turned to a dull overcast grey and everyone, well nearly everyone, who wasn’t a traveler with time on his hands, was at home doing cozy Minnesotan Sunday things like, I imagine, baking, putting up shelves and making jam or beer.
I was staying in a downtown hotel and visitors to the States will know that what is often a bustling centre during the week, can turn ominously silent on Sundays.
This was even more true on this day with its atmosphere of doom made more intense by the humidity.
The Minneapolis Hilton, fine establishment as it no doubt is, runs out of interest once you have been there for more than a few nights so I decided to do that most unAmerican inner city pastime, I went for a long walk.
Garrison Keillor, when I told him later about my day, said that I had probably been the first person ever to walk from one side of Minneapolis to the other. He said this not in admiration but with a look of pity which he, uniquely, can combine with an air of implied mockery.
My journey took me away from the empty downtown area and towards the University, a distinguished and noble place now bereft of any activity except for the occasional student sitting around looking into space. I didn’t want to intrude on his grief but the young man in the picture below did seem to have things more pressing than overdue essays on his mind. I hope that now, fifteen years later, they worked out for him.
The biggest of my problems was the sudden need for coffee, strong, black and now. It was mid-morning and I was seated in Annie’s Parlour with a large mug of coffee without any idea of how I got there. Thus is the power of addiction. I remember once, when I used to smoke cigarettes, standing next to someone, too close in fact, at a party when I had run out of the wicked things. I had been propelled across the room by the invisible force of my own craving. Luckily, the happy smoker whose space I had invaded knew the feeling and offered me a fix.
I never met Annie but her Parlour was, maybe like her, scruffy on the outside but warm and welcoming once you crossed the threshold. I made my first acquaintance with a blueberry muffin here and ever since, as a simple-minded Englishman, I have thought of them and maple syrup as quintessentially American. Now, of course, you can buy them anywhere in England and, sadly, they have lost some of their native flavour.
Two mugs of coffee later and after some effusive but perplexed looks from the woman who wasn’t Annie, I was off again, rucksack on my back and camera round my neck.
I had discovered the Mississippi River and was duly amazed. In England we wax lyrical about old father Thames, or that ferry across the Mersey but, in all honesty, they are leaking garden hoses in comparison to this most majestic of rivers. From its source in a lake in Northern Minnesota and travels practically the whole length of North America until it reaches the sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Awesome, as they say in teen soaps.
On this day of discoveries, I saw my first paddle steamer too. Again, I nearly said “awesome!” but as a lifelong fan of Showboat, maybe the greatest of all the musicals, if you ignore my personal favourite Pal Joey, awesome was just the right word.
I am not embarrassed to say that on that first meeting with ‘Ol Man River,’ I did stand on the river bank and deliver my poor man’s version of the great song to a couple of disinterested cormorants. Nothing erases the great Paul Robeson from my memory – his recording of the song still makes my eyes water but now it also takes me back to this river that “just keeps rollin’ along.”
A humbler vessel, a Mississippi tug boat, followed on pulling two barge-loads of soil, I have always loved these tough little boats, having been allowed to steer one on the Mersey in Liverpool sometime earlier. Watching its progress down this mighty river, I thought how exciting it would be navigate.
In fact, when I returned to Minneapolis some time later to make the programe with Garrison Keillor, we filmed on just one of these vessels and the skipper, obviously picking up on my enthusiasm, asked if I wanted to take over the steering.
It was not for very long, I admit, but I was still thrilled to become one of folk who have navigated this nation-defining river in one of these plucky little boats.
I was now faced with the remains; shells of buildings and rubble in an unexpected wasteland. In front of me were the ruins of the old Gold Medal Flour Mill and further down the river, Pillsbury’s Mill, once the biggest in the World.
When I stumbled across them, they were forgotten cast-offs showing me America on its uppers, something I had not expected.
Now, I am told, both buildings have been restored and converted into luxury accommodation and the whole of this run-down area is now flourishing again, not with flour milling of course, but with condominiums, apartment blocks and all the smart accoutrements that support modern city life.
Today though, it had an altogether different feel. Shabby dereliction dominated this side of the river and, with my new camera at the ready, I was seduced by its shabbiness. I had brought along my prized new possession, one of those long camera lenses that can make even the most amateur of photographers look like a professional. Slotting it into position, I zoomed around me and spotted a group of sinister looking men under some arches.
A good shot, I thought, Native Americans, once the lords of these parts but now, too often, the city’s street drunks and down-and-outs. I had no time though to compose an arty picture as within seconds I heard a shout and a rock hit the ground next to me with considerable force. This was followed by others, stones, rocks, pieces of brick.
They shouted and ran out after me.
Whatever they were doing over there, they definitely didn’t want me to photograph it. More missiles followed as I moved faster than I can remember moving before or since.
It was one of the few times in my life when I felt that I was in real danger.
I hadn’t noticed, in my photographic enthusiasm that I was quite alone. Me and those men in an empty landscape of demolished buildings.
Of course, he was right. I went cold at the thought in spite of the humidity.
After that, Garrison Keillor took me under his wing a bit more but he needn’t have worried, I had learnt my lesson.
Later that week, he drove me round St. Paul’s showing me the sights associated with the great Minnesota-born writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. We were both fans, who wouldn’t be after reading The Great Gatsby? We drove down Summit Avenue and he slowed down in front of Number 599 where Fitzgerald had lived with his parents.
It was here, in 1919, that a publisher accepted his first novel, This Side of Paradise. After reading the letter he ran out into the street and, in his excitement, showed it to everyone he saw.
Anyone who has ever wanted to be a writer must feel a beat of excitement at that story. Certainly I did and so did Garrison, I would guess, by the catch in his voice as he told it to me.
It is strange though, after all these experiences that the most memorable event of my time in Minnesota occurred after Garrison Keillor invited me to dinner at his place in the country.
We had been talking about rural affairs and the subject got round to poultry, don’t ask me why.
I found myself telling him and the other guests about my childhood skill at hypnotising chickens. He was amused and more than slightly incredulous about this. It was quite simple though. I told him all I used to do was put the bird’s head under its wing and stroke it until it fell asleep. The challenge was to see how many birds you could line up before the first one awoke. I think my record was about thirty.
Next day, I got a call from the producer of his famous public radio series, A Prairie Home Companion which broadcasts live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul’s right across America. She said Garrison wanted me to hypnotise a chicken on his show that evening.
I was persuaded, leaving it to him to work out how such a visual trick could make good radio, and I turned up that evening to meet a friendly hen called Henrietta, a Rhode Island Red. I had time to form a relationship with her during rehearsals whilst a woman was practicing a yodeling song on stage.
It was all very tongue in cheek, I talked Garrison through the technique whilst settling Henrietta down to sleep watched by a full house in the theatre. The nation, pinned to the radio, held its breath as the fowl slept and, as if on queue, woke to my command with a ferocious squawk.
And that was it – my claim to fame as a Chicken Hypnotist. Leaving the theatre that night, I was asked for my autograph by an enthusiastic woman who was impressed that I had flown all the way from England to demonstrate my skills. Will you be doing your show across the country, she asked.
Maybe I missed my vocation.