One of my favorite things about summer in Minnesota is outdoor music. After the isolating, bone chilling winters that have me running from one heat source to another, the summer brings intense outdoor workouts, lazy nights on patios and music in the park.
As a city dweller, and social worker, my heart wrenches with concern during our coldest months, especially when I see neighbors who do not have comfort food or warm houses to retreat to during the winter. In the summer, this relaxes as I see an opportunity to enjoy, if even for just an evening, our common love of music, warm weather and being together — all imperfectly perfect.
Last Monday I was enjoying this ritual at Nicollet Island Park, manning the merch booth for my dear friend’s band. It was a night full of camaraderie and spontaneous authenticity. The main guitarist didn’t show, but the band was awkwardly honest about this and the crowd quickly bonded by supporting their effort to make it work.
A couple of songs into the set, a man entered at the front. Very dirty and carrying a large backpack containing all the tools required for daily survival, he was clearly without a place to sleep. He loved the music. Cheering loudly, he danced near the stage and sang along with the songs. He was, by far, the most engaged fan. Song by song, it was obvious that he was keeping the band motivated to keep playing, despite their repertoire being severely limited.
At one point, this number-one fan exclaimed loudly that he hoped he had enough money to buy a t-shirt. Within 15 minutes, at least three people came by our booth, wanting to purchase an extra for him. When we presented him with it, he made a grand show of taking off his dirty shirt, throwing it aside and putting on the clean one. After he stood up to model the shirt, several others came over to the booth to purchase their own.
This is starting to sound awfully idyllic, isn’t it? Some of you may even be thinking about this as a clear example of “Minnesota Nice.” So, if my former paragraph exhibits a proud, shiny kind of Minnesota Nice, my next one illustrates a darker side of our state that too many in our community experience every day.
Shortly after the feel-good t-shirt moment, two police officers entered from the same place the man had come in — off to the side, near the stage. They approached hesitantly and quickly identified the one who didn’t look like the others. The one they must have been called to rescue the rest of us from.
No guns drawn, or excessive reactions, they just walked up to the man and talked to him. Then they took him by the arm and guided him away. The music stopped. The crowd began to boo. The band asked the “po po” not to take away their biggest fan. The police yelled at the crowd, “Don’t boo us. Boo the person among you who called us.” The man looked resigned. Not surprised. Just disappointment, maybe like Cinderella when her fancy clothes turned into rags. Some of us were angry. Most of us just wanted to help and to recapture the happy.
Eventually, the man came back. The band played another song, dedicating it to him. He stood up at the end of the song and faced the crowd. He thanked us for having his back. The night went on. We all went home.
I think we did okay. We must do better.
Julie Bluhm is the CEO of Guild Incorporated, a non-profit organization that helps people with mental illness lead quality lives by providing integrated treatment and services, including housing and employment. She is a resident of St. Paul’s Lowertown.
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