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Hometown sites’ meaning emerges from our unique perspectives

I looked west from St. Paul and there stood a stark pillar, rising higher than anything we’d ever known. They called it the IDS, but that’s not the term Uncle Kenny used.

Andy Sturdevant is taking the month off; this is the last of four Strolls by guest authors.

The great sages say there is no meaning but what we bring to things. Everything sits empty of purpose, power or portent until we deliver as much, from our own particular prejudice and perspective.

So the salesman from Wichita drives through the Twin Cities and sees something far different from what the rest of us see. Perhaps nothing moves him at all. He is moved by street corners in Wichita that would mean little to you or me; corners we would pass like so many banal strip malls in an unfamiliar suburb.

ids center
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A stark pillar of a building, rising higher than anything
we’d ever known in this region of the country.

When I was a boy I spent warm days on the St. Paul banks of the Mississippi river, living as close to the life of Tom Sawyer as the late 20th century would allow. One year, I looked west and there stood a stark pillar of a building, rising higher than anything we’d ever known in this region of the country. They called it “IDS,” but that’s not the term Uncle Kenny used as he stood with me staring across the fast flowing water. “Tommy boy,” he said, “that there is Minneapolis giving us the finger; something they’ve been wanting to do for some time now.”

In St. Paul, we didn’t feel we deserved the affront. We thought we were owed nothing more than a modicum of jealousy. But until other buildings came to surround the IDS, giving the downtown balance and adding grace to that Minneapolis skyline, I couldn’t look across the river without hearing Uncle Kenny’s voice in my head, and feeling like Minneapolis needed to be taken down a peg or two. 

Conversely, on sumer nights when the old man would drag us all home from the lake, Herb Carneal softly delivering his play-by-play soundtrack on the AM radio, the brightly lit No. 1 atop the First National Bank would be the welcome signal that our long trip was almost over. It flashed in the night sky like a warm, comforting beacon.

“What’s the ‘one’ stand for, Pop?” I’d ask my father, and he’d unleash his bias: “It means St. Paul is tops.”

st. paul
“It means St. Paul is tops.”

Years later I would be working in Minneapolis on a TV commercial when location scouting was brought up for discussion. I mentioned an ideal spot for the shoot just across the river. The look I received convinced me the people I was working with would no more have driven to St. Paul than to Bismarck. They were in their late 20s, from the western suburbs, and few of them could remember their last visit to the capital city. It was the first time it hit me that one could live a perfectly happy life in the Twin Cities without including St. Paul.

I never viewed my hometown quite the same way again. I was still enamored with it, but I came to realize the meaning it held was the  meaning I gave it. 

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And so it remains to this day. I round a corner, as nondescript as any other, and it unlocks a wave of nostalgia. A scene springs forth in my mind of a 12-year-old shooting bottle rockets from a playground toward a gas station, and the ensuing chase by the mechanics who righty believed their lives could have ended that day in a fiery explosion. It was the first time I would be punched in the face and I remember thinking how different it felt than what I imagined. It was a shocking explosion of thick, dull pain, and I was impressed that it had more of a paralyzing effect than one that left me with embarrassing tears. 

To me, that corner is still  a sacred battleground from past wars, and the escape route my friends took over the wall, and behind the pharmacy, is as interesting to me as anything a tourist might appreciate at Gettysburg. I can’t find similar intersections in Minneapolis, but I bet you can. This is one way towns become meaningful. We assign stories to our surroundings and thereby generate sensations that comfort, excite or otherwise inform us. Our travels around our tiny worlds become imbued with meaning where no one else would find any. And so a town becomes home.

Recently I drove around the Twin Cities, for no other reason than to generate ideas for this column. It wasn’t the interesting places that grabbed my attention. It was the places that offered nothing at all, that left me with no emotion, no reaction. There is someone out there, I thought, who would stare at what I’m seeing here and begin to tear up, or maybe smile gently; someone who would be moved to tell stories and  talk of the importance of that laundromat, or that vacant lot.

What was, to me, just a dirt driveway spilling out onto a busy street may have been a gathering spot for neighbor men who wandered out after dinner to smoke cigarettes and talk of their day. That corner market that looked like every corner market in every inner city in America, looked that way only to me, not to those who perhaps know it as the centerpiece of a wildly vibrant community. To them it’s where teens rendezvous on autumn nights just before tearing off into the darkness on bicycles, outgrowing the weakening tethers of their clinging parents, feeling the simple thrill of being alive. It’s the spot Louie visited every week for the chance to talk to Ann, the check-out clerk, whom he eventually married. It’s the place one can stand and watch the world unfurl.

Every square inch of these towns has a story now. There is no place more potent than any other. Too many people have seen too much life in too many places for there to be any dull stretch of real-estate remaining. It only seems so until you find the person who remembers flying over that ’67 Impala back in 1974, in a hit and run, and living to tell the story. The girl who was lying in the street afterward, unconscious, choking on her gum, when the auto mechanic suddenly raced to her side and used a pair of needle nosed pliers to remove the gum from her throat, saving her life. That service station is now a dry cleaner, but the canopy that rose above the pumps is still there. And the woman still tells her story 40 years later, as do her children who bought the rental property across the street, an ugly stucco building that probably holds more charm, to certain families, than Summit Avenue could ever offer; because that’s where life unfolded, and where every lawn, pillar, stair and street eventually played a role in the saga of their unpredictable existence.

So you Wichita salesmen, passing through town, don’t return home and talk of our world as if you’ve seen it. You can deliver only vague, watercolor impressions. “Nice skyline,” you might answer when asked about Minneapolis. You’ll be unable to report on the lone finger, now hiding amidst all that preening glass and concrete. I realize it’s only there to me, and to my Uncle Kenny, but so what? It’s there just the same. It joined forces with the First National Bank, many years ago, to write me a story, and build me a home. 

T.D. Mischke is a Minnesota writer, musician and radio talk-show host. For 17 years he hosted “The Mischke Broadcast” on KSTP. For two years (2009 and 2010) he was a weekly columnist for City Pages. His most recent show aired weeknights from 10 to midnight at AM830 WCCO. In 2004, Mischke released “Whistle Stop,” a collection of original music; he released his second collection, “That Kind of Day,” in 2008.