Friday, January 20, 2006

Home, Sweet Home

It was the kind of lightning that made Ben Franklin giggle with girlish excitement.
It was the kind of lightning that reveals the murderer, and he is right behind you.
It was the kind of lightning from which sirens spring.
The atmosphere this evening on our way home had the manic quality of an unstable dinner guest with a drug therapy problem. We drove home on a rain black street into a panoramic screen torn by flashing blue-white crags that lit the sky purple and gave the neighborhood an ominous feeling of twitchy, untrustworthy daylight. The lightning was so continuous that the thunder was an afterthought—a low, monotonous grumble, unnoticeable in its repetition. Even the rain was secondary, not pouring down in torrents that pounded the pavement but a steady shower that would have been pleasant for gutter splashing were it not for the threat of electrocution.

Eventually, the rain overtook the lightning or at least matched it, and streets began to flood, traffic began to stall. We passed safely through on our way to meet friends at a tapas bar in Minneapolis. Minneapolis. My old neighborhood. I felt like I was spectating, a tourist… all the pretty lights, all the traffic. All the night-life, at 9:30 in the evening. I felt like I was in an entirely different city because, well… I was. Minneapolis and Saint Paul, though they rub lasciviously against one another at certain junctions in their municipal plottings, are separated by the Mississippi River in other places. That river intervenes for a reason. Aside from the mundane facts of modern boundaries and governmental organization, they were founded years ago, many miles apart at the time, and thought of themselves as different entities, if they thought of each other at all. They still do.

I used to get lost in St. Paul, until I bought a house there and left my young, irresponsible, Minneapolis days behind. It was time to bring a little life to the capital city. Or at least a few tax dollars. From 1841, when its name was changed from Pig´s Eye Landing to Saint Paul, right up until this morning when I walked the half a block to the bus stop, St. Paul has been thought of as sedate, responsible, reliable if a little boring. This was, no doubt, why it was chosen to be the state capital.

On the east side of the river, the village of St. Anthony was settled around1839. Presently, it is represented only by a struggling shopping plaza named “St. Anthony Main” as the city of Minneapolis, which originated on the river's west side in 1847, annexed St. Anthony in 1872. The resulting city was a lumber and flour milling center, bustling with merchants and manufacturing, clearly too unstable to represent the state and host the government.

After all, St. Paul gets Garrison Keillor, and Minneapolis gets Prince. St. Paul has the Winter Carnival, and Minneapolis has Holidazzle! St. Paul had F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Minneapolis had Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Suburbs. (Actually, these things are not so far apart. F. Scott was a wild man.) St. Paul has the hockey team, Minneapolis has the basketball team. Chamber Orchestra? St. Paul. Symphony? Minneapolis. Science Museum, History Center, State Capital Building... St. Paul. Art Institute, First Avenue, Dream Girls... Minneapolis. You see my point.

A few years ago, our wrestler governor made headlines when he announced on a late night talk show that St. Paul’s streets were designed by a bunch of drunken Irishmen. People got upset. Whether or not it was true that inebriated former island-dwellers from across the pond had laid out St. Paul, it is true that the streets are often convoluted and many people from Minneapolis fear to go there. But give the guys a break; they had a river, bluffs, and interesting glacial topography to contend with. Apparently, “people” say that St. Paul is the last eastern city, and Minneapolis is the first western city. I had never heard this before last weekend, so who these “people” are is as yet unknown. It is amusing to me that there are not numbered streets in St. Paul, most everything seems to be an avenue, and the numbers on houses correspond to precisely nothing. You have to rely on your sense of direction to find places and not on an organized system. Luckily, I have that sense of direction to fall back on because I really do tend to appreciate an organized system here and there.

When I started looking for houses in 2001, I was initially hoping to own in Minneapolis, in the same neighborhoods I was accustomed to living. Uptown. Uptown was definitely where I wanted to be. After all, I had lived in the general vicinity since 1992. However, this desire proved impossible, due to my measly income, and I was nudged into either North Minneapolis or St. Paul. North Minneapolis seemed farther away from Minneapolis than St. Paul, and the quality of the neighborhoods varied block by block.

I drove by many places and marked certain ones for entry. First there was the house that was near one of the lakes and within my price range, but was so thickly painted as to hint at concealment of a crime that involved bodily fluids. Then the house that my realtor basically said I would never be able to afford once the bidding war was over. Then the house that already had an offer. Then the house for sale by owner that was priced way above its worth. And then the house that was passable.

My little house was the seventh house I walked into, and I knew right when I entered its dark, paneled kitchen that it was my house. I saw what it was right away, underneath the carpeting and paneling and boxed in bathroom appliances. St. Paul became my home because it was where my house had been living, all this time, without me.

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