Young Americans

Nine scenes from the lives of new Minnesotans

Philip Nyangai

Philip Nyangai thinks it is human nature to create communities wherever you go. "You do it," he laughs, "to minimize your miseries in life." We are sitting at Simba Auto Works on East Hennepin. The reception area is like any other auto-repair lobby, except for all the Kenyan newspapers scattered about. Business is good; a constant stream of people drop off, pick up or inquire into the status of their cars without ever having to explain who they are or why they are there. Philip, in fact, doesn't work in the shop. He works at Good Samaritan Hospital, where he is a licensed practical nurse. He comes to Simba, he says, to see friends and to help with whatever needs doing. (Margaret Delehanty)

Loring Bar, Thursday night

You could hearthe accordion all the way across Loring Park last Thursday evening, breathing in and out the minor chords of some gypsy folk tune like a fire bellows. The heat had lifted hours earlier, turning into cloud cover that set a surreal silver light over the Loring Bar on the corner of the green. The crowd spilled out the door and onto the patio. Two women were squatting down and pissing behind a Landcruiser parked at the curb, juggling a bottle of wine between them and stripping off their fishnet stockings. You know, one said to the other in Russian as she stuffed the hose into her purse, "Dancing's no good with my legs in prison."

Inside, it's the regular Thursday night scene--a packed house of the young and chic, most of them first-generation Eastern Europeans just off the evening shift or night school. The music, accordion and drum and singer Francine doing torch, is a mix of folk tunes and ballads so familiar that one of the few older patrons, a Hungarian man in his early 70s seated in an elegant wing chair by the window, whips out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes. "This used to be sung in the trenches to make the bullets dance," he tells me in broken English. "Now the kids here think it's a love song."

Out of the body crush, Yuliya Vayner jumps on stage and breaks into a full body shimmy, her nimble fingers stitching an invisible lace out of air while friends horse whistle and catcall in Ukrainian from the pit. Like many of them, Yuliya came from Eastern Europe--Minsk, in her case--on a green card with her family several years ago. The empty-nest syndrome, it seems, is an American ill: As a rule, everyone I talked to lives with parents, an uncle, the third cousin by marriage who sponsored them. As for getting out with friends, a Belorussian guy sucking on a vodka-soaked lime reports, it's either here or church. Take your pick. He gives the sign of the cross, swallows the rind, squats and leaps into a flying split that would put Baryshnikov to shame. Church it's not.

By midnight, the place is all sweat and perfume. While the band takes fives, several women a capella their way through a round of lyrics and throaty yelps that sounds like the Bulgarian Women's Choir in an echo chamber. Taking a breather on the patio, Olga Mikhailenko offers her quick wrap on the scene that apart from certain details could be told by nearly everyone here. "My family came partly to get away from discrimination--we're Jewish. But more than that, we lived close to Chernobyl. After the catastrophe, my father took a reading in the sand of our beach and it was off the scale. A lot of people started dying from leukemia, the economy sucked, and a lot of families like mine headed to the west. Now it's our turn, as the children of Eastern European immigrants, to translate and make sense of new manners, food, television, American stuff for our parents. And it's their turn to keep us together, to help us remember what we left. We move around with one foot in our history and one in this new world. I trip up a lot, but sometimes, like tonight, I can dance." (Josie Rawson)

Julia Peker

"Aaaaggghhh! Ten o'clock on a weekend? What do you say we make it 11 or 12?" Julia Peker is vice president of a club for management-information-systems majors at the U and their Friday evening barbecue out on Nicollet Island isn't about to be circumscribed by an early-morning interview. Besides, Fridays frequently finish with dancing at First Avenue, Barney's Underground, or, best of all, the Gay 90's. "In the Soviet Union," she explains, "we didn't have gay people. As far as we knew, they didn't exist." But her first night at the 90's, a guy told her she was beautiful "just for fun. He didn't want anything from me. That's my kind of place."

Julia was 11, one of about 3.5 million people living in Kiev, when the Chernobyl reactor melted down 90 miles to the north. Her mother tested water for the state and knew more than most Soviet citizens about the deadly levels of radiation, and, later, about the rising incidence of nosebleeds, fainting spells, and cancer among the children in the small towns near the crippled nuclear plant. It was nearly seven years before Julia's stepfather got a job with NSP that allowed the family to leave the country.

Next Page »