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But the main thrust of Roger's efforts was to improve his adopted city of St. Paul, especially the Grand Avenue area. At the time, there were a lot of empty storefronts along the avenue and accompanying low rents--antique stores and other small boutiques were moving in. As he told the St. Paul neighborhood paper the Grand Gazette, which profiled him in August 2003, "This was the era of hanging plants and pottery shops." Concerned that the neighborhood was vulnerable to a dramatic change for the worse--say, the building of a strip mall or some other monstrosity--Swardson set out to revitalize Grand Avenue from within. In order to better market the area, he founded the Grand Gazette in 1973; it's still going under the recently changed name of Avenues. In his capacity as neighborhood booster, Swardson also instigated the first Grand Old Day celebration.
Eventually, the Gazette required a larger space--Roger bragged of four subscribers in Paris--so he rented a second-story office above a pharmacy. As he later told the Gazette, "I called a very, very old lady about renting space in the building. She said, 'Oh my, we haven't rented to anyone since 1944.'" Swardson, with three business partners, went on to purchase the building. They invited in stores and restaurants and Roger's wife at the time, Pam, came up with the name: Victoria Crossing.
Things were going exceedingly well for Roger. He and Pam had three children--John, Rachel, and Nick (he also had two kids, Gwyneth and Charlie, with a previous wife; they lived with him on and off). He thrived on being a dad. The family lived in a big house with a swimming pool. Roger drove a BMW. Rachel recalls that when he woke the kids in the morning, he would hide in their rooms with a squirt gun and try to pelt them in the ear. Or he would tickle their noses with feathers. "We would get mad," she says, "and he would stand there laughing." He made amends by driving them to school in the BMW with all the windows down and the sunroof open, blaring the theme from The Lone Ranger. Sometimes, for comic effect, he hung an American flag out the window.
Swardson's flamboyant, impetuous way of doing things came with a downside. In the 1980s, he became interested in St. Paul's Lowertown development--he found the farmers' market particularly appealing. And so, despite protests from his family that he was undermining their financial security, he sold his stake in Victoria Crossing and invested in Lowertown. He envisioned stores and loft apartments and restaurants--including Sawatdee, which he'd helped get off the ground. The project didn't take off the way Roger thought it would, in part because of a lagging economy. He lost big, monetarily and personally. He and Pam divorced in 1989 and Roger moved into an apartment on Grand and Dale.
That's when Swardson, heartbroken and just plain broke, started his life over again as an hourly wage grunt. Around the same time he also turned back to writing in an effort to keep the rent paid. In 1990, he phoned City Pages' editor Steve Perry, pitching a piece about baseball card collectors. But Steve had already assigned a similar story. Roger finally called back about a year after "that piece of shit" ran, pitching a different kind of story entirely: a first-person account of working a temp job that consisted of tearing apart 250 pounds of scrap metal an hour. It opened this way: "Just say 'poor.' It's a good word. It just hasn't been very popular for a while. The last president to use it comfortably was Lyndon Johnson, who also displayed his gall bladder scar and picked up his beagle by the ears. These days the White House eschews crassness, and plain speaking as well."
It was a watershed piece that set the tone for future stories he contributed to City Pages, several of which were subsequently republished in the Washington Post, winning him a book contract that he was unable to fulfill in the end.
In 1999, Swardson suffered his first stroke and was admitted to the VA hospital in St. Paul. Though his kids presented him with legal pads and felt tip pens, the implements he preferred, he never again put pen to paper. After he died, one of his sons found a pad on which he'd scribbled over and over, trying to write "Merry Christmas, Love Dad." The coordinated effort was exceptionally difficult. Because the stroke had damaged the left side of his brain, he'd had to relearn such basic functions as walking and buttoning a button. Then, six months later, the second stroke came. Doctors discovered that he suffered from a condition called cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which causes blood leakage in the brain. Increasingly, researchers are pinning it as the cause of many strokes in the elderly.
Unable to live on his own, Swardson was moved to an assisted living high-rise in St. Paul, and then to a nursing home. The home "was shitville," remembers Rachel. "There were people peeing in the hallways, people moaning and crying. Even through all that, my dad would say, you have to come and meet Margaret. You have to hear the voice on her." Rachel would get to his apartment and discover a blind woman sitting there screaming about a lost shoe. And he would say, "Isn't that just a beautiful voice?"
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