Home and Away

Why do we stay?

A few winters ago, I stood in line at the Montana coffee shop near the City Pages offices waiting to get coffee. Then-owner Johnny Hazlett was busy behind the counter, serving up steaming cups of caffeine for the cold, cold hearts before him. It was one of those late March afternoons that teased with the promise of spring but finished with a late chill, so the place was draped in a defeated hush. I mustered up enough energy to pull out of my funk long enough to say to the woman behind me, "So how you doin'?"

Like any good battle-weary Minnesotan, she knew what I was talking about. "I've had the gun in my mouth," she said with only the faintest trace of humor, "for about three weeks now." I didn't laugh. I said I could relate or something, we talked for a few more minutes, then went our separate ways. I think it was then that I decided I was going to get out. Just once. I didn't know how I was going to do it, or where I was going to go, but I knew I wanted to see what it was like to spend an entire winter away from Minnesota, the place where I'd spent every winter of my life.

As I type this, my fingers are numb. There is soot and burnt plastic on my thumb and my index finger from the jumper cables that melted down and almost blew up in my face this morning. My toes still haven't completely thawed out from yesterday, when I took the kids sliding and then helped a guy push his car out of a snowdrift. My head's slightly woozy from the whiskey I drank last night at Grumpy's, where quite a few others, including manager Pat Duffy and bartender Tim Kennedy, armed with the City Pages winter issue and stark, sure knowledge of the collective war against the elements that lay before us, hunkered down in the coziness that only a Christmas-lit corner bar can afford on a frigid winter night.

As I type this, smoke stacks spew billowing white steam clouds across the downtown Minneapolis horizon. The domes of St. Paul look like Fritz Lang's in Metropolis. The lakes are finally starting to freeze over, and all that condensation hitting the frigid morning air conjures a mist that gives off the look of English moors, or the San Francisco Bay. Mummies and Michelin people walk their dogs and waddle their errands, steam whooshing from their mouths and noses like they're connected to the same big bong, and I'm listening to the Thrill's So Much for the City, a dreamy pop record by a bunch of kids from Dublin who've got it bad for California.

Which is where I was this time last year. California. Nice place to visit for a year, like they say, but not home. Not the place I tried to explain to Californians, but ended up sounding like I was justifying it, which I was I guess, because that's what you do when you've decided to settle down and live in a place where the Halloween snowstorm is a myth of perseverance and badge of honor, a place where the weathercasters are shamans and shoveling a form of meditation, a place where there exists a shared don't-talk-about-it toughness that doesn't happen in places where the people don't survive anything together so regularly, so righteously.

Why do you stay? they say, all squinting eyes and shaking heads. You say, The rhythm of the four seasons and the people, most of whom hate the winters as much as you do, and then you laugh away their skepticism but their arched eyebrows stay with you, haunt you in fact, as does their peaceful easy weather and their question, late at night and early in the morning and most every moment in between. Why do you stay?

You stay because on one of the coldest and snowiest December days on record, you go to the gym to talk and play ball with guys you've known for years, then you pick up your kids and you all drive each other nuts at dinner, and then you head out to a high school basketball game between your hippie Catholic alma mater and their crosstown military academy rival. As you cross the mighty, steaming Mississippi by way of the translucent Hennepin Avenue Bridge to Nicollet Island, you and your old baseball coach, who called you out of the blue to go to the game, bitch about the Grain Belt Beer sign not being lit up, while Holidazzle is allowed to glow on and on in all its corporate-sponsored kid-friendliness.

On your way into the gym, you see a couple of guys you haven't seen in years, including your buddy Paul's brother Harry, and you hope for the best for their dad, who just had triple-bypass surgery. You see the great First Avenue DJ Roy Freedom, who's working the concession counter and who sells you some peanut M&M's and tells you he's got a kid going here and it's the best thing they ever did, and you both laugh at the fact that First Avenue patron saint Steve McClellan graduated from here, too. Why do you stay?

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