Home and Away

James O'Brien

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?

You sit down and watch the game, and are immediately and once again bowled over by the awesome vitality of youth. You borrow a pen from someone and make a couple of notes to yourself on the program: Keep listening. Roots. At halftime, some very sharp and smart-looking 60- and 70-something men are introduced, captains of their high school championship teams, men who probably did the Lindy or Frug in this gym. They're joined by some 20-something hip-hop guys, captains of their own championship teams.

The game is a thriller. The military kids have a 6'9" sophomore who dominates, but our guys are city and scrappy and come back at the end. The 6'9" kid scores with two seconds left to give the military kids a one-point lead, and, it looks like, the game. After a timeout, our hippy-hop guys inbound the ball perfectly past half-court and a kid named Gio Gideo rises up right in front of you and lets go a perfect jump shot from outside the three-point line. The ball rotates and arches in slow motion, up past the championship banners that hang on the wall, up past the black and white and brown and yellow faces in the stands, up past the balcony where guys in your day used to get stoned and make out with their girlfriends. At the buzzer, it hits nothing but nylon.

Everybody jumps up. The students spill out of the stands and smother the shooter, and the coaches try to get the kids to kneel down for a prayer but as far as you can see the kids are already praying by pogoing up and down in a spring break-worthy circle of hormones and euphoria. You slap five goodbye with the old black man with the toothpick in his mouth and the booze on his breath who's been sitting behind you with his nieces. You pat the back of the older white guy in front of you, who came to the game alone and who knows his basketball much better than you. On your way out, you say to your buddy that every one of those kids fell in love with basketball tonight.

You run out into the parking lot and ask people if they saw that last shot but what you really mean is did you see that look on everybody's faces, that look of wonder, of connectedness, and you get in the freezing car and you use this phrase to describe us, and everyone else who stays, and the kid's winning shot: cold-blooded.

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