Ahead to the Past


The American jazz composer Artie Shaw once made the staggeringly blunt observation, "Nothing gets better." I've long considered that to be the single most depressing three-word sentence in the history of the English language. And yet, in certain darker moods, I've been known to embrace it.

In healthier times, however, I've gravitated toward the jaunty optimism of the late American radio commentator Paul Harvey, who once uttered, "Every tomorrow has been better than every yesterday." That's possibly the most hopeful take on existence ever delivered.

With Artie, I always wanted to argue, "What about slavery? We straightened that out, didn't we?" And with Paul I wanted to recommend the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

More than anything, though, I wanted to arrange a debate between the two, and sit back to enjoy the banter.

In Artie's defense, I don't think cities look as uniformly architecturally appealing as they did in the 1920s. I don't think the natural world is as pristine as it was a century ago, and I don't believe Minnesota, in general, has as much to brag about, to the nation at large, as it did when Wendy Anderson sat on the cover of Time magazine, in 1973, touting "the good life."

But if I could bring Artie back from the dead this month and share his company for an afternoon, I'd walk him from the shuttered doors of the Metrodome to the fresh green grass of Target Field and exclaim to this depressed, tortured soul, "Looky there, my man: honest-to-God improvement."

Something got better this spring in the state of Minnesota. There is no other way to view it. The Metrodome was a nightmare tailor-made for Dante's imagination, whereas this new ballpark is a glorious waltz through his crystalline paradise.

I never believed we were capable of correcting a gaffe like the Dome. I was convinced, when I sat for the Twins home opener in 1982, that we had crossed a Rubicon of sorts. I thought that a return to outdoor ball was as likely as a return to the days of the great streetcars. Trading charming trolleys for bulky, bland buses was a colossal urban blunder, and so was playing baseball in a marshmallow-capped mausoleum. But I never thought the powers that be would deign to acknowledge such an error, let alone work to repair it.

But repair it they have, and if such a mistake can be rectified, perhaps similar improvements can be achieved as well. We may not be able to reinstall the streetcars, but we certainly can enliven our cities with more sleek trains, helping this area to one day operate like a real big-time metropolis. We also can fully develop our riverfront and, instead of turning our backs to the Mississippi, as we've done for a century, we can embrace it, be grateful for it, sit by it, eat by it, sip wine by it, maybe even one day swim in it again (Artie, stop rolling your eyes).

Can we ever again drink the cool liquid of the Boundary Waters? Will we one day rid the nation of the horror of banal big-box stores or reverse the soulless coast-to-coast strip-mall surge? Can we undo the cloned, lifeless, suburban developments that grow like weeds off the freeways or replace utilitarian expediency with a little artistic pride?

If we can dump the damn Dome for a breezy outdoor diamond, perhaps anything is possible.

Paul Harvey would surely say so. He'd swear we're on an ever-upward trajectory. And, of course, in many ways we are. Unlike Artie, few women, African Americans, gays, or lesbians ever talk about turning back any clocks. For them, tomorrows have beaten yesterdays nearly every time.

Nevertheless, Artie's stubborn ghost is always reluctant to move back in full retreat. At Palmer's bar, tonight, he'll be nearby as some well-lit 62-year-old mutters wistfully of the glory days of the West Bank music scene. And at Porky's this spring, Artie will nod from his Desoto as nostalgic throngs gather to relive 1957 one more time.

Artie's spirit still floats above St. Paul's demolished Rondo neighborhood, and you'll find it where any 7/11 (and eventually SuperAmerica) once crushed an independently owned five-and-dime.

But I've decided not to embrace Artie's grieving ghost this year—not during baseball season, anyway. Instead, I've asked it to join me along the third-base line, where I've reserved a seat for this aging specter. There we can stare together, eyes wide in quiet disbelief, celebrating, in our own silent way, the sudden and unexpected return of the good old days. 

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