The West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis lost a piece of its heart on Memorial Day. In the sweltering 100-degree heat, the body of a vagrant -- known to many only as Marsha -- was reportedly found in her makeshift hut underneath the 10th Avenue Bridge.
Even to those who didn’t really know her, Marsha was unmistakable. She wore a rainbow of scarves and flowing skirts -- and she always, always had her violin. She was about five and a half feet tall, with thick, wavy, sandy hair. Juliana Bryarly, the owner of Acadia Cafe, says she was ageless in a way.
“Sometimes she looked 60, and sometimes she looked 25,” she says.
For years she squatted underneath the bridge with her longtime companion. Chester, a scraggly-bearded man with bright eyes and a turnip-like nose, spent much of his time pedaling around the West Bank in an old top hat. He regaled passersby with accordion serenades and cartoons drawn on napkins and scraps of paper.
Chester was found dead in 2015. The West Bank took his passing as a blow. His accordion still hangs on the wall at the Hard Times Cafe, where he and Marsha spent a lot of their time -- a tribute from the neighborhood to a man it loved, but knew next to nothing about.
In the past few years, Hard Times co-owner Anna Lohse has been watching Marsha slowly fan out and foster new friendships that didn’t originate from her charismatic old companion -- a big step, she says.
Marsha would go through stretches where she’d be at Acadia for hours every day, sitting with a notebook and writing observations and poetry. Bryarly always thought she seemed a little protective of what she was working on, but occasionally she’d reveal a glimpse of a poem, or give her a flower she’d drawn on a piece of notebook paper. She’d talk about her theories that aliens were spying on Earth.
“You probably think I’m crazy,” she said.
“No,” Bryarly said. “I think you’re interesting.”
Then, for weeks at a time, she would vanish. That was her relationship with the cafe and the neighborhood overall: sprints of presence and affection followed by periods of absence. Once, Marsha took Bryarly back to her spot under the bridge. Bryarly admired the flowers she grew, her maze of glass trinkets and sculptures. It reminded Bryarly of a passage from Because of Winn-Dixie, about a woman in the woods who made glass bottle art that clinked and chimed like strange bells in the breeze.
Besides Acadia and Hard Times Cafe, you were most likely to see Marsha standing under the enclosed Washington Avenue Bridge, playing her violin. That’s how she made her money. Roxie Hudak, who lived close to the spot where she made her home, sometimes caught her playing classical music in the echoing confines of the bridge.
“It sounded like she was playing two or three violins at the same time,” she says. Sometimes Marsha would sing, but Hudak could never really catch what she was saying. She only remembered the peace she felt when the music drifted past her.
To say that she was important to the West Bank doesn’t really encompass the sentiment. Ask anyone in the neighborhood, and it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t have an opinion on Marsha.
“People either really loved her or they really hated her,” Lohse says. She happens to be one of the many who really liked her. Hard Times plans to hang something of Marsha’s up in the café. Maybe a piece of jewelry she made, or a flower she drew.
But the parts of Marsha that will remain freshest are the vivid memories she left, and her sideways view of the world. One night in January, Hudak was coming home from working late. It was 1:30 a.m., and the snow was falling in blinding curtains. From the safety of her car, she barely made out the form of Marsha, carrying her violin, heading to her little spot through the blizzard.
“Marsha, I’m so glad you’re home,” she yelled over the weather. “This is insane.”
Marsha yelled back a simple reply.