Off Beat

Real Community

The evening events of a week ago Tuesday made me proud to live in Minneapolis. The five-block walk from my front door to the back yard of Horn Terrace and Tower public-housing complex was a Mr. Rogers scrapbook of Hmong and Latino sharing slides and swings on the Lyndale Community School playground, black and white playing chess over potato salad by the sidewalk, and no fewer than four National Night Out gatherings merrily humming with the sort of docile domesticity common to farm-family reunions.

The scene on the lawn behind the high-rises was more animated, with the woe and mirth of the participants fueled by the frisson of being at the epicenter of recent tragedy--the shooting deaths of a Minneapolis police officer and the suspect in her custody--and an impending rite of honor. Nothing was unseemly, not boisterous laughter or uncontrollable weeping. Hugs lingered and eye contact penetrated. Under an awning perched on a carpet of wood chips, a black funk band riffed in front of a white guy making beat-box sound effects and a Latino rapper getting mercilessly razzed by his friends for continually messing up a rhyme about how the Lord had changed his life.

Literally dozens of politicians and media members filtered through the crowd, bearing the self-conscious humility that makes them especially pathetic at such events. But to their credit, most of them seemed to realize it.

When it came time for the ceremony--the moment of silence, the ringing of the bell, the procession of testimonials--most of the speakers kept their oratorical posturing to a minimum. Instead, there was eloquence in the slack-jawed, ashen anguish of U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo's famously stoic, Scandinavian visage, and in the way U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton unsuccessfully tried to keep his jaw from quivering. Within the two communities who felt the loss of Melissa Schmidt most acutely, there was eloquence in the tears trickling down the face of her fellow police officers, and in the sign language spun with a wailing vigor by the many deaf people she had helped through the Minneapolis Police Department's Deaf SAFE program.

Good-to-the-bone wakes only occur on behalf of the righteously beloved. So it was that at Melissa Schmidt's community wake there was room for Horn Towers resident Preston Howze to come to the microphone and declare that Martha Donald should also be recognized that evening. It didn't matter that Donald was the villain and Schmidt the hero in the cataclysm that left both women dead in the cramped bathroom inside the nearby building less than a week before; Howze's grief and advocacy for the memory of his housemate was respectfully accommodated by those present.

And my estimation of Melissa Schmidt went up another notch. Good cops and bad cops prove who they are to the communities they serve day after day, leaving impressions that neither bullets nor bellicose unions can easily erase. The events of a week ago Tuesday were doggedly cleansed of cynicism and rancor. I'll remember them for a long time. --Britt Robson


Chicks and Chaw

On Thursday night I set out to break the law. My criminal plot led me to the Speedy Market at the corner of Dale and Thomas streets in St. Paul, where I purchased a can of Kodiak long-cut snuff. I then proceeded to deposit a small amount of the smokeless tobacco inside my lower lip and walk home. Along the way, making no attempt to hide my actions, I occasionally expectorated a stream of brown tobacco juice from my mouth onto the city sidewalk. Although a couple of police cars cruised by, in close-enough proximity to witness my actions, I was not issued a citation or thrown in the slammer.

It seems that there is little respect for the law in St. Paul.

Spitting is against the law in St. Paul, and has been since at least 1956. Section 207.01 of the city's legislative code dictates that "No person shall spit, or expectorate, or deposit, or place any sputum, spittle, saliva, phlegm, mucus or tobacco juice upon any part of any sidewalk; nor upon any part of the floors of theatres, churches, concert halls or other public places; nor upon the floor, steps, gates or seats of any bus or other public conveyance."

Apparently I am not alone in flouting this law. St. Paul City Council member Kathy Lantry maintains that she herself has never expectorated on public land, but allows that her two sons regularly engage in such criminal pursuits. "They spit all the time and I hate it," Lantry laments, blaming the practice on the poor example set by professional athletes. "Now I can say it's against the law. In fact I think I might just make a copy of it and post it to their bedroom doors."

City Attorney Manuel Cervantes says that his office has yet to bring charges against anyone for leaving sputum on public land and he doesn't expect any such prosecutions in the future. "It's not a question of time; it's a question of priorities," Cervantes says. "Is this really the business of the city at this time?"

Cervantes may have a conflict in enforcing another little-known part of the St. Paul legislative code, section 197.01. "No person, firm or corporation in the City of Saint Paul shall sell or offer for sale, barter or give away baby chicks, less than one (1) month in age, in lots of less than twelve (12) in number." Cervantes concedes that when he was a child his mother took him to either the Woolworth's or WT Grant's department store in downtown St. Paul to purchase a baby chick in honor of Easter Sunday. Since then, Cervantes maintains, he has reformed his ways: "That's the last time I had any contact with baby chicks." --Paul Demko


Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

"BRING BACK OUR MAILBOX," shouts the handwritten placard, tucked into a Ziploc bag and clipped to the stop sign on the corner of West 32nd Street and Emerson Avenue South in Minneapolis. Also inside the bag (for protection from the elements) is a petition with several dozen signatures, demanding the return of the blue mailbox that was a long-term fixture on the corner.

Peggy Giunta started the petition on August 1. That morning she looked out the window of her second-floor home and saw a truck pull up. A truck already filled with a passel of blue mailboxes--like so many sad refugees being carted off to camp. As the postal workers began to unbolt the mailbox on her own corner, Giunta ran downstairs to ask what was going on. Turns out the United States Postal Service had ordered the removal of two dozen mailboxes in the neighborhood. Now, Giunta learned, if she wanted to drop off her mail she'd need to traverse several blocks to the next closest mailbox, or go to her local post-office station. "What it means now is I have to drive someplace," she laments. "Which is ridiculous."

The removal of the corner collection boxes is an ongoing process, explains Jim Ahlgren, the postal service's customer-relations coordinator for Minneapolis. Any mailbox that averages less than 25 pieces of mail per day is potentially targeted for relocation, he says. Citing the postal service's massive monetary losses--$1.75 billion last year and an anticipated $1.5 billion this year--Ahlgren explains that it's all about cost cutting. "We have to look at every cost at every turn in the organization," he offers. "We want to serve our customers as best we can, but we have to be financially and fiscally responsible."

From March through the end of July, he says, 127 collection boxes were removed or relocated in Minneapolis. Today there are 1,097 boxes still scattered around the city. Ahlgren says he understands the concerns raised when the corner box gets taken away. "Everyone would like to have a box within walking distance, but unfortunately that's not feasible," he says. "We have guidelines to adhere to. If we don't pull that one, which one will we pull?"

And, he points out, if the hike to the collection box is too taxing, people could always just leave their outgoing mail in their own mailbox and it would be picked up. A good point that we're probably all aware of, but, really, does anyone do that in the city? Leaving that big bundle of holiday cards on the front step seems like tempting the storm gods, and leaving your bill payments sticking out of your mailbox feels as good as an open invitation to identity theft. But maybe if enough of those corner mailboxes disappear, we'll learn to live with the risk. Or communicate entirely by e-mail. Not that that would help the postal service recoup those losses. --Leyla Kokmen

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