Something in the Air

What the granddaughter saw: Alexander Ramsey's "Victorian Secrets"

What the granddaughter saw: Alexander Ramsey's "Victorian Secrets"

Days that start out at 39 degrees and wind up at 80. Traffic backups due to road construction you never actually see. A morbid fascination with subliminal rats and a woman who once wrote term papers for jocks. Our global positioning rules out the Santa Anas and pre-hurricane fever, and the lunar cycle has been proceeding as normal. Still, every now and then we come down with what can only be described as a metrowide feeling of temporary unease and general weirdness.

As appropriate a time as any to tour the Alexander Ramsey House near downtown St. Paul. Though the carriage house/gift shop here is one of those places you'd expect to encounter hyperactive, sticky-fingered schoolchildren watched over by hyperalert, cranky dowagers in smocks, on this Tuesday evening the joint is much more low-energy. A lovely young woman in a black turtleneck points visitors toward a dark room off the curio shop, the starting point for the Minnesota Historical Society's thrice-yearly "Victorian Secrets" tour.

Inside are a TV and VCR, a dozen folding chairs, and a middle-aged woman gossiping wickedly into the ear of her silent husband. Slowly our fellow history darksiders trickle in: two more married couples; a bearded fellow who must be a university professor; two women in sweatshirts who look as though they've been friends since the Eisenhower years. All of us are wearing glasses; the unanimous accessory gives the event a decidedly intellectual feel.

The action commences when a redheaded schoolmarm in all-black period costume positions herself in front of the television set. "This tour features very sexually explicit material," she warns. "So if you came to see the furniture...." We snicker, intellectually. We're told that tour topics include masturbation, homosexuality, alcoholism, contraception, and mental illness. Then we're given the chance to slip out silently while the VCR pumps forth a boring biographical clip about tonight's star attraction, Minnesota's first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey.

No one backs out. As we walk briskly from the carriage house to the main mansion, our guide alludes to the doubts cast upon Ramsey's heterosexuality. Ramsey's granddaughter, she reads from her note cards, "saw something" in the carriage house that might have been an indicator. The mention of our dearly departed host's alleged homosexuality causes some of my fellow tourists to gaze intently at the furniture.

In the library, a reading from a 19th-century hygiene text about how education made women sterile draws knowing laughter, while quotes from an anti-onanism tract elicit "Well, I never" looks from a couple of the white-haired women among us. My group is becoming increasingly well versed in the vocabulary of downcast eyes, arms tightly folded across chests, and quiet, nervous chuckles deep in the throat, as we are ceaselessly narrated through bathroom and boudoir.

Finally, as the tour is winding down, a short woman wearing Birkenstocks and an "I Voted" sticker manages to get a word in edgewise and picks up the dangling thread. "You said earlier the granddaughter saw something in the carriage house," she pipes up. "What was it?" Our previously jovial and seemingly liberated leader suddenly becomes uptight. She mutters something about an act of oral sex between Ramsey and his carriage driver. Everyone's eyes become strongly fixed on the carpet. Paganism: the redheaded stepchild of Unitarian Universalism (which in turn, of course, is the redheaded stepchild of all organized religion).


HOW FITTING, THEN, to head out Saturday to the shores of Lake Harriet for Pagan Pride Day. A clutch of young folk are idly shuffling a tarot deck on the grassy area in front of the Lake Harriet Community Church. The crowd browsing the information booths and exhibits (Wanna buy an amulet? How about a henna tattoo?) inside is a mélange of age groups and freestyle fashion--jeans and T-shirts, batik sundresses, python-print pants, fancy feathered headwear. A man and a woman in the Fellowship Hall share a laugh over the church-basement location: "I mean, pagans doing stuff indoors when it's this nice out?" the distaff half guffaws. "Anyone doing stuff indoors when it's this nice out!" he responds, giggling at the lunacy of it all.

I linger beside the tarot reader for a while on the way out. But deciding, ultimately, that spontaneity is definitely the theme of this warm, breezy Saturday, I continue blindly into the unknown.


SOME DIVINE FORESIGHT might have helped; I spend 45 minutes trying to locate the East Side Millennium Harvest Festival on Payne Avenue. Though it has been billed as an ordinary street fair, we suspect otherwise when the first celebrant who comes into view is an eight-year-old boy wearing a "Hell's Outcasts" T-shirt, kneeling back on his Rollerblades as he repairs a toy gun.

Little girls in tinsel headdresses and face paint; moms browsing the Anderson Shoes sidewalk sale while their children hungrily eye the adjacent trio of inflatable kiddie rides; teenage girls in tight jeans and trampy makeup: all par for the festival course. Square dancers on a platform in the middle of the street? Seen it. Square dancers promenading left to an aging cowboy caller who raps the Santana/Rob Thomas hit "Smooth"? Had to see it to believe it.

Past the throng of naughty children attempting to knock over street barricades, the redneck rock band playing to the food court, and the red-white-and-blue-suspender-clad vendor hawking old Ventura campaign shirts for five bucks a pop, a gaunt, sour-faced geezer stands propped against a drugstore doorjamb. His eyes hint at something, well, otherworldly. Perhaps the truth behind the recent local peculiarities is more profound than a single week's field work can uncover.