Thursday, March 10, 2016
Two Minnesota Short Stories of the 50's
Old Vacant Houses
Regardless of the title, the story to be is really a short story about of my first real friendship, with another boy, the friendship started in 1956, and perhaps ended in 1964; when we seemed to have faded into oblivion, I was nine years old in ’56, and Mike, a year or so younger than me, not much.
His name was Michael Rossert. We both attended Elcho St. Louis School on 10th and Cedar Streets, and during the summers we searched those old vacant houses, being turndown in St. Paul, Minnesota, to make room for highways, and what would be called Ramsey Hospital, and other such buildings.
My family, we hadn’t moved to Cayuga Street at that time, what the police referred to as Donkeyland, because of the ongoing mischievous delinquents there, we live until 1958, at 109 East Arch Street, a few miles away, perhaps the distance created our friendship to dissipate. So 1958 when I was eleven, this perchance was the prelude to our separation, and when I left Elcho St. Louis for Como Jr. High School.
Elcho St. Louis, 1958
In any case, my mother worked at Swift’s Meats, she was a meatpacker, and during those long hot summers, I kind of ran wild, and especially on the weekends, into those, old, old vacant houses, yet to be torn down.
These empty and deserted buildings, houses, apartment’s complexes, of four or five apartments, no higher than three floors usually, within them, held several species of insects, to include all shapes and sizes of spiders dangling from their massive cobwebs, cockroaches as fat as mice, pigeons flying about and doing what they do best, and ruined old furniture, moldy debris, drapery torn, waving out the broken windows, wine bottles allying about with branches and bits and pieces of scrub that were overgrown along the sides of the boards of the structure, along with vines creeping in through the windows, and the summer breeze over my eleven year old mindful face.
St. Paul, is a city along the Mississippi where small boats lull at the docks, and big boats glide down the peaceful river, tugboats tugging along. Where if you listen close you can hear the cracking of heavy rudders, while white ferryboats docked, gleam in the sun, as we’d search the houses for treasures: thereafter, we’d go to the rooftops to look down to see the lazy Mississippi, smoke a cigarette we purchased at Grants Store, or Woolworths, for twenty-five cents a pack, as the manager chased us out, yelling “You kids are only….! It’s against the law!”
Well, what could you say, everything was against the law for kids back then; nowadays, everything goes.
I once found a large old Civil War map, kept it for a dozen years. And once a large framed picture of Notre Dame, of Paris, I kept it even longer; only to find it after going to Notre Dame, as an adult, the picture wasn’t of Notre Dame, but some grand cathedral in Germany, I think Cologne (which I would visit in the 1970s). Such treasures turned the wheels of my mind back then, and provoked me in later years to travel the world over.
Some of those old houses had high arches from door to door and ledges that nests could rest on, and gables where baby birds chippered in, while in their nest awaiting food, and those darn pigeons, and squirrels, were everywhere. And more often than not we’d spot a drunk, a wino, sometimes with a partner sprawled out in one of the empty rooms, with dilapidated chimneys on one side of a wall and with ashes and old burnt up wood from a nights fire in the hearth, and we’d gaze at them, and listen and breathe in ready-deep, as if preparing for battlement or combat, or run like hell if he chased us, and they did, and we enjoyed the balmy air circulating throughout the rooms as we ran, jumped over and under whatever, like hell.
Most of the places we romped through were impregnated with pungent odor, of an old ruins. Thus, without thinking of anything in particular, I dreamed I was Marco Polo, soaked in sweat among the polished ivory, yet to see the world.
Let me please end this with a gracious note if I may. Now in old age, health is the highest gain, but when you are young, as Mike and I were in those far-off days, contentment was the highest wealth, and that contentment came out of trust and friendship. We were free of the bad. We were good only because we were to each other, the noble ones. That is to saw, we were at ease with each other. Unfortunately, children seldom find that in a parent, even when they grow old, if they could, they’d find a path to the stars.
#1100/7-21-2015 (Reedited and revised, 3-2016)
(A Chick Evens story out of Minnesota, 1957)
Snow is on the sidewalks, and in the streets, a thin layer is covering the Mississippi River, on top of four-inches of ice —the winter houses and buildings are all lit, fires glowing inside of them: hearths, furnaces burning red hot, as I rush out into the cold early Saturday morning brisk air to sell newspapers “Five Cents!” I’ll soon be yelling once I get downtown, I tell myself, ‘Get your voice ready!
It is December, 1957 and I’m ten-years-old, just turned ten-years-old in October. Come summer, mother says, that grandpa says, we’re going to move a mile or so away, to a street called Cayuga, I guess they’re going to build a housing project hereabouts for low income families, I thought that’s what we are?
I see people sitting in their houses as I walk by, their curtains open: men, women and children at play, —as if their minds are unoccupied, it’s 6:00 a.m., all the yards are covered with blotches of snow, Minnesota snow can get heavy if it gets thick or hard, yes snow gets hard, and even harder when compacted, try to walk in it under these conditions, then you’ll know; I don’t try to look into windows of houses for any particular reason, but movement is obvious, so I gaze, sometimes at the movement, it draws me somewhat, a person smiles at me now and then. They all have a white coating, —some with a shadowy silhouette, they are all brothers or sisters I tell myself.
In the quiet morning cold, the houses seem to whisper to me, —as if they have secrets to tell—but I’m too young to stop and listen, I’m not yet a hunter of tales. Moreover, they can only tell me things I am too young to fully understand.
Some of the houses are completely dark, solid gray dark inside those windows; I suppose the people haven’t crawled out of bed yet, I tell myself. In other houses, I hear laughter as I walk down Jackson Street to the St. Paul Pioneer Press Newspaper to get my stack of papers to sell on the corner of Forth and Robert Streets. Once I get down there, I’ll be able to see the icy-Mississippi River from where I’ll stand and sell the newspapers. The ice gets so thick people drive their cars on the river to fish, built fish huts.
I start to yell “St. Paul Pioneer Press! Get your St. Paul Pioneer Press…FIVE CENTS!”
Slow moving, and slow speaking people walk by and drive by in cars. I think my business is the most interesting in town—but of course at my age who wouldn’t think so. There even seems to be a touch of romanticism in this newspaper business, I haven’t a clue what’s in the newspapers though, don’t care either; I’m too young to be bothered with such worldly things.
No: 539 ((12-5-2009) (reedited 5-12-2010)) / Reedited 2nd time, 7-2015 / Note: The author lived at 109 East Arch Street, moved to 186 Cayuga Street, the summer of 1958.