Back in 1959 there was this improbable Jewish kid from Hibbing who rolled into town on a Greyhound bus. He flopped for a short while with a cousin at a University Avenue frat house before trading his electric guitar for a double-O Martin and renting a room above Gray’s drugstore.
“Above Gray’s, the crash pad was no more than an empty storage room with a sink and window looking out into an alley. No closet or anything. Toilet down the hall. I put a mattress on the floor, bought a used dresser, plugged in a hot plate on top of that—used the outside window ledge as a refrigerator when it got cold. I was sitting at the counter at Gray’s one day—winter had come early—wind howled across the Central Avenue Bridge outside and a carpet of snow was beginning to form on the ground.”
What Bob Dylan describes with such lovely minimalism is affordable housing.
At the corner of 14th Avenue and Fourth Street, Gray’s pharmacy has become the Loring Pasta Bar. I met a man there recently who said his name was Waldo. He appeared to be about thirty–an intelligent fellow who peered at me intently through hornrims under a dark mop of frizzy hair. Judging by the sacks of clothing beside him and the dirt on his hand when I shook it, I believe he was homeless.
I’m frequently hit up for money by panhandlers when I perform my duties as a letter carrier in Dinkytown. I go about my business without responding to these requests generally. As I say, I have a job to do and mail to protect. The homeless of Dinkytown are, to steal a recent phrase from Dylan, a “rough and rowdy” bunch. It is commonplace to see people passed out on the sidewalks in front of the Subway where I sometimes eat lunch. And I have seen them stoned out of their gourds, staggering down the street with bedrolls clutched in their hands, stained from head to toe in orange dirt. Sometimes they play music on acoustic guitars with messages scrawled on them in the style of Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie.
When the pandemic hit, I knew germophobic people would be reluctant to give them money.
Witnessing all this neglect and disenfranchisement, I’m reminded of the Dylan song, “Positively Fourth Street.” Ostensibly, the bitter, sardonic lyrics seem to address a girl, but they could just as well represent the failures and hypocrisies of an entire generation.
“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend
When I was down you just stood there grinnin’
You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”
As I write this, the Minneapolis Park Board has voted in favor of making all city parks places of refuge for people experiencing homelessness. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed our city’s ugly problems out into the open, as if they weren’t already.
Prior to the social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, I was walking through the Dinkytown Target with a tote full of medicines in Priority flat-rate envelopes. Ahead of me, I saw a person with a reversed Superman cap pulling a wheeled suitcase. Not much taller than my ten-year-old son, I supposed the individual to be a homeless child and my heart went out to him. But when we drew abreast outside, I saw the scarred face of someone in their forties. We were about six feet apart when he called out for money to a man on the corner. The guy jeered at him with a remark I didn’t quite catch. The next thing I knew the person in the Superman cap had whipped out a claw hammer and was waving it threateningly over his head as he and the corner dude yelled obscenities at each other.
Back in the sanctuary of my 2-ton vehicle, I decided to call the police. I still had to pick up the hamper of mail from the Dinkytown Post Office which would probably take me a good fifteen minutes. How would I react if I witnessed a person beating another person with a hammer? It was a question I didn’t care to answer. My heart racing, I described “hammer man” to the 911 dispatcher in detail, including the specific number on his basketball jersey. Reluctantly, I told the man he was black.
Hammer Man and Corner Dude had parted ways by the time I hung up and I never saw the police. Just as I mentally classify the elderly as “high risk” for coronavirus, I classify crazy black males like Hammer Man as “high risk” for getting shot by a cop.
It is what it is. A city falling apart. Everyone has an opinion and a vote. I don’t have any solutions. But we could have some empathy for the uniformed officers who have to deal with people like Hammer Man every day. We should have some empathy for Hammer Man too. I don’t know how to help Hammer Man. Hammer Man scares me. I don’t want Hammer Man around my children. If our city government wants to get Hammer Man some therapy and counseling, I’ll gladly chip in for that. You can choose to be a constructive or a destructive person. I do my job, give to some charities, raise my kids right. Beyond that, it’s up to the politicians and they seemed to have stopped caring what people like me who pay taxes think.
The Dinkytown Post Office used to be on Fourth Street. When the property owner tried raising the rent by a thousand dollars for the third year in a row, we moved the retail counter opposite the block to Fifth Street. A business called Hideaway expanded and occupies the space now. They sell glass pot pipes, hookahs and bongs.
Parking really became an issue on Fifth Street when the Target Express opened. I get in and get out as fast as possible because anything can happen. I have a wide truck and the streets leading out get pretty narrow. Sometimes I get blocked in by competing delivery vehicles. The whole area is a pell-mell of bicycles, automobiles, pedestrians and electric rental scooters coming at you from every direction.
One day I noticed a purple minivan parked in front of the Dinkytown office with smoke rising from the hood. A college-aged female got out and started running frenetically around the vehicle with her smartphone over her head. Benny Hill music playing in my ears, I watched her pop the hood and pour oil into the engine. A bit late for that, honey, I thought bemusedly to myself. Supplied with fresh oxygen, the flames rose to a foot high, a real barbeque. She spoke into her phone as she hopped around in a tank top and short shorts. I have to admit, the scene was entertaining. Predictably, a strapping young man soon happened along to give the pretty damsel assistance. He quickly burned his hand and slammed the hood shut. I heard sirens as the black smoke billowed into a noxious cloud. I gave it all a judgmental shake of the head and continued with my business. A guy who looked like a college professor asked me for a fire extinguisher. Knowing that an incredible amount of paperwork would be generated if I pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher hanging from the wall, I told him the fire department would be there in two minutes. The car was a total fucking loss at that point anyway. A pumper truck came and easily doused the whole mess. It was safe to get by now, so I pushed my hamper of mail down the sidewalk to my 2-ton which, by a stroke of luck, I’d parked half a block away.
Dinkytown. It’s too many young people packed into too small a space. The apartment high rises go up faster than my sons’ Lego constructions. I feel dwarfed and claustrophobic by their immensity.
Before the pandemic, it was the hot debate in the city. Now things are eerily quiet. The electric scooters disappeared with the virus. I almost feel like they never existed, like the previous life we called “normal” was just a dream . . . that other world where my wife took our kids to Gopher football games at TCF stadium and Dave Chappelle gave back to back shows at the Varsity Theater.
In May of 2019, an incident occurred in Dinkytown that, in my addled memory, foreshadowed the chaos that was to come. I was driving from the University Post Office when I witnessed multiple helicopters hovering like vultures in the sky a short distance away. I gripped the wheel tightly, experiencing a chill of apprehension. As I neared Fifteenth Avenue, I could see scores of police cars with their lights flashing. Fire engines had sealed off the block where, just a couple weeks before, that car had caught on fire. Those helicopters made me suspect that this was something more than a gas leak.
I got out of the area and found a place to pull over so I could figure out what was happening on my phone. Local news outlets, I discovered, were reporting a “ricin scare” in Dinkytown. I was supposed to pull the mail from a blue collection box on that block later in the day. I called up my supervisor to inform her what was going on and let her know that I might be unable to make the scheduled pickups. She had never heard of ricin. A bit panicked, I explained the situation with phrases like “weapon of mass destruction,” “terrorism” and “9-11 type of bullshit.”
She got the message and told me she would inform the postmaster and postal inspectors. I bypassed the block on my collection with the hope things would be more under control after I had brought the mail downtown. On my way back, I parked on Fourth Street near the bong store and walked down to Fifth. I approached a cop in the street and inquired if it was safe for me to go up the sidewalk. He assured me it was ok. They were allowing foot travel on the side of the block where the retail post office was located. I asked him if they really found ricin and he nodded gravely. I was able to get all mail downtown and I really washed my hands good after I pulled the letters from that box.
A female University of Minnesota student residing in the apartment building was hospitalized for ricin poisoning. How she came in contact with the incredibly toxic biological substance was never explained and no arrests were ever made. I know the FBI investigated and there were these weird black trailers parked on the block for several days. Then things went back to normal.
Normal. There’s that word again.
Are the kids all right? I do not know. In two short years, I will turn fifty. When I graduated from St. Cloud State University in 1995, I had yet to set up an email account. I wrote all my English papers on a Brother word processor. It would be another nine years before Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook. I am old. That fact bothers me less than when I first transferred to the University Post Office which, initially, was quite a culture shock.
Dinkytown is a nice place to work, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Increasingly, I’m feeling that way about Minneapolis as a whole. Our city council debates the future of policing in an atmosphere where no one feels safe. I’m holding off from my flight to the suburbs until after the election because I’m not sure Eagan is far enough. I find myself profoundly disillusioned with government at all levels. And both political parties. I weigh my options, troubled as much by what’s changing in Minneapolis as what’s stayed the same.
A still-raging pandemic has claimed the lives of 123,000 Americans. According to the Star Tribune, more than 1,500 buildings across the Twin Cities were looted or vandalized in the riots, among them at least 15 pharmacies. As the partisan media foolishly debates whether the disease of racism exists, we best act quickly in treating one of its worst symptoms—drug addiction. We live in a perilous time where everyone, it seems, owns a smartphone and a gun. Both these items, like hammers, are tools, and it’s up to us whether we build or destroy.
Bob Dylan recorded “Positively Fourth Street” on my birthday in 1965. I’ll let him sing us out.
“No, I do not feel that good when I see the heartaches you embrace
If I was a master thief perhaps I’d rob them
And though I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your place
Don’t you understand, it’s not my problem?
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”