We celebrated my 49th birthday by dining at Al’s Breakfast in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis. My wife and kids feasted on pancakes while I enjoyed bacon and eggs with what might have been the most scrumptious wheat toast I’ve ever consumed. Amazingly, this hole-in-the-wall establishment has been in business since 1950. It has no tables, only a long bar lined with red-padded stools. I don’t know how they make money because they seemed to have an even ratio of employees to diners, but I heartily recommend it. Just leave your credit cards and bitcoins at home because Al’s only takes cash.
It was a wonderful way to celebrate my advancing middle-age. I could happily live like a bear and treat each earthly rotation as no more or no less special as another. But that would be selfish. I have a devoted family who insist I feel loved, even if all the attention makes me uncomfortable and guilty at my unworthiness. My health is good. I have no ailments. The plantar fasciitis problem has passed, at least for the time being. I commute to work four miles on my bicycle each way, and I started lifting dumbbells because the heat seems to melt my flesh away. I recently returned from a vacation in Colorado. You think you are in shape till you get in the mountains. I’d be trudging up a switchback, barely able to lift my tired quads, and one trail runner after another would pass me like I was stationary. Those are some fit people out there.
I’m glad to be home. The flatlands of the middle-west are more my speed. Still, the house feels too small and not quite my own. The last year-and-a-half has been too full of trauma. I hardly trust the ground underneath me not to split open and swallow me up like a molten vagina. I was thinking recently, perhaps wistfully, of what the country and my city might seem like without the deplorable actions of Derek Chauvin. It’s a different world as much as it’s the same world—a world waiting to happen . . . a world waiting to come apart. There have been too many incidents (God what an insufficient word) to dismiss George Floyd’s murder as not part of a pattern, and, yes, a system. Yet, what do you do about it politically with all the blam, blam, blam and the bleeding bodies in the streets cleaned up every wee morning by our law enforcement janitors? Every day I pass a flower memorial to a severed head by a park bench near the Franklin Bridge. What the actual fuck am I to do about that defilement except not to care even though my sons have caught catfish under that bridge with me?
It takes an effort to be positive. The actions of a demented few easily overshadow the daily toils of people like me who work so diligently to keep the community functioning. Prior to my vacation, a homeless individual had set up camp in a shaded ravine adjacent to one of my prime fishing spots on the Mississippi River. I had taken my oldest son down there fishing anyway. The presence of the tent made me squeamish. Also, the riverbank was strewn with so many drug needles and broken beer bottles that the natural outing was entirely ruined. I did catch three twelve-inch bass on my flyrod that put up a nice fight, but the boy caught nothing and I was fraught with anxiety the whole time about his well-being. In the days that followed, I entertained violent fantasies about confronting the vagrant with a bat or setting his shelter on fire with lighter fluid. I did neither of these things because fatherhood demands of me decency. Instead, I checked my privilege, not even bothering to complain to the Parks Department who I knew from experience would do absolutely nothing.
Upon my return from Colorado, I peered into the ravine on my way home and saw the tent flattened in abandonment. I left my bike by the trail and descended nimbly into the dark river bottom. There was clothing scattered everywhere with a thick profusion of drink containers and food cans. It looked like about forty pounds of disgusting trash left behind in what otherwise might be Eden. This is why I yell at my kids to brush their teeth and pick up their socks. So one day they will not be like this, not be gross assholes who ruin a park for everyone else’s use because they can’t take care of themselves.
I returned on Sunday with my two sons. To my pleasant surprise, much of the mess, aside from a lawn chair and rainfly, had already been cleaned up. We focused our efforts on the sandy riverbank where we encountered a fisherman who applauded out environmental stewardship.
“They really trashed this place.” He looked like an old hippie with round glasses and his graying hair bundled in a ponytail. “Man, people been coming down here for fifteen years to shoot heroin.”
“Really? I thought it was a recent phenomenon.”
“No,” he said. “Things have been fucked up a lot longer than that.”
“I believe it. I only discovered this spot last year. Miles here found it. Before that I’d always go down there under the Ford Bridge or below the dam.”
“You come down here sometimes with a flyrod?”
“Yeah. You look familiar.”
“My name’s Dave, but you can call me Moe if you want. I go by either. That’s my business, Moe’s Flooring.” We shook hands. He was muscular despite his age with veiny forearms and some nice biceps. He seemed impressed with my sons and started to assist with the cleanup. There was a shitload of broken glass.
“You don’t mind, do ya?”
“Not a bit, thank you.” I noted his proximity to me as he deposited trash in the bag and I felt almost grateful for the human closeness after the prolonged isolation of the pandemic.
“My buddy went wading in here barefoot after a snag last year,” he said, “and sliced his foot up really bad, had to go to the hospital.”
“Yeah, you can’t do that. I always wear sandals or waders.”
“You catch the bass here.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “They ain’t big mostly, but they fight hard. Below that storm drain is good. The cold water attracts the minnows.”
“I seen you catchin’ them.”
My youngest son interrupted us in excitement.
“Dad! Dad! I found a needle.”
“Good boy,” I said. “Don’t touch those.”
He pointed it out in the rocks–a clear plastic cylinder with graduated markings that I gingerly placed in my Hefty sack. I had felt a bit overprotective when I first started to warn him and his brother about them. They find one once in a while on our own block. Hepatitis C and HIV are nothing to mess around with. I began seeing them on my postal route after having never encountered one in fourteen years of service.
“I come down here in the spring with my dog,” said Dave. “He goes running upstream and comes back with his muzzle covered in shit.”
“He got so sick. That heroin goes right through these junkies. A few weeks after that he died.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry. That’s a terrible loss.”
“He was fifteen years old.”
“That’s an old dog,” I said sympathetically.
“I been coming down here for fifty years,” said Dave. “See that high rise?”
“It’s hard to miss,” I said.
“That’s cuz they passed an ordinance after it was built and there was never another.”
“I kind of like the way it reflects on the water,” I said. It didn’t bother me because I had never known it not to be there. I could tell Dave was a preservationist. He wanted the world to stay the same and stop changing because all the changing made him feel old and realize he wouldn’t be around forever.
“You think this is a lot of trash? There used to be an abandoned car over there stuck in the hill.” He motioned toward the wall of the gorge by the storm drain. “People used to dump everything in here. There were refrigerators. It all got cleaned up by the city in the revitalization.”
I set the bag down and listened while the boys cleaned up. The windowed rectangle of the white building was the only thing showing besides sky over the leafy horizon.
“The water used to go clear back into that grotto. A beaver would get up in there and gnaw down the trees. You can see where he started on that one. There used to be more beavers. I think the DNR thinned out the population. I used to see a pine marten go up in that tree every night.”
I wasn’t sure I believed that. “We see otters all the time when we bike along the Minnesota River. Nothing really bothers the wildlife. They don’t care about all this garbage.”
“I see the otters here too,” said Dave. “You think they come over the dam?”
“They must go around it through the trees. There’s plenty of fish and crawdads for ‘em to eat. I knew they were around Snelling, but they’d probably do fine here.”
We gazed together in silence. Cars rumbled far off over the Ford Bridge. The boys had the bag darn near full. Dave pulled a red can of Budweiser from a small cooler and popped it open.
“You want one?” he offered.
“No, thanks. I had a couple earlier. I got the boys to look after and I want to stay sharp.”
It was time to go home.
“You fishing with a nightcrawler?” I asked Dave after a pause. The tip was broken off his spinning rod but the line looked new.
“I got two of them on there. I just checked it. They was pretty gnawed. Probly sheep’s head.”
“Well, you catch one cut it in half and throw it back out there. You might catch a big channel.”
“That’s good advice,” he said. “I just might try that.”