42nd Avenue

I went home to Minnesota in June for my nephew’s high school graduation, Deven Darius Snyder. It was fun to see Dave and Michele, Deven and Riley. I got to help set up the party. Went with Riley to get ice. Went with Michele to get tables and chairs. Helped Deven and Dave set up the tents in the front yard. I was just happy to feel like part of the family; you can’t help feeling disconnected living so far away.

After spending a few days with the Snyders in Hanover, I had one last day on the trip. I had planned to go to Paisley Park and then visit Jeff, my best friend from high school.

But I called an audible and decided to visit a few old haunts off 42nd Avenue.

Right next to my little library, the train tracks that run through town. In 1979, Gary Bjorlin climbed to the top of the water tower to protest police brutality in Robbinsdale. He was up there for 25 hours with two six-packs of beer, food, a sleeping bag and the American flag. Back then the police didn’t have any psychologists on the force. The police said, “Come on down or will kick your ass.” Gary, exasperated, replied, “That is literally the reason I came up here.” Hundreds of residents greeted him with a burst of applause when he descended, according to the Minneapolis Star, then an afternoon daily. I added a little historical fiction to fill in some of the gaps.

Our family home was on 41st and Vera Cruz, one block off the main drag, 42nd, which runs straight through town. Everything was right off 42nd. Our church, the junior high, Joyce’s old apartment, Margaret’s old apartment. Spanjers Park, where Jon and I played softball and my very first library, the Robbinsdale Library, a little home for books built in 1925 by the Robbinsdale Library Club. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

To get a library card, you had to be able to tell the librarian your address, which, of course, now would be very easy for me, but back then, when I was six or whatever … as I remember it, we had just moved to town and my brothers taught me our address and I practiced and practiced and then went in for the big American Ninja Warriors-esque challenge. In a few seconds, I was the proud owner of my first library card.

So, my first stop was the little library; now an art gallery, the Robbin Gallery of Art. Alas, it wasn’t open yet, so I wandered on the railroad tracks for a bit.

Next up, Spanjers Park, where I used to watch my brother Jon play softball. I was 17 or 18. Dad, Joyce and I went to every game. I’d sit on the bench and keep score. Until that one fateful day when Greg Prest couldn’t make it and they put me in at shortstop for my first men’s league game. Now I was already playing shortstop in my other league, but that was a mixed gender church youth league. These guys were in their 20s. I remember fielding my first grounder up the middle. I looked up and the guy was almost already to first. I had to throw it harder than I had ever thrown a ball in my life to get the guy out. And that was just the first batter.

That was the first game of many with my brother Jon. So many memories flooded my mind. Just walking around an empty diamond. Jon and I played Little League, Babe Ruth and years of softball on the same team.

From 1928, workmen are putting the final touches on the last of the 568 bronze crosses (or Stars of David) dedicated on Armistice Day at Victory Memorial Drive. They are burnishing the Gold Star names.

I drove up to North Minneapolis to Victor Memorial Drive, which I learned is actually called Victory Memorial Drive. A parkway where I used to ride my bike … up from my house on 42nd, to the parkway to the chain of lakes in the middle of Minneapolis. On this trip, I learned a few things. Victory Memorial Drive was created by a guy named *Theodore Wirth, then head of the park system, to honor Hennepin County’s World War I dead. Indeed, they planted a sturdy elm tree** and had a plaque for every lost soldier in 1921. 568 markers.

President Harding sent a note for the dedication ceremony on the “realization of the beautiful idea of dedicating trees to the brave boys from that city who gave their lives in the great war.”

Way back then, they conceived of a park system with paths around the lakes for horse-drawn carriages, then roadways for these new things called cars and a paved bike path, running all the way through it. I rode my bike there a lot. The nostalgia of being back there for the first time since I moved to Florida enveloped me. In a good way.

I had a sled just like this one. But no, that’s not me.

I found the place in the parkway where I used to run cross country in ninth grade. The hill where we went sledding at the Theo Wirth Golf Course. I’d like to ride my bike through there again someday. Some rain interrupted the festivities, so I ran over to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, before getting back to Robbinsdale and 42nd.

I went back to my first library. It’s so good that it’s still standing. Someday when someone decides to do a movie about me, the little library will add to the element of authenticity to that bio pic. The voiceover guy can say, “This is where he checked out his first about the Peanuts gang, Encyclopedia Brown and others.” Those art people in there were nice.

I drove south. I drive by the site of Robbinsdale Junior High; it’s now condos. In gym, back in those days, we went straight-up nude to learn swimming. One day  I was the last one in the showers, before heading to the pool, and I got the shower head that was broken. Water shot off in every direction, so I had to put my hand up to the shower head to get the water to shower me. Well, our gym teacher Ray Falls comes by and says, “Ah right, guys, fellas, let’s head to the pool.” So, I remove my hand from the shower head, which then sprayed Mr. Falls like crazy.

He yelled, “David, Jon, Javid!!!” Yelling out my older brothers names until I turned off the water.

Right next to the condos, there is a bridge on 42nd over Highway 100 with a cast-iron fence along the sidewalk crossing over the bridge. When I was in junior high, I would have to cross over that bridge at 6a for basketball practice in the winter. They would not always plow that sidewalk, so at six in the morning, completely groggy, I would have to find the right footholds – places other people had walked – to cross the chasm. My memory is that the snow was as tall as the cast-iron barrier; a high wire act that would have made Handsome Robinson proud.

Next, I stopped by the Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church.

When I was little, I never missed Sunday School during grade school. I sang in the choir. On Easter, we’d sing at three services. After choir practice, where we were taught to enunciate every syllable, I’d head home, cross 42nd, get on Vera Cruz and sprint the whole way home because … well, I was young, and it was dark out.

It’s also the church where I asked one of the ministers about heaven. My oldest brother Bobby had died in a car crash when I was 12. He had a closed casket funeral and I wanted to know what version of you exists in heaven for all of eternity.

I remember the day my dad got the call about Bobby. We were at the dinner table. Dad hung up the green phone with the dial in the handle and the long, long cord, and said, “Bobby was killed.” Mary was sitting to my left, Jon next to me on the right. Dave across from Mary. We were in shock. Mary grabbed my wrist. I was looking down at my Spaghetti-O’s when my eyes filled with tears.

Pastor Larry mumbled something about heaven just being filled with spirits, so your physical form at the end doesn’t really matter. Looking back, I don’t think he knew the answer. I don’t think anyone has a clue. About heaven. Back then when I was in grade school, I used to think, “The whole concept of hell just seems to be a way for the people who made the rules and had the money to manipulate the masses into conforming.” But I was just a little kid.

Lots of fond memories of Faith-Lilac Way. I spent a lot of time there. Some not-so-fond memories. We’ve had a few funerals up in there. Joyce and Jon, Mom and Dad. I gave a eulogy for Joyce and Dad.

Our mom died on Sept. 13, 2001. Joyce died in December of that year. We had to go get our dad, who was in the hospital, to bring him to Joyce’s service. I was pushing him in a wheelchair, entering the church, when the pastor asked me if I’d be willing to do a eulogy. I took an offering envelope and wrote down some notes.

When I got up there I said that these eulogies were great, saying nice things about a person, who isn’t there to hear it. When our dad died, Dave and I spoke. I said some of my favorite dad memories. After the ceremony, the pastor tracked me down and handed me a piece of paper. It was a letter I had written and given to my dad on Father’s Day years earlier. In retirement my dad was a handyman for the church; the letter must have somehow got in his file. The letter and the eulogy were basically all the same stories.

That letter must have meant something to him.

Transformative memories connected to place.

I read the 1965 edition of the Children’s Bible cover-to-cover. Lovingly illustrated. And no, I didn’t think Jesus was blonde or had yellow hair. I just assumed he colored his hair yellow after a crazy summer of discovery.

Kept driving. Go by Joyce’s apartment, right on 42nd.

I had a key to her apartment and in the summer, I’d go to her place and listen to her record collection, when she was at work. She had all of the Beatles albums. I listened to all of them. She had Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Spinning Wheel.” Chicago, “25 or 6 to 4.” ELO, “Do Ya.” The Guess Who, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.” The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations.”

Driving … I get up to 42nd and Douglas Drive intersection. That’s where my dad would take mom to the grocery store on the corner every Saturday. Mom didn’t drive. I’d tag along and cross the big intersection to go to the Hennepin County Rockford Road Library, my second library. (The big new library that put my little house library out of business.) Man, I loved going to that library. There were individual, closed-door study spaces and a den with a fireplace. Even though we didn’t have cell phones back then, we still managed to communicate when I should come back. I think we used this archaic system of “clocks.”

Further up the road, at the intersection of 42nd and Quebec, the New Hope YMCA.

That’s where Jeff and I worked out sometimes and coached basketball one season. There was a team in that league that killed everyone, including us, by 30 points. The second time we faced them I used all the league rules to slow them down. You couldn’t guard anyone in the backcourt, and you could only guard your man, no double teaming. So, with every rebound, I had my guys stop, wait until the other team crossed half court, and then walked it up. Man, that took a lot of time off the clock. Then we ran “the play.” Our forward would come up and set a pick for our good dribbling, good driving guard … and per the rules, no one was allowed to pick him up. While the other team’s coaches went berserk, I commiserated with the refs. “What’s his deal?”

Across the street from the Y, the Sunshine Factory, where I worked as a busboy at the age of 17.

I filled out the application, had an interview and started all on the same day. I liked talking to the hostesses and one of my favorite people there was a bouncer. The busboys would be sent to the basement cooler to bring up cases of beer for the bar. Sometimes not all the cases made it to the bar, sometimes a case might be diverted to somebody’s car. That’s what I heard anyways.

My first library, the Robbinsdale Library. It’s now an art gallery.

I asked one of the hostesses out on a date. She was 19. She was beautiful and she said yes. A legend was born.

Everyone at work knew that this girl I had dated and liked who decided to ghost me. My coworkers were feeling sorry for me. The burly bouncer even pulled me aside and gave me a pep talk about the trials and tribulations with ladies. About that date, I borrowed my brother Dave’s Ford Fairlane – it’s possible that I took it without his knowledge – and we went to a high school football game. She wanted to bring beer in, but I shot that idea down … what if one of my teachers saw?

My dad became friends with the general manager Brian. Both my sister Mary and I worked at the Factory, so it was sort of a family affair. The Sunshine Factory sponsored my dad’s bowling team. Every year my dad would ask, ‘Are you going to sponsor the team this year?’ Until one year, Brian said, “We will sponsor your team for as long as you continue to bowl.” A lifetime contract.

Kevin Altenhofen, my friend from Foot Locker, and I went to the Factory to watch the Academy Awards. We drank beer during the long ceremony. Afterwards we staggered over to the dart board when a couple guys walked in. They both worked on the school paper with me and Paul at North Hennepin. Bill was a friend. The other guy was a former cop. He joined the paper after leaving the force to take classes at the community college. I remember him having trouble working on a story once because he “was just too close it.” We would occasionally make fun of him for saying that.

Anyways, the former police officer walks into the bar, and sets a mini case on the counter.

He has brought his own darts.

The interior of the old Robbinsdale library. To the left is where the stacks of children’s book would be. I’d pick up something from the Peanuts gang and/or Encyclopedia Brown.

The Factory was not home to a room filled with dart boards; they did not host dart tournaments. There was just one dart board next to the bar. Kevin and I took on Bill and the dart pro in 301. Anyways, you’ve all seen that Ted Lasso dart scene, correct? Well, we were about to lose. Unless. Unless I hit three bullseyes. And you guessed it. 1, 2, 3. Game. The legend continued. The celebration ensued.

(I did see Kevin on my Minnesota trip, and he not only corroborated my story; he was the one who brought it up.)

Years later, when I’d come home from wherever I was, my brothers and I usually ended up at the Factory, killing it in the corner booth, playing trivia. We always had fun hanging out together.

Next big intersection, Winnetka. When my sister Margaret moved up from Atlanta with her kids, Ronnie, Jamie and Beth, at first, they lived with us and then moved into an apartment just to the right, 6th Avenue Apartments.

I knew Jesus didn’t have yellow hair because this image of the Lord hung in our family’s living room. This is Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, painted by German Heinrich Hofmann in 1890. John D. Rockefeller bought the painting and gave it to the Riverside Church in NYC. My maternal grandmother was from Germany. I’m assuming that might be why we had a print. I wonder if it belonged to grandma. Also, interestingly, my parents’ ashes are interred in the Gethsemane Cemetery.

Margaret’s family lived right across the street from the Gethsemane Cemetery.

I was a little early to go visit Jeff, so I made a stop at the cemetery for a visit. On a Sunday afternoon and inconceivably the building is locked. I walked around the building to the other door. Locked. But there’s a window. I could see their plaques on the wall.

At the cemetery, with my mom, dad and second mom, my sister Joyce, and my brother Jon. (They were cremated, so they are inside.) I paid my respects to my loved ones.

On just one road, my entire early life unfolded.

I finished this day — and this trip down memory lane — driving just a couple minutes more.

Jeff Niederloh lives just off 42nd. We became friends in 10th grade basketball, and we spent virtually every waking moment together. We sat in his backyard patio and opened a beer. We talked about the old days, our lives now. It was like checking back in with someone you had started an adventure with, but early on, took different routes. Going into a giant forest and coming out on the other side.

What was it like for you?

We talked for four hours.

My good friend and a good guy. His family takes in dogs and gets them ready for adoption. There were three large retrievers or labs or whatever running around.

Jeff made sandwiches.

It was a good visit.


* A side note about Swiss-born Theodore Wirth. In the early 20th Century, he was considered as the dean of the local parks movement in America. “His plans provided for parks around all natural waterways and lakes, a playground within a quarter mile of every child, and a complete recreation center within a half-mile of every family.  Wirth’s ambition was to make the Minneapolis Park System unequaled in the country with its natural majesty and recreation opportunities.  He was successful.  The Minneapolis Park System was so outstanding that park planners from throughout the world came to study its development.” His son Conrad joined the National Park Service in 1931 and oversaw the CCC program for state parks and later became the longest-serving director of the National Park Service (1951-1964).

** Those first Moline elm trees weren’t that sturdy. Minnesota winters killed them all off by 1928. The trees were replaced with extra super sturdy elm trees, which lasted until the mid-1970s, when an outbreak of Dutch elm disease in America ravaged the parkway. In 1930, there were 77 million estimated elm trees in the U.S. and 75 percent died. I remember tree after tree getting tagged for removal. Fortunately, the county and state fully refurbished the parkway in time for the 90th anniversary in 2011.

Sadly, the Robbinsdale police had beaten up Gary years earlier. Police brutality is no joke.

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