You cannot hold still, pattering your hand against your thigh, smiling stupidly into the spring sunlight, whistling loudly to be heard over the rush-hour traffic, over the flannelled smokers swearing in the bus shelter, over the warm wind rushing through the tunnel created by the office buildings and condominium towers stretching modestly skyward in this, our crumbling, our historic downtown Duluth, Minnesota. The air today is mild, and tinged with the smell of this morning’s rain. It is early in May, day six of Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival, and you feel light and witty, as insubstantial and rakish and charming as Gene Kelly, as Fred Astaire.
If only, you think, swaying on the sidewalk, waiting for the crosswalk light to change, if only there were a way to preserve this feeling. A way to keep it alive until the winter, when the nights stretch from mid-afternoon to late morning, when this town grays and freezes and shrinks into itself, when the wind accelerates across the frozen, flat lake and fills your backyard with hamburger wrappers from the Burger King across the street, hamburger wrappers that circle in the streetlit air beneath your window, silent and wan as moths. If only you could feel this way then.
To your left, inside Jitters Coffee Shop, sitting straight-backed at a table behind a plate-glass window, is a sharp-chinned woman wearing a red beret. She’s staring at a book spread open in front of her, frowning, her left hand wrapped around a mug of something steaming. Why is she frowning? Why is she wearing a beret? Look up, you think, taking in her shock of black, mathematical hair that stops abruptly at her shoulders, her wrinkles that reach from the corners of her eyes like veins on a leaf. It’s too nice a day for coffee shops. Look up. Come outside.
You would tell her: it is spring, finally, it is warm, and my better nature has finally thawed out. I have spent this winter riding busses to jobs I do not care about; I have spent it drinking whiskey from coffee mugs and taking three hour naps on Saturday afternoons because there is nothing better to do. It feels good to have something better to do. It feels good to be outside again.
You would tell her: I have seen live music every night this week. Every night! Old, flannelled men playing clawhammer banjo in brewpubs. Teenaged boys singing death-metal in smelly, underage clubs. Winsome, tired looking women playing acoustic guitars in basement coffee shops. This town is so full of music. Fierce women in babydoll dresses playing joyful, sloppy punk songs in pizza restaurants. We’re lucky to live in such a place.
You would tell her: I finally feel lucky to live here, and I want you to feel this way with me. I am leaving in four months, and I’m dreading the thought of it. But I’m happy to be here now. I want you to feel this way with me.
But she’s absorbed in her mug of steaming-whatever and her book, so you turn back to face the light (still red, such a long light to cross First Avenue West), and tip backward on your heels. You breathe deeply again, fill your lungs with the saturated air. If you were wearing tap-shoes, you might put on a little show for her. You’re in that sort of mood. You are still swaying, still whistling.
And has it ever occurred to anyone, you wonder, looking down, that a city’s character can be read in its sidewalks? This sidewalk tells a story. Weathered and chipped, mottled by oil stains, its cracks full of rainwater and pouring up shards of sunlight that dazzle you, make you wince.
Oh, Duluth, Minnesota, Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas, your buildings are ruined and your economy depressed, but I could write a poem about your sidewalks.
You’re only twenty-four years old, but you’ve got some ideas about things.
If someone were to walk up to you right now, if someone were tap you on the shoulder and ask you to say something pithy and wise, to distill your accumulated wisdom down to its quivering core, you would rest your hand on his shoulder, look into his searching face and say: friend, always whistle loudly when you wait for crosswalk lights to change. You never know what will happen when you whistle loudly.
You never know what will happen!
Imagine a pretty girl in a knit-cap and peasant skirt—one of those kind, irrepressible people who occur here the same way snow and seagulls occur here—stopping on the sidewalk in front of you, her eyes vacant, her mouth hanging open, before recognizing the melody and lighting up and clasping her hands beneath her chin and mouthing along:
Oh, I went and seen the entire nation
And we’ve got the cheapest refrigeration
To tell you the truth
I like it in Duluth!
It’s not impossible. This town is full of music, and everyone knows the same songs. Father Hennepin sings this song, and they’re playing tonight, at RT Quinlan’s, the basement bar—sticky, tiled floors, urinal with decomposing purple cake reeking of ammonia, flickering neon Old Style sign above the bar, cloudy jars of pickled animal parts lined up next to bottles of liquor. Father Hennepin, the country band led by the skinny, kind-eyed, forty-year-old man who owns the t-shirt shop up on top of the hill. Father Hennepin will play this song tonight and you’ll sing along, pressed up to the stage, swaying in time with whoever’s next to you (young woman in knit cap or bearded man in flannel shirt or pale-faced boy with stud in lip), with the hundreds of other people crowded inside, most of whom you recognize, most of whom will bellow along with you.
We get summer here
Two weeks in July
The rest of the time it’s cold and rainy
And the snow falls all the time.
What a strange place, this dying inland port, founded by miners and loggers, and still full of hale old men who eat pickled herring and brew their coffee with crushed eggshells, who drink black coffee and eat eggs and bacon each morning at the Sunshine Café—but also, now, swarming with artsy types, young people who wear twine bracelets around their knobby wrists, who wear t-shirts that say things like CARS ARE COFFINS or WICCAN AND PROUD, who juggle part time jobs at Pizza Luce and Great Harvest Bread and Amazing Grace so they can strum acoustic guitars and sing socially-conscious folksongs on weekends. Why are you leaving this place?
This town was built for you, skinny and artsy bicycle-riding young person! You juggle jobs at Target and the public library so you can afford to attend folk-music events on weekends! And standing on the sidewalk, swaying in the early summer wind, you can’t remember why you’ve decided to move. What are you thinking? What are you thinking?
And then the light changes and you are still whistling as you nod to a beaming old man crossing the street from the other side, a rounded man in a yellow golf-shirt and a sea-captain beard, a Marshmallow Peep of a man; as you smile at a little girl pulling her tired-looking teenaged mother across the street, a bright little blur of a person, her hair waving in the breeze like prairie grass; as you hop onto the opposing curb. Whistling because this is still your town, because you are brimming with the afternoon, because it feels as though a barrel has overturned in your chest and flooded your limbs, and you will burst if you don’t let some of this good feeling leak out.
You cross Lake Avenue, cross Superior Street, and then slow to a stop outside of Pizza Luce. You squint inside, past your reflection. The stage is empty, and the dance floor is cluttered with tables: families eating pizza with forks, skinny twenty-somethings drinking tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
You are moving in four months—five hours east, for graduate school, for an MFA program in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Which is home of what? You can only speculate: Malamutes. Collapsed sheds. Taxidermied deer.
Out in the fragrant sunshine, drunk on music and warm weather, it is easy to forget why you’d leave this place. But you know why you’re leaving.
A summer Saturday in Duluth is warmth, and green, and campfire smoke, and daylight until ten P.M. You’ll stare into the mirror on a Duluth Saturday, four o’clock, the afternoon still bright, the windows open and the breeze billowing the curtains in so that even your shitty little apartment—linoleum floor peeling, wallpaper yellowing—is windblown and fragrant as a city park . And when you stare into the mirror after brushing your teeth (a little crooked, but only a little!) and drying your hair (long, but it suits you!), you will think: okay, there are more attractive people in this world. But there are less attractive people, too. And you will smile into the mirror—what a gift, to be average!—and button your shirt, leave your apartment and rush into the evening, ready to wring from it whatever it has to offer—you will listen, maybe, to earnest young people read poetry in the library lobby, or stumble into a moshpit at The Rex, or kiss a girl wearing a leather jacket outside of the casino, or sit on a bench in Leif Erickson Park and look up at the moon, bright and unlikely and hanging over the lake like some affable, beaming god—armed only with your easy smile and loose-limbed charm.
But a winter Saturday night. This is why you’re leaving. It was a Saturday night when you vowed to move. Sitting at your kitchen table, staring outside, at the trees bending in the wind, at the garbage blowing around in the wan light, you imagined a different life. People went to graduate school, you knew. Maybe you would go to graduate school. You imagined health-insurance, someday, and a bathroom larger than a broom-closet. You imagined dinner-parties, and bookclubs, and all the waitresses you’d flirt with at the restaurants you could afford to eat at. You looked outside at the garbage blowing around in the premature dark and felt yourself hissing flat, because you would never get these things here, because to live in Duluth is to have a shitty apartment and two jobs, neither of which suits you; it is to have potential, maybe, but to be sodden with it, spending your mornings cashiering at Target, your afternoons shelving books at the library, your nights staring dumbly at the television, too tired to wonder if you were meant for something better.
And so, sitting one night in your dimming kitchen, feeling hollow and ruined as your city, you formed a resolution: I will go to graduate school, you thought. And then said it out loud: “I am going to graduate school”. Then spent the next month writing statements of purpose and ordering transcripts.
This is why you’re leaving, you think, still squinting into Pizza Luce. Don’t forget why you’re leaving.
Okay, you are leaving, but don’t think about leaving. Tear yourself from your reflection, skip over a puddle, and shove your hands into your pockets. Think: Okay, I am leaving, but not for four months. I am here, now, and today is a gift. I am twenty-four years old, I am feeling good, I have forty dollars in my wallet because I donated plasma this week, and this town belongs to me. And keep walking, and keep whistling, because you have your whole evening ahead of you, because you will see, tonight, fifteen bands at five different venues, and you will absorb the experience like a plant absorbs sunlight.
And because this is Duluth, Minnesota, and because your afternoon really is charmed, you squint against the afternoon sun and see, a half-block down the sidewalk, in front of the check-cashing store, a young woman wearing a flannel poncho. Her back is arched, she’s perched on her toes, her arm is in the air and she’s waving at you. A full-bodied, frantic wave. Next to her, a tall, knobby young man with spiked purple hair is grinning at his shoes.
You stop, turn around, look down the block. There isn’t anyone else. She’s waving at you.
So you face her again and lift your arm in the air and open your hand and smile at her, and hope that your smile carries, and it does, it must, because she hops when you smile, once, right there on the sidewalk. She hops. And then she’s walking towards you, fast, almost running, her arms working. Her knobby friend lopes to keep up. He’s still watching his shoes.
“It’s you!” she says, stopping just in front of you, touching your forearm and twittering her fingers up and down your sleeve before dropping her hand to her side. She is short, this young woman, with silver earrings shaped like cats shining in the light, and a wave of blond hair spilling from a green knit cap that stops just above her shoulders. She’s so bright, this person, so vibrant, a gathering of the afternoon’s warmth and light. Her eyes are green and gleaming and locked happily with yours, and you feel a presence in your chest as she smiles up at you, an expanding, quivering something, a vibrating cellphone, and you rock on your feet because you cannot hold still.
“I can’t believe it!” she says. “I’ve always wanted to meet you!” She has the stoned inflection and rubber-band vowels of someone who spends a lot of time playing hacky-sack.
“And here I am!” you say, holding out your arms. You don’t know what this is. But you won’t spoil it.
Her friend—tall and pale, maybe eighteen years old, his forehead broad and smooth as exposed bone—smiles and gives you a furtive little nod. You nod back, hoping he’s a brother, or a cousin—
“I see you everywhere, man,” says the girl. “Wherever I am, I see you and I think, ‘that guy just looks so cool. I’ve gotta meet that guy’.”
I have known people like her before, you think. I’ll bet she owns a hula-hoop. I’ll bet her refrigerator is full of kombucha. She’s the sort of person who thrives here, an extension of the landscape, and I’m thrilled that she’s found me and marked me as one of hers. You could give her a hug. You need to resist the urge to give her a hug.
“What’s your sign, man?” she says, and you laugh, you can’t help it.
“Oh, he’s a Virgo!” says the boy, suddenly animated, suddenly laughing himself. “Look at him: you can tell he’s a Virgo!”
“No,” you say, looking through the window of Takk for Maten, the Norwegian sandwich shop you’re standing in front of. Chairs overturned on empty tables. “I’m a Leo.” You nod, turn back to face them. “Yeah, I’m a Leo.”
“Huh,” says the boy, shaking his head. Stunned, smiling. “I could’ve swore you were a Virgo.”
“Do you know when Trampled by Turtles are playing?” says the girl. “I’m so excited for the Trampled by Turtles show tonight.” And you imagine what this show will be like: Trampled by Turtles is a bluegrass band, and they attract masses of barefooted, tie-dyed young people to their shows. There will be women dancing and elbowing you in the face, their dreadlocks circling their heads like propeller blades; there will be bearded men hugging you, bearded men you have never met, hugging you and spilling your beer, filling you up with the stench of sweat and patchouli lotion.
But look: look at this woman looking up at you. You will ingest fistfuls of psychotropic mushrooms, if that’s what it takes. You will elbow people in the face as you dance and smell like a headshop and kick off your shoes. Whatever it takes to get this person—this impossibly bright and vibrant person—to keep looking at you like she is.
“Ten o’clock,” you say. “At Pizza Luce.” You have tonight’s schedule memorized. For you are the sort of young man who sits on a park bench and takes the time to memorize the Homegrown Music Festival schedule.
She touches your arm, lets it linger, pulls her hand away. You imagine yourself marked; you imagine her fingers burning an impression into your arm. “Good,” she says. “Good.” And then, “You should come. You should meet me there.”
“I will,” you say, and she smiles.
“I’ll see you then,” she says, and she touches your arm again as she flits past you, away, down the sidewalk. The purplehaired boy strides to keep up.
“Happy Homegrown!” she says over her shoulder.
“Happy Homegrown!” you say back.
And as you walk away from her down the sidewalk, past the chocolate shop, past the kitchen supplies store, you glance backward and start singing, under your breath at first, then louder, because you feel too good, and this town is too beautiful, for whistling.
All of these people, you think, crossing First Avenue East, walking past the check cashing store and the Coin and Stamp Emporium. How lucky I am to be here, to be counted among them.
Such people. Who live in this weird and far-flung place against every practical consideration. Whose hands are cracked from jumpstarting their Civics and Gremlins in the morning. Whose faces are peeling from bitter February walks along the lake—because winters are long, and spring doesn’t arrive until May, and you need to do something, you need to, to keep the wind from hollowing you out, to keep yourself out of pajama pants and off of the sofa. So Duluthians do things. We do things. We are out, always, walking along the frozen lake, boundless and forbidding as a desert, or peering over cliffs in our city parks, or snowshoeing the surfaces of creeks and climbing waterfalls frozen like stalled escalators. We shed our boredom like dead skin so that we are always full, always brimming, with energy, with love, with—yes!—the raw material of poetry. Which we then fashion and shape into art (we start punk bands, we compose sonnet sequences, we paint snowscapes), because we are nothing if not artists: just poor, just cold, just underemployed.
And you forget this too often. You forget to stay vigilant in the cold and dark. You forget your youth.
And then you shake these thoughts away and sprint across 2nd Avenue East because you are late, because there is a folk show about to start. Sometimes, when you stop to consider your future, when you stop and think about the world surrounding this town, you feel like a diver about to plunge into too-deep, too-dark water. There will soon be larger things to worry about, probably. Your concerns might run deeper than where will that girl wearing a poncho be later tonight.
But right now, the afternoon is bright. Right now, you are sprinting down the sidewalk because you are young. And isn’t it something to be young.
Richard Hackler prepares excellent sandwiches. He looks good in a pair of corduroys, and has performed many unmatchable feats of daring and strength. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.