The facts are sort of scarce, but the story goes something like this: Sometime last year, an abandoned houseboat washed up on the east bank of the Mississippi River, not far from the NE. Marshall Street home of David Salmela and Jenny Adams.
"The boat just showed up," Adams said. "It floated down the river. Our neighbor found it."
Adams and her husband, Salmela, are the chief instigators of Creative Electric, a loose medley of creative friends and neighbors who operated out of a Northeast storefront until last year. Although the gallery has closed, Adams and Salmela continue to find outlets for their artistic wit -- such as the orphaned houseboat.
Speculation (along with heavy embellishment from friend and novelist Geoff Herbach) has it that the houseboat belonged to a man named Kiddie Cramer, a middle-class family man who spiraled into paranoia after 9/11. Fretting over the possibility of a similar terrorist event in the Upper Midwest, Cramer holed up with a community of houseboat squatters anchored just south of the Lowry Avenue Bridge. His wife and daughter left him, and he lived in the floating shanty for years, until one Halloween someone sawed through the rope that moored it to the land, sending the boat downriver.
After using the shanty all winter as a warming house while ice skating on the river, Adams and Salmela decided to open it to the public as a floating Art-A-Whirl exhibit. With the help of their Creative Electric conspirators, they are restoring Cramer's squat to its original state and docking it behind the nearby Sample Room restaurant. Visitors are invited to pass through the restaurant and take a tour of the "Safe House Boat."
Standing in the empty houseboat on a recent weekend -- empty because Adams insisted on rendering the squalid little shack "gallery clean" before allowing the public inside -- the immediate impression was that of entering a shoebox diorama, scraped free of any imagery. The space stretches scarcely 10 feet wide, and the low ceiling prohibits tall hairstyles or hats of any kind. The cramped 30-foot corridor ends in a set of sliding glass doors that open immediately onto the water -- the only real windows in the room.
Adams only briefly spoke to the shack's original contents. "The guy had so many glass kerosene lamps," she marveled. "And all this weird food. And cans of Raid. And pieces of kite hanging from a string."
Adams and Salmela insisted on replacing most of Cramer's old possessions for the exhibit, as well as crafting realistic replicas of items they suspect he might have owned. As armchair anthropologists, the Creative Electric gang seems to be taking liberty with the re-creation, aiming for a blend of paranoia and newfound bachelorhood.
As of this writer's visit, CE friend and notable video director Phil Harder had contributed a number of very real-looking explosives: tangles of wire and needle gauges mounted on metallic cylinders. A rust-coated wood-burning stove hunched beside one of the long walls, and above the entrance hung an odd touch of domesticity: a spice rack of the high-school shop class variety.
The idea, explained Adams, is not to have a knee-jerk aversion to Cramer's situation but to sort of empathize with him -- to think, with the fear-mongering of post-9/11 media, "maybe I could get so scared that this could happen to me."
Salmela intends to play up the security angle by projecting old safety films and public service announcements, pulled from the extensive reel collection of friend and collaborator Mike Dust. He also plans to recruit members of the fire department and water patrol to run water rescue drills throughout the weekend.
Such drills may come in handy, considering what Salmela has planned for musical accompaniment: bands performing on a floating pontoon stage set loose in the Mississippi currents.
"We're gonna start them coming down from the Lowry bridge. They're going to be free-falling, spinning, all lit up."
A look of panic creeps onto Adams' face.
"No way, Dave. We're gonna have to rope them."
"Nah, they're gonna free-fall," Salmela insists.
Better get the life savers ready.