The kids saw the smoke from the Minneapolis classroom window, and half of them probably thought it was their house. Then they learned it was Patina, and a wail went up: No!
When I picked up my daughter and her friend the day of the fire, they were full of the news: Patina burned; seriously, it burned. They were unnerved and disturbed; It's weird to think that it's just gone, said my daughter. It's been there my whole life. They asked: Did you see it?
Oh, yes. Stood there with everyone else in the neighborhood last week at 50th and Bryant, our hearts in our stomachs, eyes stinging, watching the old block burn. It was a mulish, stubborn fire -- roared around the stockrooms and the kitchen in the restaurant next door, burst out of the roof to feed with leisure on air and timber, seethed beneath the cornice. It moved around like a trapped beast, pinned down by jets of water, retreating, blooming anew a few doors down. By the time I got there, it was obvious the block was lost. It's not one of those situations where people say, "I can't believe it." You believe it.
Could have been worse: A cinder alights across the alley to the south, a house goes, maybe two; if the fire had crossed an alley to the east, the Malt Shop might have gone up. So? you think. Fires happen. It's a big town; it's one block.
All true. It's not the sort of horrible loss a small town experiences when the Cozy Cup goes up in flames, and all the old guys stand on the other side of the street in their parkas, watching, thinking, well, I guess we meet for coffee at the Cenex now, but it won't be the same.
The building in south Minneapolis had no particular architectural distinction -- across the street is one of those two-story, early 20th-century buildings with a name and date on the cornice, shops below and apartments above, a building full of secret stories, the sort of place you only find in places that have been inhabited for a hundred years or so. The one we lost was just a one-story brick block. We have many. We have spares. So?
Well, it was ours.
That's part of life in the city: A thing is public, but it's ours. We all ate at the restaurants. The menfolk have bent over the glass counter at Patina, examining jewelry from local artists, figuring out which will produce the right Christmas morning smile; we've bought bathroom squeeze-toy rubber ducks for a toddler and cool hip stuff for a pre-tween, marveling at how fast she went from one to the other.
But it wasn't just the marvelous density of neat stuff at the gift store; there was ancient neighborhood history in the bones of the building. It had been a drugstore once, a stop on a trolley line. Before they redid the floors you could see the circular marks left by the soda-fountain stools, and from that you could reconstruct an entire Minneapolis afternoon. Cherry Coke, a fan on a high shelf shoving the summer air around, the afternoon Star just hitting the news racks (Soviets, Truman), a screen door that banged hard when someone ran out to catch the streetcar. Mothballs, Brylcreem, cigarette smoke, drugstore perfume.
Life gets into the timbers of a place. This building was ours now, but it had been theirs once.
That's why some live in the city -- to live where others have lived before, to pick up and hand off. Pass it along. Keep it going. When something burns, there's nothing left: The hardest part of the fire was watching the old pressed-tin ceiling crash to the ground. They could rebuild, but the last links to the first day are gone.
So? It's a good question. Places come and go, and history is no shield against change. But it'll be back, this block; I'll bet I shop there two Christmases hence. In 50 years, someone will buy a grandchild something from the store, and the child will be delighted by the sight of the box: I love that place! Grandpa will say I was your age when the first building burned. I still have a toy my father bought at the old place. Really? There was another store there before? Tell me about it.