I am writing these words at a table in St. Paul, where I am in exile, and where, late on a Saturday night, I could likely run naked through the streets of my new neighborhood and not disturb the peace. Because the “most livable city in America” can feel like the puzzling and permanent peace of a diorama in a small-town history museum. And as I ran naked and unnoticed through the streets of St. Paul I could spit into the manicured shrubbery of a church or college along virtually every block of my route.
I know I have to tread very, very carefully when talking — with people from either Minneapolis or St. Paul — about my recent defection from the former. Both cities have their fierce partisans, and notoriously thin civic skins. I also can't pretend that as yet I know much of anything about St. Paul. I lived in Minneapolis for more than 30 years, and during that time I had precious few occasions or compelling reasons to cross the Mississippi. So ignorant was I of all things St. Paul that I now recognize there were times when I was probably in St. Paul without even realizing it; all the stuff north of Interstate 94 and University Avenue, for example, I tended to regard as Minneapolis territory. I was a Minneapolis man (and like many a Minneapolis man, a moron), and St. Paul had a certain reputation among many of my Minneapolis partisans. It was rumored to be clannish and superior and as quiet as a hospital chapel; “sleepy,” actually, was the word most often utilized. My initial experiences lead me to believe there may be some truth to those observations, but if so I think I can learn to be fine with that.
I'm still rather stunned to find myself here. At a certain point back in the winter I went over the wall — or across the River — and recognized that I wasn't sure I had the energy to battle my way back to Minneapolis. In my middle years I have become increasingly reluctant to go anywhere (the social ramble, to paraphrase Satchel Paige, is no longer restful), but when I do decide to go somewhere I want to get there in a hurry; it has become increasingly impossible to get anywhere in Minneapolis in a hurry, and I am both a hazard behind the wheel and susceptible to operatic fits of road rage. During the months preceding my exile I had some compelling reasons to venture to St. Paul — one, actually: a woman — but with each agonizing crawl eastward there was a growing sense I was in a slow, disconsolate procession of refugees fleeing a city under siege.
I had a fierce love for Minneapolis in my younger years. There was a time when I felt like I had explored every nook and cranny of the place, but much of that city I fell in love with back in the 1980s has been transformed into something unrecognizable and often wholly unlovable. I worked downtown during Block E's last gasp, and also spent time working at the old Control Data plant on North Washington, long before the North Loop was the North Loop, and when the Warehouse District was still exactly that: a district of warehouses full of artists and other interesting characters. In the process of thinking about where I now am, and the city I've fled, I've made a long list of all the places in Minneapolis that once mattered to me that are now gone. But that is, of course, a pointless and punishing exercise in old-guy nostalgia. It's much easier to celebrate the places that are still there — long live Al's Breakfast, First Avenue, the Band Box Diner, Electric Fetus and Palmer's Bar! — and to recognize that Minneapolis is still full of people I love, which is why I'm not yet ready to request permanent asylum here in St. Paul.
I am, though, curious about this new place, and though I've yet to have a single sidewalk conversation of the sort I took for granted in Minneapolis, and though I've been cold-shouldered at social gatherings and still know almost no one here, I can always depend on my usual 30-second conversations with the already familiar clerks at the local convenience stores to give me a modest sense of belonging, and I'm delighted every single day by how relatively easy it is to zip around in this city (and to find free places to park). I've just completed almost an entire week of rambling in St. Paul — rambles that have included visits to coffee shops, restaurants, bars, co-ops, a gym and stores that sell books, records, groceries and pet food — without ever once having to venture onto any sort of highway, deal with anything resembling a traffic jam or plug a single parking meter.
Jesse Ventura once touched off a minor furor by attributing the layout of St. Paul's streets to “drunken Irishmen,” yet any newcomer will immediately understand the basic point of Ventura's indelicate utterance. I'm nonetheless delighted by the puzzle of St. Paul's streets. I like to learn my way around a city by feel. In doing so you tend to notice more of the peripheral nature of a place, and neighborhoods become recognizable because of their landmarks, curiosities and character rather than their GPS coordinates or street addresses.
Meanwhile, virtually all my stuff is still in an apartment over there in Minneapolis, and so far my efforts to liberate my possessions have met with as much success as Jimmy Carter's disastrous 1980 attempt to liberate the Iran Embassy hostages. I'm having a surprisingly hard time getting worked up about that particular quandary at the moment. I'm happy here.
A short time ago, as I sat out on the stoop, there wasn't a creature stirring anywhere in the neighborhood. It was so quiet and peaceful, in fact, I almost could swear I heard bells ringing and the swelling of a huge choir from somewhere far, far beyond this sleeping city. A moment later it dawned on me: What I was actually hearing was the typical Saturday night hubbub happening across the river in Minneapolis.
Brad Zellar has written and published fiction, and worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines. A former senior editor at City Pages, The Rake and Utne Reader, Zellar is also the author of "Suburban World: The Norling Photos," "Conductors of the Moving World" and "House of Coates," which was reissued last fall by Coffee House Press. He most recently collaborated with photographer Alec Soth on The LBM Dispatch, a traveling newspaper project that chronicled American community life in the 21st century.