“Two chairs!” My boys were pointing out the window as we cruised through our south Minneapolis neighborhood. “Ooh, two in a row — two chairs!”
I noticed Two Chairs Syndrome a few years ago when I started a neighborhood-walk routine. Two chairs, set on so very many front lawns. The pairs are always placed uniformly, one-third distance from the house, two-thirds from the sidewalk.
I mentioned it to the kids, and since then it’s become our road game. Once you see two chairs, you can’t stop seeing them. They’re everywhere.
The pairs of chairs are generally Adirondack-style and perched at 45-degrees-streetward — the angle you’d want if you were to pour an iced tea, sit with a friend or spouse and observe the passing foot traffic.
But here’s the thing: The chairs are always empty. They never look used, so they rarely look comfortable. There’s never a trodden path toward or around them. They just sit there on the grass, less tacky than plastic fawns but weirder, because they’re never doing the job they were meant for, cradling a couple of humans having a nice interaction.
I think this phenomenon might have sprung from our Minnesota lake culture, since the chairs are reminiscent of the ones you’d see at a cabin overlooking a body of water — you know, the chairs where people really do sit and drink iced tea.
Or maybe they’re just a regional quirk; my sister recently told me about a strange trend where she lives, down South, of placing a 3-foot-tall goose statue next to the front door. Thousands of people have these things; they dress them up in seasonal costumes and sports jerseys.
Our local Two Chairs Syndrome could be as simple as that, a local trend — but to my mind, it’s a bit darker. The chairs are such a friendly idea … but we’ve been playing Two Chairs for years, and we have never, ever seen anyone sitting in any of them. Their very presence indicates an absence. The more empty chair-pairs you notice, the odder they seem. It’s like saying a word over and over again. It loses meaning and becomes silly.
Urban neighborhoods are thriving or declining, depending on whom you ask. People are fleeing and flocking to our cities, gentrification is awesome and horrible, crime is under control and out of control — you can spin any story you like.
For me, Two Chairs Syndrome tells both sides of the Minneapolis story pretty well. They’re a symbol of community and disunity, of good intentions — and benign neglect. They represent both the sincere and the cynical flavors of Minnesota Nice.
Our little enclave near Diamond Lake Road apparently contains blocks of tight-knit neighbor pals with regular kiddie play dates and monthly grown-up parties. I like that vibe; it’s nice and friendly, the way cities should work.
But I’ve got to be honest. Truth be told, I only know about these socially connected spots through hearsay. Our stretch of street isn’t so tight. I know the folks on either side of us. One of our next-door neighbors is a sweet lady whom we can count on for mail-related favors; our son had a deal to mow her lawn this past summer. Still, I’m not sure I could pick any of my other neighbors out of a lineup. Our block doesn’t do National Night Out. Not that we wouldn’t, mind you. It’s just that we collectively forget to plan it every year. I may as well live on an empty cul-de-sac for all the interaction I have.
Ultimately, I’ve adopted both sides of my chosen city pretty well: I spend time every day walking around my neighborhood, petting dogs along the creek and dodging bikes at the lake; I’m a committed urbanite who’d never move to the suburbs; I’m also a lazy recluse who’s never fired up a conversation with people I’ve lived a few hundred yards from for more than a decade. I like people, except when I can’t stand them. I’d help a neighbor out of a jam — I’d be honored to, honestly — but I really don’t feel like making awkward small talk. I live in the city because I love the intersection of people, the great restaurants, the way we communally care for our parks and public spaces — but when I cross the threshold of my house, I’d prefer it if you didn’t come over and bug me. Let’s smile, wave and pleasantly ignore each other, shall we?
Anyway, I don’t have two chairs in my front yard. But now that I think about it, maybe I should.
Carolyn Petrie is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.