January 24, 2016

Bus Depot


Whenever I first arrived in a new city, I always quite consciously and subconsciously began drawing a map in my head, beginning at the point I first stepped foot in town. In most cases this meant the center of my initial maps was a train or bus station. Everything else, depending on my wanderings, spiraled out from there. After living in these towns for a stretch I would always think back to those initial mental maps I’d made, only to realize how deeply skewed and wrong they were. I’ve always been fascinated by how our perceptions of geography morph with familiarity. Strange thing is, though, that years after leaving a given town, I’ll think back again only to find the original misguided maps still intact, while the realities of the local geography have been completely lost.

            To be honest I have no fucking idea how I got around Minneapolis. I remember places—far flung record stores and weird bookshops and bars, places I visited regularly following well-trod paths, but if I went back there now I’d never be able to find them for my life, even if they still existed. I know Moby Dick’s is gone, but is Northern Lights music still there? The Seventh St. Entry? Garage D’Or?

            I first arrived in Minneapolis in the late spring of 1986, riding up from Madison on a Trailways bus. I was scheduled to start grad school at the University of Minnesota in the fall, and so was supposed to have an introductory meeting with the department chair and find myself a place to live. I had three days to do both before I had to get back to Madison.

            At the time the Minneapolis bus terminal, tucked on the neat and clean edges of downtown, was one of the most notorious in the country. More innocent corn-fed teenage runaways were picked up there and drafted into a life of whoredom than at any other single location in the U.S. More than New York, more than Vegas or L.A. or Miami. Minneapolis was king when it came to hooker recruitment, and the heart of the operation was the bus station. Funny thing is, if you spent enough time hanging around Hennepin Block H (the city’s red light district) you could tell it was true. The hookers were pretty much indistinguishable from the college girls, except the college girls never spent time around Block H.

            Anyway, I figured looking the way I did I didn’t have much to worry about when I stepped off the bus. In fact I was pretty disappointed. The station was polished and open and bright, and I didn’t see a single shady type in a feathered purple fedora hanging around the corners. The Greyhound station in Chicago’s Loop could be scary as hell, but this place here reeked of soap and welcoming goodwill. Ah well.

            Figuring the first thing to do was find a hotel where I could drop my bag, I went to a bank of phone booths (remember those?), pulled out one of those massive chained phone books in the indestructible plastic cover (remember those?), opened it to hotels and called the first one that caught my eye. Place called the Nordic, which seemed appropriate enough. Even though I knew I’d never use it, I was a sucker for any hotel with an indoor pool.

            After making a reservation over the phone, I stepped outside the depot and found a bored taxi driver parked at the curb, reading the Star-Tribune. I yanked open the door and climbed in back.

            “Where you going?” he asked. He was a young white guy with glasses in an army jacket.

            “The Nordic Hotel,” I said, and read off the address I’d written down.

            There was a long pause before he asked, “You sure about that?”

            I had no idea how to take that. Was it in some seedy part of town? At that point I didn’t think there were any seedy parts of Minneapolis apart from the bus station, and what a let-down that had been. Was it a hot sheets place or a known hangout for junkies and thieves? Was there a good chance I might die if I stayed there? “You bet!” I told him.

            He put the car in gear, pulled away from the curb, and left the parking lot. He then drove one block straight ahead and stopped again.

            “Here you go,” he said. “That’ll be a dollar.”

            I think it was at that point I started constructing my mental map.

            After checking into the pleasant and apparently empty Viking-themed downtown hotel, I headed back out again to try and get my bearings, pick up a newspaper to scan the apartment listings, and maybe get some dinner. It was about six on a Wednesday evening, and the first thing that struck me was that the wide and spotless sidewalks of downtown Minneapolis were completely empty. I don’t just mean there was only a tiny handful of other pedestrians wandering around—I mean it was completely devoid of pedestrians. There were a few cars here and there, but I was alone on the sidewalk. What’s more, all the stores I was passing seemed to be closed.

            What the hell was this all about? I was in the middle of downtown. I was surrounded by office towers and businesses and department stores. There was the IDS tower right over there, but there were no people. It wasn’t a holiday or anything—it was just a Wednesday evening in May—but the whole area seemed deserted, and eerily so. It felt like I’d just landed in a ghost town or one of those annoying dreams. I became so consumed with the strangeness of it all I was paying little attention to where I was going. If I wasn’t careful I’d never find my way back to the hotel again. As things stood, I wasn’t even sure the hotel would still be there when I got back.

            I at last passed a diner that was miraculously open, and went inside. There were no other customers, just one tired woman standing at the cash register.

            After that, things become blurry. I don’t remember making it back to the hotel that night, but I know I did, and I know that along the way I stopped into a gas station and bought myself my very first pack of Luckies, lighting the first one in front of the local headquarters of the American Lung Association.

            The next morning I was scheduled to meet with the department chair, but had no idea how to get from the hotel to the campus, let alone the building that housed the department.

            Minneapolis had no train or trolley system and I knew nothing about the bus routes, so I decided I’d just walk there. How far could it be, right? It was fucking Minneapolis. I’d brought a street map with me, and according to that it wasn’t that far away, so long as I could keep my directions straight.

            Once again, things get fuzzy here. I was never really that good at reading folding maps, which may help explain why I recall climbing over a fence and carefully making my way down a grassy embankment to a highway, wondering just how in the hell I expected to get back.

            I walked for hours, trying in vain to convince myself that by walking I was getting a much better lay of the land than I would have in a bus or taxi. Why I thought this made sense when my route involved climbing over fences and down highway embankments is beyond me. I don’t even remember encountering the Mississippi, though I must have since there was no way to get to the University of Minnesota campus from downtown without crossing the Mississippi.

            Somehow, though, I made it to the meeting on time, where a very bored department chair explained he was leaving on sabbatical the next year and so couldn’t really tell me anything about anything. In fact he told me chances were good I would never ever see him again, and he was right about that. I thanked him anyway, then asked if he might be able to tell me what bus would get me back to downtown.

            The next two days are equally blurry as I looked for an apartment, wandered around strange neighborhoods, wondering where the hell I was most of the time, getting approached by panhandlers, and dodging traffic as I crossed teeming six-lane highways. At one point in the early afternoon I was walking along Nicollet Avenue past massive discount liquor stores with groups of shady looking Oneida Indians hanging out front, collision repair garages, U-Haul outlets and check cashing places. I bought my second pack of Luckies. Then I spotted a grubby Dairy Queen stand on the corner near a gas station, and for some reason decided I wanted to live close to that. Even if I never went there to get a Dilly bar or Peanut Buster Parfait, I liked the idea of having a Dairy Queen close by, just in case.

            I ended up taking the first apartment I looked at, which was two blocks from the DQ and offered a view of an alleyway. I was pleased

            I may not have the slightest idea how I found anything else, but at least the next morning when I checked out of the hotel I had no trouble finding the bus depot. Just turned left and walked a block. Guess that’s as far as my map extended.

            As with Chicago, Madison, Philly, and my first two years in Brooklyn, my year and a half in Minneapolis, as crazy and fraught with danger and excitement as it was, exists in my memory today only as a jumbled collection of random stills from a lost film, and were I to go back there today I’d be just as lost as I was when I first stepped off that bus. Some intriguing stills, though.


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