October 8, 2017

The Fog of Minneapolis


It was autumn, that much I remember. Early October, if I’m not mistaken. Apart from that spell in the Bin, most of my time in Minneapolis remains pretty fuzzy these days. I remember moments, but not what surrounded them. I remember being in places, but not how I got there. In this instance, I don’t remember if it was my first or second autumn in Minneapolis, but it was most definitely autumn.

            In those pre-internet days—and isn’t it a little sad to realize this?—I don’t know how I learned Tom Waits was coming to town. Maybe I saw a poster in a record store or heard an announcement on the local indie radio station or spotted an ad in the weekly paper or something, but somehow I heard this was happening well in advance. Still, with the show over a month away, I knew I had to act fast if I wanted a ticket. I made a note of the day tickets went on sale, and decided to jump on it.

            Now, again in those pre-internet days, instead of going online to get an e-ticket or whatever the hell they’re called through Ticketmaster, I somehow learned that what I needed to do was go to the customer service desk on the fifth floor of a big department store downtown near the IDS tower. That’s where tickets were being sold. Given we were talking about a rare Tom Waits concert here, I figured the place would be mobbed, the line stretching back down to street level and out the door, but nope. It was just me. I told the nice lady behind the customer service counter that I wanted a ticket for the Tom Waits show. She opened a drawer and pulled out this pad of long, rectangular generic forms, sorted through a stack of mimeographed papers until she found the venue’s seating chart, and hand-wrote a ticket, which she then ripped off the pad and handed me. I paid a grand total of fifteen dollars (thirteen-fifty for the ticket plus a dollar-fifty service charge), and we were all set. I thanked her and walked home, the ticket folded neatly in my wallet.

            Then I had a stupid idea. At the time I was smitten with a girl who lived in Chicago. Met her the day before I left the U of C. I don’t think she knew at the time I was smitten with her, but that’s beside the point. I knew she was a big Tom Waits fan. Thinking hey, this is my chance to look like a big shot, I sent her a letter (yes, an actual letter) telling her I had a couple of tickets to see Tom Waits and asking if she wanted to come up to Minneapolis that weekend to see the show with me. Given I knew there was no chance in hell she’d ever take me up on it, it meant I could look like a big shot with no repercussions.

            So when she called two days before the show out of the blue to tell me she would indeed be flying up the next night, I was more than a little shocked. “Hey, um, that’s great—can’t wait to see you,” I gulped. “That’s really great.”. Then after hanging up the phone, I panicked. I mean, I didn’t actually expect any of this to happen, right? And worse, I’d only bought the one ticket. How the fuck was that going to look? Invite someone to fly up to Minneapolis to see a show, then when they get there tell them I was just kidding, that I didn’t actually have a second ticket? Christ, I was doomed.

            I ran back to the department store right when they opened the next morning, and scrambled up to the fifth floor customer service desk in a sweat. The same woman was still there. This was completely pointless. A Tom Waits show the next night, and a couple of weeks after buying my ticket, I expected to get another one, period, let alone one for an adjacent seat? I was such a fucking moron. Why couldn’t I just keep my big mouth shut?

            “Hi, um,” I said, knowing just how sweaty, disheveled and wild-eyed I must have looked. “I know this is a long shot, but there’s this girl in Chicago, see? And I didn’t really expect this to happen, but . . . ”

            The story went on a bit too long, but the customer service lady listened patiently. At the end of it, I gave her the seat number on my ticket, and asked if maybe the one next to it might still be available, too. Oh, this was useless. I should’ve just told her I was kind of lying when I used the plural form of “tickets.” But the fact she was willing to fly up and spend a couple of days at my place still said something, right? But maybe that had more to do with the prospect of a Tom Waits ticket than me. Maybe she’d put up with most anything to get a free Tom Waits ticket.

            The customer service lady, meanwhile, pulled out her ticket pad and took another look at the seating chart.

            “Sure, you’re on an aisle, but the seat next to you is still free,” she said with a smile.

            “You’re kidding. That’s impossible.”

            “Nope. You want it?”

            Then I started worrying about money. It wasn’t like I had fifteen bucks back then to throw around all willy-nilly on frivolities like concert tickets. I’d never paid that much for a concert ticket in my life. Christ. Black Flag only cost me six bucks. I thought about it a moment. “Okay, I guess,” I told her eventually. Better to drop the cash than deal with the shame and humiliation of having to explain to this girl I was not quite the big shot I claimed to be.

            The customer service lady hand-wrote another ticket, tore it off the pad, and handed it to me. I folded it neatly and tucked it in my wallet next to the other one.

            At around eight that night I was sitting at my desk with my guts in a knot when the phone rang. She told me her flight had just arrived, she was still at the airport, but was about to get on a shuttle bus headed downtown. I told her what stop was closest to my apartment. I have no idea how I knew such a thing, as I’d never been to the Minneapolis airport, and had never taken a shuttle bus anywhere, but somehow I did.

            An hour later I walked across the bridge into downtown and waited at the bus stop outside a bank. I still couldn’t believe this was happening, for any number of reasons. Me and my big ugly mouth. Apart from Grinch, I wasn’t exactly what you might call accustomed to house guests, let alone young women I was smitten with. I hadn’t bothered to change the sheets, put out fresh towels, or buy any extra groceries.

            Things get mighty foggy again after the shuttle bus dropped her off. It was late, so we just went back to my apartment, ordered a pizza and had a few beers. I was likely noticeably uncomfortable. That night she slept in the bedroom and I took the couch.

            Although I had my hopes, right, and although I don’t remember exactly what happened over much of the next day, I do know nothing happened. At least in terms of how one generally uses “something” and “nothing” in situations like this.

            It was about five o’clock, and the concert, the whole excuse behind this cheap and mad ruse, was scheduled to begin at eight. That’s when she told me her flight back to Chicago left at seven-thirty.

            Um. What? I run around in a panic to cover my ass, I drop an extra fifteen bucks I can barely afford to get an extra ticket, and she had no plans to go in the first place? She knew damn well from the start the date and time of the show, so what the fuck? And she waits until three hours before the show to tell me?

            Well, guess I was planning on going by myself from the start anyway, that much hadn’t changed, and lord knows there was no way in hell at this point I was going to the airport to see her off, so whatever. I had my priorities, and I’m sorry but a Waits show trumped some flaky dame.

            She packed up her one bag, and as I was walking her through the seedy little park across from my place toward the shuttle bus stop, she suddenly grabbed my arm and whipped me around. “What is it you want?” She demanded.


            “What is it you want?”

            I resisted the urge to tell her what I really wanted was to get to the fucking show on time, and instead (and quite honestly given the context) told her, “I really have no idea.”

            Fifteen minutes later she boarded the bus and headed for the airport, and I headed for the theater. Fuck it.

            The Orpheum Theater was a majestic and crumbling Gothic wonder, a former Vaudeville theater-turned Movie Palace-turned performing arts space. It was on Hennepin Avenue on the ragged edges of downtown, just a few blocks off Minneapolis’s red light district. There was virtually nothing else around it, though directly across the street was a grubby little porn shop that specialized, according to the electric sign out front, in “used erotica.” (If you’ve ever seen the Tom Waits concert film Big Time, shot during that tour, he makes reference to it).

            The Orpheum’s interior had that sweet, acrid smell of grandeur on the skids, like something out of The Magnificent Ambersons. The tapestries on the walls were dusty, faded and torn, and the chandeliers were missing their share of bulbs. It was perfect.

            After handing my ticket to the usher, I was led to my seat which, as it turns out, was at the very back of the third balcony. I considered my seat, and what would have been hers. Then I turned and considered the tiny stage a quarter mile away.

            Screw that, I thought, and worked my way back down the long and narrow carpeted staircase to the balcony’s edge, and watched the show from there.

            It remains one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen, topping Elvis and the Dead Kennedys, and maybe in a tie with Roy Orbison and The Residents’ Wormwood show.

            Spilling out onto the sidewalk with the crowd after the show, a bit euphoric from the performance but still distracted by the events of the previous few days, I promptly walked headlong into a streetlamp and broke my glasses.

            Roughly three years later I married the girl in question. It didn’t last, and I never bothered asking her what the fuck the deal was in Minneapolis.


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