Love Note to a City
I’m a native Chicagoan, but for a good part of my life I was a happy resident of Saint Paul, Minnesota, where they’ll know you’re an outsider if you abbreviate the “Saint” part.
This is a bit of sentiment I wrote years ago, in praise of that humble but vibrant town. It was crafted and submitted to a local publication entitled the Saint Paul Almanac, or something like that, and was in fact selected for publication, but never actually made it into the printed volume for one reason or another.
I’ve since settled back into an equally comfortable place for a person of my sensibilities–Wheaton, Illinois–but maintain my abiding affection for that place to the north.
The city of Saint Paul is the capital of the State of Minnesota. It’s the seat of its government and the repository of its soul. By Midwestern standards, at least, it’s an old city; a riparian trade outpost formerly frequented by the likes of Pig’s-Eye Parrant and Ma Barker, depending on the century. Some maintain that it’s still merely a convoluted, provincial and somewhat in-bred settlement–a quaint municipality of stocky build, ruddy complexion and contrary attitude. All true, to a degree, but all at odds with some of the more profound reasons to celebrate the place.
The Twin Cities, in general, can be a haven to those hailing from more congested and complicated places. Taken together they have a split personality much like Chicago’s. Just as Chicago has its near north side and trendy suburbs on the lake, the Cities boast of Minneapolis, a place of promise and pretense, fashion and flash, where form is at least the equal of substance, and often its superior.
Saint Paul, conversely, is a first cousin to Chicago’s south side. Genuine and honest to a fault it stands, bare-fisted and unapologetic, home to genius of its own sort. It is a rough-hewn sibling involuntarily joined at the hip to the feigned urbanity to the west, yet still managing to exert its own power against that glib presence. A city so obstinate that even the most intractable north-south watercourse on the continent, in deference to the very will of the place, docilely tacks northeasterly through it until leaving town, quietly and without incident, only then to resume its intended direction.
Minneapolis is a venti decaf latte macchiato with sprinkles; Saint Paul is a cup of Joe, black. Where Minneapolis may tease and cajole, Saint Paul double-dog dares. Across the river, you may well start a meal with an amuse-bouche and a Campari. Here, it’s garlic bread and a boilermaker. In other words, Saint Paul is the South Side, north.
It would be too pat, too dismissive, to allow the comparison to stand just there. To do so would ignore the complexities of a culture that could spawn F. Scott Fitzgerald, embrace August Wilson and exalt Garrison Keillor while at the same time giving aid and comfort to bawdy Winter Carnival traditions such as Klondike Kate and the Vulcan Krewe. The mixture is what gives the place its charm and makes it something of an enigma on the bluffs.
The spiritual reach of this small, shimmering port far exceeds its grasp, and to those of us who have fallen under its spell, that grasp (more like a grip) remains fast, no matter how long we’ve been away.
I can remember a time in Wisconsin, just before our family decided to return to Saint Paul after an eight-year absence. I was musing about the very possibility such a move while vacantly contemplating the flow of the Mississippi as it coursed southward past LaCrosse. My gaze fought off the direction of the current, as my mind broke free of that movement to shift northward toward the Cities, almost subliminally. I remember then feeling the kind of longing the soul generally reserves for a lost love. My love, it turned out, was about 130 miles upstream of that bend in the river I was staring at, and the pang in my stomach told me I had to make it beyond. I knew then that I had to come back, and that’s just what I did a little more than two months later.
To me, Minneapolis isn’t the evil empire we on the other side of the Mississippi make it out to be; it’s just an amusing and convenient foil to our own vanities. We like it just fine, right where it is. Chicago, in my mind now a place of pleasingly distorted recollection and fuzzy personal history, is my birthplace and the birthplace of my sons, but it’s somehow not home. Saint Paul is.