Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 23, 2004 Minneapolis, Minnesota.

From Decorah I headed to Minneapolis, where I stopped with the family of one of the vanagonauts, Budd Premack. Budd is a talker, and we had lots to talk about, though Iím not sure I could say quite what. From the start he seemed to me like a Jew from New York Ė though in fact heís a Jew from Minneapolis whoís lived most of his life right there. What is it about Jews that itís obvious they are Jews? I donít know. We talk a lot, we talk fast, we are analytical and value quick thinking. Though that could be a description of New Yorkers Ė Susanna is all of those things, and she certainly isnít Jewish. Of course I rather think of New Yorkers and Jews as one and the same, which is why I found it hard to imagine that Budd has lived his whole life in Minnesota.

Minneapolis is a fine city. Itís big, itís dynamic, itís full of interesting neighborhoods, it has sidewalks and a downtown Ė though the downtown is, to my way of thinking, rather bleak. Thatís because all the buildings are connected with second-floor passages that arch over the streets, which is great for staying warm in the winter, but lousy for having a dynamic streetscape. Away from downtown, in the neighborhoods where the buildings arenít big enough or expensive enough to give the space to walkways, the streets are more interesting to explore. Budd was not sympathetic to my view of the urban character of Minneapolis. As he pointed out repeatedly (and correctly), my concept of cities has been defined by New York, and I find fault with any place thatís different. In a city people should not drive cars, they should take public transit or ride a bike or walk. They should live densely and interact with each other in public. Minneapolis really isnít bad in those respects, but its character is not felt in the downtown areas.

It is a wonderfully bikeable place Ė at least in September, with simply splendid weather. The city is full of lakes and creeks and of course the Mississippi River, with bike trails running along all of them. I went on what began as a short ride one morning, and turned into an all-day excursion along the creek and the river to downtown, across the Stone Arch bike/ped bridge, east to St. Paul, past the Fitzgerald Theater Ė home of Prairie Home Companion and the one landmark I know in that city Ė and back through the neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Biking is a great way to get a handle on new cities, because I can move fast enough to cover a lot of ground, but I can stop in a flash whenever anything catches my eye. I had a chat with some cyclists gathering for a group ride, meandered through the University of Minnesota campus, stopped to check out a couple of coffee houses on University Avenue, took a lot of photos of Charles Schulz memorabilia in downtown St. Paul, grabbed an ice cream at a place Iíd whizzed past, stopped into a pottery studio on Franklin Street in Minneapolis, checked out camping gear at a store going out of business on Lyndale Avenue, and stopped to have a coffee and do some work when I was near Buddís house. Now I know at least some of the Twin Cities.

While I was there, I met Kara Slaughter, a fellow Truman scholar and public policy graduate student at the University of Minnesota. We had dinner with two of her friends, one a law student and the other a journalist. It was great fun. Kara was interested in talking to me about working on environmental policy issues, but we talked more about agricultural policy and agricultural economics. Back at her house after dinner, we got past policy issues and talked about growing up and whether people are concerned about getting married and having children, and journalism, and writing, and the difference between Minneapolis and more rural parts of the Midwest. It was a lot of fun in unexpected ways. The Truman scholars are a very different network from the vanagonauts, I hope I will meet more of them in my travels.

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