A Farewell Tour to 25 years in St. Paul, part 1.
#1 Cleveland Avenue, circa 1993-94ish: The start of my love affair with St. Paul—this 3-level townhouse in Highland Park, across the street from the Ford Plant (which is no longer) and Little League fields (which still are). I’d moved into this place by way of Mankato to Winona to St. Paul (Winona? Yes, Winona, where I’d gone to nursing school for a year, after 4 years at MSU), with my sister, Jill, and Bob. Yes, my sister, my boyfriend and me, living under the same roof, like a slapstick sitcom, a melodramatic soap opera; some days, definitely both and more.
Bob had recently begun work as a wine consultant with a local wine and spirits retailer (which is how I learned to describe red wines not as “bitter!” with a scowl, but as “dry, but full bodied with a glint of raspberry and a dash of pepper” ). I started beauty school while living here, I hacked my hair short while living here, I got really into crafts while living here (everyone got puffy-painted sweatshirts, or hot-glue-gunned dried flowery/ribbony/lacy things from me for Christmas that year), my sister and I still smoked like chimneys while living here, we collected Marlboro Miles by the grocery bags-full while living here—remember that Jill? I think we smoked enough to get a zero-degree sleeping bag, a weather-proof lighter, and probably latent-cases of emphysema.
#2 Ashland Avenue, circa 1995-96: tiny 1 br, near St. Thomas University. It took me a while to find this place to snap a photo the other day, there are many similar apartment buildings in this neighborhood. As soon as I saw the window boxes, I knew this was the one; instead of flowers, Bob fed birds from feeders he’d planted in the window boxes, which attracted more squirrels than birds, which caused our landlord to ask Bob to please remove the feeders or the squirrels will stage a hostile takeover of the place. We were married while living in this classic brick building, I was still in beauty school and had converted our tiny dining room into a “salon,” where many haircuts and spiral perms and cap-highlights happened.
#3 Grandview Avenue, circa 1996-97: Hillsboro Apartments in Roseville. A gargantuan, unsightly building off Rice Street and Hwy 36 (I think everyone who moves to the Twin Cities makes a pit-stop at one of endless nondescript mega complexes in this area); it reminded me of the Pentagon, except more like a Polygon, with many odd-angled sides, a courtyard in the middle, two swimming pools—one indoor, one out. The outdoor pool I never used, the indoor one I used almost daily until my skin turned to raw hamburger and my hair to shredded wheat, and I swore off chlorinated pools for the rest of my life. I’d finished beauty school and was working my 1st salon gig where I suffered my first and only case of salon-induced hair disasters—I got tired of my high-maintenance pixie-short hair (every two-weeks haircut? C’mON. But had to be done, lest I tread into Ronald McDonald clown-wig territory), so I began growing it out. Being the impatient person I am, but now a trained professional with caustic chemicals at my disposal, I decided to straighten my hair (with said chemicals, in the hopes it would appear longer), successfully swapping The Ronald for The Scarecrow, which was also when The Rachel (from Friends) was at its pinnacle, which was what I was going for, but was not what I ended up with. The obvious solution was to put my curls back, right?
One night, alone in our Hillsoboro apartment, I broke out my beauty-school-issued perm rods and permed my straw-straight hair, and wound up with something that looked like my grandma would have requested from her small-town beauty parlor—The Classic, Sensible Wash ‘n’ Wear poodle ‘do. I wore a lot of hats and scarves for a good year after that. This was also the apartment building where I walked in on the paper delivery guy in the laundry room early one morning, who was attempting to steal all my undies that I’d left in the dryer overnight. We frightened each other equally when I walked in on him—he dropped my drawers, blew past me, I reported the incident to the management office, inadvertently solving the Case of the Missing Underwear that had plagued the complex for months.
#4 Chatsworth Avenue, circa 1997-2004ish: our first real house, a little story and a half 1940s Sears and Robuck bungalow in Roseville. The Center of the Universe, I always called the inner-ring suburb. We closed on this house on my 30th birthday, November 24th, swear to God, literally the day before the housing market took off like wildfire. Our budget was $100,000; this house was $105,000. I was sick to my stomach over that excessive $5000. As we sat signing document after document after document, my brain grew more numb and my eyes more glassy with every passing minute, I remember thinking, “I don’t think I could do anything more grown up on my 30th birthday than this.” My in-laws wanted to take us out for celebratory drinks, I just wanted to go home and collapse into bed. I loved everything about this house—the size, the yard (it was huge, for a home in the city), the neighborhood, expansive city parks, the fact that you could get to damned near anywhere in the cities in about 20 minutes.
We got our first dog, Gaia, while living here. I grew my hair back out while living here, we got our second dog, Liddy, while here, I learned to use power tools while living here, when my dad gave me a tool belt and power drill and saw for Christmas. I was diagnosed with epilepsy here, I started my salon while living here, we had our first annual Wine and Cheese Soiree here, where we packed the tiny house with bodies, booze, good food and music, turning the event into a successful little fundraiser for the shelter where we’d adopted Liddy. While living here, a client once told me, “I think you are the most self-actualized person I know,” and I was stunned by her words, but held onto them tight. For a long while, I truly believed them, because here, in this house, while my life wasn’t perfect, it felt full, alive, well-lived. Seven or eight years later, we sold the house for something like $230,000 and moved to the country.
#5 Oldridge Avenue, West Lakeland circa 2004-2013: Michele Bachmann land. “Lowest taxes in the metro!” everyone who lived out here boasted. As beautiful and serene a setting as this house sat in—two and a half wild acres near the Wisconsin border, like a petting zoo outside our windows, deer, pileated woodpeckers, a chorus of songbirds, gangs of wild turkey, a little red fox hung out in the depths of our back yard—almost as soon as we moved here, I wanted to bolt back to the city. We’d sit out on our deck on hot summer nights, beers sweating in our hands. Whenever a car would roll by, we’d turn our heads, eyeball the occupants with suspicion, were they were from around here? “Good God, can we please move back to St Paul? I’m becoming more racist by the day,” I’d plead to Bob. “But we just got here,” he’d say back. He loved the little sanctuary in the woods, his private escape after a long day at work. He’d head out to the backyard “to do chores” he’d call it, filling bird feeders, hacking errant buckthorn, snapping photos of the little red fox that would sometimes spy on him. He christened our property Wrenwood, a nod to his favorite wildlife photographer, Jim Brandenberg, who had a property in northern Minnesota called Ravenwood, I think it was.
As much as Bob loved it out at Wrenwood, an acute aloneness settled into my cells that I couldn’t shake, that now, looking back, feels like a harbinger of things to come. We lived on a dead-end road where neighbors kept to themselves and none of our friends came to visit us unless we bribed them with more wine parties (which were a complete blast, I have to admit—we bought the house as much for its spectacular outdoor space as anything—the decks seemed to double the square footage, at least in the summer months. Maybe if the wine parties had happened more often, it would have helped stave off the unspeakable sense of abandon that had seeped into my cells). That’s not to say wonderful things didn’t happen here. That’s not to say I was unhappy all the time here. They did, and I wasn’t, mostly, but when I look at this photo, I get knots in my stomach. The wonderful things that did happen are nearly smoked out by so much sadness and heartache trapped within the the walls this house. It was here, that Bob had his first heart attack, then cancer diagnosis, then second and third heart attacks, then the GI bleed, and then, and then, and then…
I spent so much time out here alone, while he was battered by cancer and treatments at the U of M. It was here, that “day drinking” and “drinking alone” started to materialize in my life; up to that point, it had never occurred to me to drink by myself. Ever. Not even in college, when you’d think the occurrence would have happened more than any time, like what had happened to an old roommate of mine. Not that it happened on the daily, not that I was guzzling legendary amounts of booze (this drinking thing is a vast continuum, not black and white, cut and dried, I’m learning), not that I even thought much about it at the time, not that it would make a good “quit lit” book. It was quite unremarkable in the grand scheme of such things. But still. It was here, in this little cottage in the woods, surrounded by birds and deer and lush trees, that the line between drinking for fun and drinking to numb began to blur. It was here that I learned, inadvertently, that alcohol is indeed a highly effective anesthetic.
Bob was in the wine biz. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he had to quit working, he had gotten so sick. The two winters he was sick were brutal (in Dec. 2010, the Metrodome roof caved); often the weather prevented me from getting to the U to be with Bob. His colleagues would send cases of wine and beer and other spirits to our house. Whether or not they realized Bob couldn’t drink, as ill as he was, didn’t matter, they kept sending it. My joke became, “I’m drinking for two, since Bob can’t,” and everyone thought it was wry and appropriate and well-deserved, and they’d often join me, because what the hell else can a person do when nothing in the world can be done to stop the inevitable, when nothing in the world could have prepared me for this new role as full-time hand-wringing-caregiving/advocate/wolverine-hospital bodyguard.
It was here, at Wrenwood, that Bob died, on May 3, 2011. It was here, where my self-actualized life dissolved. It was here, that my writing began to take root, and for a long time, it might have been the only thing keeping me alive, but at the time, I wouldn’t have said it like that. At the time, it felt like I was drowning, choking on words thick as sludge. It’s taken nearly a decade to begin the recovery from the affliction of being so alone, a sobering, heavy, hopeful thought.