This story appears in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Approaching Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport from the east, the plane descends over the green fields of Wisconsin and the St. Croix River into Minnesota, just above the farm in Denmark Township where my mother spent happy summer days visiting her sister Margaret—snapshots of girls in white summer dresses standing, holding their bicycles, Grace and Elsie and Ina squinting in the bright 1934 sunlight—and passes south of downtown St. Paul and the gleam of steel rails that carried Dad in the mail car of the Empire Builder departing Union Depot for Seattle, a .38 snub-nosed revolver on his hip, and past the cathedral near where I now live on a street of old stone mausoleums and the hospital where I walked in one day and said, “I think I’m having a stroke” (and I was), and we bank over Mendota, where back in my drinking days I hung out in a club devoted to New Orleans jazz and heard the great Billie and DeDe Pierce, and Willie and Percy Humphrey, and we come in low over the Minnesota River and as the plane touches down on the runway, I can see the hill where I used to park in a car with a girl and watch planes land and also make out, back in the days of the front seat when two people could get involved with each other in thrilling ways. A one-minute flight into the past, and if we’d landed from the north, there’d be more.
There’s a newer north-south runway, and on that approach I don’t recognize a thing. It’s all road tangle and malls, small and large, and we descend below 5,000 feet, and still I can’t get my bearings—it could be the outskirts of Dallas or Tangier—and I start to feel I’ve lost my place in the world. I was born here. I’m 71 years old. I’ve lived most of my life here. I refuse to use a GPS here. And it is distressing to come home and not know where I am. But driving east from the airport, there is the Mississippi, and I am reoriented.
My grandma Dora Keillor was riding in my dad’s car one winter day in 1957 when the car spun out of control on an icy highway and did a doughnut or two and stopped, still on the road. Grandma didn’t cry out; she looked straight ahead out the windshield. “John,” she said, “which way is north?” I share that need for clarity. When a man has lived in one place so long, he takes comfort in landmarks. The State Theater, the Basilica of St. Mary, the Grain Belt beer sign on Hennepin. I will go out of my way to cruise by the white tower of the horticulture building at the state fairgrounds and the grandstand and the remains of the racetrack where auto thrill-show drivers raced late-model Fords off ramps and through flaming hoops and a woman in a spangly suit dived from a high tower into a water tank. When Northwestern National Bank was sold to a giant chain, whose brass decided to do away with the beloved Weatherball (“When the Weatherball is white, colder weather is in sight”), it was like a death in the family.
The geography of Minneapolis-St. Paul is simple: Two interlocking cities—the Great River with its rhythmic spelling M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i flowing in from the north, through Anoka and over St. Anthony Falls, past the glass towers of downtown Minneapolis crowded around the Foshay Tower, the brave little skyscraper of my childhood, and the university campus with its long leafy mall and stone columns with the inscription about men being ennobled by understanding, which we certainly hope will come true someday, and the very noble Franklin Avenue bridge, and Fort Snelling, where, starting in 1819, our predecessors brought whiskey and smallpox to the frontier and where, in 1861, the First Minnesota Volunteers mustered and later took horrible casualties at Gettysburg but held their ground. Where the Minnesota River joins it from the west, the Mississippi does a sideways S through St. Paul, its rail yards, University Avenue with its entrepreneurial churn of storefront start-ups, Asian restaurants, muffler shops, then it crosses town near the great dome of the capitol with the team of golden horses on the roof, and bends south toward Red Wing, Winona, Dubuque, down to Prof. Harold Hill and Huck Finn territory. The cities contain stately lakes—Como and Phalen in St. Paul; in Minneapolis, Nokomis, Hiawatha, Harriet, Calhoun, Cedar, and Lake of the Isles, pools of ease and elegance on the asphalt grid—and Lake Minnetonka, the prairie Riviera, off to the southwest.
This geography was imprinted in my brain back when I learned my alphabet from the avenues of Minneapolis (Aldrich, Bryant, Colfax, Dupont, Emerson, Fremont, Girard, Humboldt, Irving, James, Knox through Xerxes, York, and Zenith), which I might recite on my deathbed to prove I still have brain function. Superimposed over that geography, like a Jackson Pollock painted on a fishnet, is the geography of a man’s life, the griefs and pleasures of various streets, Washington Avenue along which I had to memorize a Bible verse every Sunday, Nicollet and the funeral home and the corpse in the coffin, street corners where I used to wait for a bus on those killer mornings in January and February, the landmarks of experience—Loring Park, where I liked to sit and smoke after a ten-hour day in the hotel scullery where I washed pots and pans after high school. At the end of a day in the steam of the dishwasher, a summer evening was blessedly cool, and the smoke was ecstatic. Girls strolled by in loose white blouses and skirts, and some stopped and asked for a light and leaned down, holding their hair back, and the lit match illuminated their faces like medieval saints. In that park I am still 18 and in a state of adoration, but driving east on Franklin I feel an ache in my gut passing the building where I helped clean the small dim apartment of my former wife after she died, her souvenirs scattered around, the loneliness of the furniture, the unspeakable sadness of the cupboards full of health food. I drove to the river and sat by the bridge and wept 30 years’ worth of tears.
My Minneapolis is the south side: Blocks of stucco bungalows under majestic archways of elms, small well-kept yards, the birdbath, gazing globe, coiled green rubber hose, grape arbor, steel barrel incinerator, and skinny frame garage on the alley where my mother grew up around 38th Street with her 12 siblings, most of whom settled in the neighborhood. And if I walk those blocks today, I feel the old claustrophobia of Sunday afternoon after dinner, the smell of wax and polish, the figurines on the walnut highboy, the good china in glass cabinets, Grandpa and Grandma on the sofa, nibbling on butterscotch caramel candy, George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” We attended church at the Grace & Truth Gospel Hall on 14th Avenue South, where a preacher clutched his suspenders and spoke glowingly of Eternity, and I grew up one of the Brethren, the Chosen to whom God had vouchsafed the Knowledge of All Things that was denied to the great and mighty. The Second Coming was imminent, we would rise to the sky. We walked around Minneapolis carefully, wary of television, dance music, tobacco, baubles, bangles, flashy cars, liquor, the theater, the modern novel—all of them tempting us away from the singular life that Jesus commanded us to lead.
In 1947 Dad got a GI loan and built us a little white house north of the city on an acre of cornfield in Brooklyn Township, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi, so he could have a garden, farm boy that he was. He loved fresh vegetables, sweet corn and tomatoes and strawberries. A half-acre garden was a lot of work, but he had six kids, and he felt that work was a privilege, and he wanted us to grow up privileged. It was a boy’s paradise. We played at Victory Field, an abandoned grass airstrip used for pilot training during WWII, a big hangar with skeletal remains of old Piper Cubs. We made our own ball field in a vacant lot with a chicken-wire backstop and shot baskets in January, sliding around on frozen gravel driveways wearing cotton gloves with the fingertips cut off. Beyond the backyard gardens lay a twisting ravine, site of Civil War and Three Musketeers reenactments (Sacre bleu, mon Dieu, unhand that rapier!), that led to a stretch of sandy riverbank under the cottonwoods. Grown-ups seldom ventured there. We got to swim naked and skate on the river ice, but we were only five miles from the big city, which after the war was still a streetcar city—at the end of the line, the city stopped short; the cornfields began. From the 31st-floor observation deck of the Foshay Tower downtown, you saw farmland and silos to the north and west.
When I was 12, I rode my bike alone into the city, past the lumber mills, foundries, machine shops, barrel factory, and printing plants, along Washington Avenue and past a meatpacking plant where bare-chested men wrestled whole beef carcasses hung on hooks on little overhead trolleys along a rail and into the waiting trucks. I pedaled up Hennepin Avenue, past dirty-book stores, penny arcades, walk-up hotels, men slumped in doorways, to the magnificent old public library on Tenth across from White Castle, home of the ten-cent hamburger (“Buy ’em by the Sack”), and climbed up to the reading room, skipping the swimming lesson at the Y Mother had paid for so I’d learn to swim after cousin Roger drowned in Lake Minnetonka; but the Y conducted swim class in the nude and I was shy, so I went to the library instead and met the book that changed my life—transformed, enriched, diversified, turned it topsy-turvy too—Roget’s International Thesaurus, supplier of idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, and phraseology that transformed me from nerd and nobody to visionary, sporting man, roughneck, bon vivant, and raconteur.
Growing up among the Brethren, a boy was ever aware of worldly temptation, and from that comes a keener perception of the world. A school field trip to the Milwaukee depot where the Hiawatha stood throbbing, waiting to depart for Chicago, steam hissing from the locomotive, the luxurious club car blue with cigar smoke from slick gents in three-piece suits—for the Brethren boy, an electric vision of worldly success and glamour. When I was 14, I got a tour of the art deco headquarters of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Upstairs, pencil-neck geeks tapping out copy and down below, the giant presses roaring, miles of newsprint flying out, chopped and folded into the evening Star, bundles of papers conveyed onto trucks and rushed to the readers, and the thought rang like a bell: I could be one of those guys upstairs. There were the neon lights of Hennepin Avenue and the promise of naked girls at the Alvin Theater, which our family passed on Sunday morning on our way to church, but that was lost on me, a geek with glasses, pressed pants, plaid shirt, a boy for whom dating girls was like exploring the Amazon—interesting idea, but how to get there? Writing for print, on the other hand—why not? And then came the beautiful connection: You write for print, it impresses girls, they might want to go on dates with you.
A boy named Frankie Renko drowned in the river one spring at the sandy bank where we boys hung out. I was eating supper when the fire truck went by, and I wanted to go see, but Mother said, “There’s no point in a bunch of rubberneckers standing around gawking.” She said it was unseemly to look upon the sufferings of others if you were powerless to help. Years later, a photographer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked on the copydesk, writing obits, showed me his collection of pictures of dead people, drowned or shot or crushed in cars, but I did not look at them long. (I wanted to, but I didn’t want him to think I was the sort of person who did.)
For days after Frankie drowned, I visited the death scene, trying to imagine what had happened. He was paddling a boat near the shore, and it capsized, and he drowned. I imagined this over and over, imagined myself saving him, imagined the vast gratitude of his family. I don’t recall discussing this with other boys. We were more interested in what lay ahead in seventh grade, where (we had heard) you had to take showers after gym. Naked. With no clothes on. Which turned out to be true. Junior high was up the West River Road in Anoka, the town where I was born, 1942, in a house on Ferry Street, delivered by Dr. Mork. That fall of seventh grade, he listened to my heart and heard a click in the mitral valve, which meant I couldn’t play football, so I walked into the Anoka Herald and asked for a job covering football and basketball, and a man named Warren Feist said yes and made me a professional writer. Ask and ye shall receive.
After seventh grade I was suddenly too old for the ravine and the riverbank. The next summer I worked on nearby truck farms, hoeing corn, picking potatoes. Other boys inherited the riverbank. I worked. At 18 I proceeded directly downriver to the University of Minnesota and the smoke-filled classrooms of Folwell Hall and football Saturdays and the blare of the glorious “Rouser” and old alums in their 40s lumbering lead-footed toward Memorial Stadium. I had literary ambitions—so did others—and we found each other and coalesced. We wrote dense jagged unreadable poems and exulted in obscurity, boys with long hair and girls with jiggly breasts under their aboriginal blouses, everyone skinny as snakes. I spent six years sorting through various personas (Boy Scholar, Embittered Poet, Dangerous Radical, Wry Humorist) and wound up with the one that paid a salary: Friendly Announcer. I did all of this a couple miles from the Brethren, which made for interesting collisions. Standing outside the 400 Bar, smoking a Pall Mall, and a car honks, and it’s Aunt Jean and Uncle Les. Drop the smoke, walk to the car, say hi, smile, try not to exhale. And now devout Muslims from Somalia live in the old Brethren neighborhood; robed women and somber elders watch teenage Somali girls go by in short shorts and daring tank tops and product in their hair. Same play, new actors.
From the U, I traipsed down the long winding trail of adulthood, walk-up apartments, dingy offices, cheap cafés, public library, softball diamonds, beer joints, and Grand Avenue, the street I drove down to work at 4 a.m. to do the morning shift on KSJN in a basement studio on Wabasha and then a storefront on Sixth Street, the house where I lived next to Luther Seminary and the backyard parties with musicians that inspired A Prairie Home Companion at Macalester College, the dramatic leap to home ownership on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, where I’ve lived most of the last 20 years, where you drive up from I-94 past Masqueray’s magnificent cathedral, whose great dome and towers and arches give you a momentary illusion of Europe, and up Summit and the mansions of 19th-century grandees and pooh-bahs in a ward that votes about 85 percent Democratic today.
You look out your kitchen window at a street from McKinley’s America, and then three slender young women go running by, ponytails bouncing, wires coming out of their ears. In all, I count 26 places I’ve lived in the Twin Cities, about half on the west side of the river, half on the east, all within a few miles of downtown: A restless fugitive for 50 years, mostly within Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, now in a neighborhood where Mother, at 17, sold peanut butter cookies door-to-door during the Depression on a ridge above the river I loved as a boy. The Empire Builder rolls by a few blocks below me, my dad sorting mail, while my teenage mother comes to the door with bags of cookies, and my brother Phil and I paddle the wooden canoe we longed to own, and I am variously 12 and 43 and 71 years old: It’s all conflated in my mind, like layers of a medieval town.
The Old Resident mourns for the Old City, though he understands that his classmates and cousins had babies and the metro area has more than twice as many people as in his 1950s childhood and everyone wanted to raise their kids in rambling houses with big leafy yards like the one he grew up in, not dinky apartments, and so the cornfields were given over to settlements of ramblers on curvy streets with romantic names like Yosemite Avenue, Emerald Trail, Everest Path, and Evening Star Way, and the earthmovers gouged out the interstates, the east-west 94, the north-south 35, and the downtowns dwindled and urban renewal wiped out whole blocks of Victorian stone edifices, old picture palaces, department stores. And the planners created an infernal system of skyways—glass bridges connecting buildings at the second story—in effect turning buildings inside out, wiping out streets of little shops and show windows and the hopeful proprietors in favor of implacable corporations with brutal blank exteriors (he mourns this but learns not to see it). Instead, look up at the First National Bank building in St. Paul, the enormous “1st” on the roof outlined in flashing red neon—as a child, I thought it designated St. Paul as the number one city in America, a dazzling discovery for a boy who was brought up modest. Pride goeth before a fall, so deprecate yourself before others do the job for you. On the fourth-grade class trip to the capitol, we all stood on the roof of the bank, and I explained the significance of the “1” as a yellow streetcar rolled past a grassy square with a fountain in the middle, old men lounging on park benches, smoking, looking into the distance. I wondered then what they were thinking, and now I am old enough to know.
When a man has lived in one place for most of his life, he walks around hip-deep in history. He sees that life is not so brief; it is vast and contains multitudes. I drive down Seventh Street to a Twins game and pass the old Dayton’s department store (Macy’s now but still Dayton’s to me), where in my poverty days I shoplifted an unabridged dictionary the size of a suitcase, and 50 years later I still feel the terror of walking out the door with it under my jacket, and I imagine the cops arresting my 20-year-old self and what 30 days in the slammer might’ve done for me. From my seat above first base, I see the meatpacking plant where those men wrestled beef carcasses into trucks and the old Munsingwear factory with the low rumble and whine of machines, and I remember an intense dread of spending one’s days at a power loom making men’s underwear. The building is today an enormous emporium of interior design showrooms, the place to go if you feel the urge to spend a hundred grand on a new bathroom, but to me it’s still the coal mine I was afraid I’d spend my life in. I think about this along about the eighth inning if the Twins are down by a few runs.
When we graduated from Anoka High, my classmate Corinne Guntzel drove her dad’s white Cadillac Eldorado convertible with rocket tail fins at high speed down the West River Road and into the city on a street just beyond right center field, and I stood in the front seat and sang, “That’ll be the day, when you say goodbye / oh, that’ll be the day, when you make me cry,” and now she and her parents, Hilmar and Helen, lie in Crystal Lake Cemetery on the north side beyond left field, my stalwart friends and supporters, in the ground; thoughts of them click into place whenever I pass the Dowling Avenue exit on 94. She was a suicide 28 years ago, drowned with rocks in her pockets, and I still love her and am not over her death, nor do I expect ever to be. If I drove by the cemetery with a visitor, I wouldn’t say a word about this. Too much. Too painful. Her at the wheel, the summer wind in my face, the lights of Minneapolis passing, sweet love in the air. I would give the world to go back to that night and hold her in my arms.
I drive my little girl to school, a lovely ritual, and the route takes me through my Dangerous Radical years and past the place where my virginity went up in flames at age 22—the house replaced by an on-ramp to I-35W, the house that itself was an on-ramp to me—and past a steep slope below Ridgewood Avenue and the house where Mary and I decided not to be married anymore, only to find out that she was pregnant, so we decided not to not be married. A bell tolls as I pass. My daughter says, “Tell me a story,” so I tell her about riding the school bus in seventh grade, my gravel road the last stop, the bus packed with smelly children bundled in heavy mackinaws, no empty seats, nobody moving over, the whiskey-soaked bus driver yelling at me to sit down, dammit, which is maybe why I have such a poor self-image even today and flinch when people look at me and which naturally drove me into radio broadcasting instead of something more distinguished.
She says, “Tell me a funny story”—my daughter who never had to fight for a seat. I say, “So ... there were these two penguins standing on an ice floe,” and she says, “Tell the truth,” so I say, “I like your ponytail. You know, years ago I wore my hair in a ponytail. Not a big ponytail. A little one. I had a beard too.” And she looks at me. “A ponytail? Are you joking?” No, I did. It was only for a year or two, around 1972. And she realizes I am telling the truth. And she laughs and laughs. My father never drove me to school. It was unheard of back then, so he never got to know me that well, just as he never wore his hair in a ponytail. Back in his day men who wore their hair in a ponytail were given electroshock therapy, which made them forget what day of the week it was. Today is Monday, and I am driving my daughter past Lake Calhoun, where, back in the ponytail era, I went skinny-dipping with a woman who now is a distinguished surgeon in town. If I ran into her today, I doubt that I’d mention it, and yet whenever I drive this way, memory gives me a glimpse of her excellent bare back and buttocks.
The great American myth is the hero who leaves home to remake himself in another place: James Gatz leaves North Dakota to become Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island; Robert Jordan leaves his teaching job in Montana to fight in the Spanish Civil War; Huck Finn took a raft, Dorothy flew off in a tornado, Sister Carrie rode the train, Jack Kerouac hitched rides—and so forth—but in my experience the Cities have been quite roomy enough for a restless, impulsive person to live his life. I never felt stranded here. Sometimes I felt the pull of the roads going west, Highway 7 out of Excelsior and Clara City toward South Dakota, and Highway 212 through Chaska and Granite Falls, and Highway 12 through Litchfield and Willmar and Benson and Ortonville. And now and then, just for a taste of freedom, I’d drive out west late at night through the little towns and stop around 2 or 3 a.m. at a crossroad and get out of the car and walk around in the dark for a while and then head back to do my 6 a.m. radio shift.
After the university I spent part of a summer in New York City, thinking that a young writer ought to be there, but squalor did not appeal to me. I met an artist who painted by night and drove a cab by day, was hooked on marijuana and LSD, and lived in a tiny fourth floor walk-up with a wife and two little daughters. I decided that Minnesota was a better place to be poor. You can go to your mother’s for a huge supper, and even if she doesn’t approve of your life, she’ll send you home with a big bag of vegetables from her garden. Also it was a better place to be original—behind the scrim of Midwesternness, the myth of the placid, backward hinterland—than in ferocious Manhattan.
When my mother was nearing the end of her 97 years, what was most vivid to her was her youth. She said, “There is so much I’d still like to know, and there’s nobody left to ask.” So she ventured into the shadows to commune with her dead, which was a comfort to her. Nobody was alive who knew her in girlhood, so memory became reality. Some call it dementia, I call it imagination. At 71 I sometimes forget last week, but I clearly remember the big house on Dupont Avenue North where Corinne lived one summer when we were 19, and I blew smoke on her African violets to kill aphids. She and I had this idea to form a commune of writers all working away in their rooms, doors open, and when we wrote something good, we could walk into someone’s room and tell them about it. A sort of long-term sleepover. It was a perfect idea, and we didn’t bother with details such as Who and Where and How much, and because it never became a reality, it never came crashing down. It still exists in my mind. If I reach 97, I may finally go live there.
My mother died in the front bedroom of the house Dad built in the cornfield after the war. He died in that room too, 11 years before her. It had been my bedroom. I used to sit on the bed and smoke, gazing at the red blinking light on a distant water tower, and imagine living in New York. My parents were very clear that they wished to die in their old house and not in a hospital. They wanted family to be with them at the end, holding their hands and singing, “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,” and “Then we shall be where we would be, Then we shall be what we should be,” as they passed to their heavenly home. The bedroom looks out on the driveway where Dad’s Ford station wagon used to be parked, ready to leave early the next morning to drive to Idaho to visit relatives. My mother stayed up late, washing, ironing, packing and repacking, in an ecstasy of anxiety. My father changed the oil, checked tire pressures, adjusted the timing. At sunrise, we were washed and combed, ready to go, and stood on the front lawn, watching him pack the car. They made a good team. He was laconic and undaunted, she was prone to excitation. We headed west on Highway 12, the rising sun to our backs, as she deliberated the perpetual question: Had she turned the oven off? And decided she had—and out onto the open prairie we went, with me sitting behind Mother narrating the trip from the old Federal Writers’ state guide. Now they’re buried in a little country cemetery full of aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and someday, I presume, cousins and siblings.
“So how was it to grow up there then?” they say. “Oh, you know. It could’ve been worse,” I reply. We are not braggarts and blowhards back where I come from. But if you want to know the truth, I feel understood there. I sit down to lunch with Bill and Bob or my sister and brother whom I’ve known almost forever, and it’s a conversation you can’t have with people you met yesterday. You can flash back to 1954 and the island in the river where we used to mess around, or the front office you shared with Warren Feist that looked across the street to the Anoka Dairy, or the toboggan slope behind Corinne’s house, no footnote necessary, and they are right there with you. I come home and feel so well understood. I almost don’t have to say a word. I was not a good person. I have yelled at my children. I neglected my parents and was disloyal to loved ones. I have offended righteous people. People around here know all this about me, and yet they still smile and say hello, and so every day I feel forgiven. Ask me if it’s a good place to live, and I don’t know—that’s real estate talk—but forgiveness and understanding, that’s a beautiful combination.