Thursday, June 17, 2004

Desperately Seeking Minneapolis, Pt. I.

Last week I descended upon lake-filled Minneapolis, home of wacky web jester James Lileks. I requested to go to a usability conference in the “City of Lakes” partially due to an urban study I’d seen on I was fortunate enough to have my piton well embedded in the peaks of the departmental budget, so I received approval to attend the annual broodings of the "Usability Professional’s Association".

I must say I was a bit disappointed my first night in the city when I found myself on Nicollet Island, in the middle of the Mississippi River, as a rainstorm broke loose. (I had wandered there from my City Center hotel at recommendations of the concierge.) Perhaps the island was a bit more inviting on sunny days, but now I was stranded in no-man’s land except for the blockish Nicollet Island Inn, which didn’t seem the sort of place a wet drowned-rat person should slog into. Nor did the island park seem to offer refuge from the tempest, so I ran across the bridge to the St. Paul riverside. Sophia’s cafĂ© welcomed me with canopied outdoor dining; I delighted over crispy-skinned duck as the storm drenched fellow passers-by. I hoped that my clueless tour of the city would continue to have such happy endings.

I’ve made an effort to get out in the cities I visit on business, despite my reluctant nature. I am a tremendously shy person cloaked in an introvert’s disguise. I’m capable of witty and interesting banter, yet I’m often uncomfortable socializing with strangers. I tend to find the conversation trite and strained--how often can you discuss your hometown’s weather or that of your conversation mate’s? “Oh, it’s very cold in Denver in the winter, huh? I can imagine! Brrr...”

My conference strategy entails avoiding the evening mixers and getting out and about to see the sights. Rather than hiding behind a book at a restaurant corner table, I sightsee and try to chat amicably with those I encounter. I’ve been richly rewarded for this self-abuse; my attempts to overcome shyness have left me with a treasure chest of memories. I’ve frolicked with nuns, I’ve gotten bear hugs from the gnarliest of homeless persons, and I have experienced breathtaking views from many a vantage point.

And so I found myself at the end of the second conference day, pondering my evening agenda. I logged onto to see what gems of the city might await. Between J.L’s nostalgic review of the Chain Lakes and the second chance I gave the concierge, I decided to hail a cab and head for Lake Calhoun.

I was on a quest to find somewhere quiet, beautiful and serene amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. From Maritime Museum Beach in San Francisco to San Callixto in Rome, I’ve found spots where one can sit, observe, and think, “This is what you folks love about your city. I understand, and I love it too.” When the cabbie dropped me off at windy, nondescript West Lake Park, I knew that I hadn’t found my happy place yet. I spied the yacht club and beach far to the right side of the lake (far, far, FAR across the lake), and started walking briskly just to get my body heat up a degree or two.

As I walked, I thought about how often I get myself into this kind of situation. By forcing myself out in public to combat shyness, I’ve ended up walking a million miles because I haven’t planned the outing very well. The worst was the time I sought the wild parrots of San Francisco; I ended up lost and exhausted in a labyrinth of stairways near Coit Tower as the sun went down. (I never did find the little buggers.) This time, I was desperately trying to find the quaint side of Minneapolis, but I was destined for an earache due to the squalls on the lake, or being flattened by the frenetic joggers who were trying to make up for a long, harsh winter.

And then I found it; “the spot.” A lone little wooden bench on a pier provided rest and a view of the many white sailboats whipping across the water. The sun came out and the wind died down. I was meant to sit here, and take it all in. Here is where I would find “what Minneapolis was all about.” I sat down, breathed deeply, and became mesmerized by the beautiful dance of windsurfers and yachtsmen.

Then I heard footsteps, a pause, and a “thud” on the bench to my right. Peripheral vision alerted me that the man was looking in my direction every minute or two. My view of the lake became targeted, focused. I didn’t want to turn my head in any way that would give him an opportunity to make eye contact with me. It’s a protective device I’ve developed as someone who likes to wander alone, and it works fairly well. The minute you make eye contact with someone, the sooner you will be approached for money, or perhaps for “help”--a million ruses exist to take advantage of a woman on her own in public.

I continued to scan the horizon mechanically, making a point to consult my watch at one point to give the impression of “Boy, my Big Strong Husband sure is late! I will be angry with my Big Strong Husband when he gets here...”

Then came the whoosh of a lit match, and the whiff of burned paper and tobacco sweepings. Great. My outdoor sojourn is being enhanced by a Marlboro moment. I was sensitive to the fact that an immediate departure would indicate my distaste for the smoke, and I was not in the mood to fuel a potentially threatening person’s anger. So I sat a few minutes longer, consulted my watch, then sighed and stood up. I walked away as if a no-show interrupted my bliss, rather than cancer sticks. I took a quick glance at my dockmate and noted that he looked slightly scruffy, but not particularly aggressive.

I strode a confident pace towards the marina when I detected heavy plodding steps behind me. He was following me! My heart pounded out of my mouth and dribbled on my lips until the jogger overtook me and loped past. I was ashamed to have labeled my bench-sitting neighbor as a potential mugger.

I dug deeper and eventually came to the conclusion that I wasn’t on the defensive because he was a man, but simply because he’d dirtied the pretty picture I’d unveiled on that bench by the lake. I acknowledged that my adventure was not over; I’d have to search elsewhere. I took stock of my surroundings, took a deep breath, and continued on my quest.

Part II; I find my happy place.

*Nota Bene:
Up until this post, I've excluded hyperlinks to external sites. Just this once, it's okay to be joyously distracted by the musings of James Lileks. :)