Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How Bad Must It Be Elsewhere?

I've encountered a couple interesting people lately. They're foreign immigrants who work in our city. Minneapolis has large immigrant populations of Somali, Hmong, Indian, Mexican people and many others. You see them everywhere, but I don't hear a lot of stories from my friends and acquaintances about interacting with them unless one happens to work with another. I had some limited contact with Indian citizens during my time at Target, and for that it was valuable, but outside of that my interaction is fairly insular.

I was at Stella's Fish Cafe in Uptown, drinking with friends, when I had to heed nature's call. One of my friends said there would be a man in there who would want to talk, and I had no idea what this meant. It turned out that there's a gentleman who's workspace is the bathroom: he spritzes your hands with soap, offers you a towel when you're done washing, and has a variety of grooming items for sale. I've seen setups like this in TV shows that happen in large cities, but nothing like this in Minneapolis. Having drunk enough to be curious, I ended up talking to him--he would have been easy enough to ignore, which is what most of the patrons seem to do to him. Myself, I wouldn't work in a bathroom like this unless I were a sociologist composing a dissertation.

I didn't learn the man's name but he's from Gambia (or "The Gambia" as my online research taught me), which is a long noodle of a country just under twice the size of Delaware, and it's almost entirely surrounded (except for some miles of beach) by Senegal, on the north-western coast of Africa. His accent was quite thick and I didn't pick up everything but he told me about his travels, getting a sailor's license in Greece, working in New York, and living in a tiny attic in Dinkytown where he paid $50/month for a patch of floor to hold his mattress while earning $6/hour in a custodial position at a local hotel. He had no utilities and saved money by borrowing his friend's phone whenever he needed to make a call. He also wished to iterate how well one could eat if one bought one's own groceries and knew how to cook. Through a series of job upgrades he earned enough money to bring his family over and now his two daughters are going to college, while also working jobs similar to his. I admired his unrelenting diligence but felt ashamed of the kind of work this intelligent and worldly man had to accept.

As of working in a new area of town, I've been checking out new restaurants and stores and such. I think I've mentioned here how I love the pizza at Downtown Diner, which is listed as "Midnight Pizza" on its credit card receipts. It's a tiny little restaurant at the end of the LRT route, sandwiched between a tobacconist and a strip club. This place stays open late, when the bars are running and when they close, so the owner gets to see Minneapolitans at their most charming. The owner is a terse man, and when rarely he speaks his accent is also thick. But I've gotten to know him and he smiles when I come in and we chat.

I've learned he's from Egypt. I asked him how his weekend was and he reported he's been unable to think about anything but his family: usually he sees them every three months but he hasn't been able to afford (either in money or in time away from his business, I'm unclear) to visit them for 14 months. He described how much he misses his mother and his wife. To myself, I wondered what business was like for him: was he taking a hit in the economy, or is he unable to hire and train someone to watch the restaurant for him while he goes away? I thought about how hard it would be for me to strike out in another country, leaving everyone in my family behind, including the woman I've married, and plugging away at an unsatisfying job where I'm routinely disrespected and occasionally threatened by the customers. I wondered what kind of living conditions would have to be present in my own nation to make this option seem like a better idea.

I want to talk more to these people and others who've come to our country as well as to this bitter cold, unfriendly state of Minnesota. Even for someone fluent in English: Rebecca told me about a nicely dressed Caucasian male, carrying a large, unwieldy parcel, trying to flag the attention of other white folk, Minnesotans all, who were determined to ignore him. Rebecca finally talked to him and he only needed directions. He was from out of town and trying to find a downtown business, but he was amazed at how unwilling anyone was to talk to him and offer any assistance. He had been struggling with his package and trying to ask for help for twenty minutes while the hard-working, beautiful men and women of Minneapolis abjectly ignored him.

It's a low state of evolution that believes in "Minnesota Nice."
It's a heightened state that interprets this term as ironic and laughs about it.
It's an even higher state of consciousness that has perceived how badly wrong, how darkly, coldly erroneous the concept of "Minnesota Nice" extends.

1 comment:

BATTLEFINCH said...

the "Seattle Freeze": http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/pacificnw/2005/0213/cover.html