Tag Archives: Mississippi River

Book Hunting on Skid Row

12 February 2019

On Skid Row, patrons might enter a bookstore for any number of non-literary reasons

As a child, I was a voracious reader. It took me years to stop reading every single billboard, every single street sign, every scrap of printed paper I came across. I burned through my school library, my town library, and the handful of Chip Hilton and Hardy Boys books stocked by our local five-and-dime and liberated by me without need for any pesky cash register transactions.

Given the parlous state of our family finances, this might well have been the limit of my acquisitions. But there was one further source of literary access: the used bookstore run by the Salvation Army down on Skid Row, which was confined (unsuccessfully) to the middle of the Mississippi River, on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. All the stores on the Row featured used goods, except for the bars, and even there one could hardly be certain of the provenance of any given tipple.

The Salvation Army bookstore was a musty, dark place, with never-dusted shelves and a cantankerous proprietor who dozed behind a small desk. From time to time he would blink awake with a snort, glare around him as if to blame whomever else might be in the shop, and then resettle himself back in his dreaming-chair, until such time as the making of change might be required.

Frankly, any used bookstore draws me in like a moth to the flame.









There were rarely other patrons in the store, but when there were they tended to be freight riders or bindle stiffs who had wandered in out of the weather, looking for a place to sleep, or piss. Sometimes both objects were achieved along the darker back aisles. Once my search for oversized picture books about knights and castles drew me along the far shelves near the cloth-hung doorway that led to the back storeroom, where my wanderings ended abruptly when I came upon a grizzled figure in a torn army greatcoat who had managed to fall asleep upright, propped on an overflow shelf of paperback romances. From the smells coming off him I could deduce that he had both imbibed a large quantity of liquor and successfully relieved himself in his pants.

I never revisited that particular back aisle—but then I never told anybody about the incident either. I knew it was all too likely that our bookstore expeditions would end, and that would be a catastrophe I could never endorse.

The first few times we went there—a gaggle of mop-haired word-hungry siblings ranging from babes in arms to my eleven years—we were escorted by Grandmom, a former school teacher from the West Virginia hills who took back talk from nobody. Ever since Granddad had retired, he and Grandmom spent half the year traveling North America in their pop-up van, Itchyfoot. (This was in the early sixties, well before a younger generation began filling the roads with live-in vans.) Each summer they’d pull into our driveway and I’d dash out to inspect the latest additions to their rolling home. We always got two shopping trips out of their visits. One was to buy shoes for each of us five children. The other was a journey to that fabled Sally Army store, where we were each allowed to select as many books as we could carry. (Since they cost 5¢ apiece, Grandmom knew we couldn’t empty her purse.)

In those early days, my attention was on completing my collection of Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis adventures, along with the occasional book on pirates, or baseball, or whatnot. I began to learn about first editions, and failed continuity across a series, and the collector’s struggle to find that last final rarity that so often is a justifiably-forgotten side remnant of some author’s oeuvre.

As I grew into my teens, I began making my way to the Salvation Army store on my own, without waiting for Grandmom’s annual visit. Now I was free to look for any old thing I pleased, with no concerns that my stack of books would be studied for “appropriateness” by any of the significant adults in my life. If I wanted to peruse The Last Days of Al Capone, or “The Bikini and Who Can Wear It,” such was my choice. One day I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Another time it was a slim Ace Books volume called simply Junkie, by some guy named William Burroughs. I couldn’t believe that anybody would willingly display their addiction in such a manner—or that a book company would print it.

By the time I was deep into high school, I was an expert at mining the shelves for hidden gems. This is where I first encountered James T. Farrell, via The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Soon I was back for the other volumes in the Studs Lonigan trilogy. I concocted a high school research paper on the dissonance of modern youth as evidenced in the rise of motorcycle gangs thanks to stumbling on a paperback named Hell’s Angels, by one Hunter S. Thompson. On an unpainted green wooden shelf labeled “Music/Art/Movies” one day I picked up a book by an author completely unknown to me—Mezz Mezzrow—simply because of the title: Really the Blues. I was deep into discovering the blues, and bought it at once, though Mezz’s book was all about jazz, and reefer (“the mighty mezz”) and a million nights on the bandstands and stage doors of the American night.

In time, the city condemned Skid Row and both sides of the street were leveled to make way for the brand new Hennepin Avenue bridge. Life on Nicollet Island continues—there’s a small neighborhood of converted boardinghouses, a classic old inn, and the imposing brickwork of DeLaSalle High School. But the island’s real treasures—those innumerable 5¢ books with their hinted promise of bold, nefarious deeds—are lost to the winds of time. Except for the rescued ones that still populate my shelves at home, reminders of younger days.

Originally published in Tampa Review, Issue 55/56, 2018

Hiking the Mississippi River Road

11 December 2013

Saint Paul is first and foremost a river town. The Mississippi makes a great S curve through the western and southern stretches, isolating the West Side on its bluff and clutching the rest of the city in its sinuous curl. From our house, walking four miles in any of three directions (west, south or east) brings you to the river banks.

Yes, long stretches of those banks are shared with Minneapolis, but the enduring Twin Cities rivalry compels me to thumb my nose in that direction. Thus, for our purposes, the first evidence of civilization along the banks comes in the form of a sign: “SAINT PAUL/the Capital City/Desnoyer Park.” As we cross from Mill City to Capital City, another sign, embedded in a cut limestone wall, reads grandiloquently “Mississippi River Boulevard Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota.” To me, it’ll always be East River Road.

I looked back one final time at the bleak landscape behind me—the sterile towers, the fug of grain still clinging to the old mill sites, the sad diminished status of a city that was not the capital (yes, Minneapolis, I’m looking at you)—then turned and strode forward, keeping to the heights above the mighty river. Below was a hidden pathway along the river flats to Meeker Island, but this would end before the Marshall Avenue bridge. My destination lay far beyond.

Away from the river, an imposing string of stone houses—Georgian, Tudor, some Spanish touches—drowsed behind picture windows. Below on the right the river swooped beneath the line of trees that edge the bluff. Stretches of black iron fence outlined a decorative border and wooden benches set away from the path were aimed towards chosen views; home to amiable dalliances and half-dozing reminiscences. A memorial tablet here, a dip under the bridge there, and I was onto a long, rising stretch towards the Victorian mansions of Summit Avenue.

The hiker’s experience depends on weather and time of year. On fine weekends in summer, the path is thick with baby strollers, joggers, bikers and random sun-struck visitors being promenaded by hosts intent on correcting their flyover misconceptions. Pick a weekday at twilight, and the winding stones offer a day’s-end retreat for locals, grabbing an evening stroll before dinner. In December, the trees have been stripped bare, dark against the greying sky, and there’s a whip to the air. Far below the ice-chunked river still moves, but not for long. Only the occasional fresh air fiend or die-hard runner passes, bundled against the wind.

. . . Later, after circumventing the deep ravine west of Cretin Avenue, moving at cross purposes to the silent troops of University of St. Thomas students texting their way to class, I plunged on again, passing a beacon in the shape of a stone cross at the end of Summit Avenue, set on a promontory looking west across the river. I was in full stride now, with the pavement slapping the bottom of my boots, and the line of trees muting the sunlight slanting across my path.

Others had joined my perambulations—dog owners, ancient sun seekers, pairs of power walkers content to flail their arms high and exercise their lungs. Harsh Russian consonants came from an old couple seated on a park bench. Below us on the river, a barge moved downstream.

St. Mary’s Chapel and the St. Paul Seminary buildings fell away on my left. Daylight was fading. My path bent and curved along the bluffs. Over another ravine; past another memorial, this one recalling a drive-by shooting whose impact I remembered sadly: “Just a kid growing up.” South of St. Clair I passed the Temple of Aaron, with silent statues remembering lost loved ones set in the parkland opposite.

The road, the river, the path—all began to wind more and more. At Highland Parkway urban reality imposed itself again, in the form of the misplaced 740 Tower, the Ford Parkway bridge and, just beyond it, the empty remains of the now-shuttered Ford Plant. Not far beyond it is an overlook, and around a deep U-bowl ravine, the first of two access roads down to the legendary Hidden Falls.

Here we shall halt, where hikers face a vital decision: stay along the bluff all the way to Prior, where the second Hidden Falls access road descends opposite the Korean-congregant St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church, or face the fact that it’s the river’s edge one wants, and drop down immediately? That upper stretch has some of the highest bluff views available, and an almost palpable quiet, deep into the far reaches of Highland Park. But if it’s sanctuary one wants, better to descend to the river’s edge and double back north to Hidden Falls, or onwards, south and east past the Marina and into the watery marshes of Crosby Park and its cross-hatched forest trails.

Ah, but what of the rumors of a fort? Another river? Or even a long, bending watery curl that leads on to mighty bridges and landscapes heretofore un-described? Might the marble palace of the Central Library truly be accessed from the river side? It will take another journey to find out. . . .

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

Despite repeated attempts, I have never completed a river hike to the end of Saint Paul, though I have reached the end of the blue metal railing that extends east from downtown and stood gazing upon the glowing spires of the water treatment plant below Mounds Park.