21.3.11

Remembering Ruth Adams

Whenever anyone asks me where to take someone visiting the Twin Cities from out of town, my answer always begins with the words "Nye's Polonaise Room." And one of the big reasons for that was the presence of Minneapolis legend, Ruth Adams, who began playing polka music there on a tiny stage located right next to the bathroom way back in 1975. She was part of The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band, and seeing them play was one of those things you could absolutely rely on, like Mickey's Diner being open or Tim Pawlenty's self-aggrandizement.

This is my Ruth Adams story. It was a December evening a few years back, and my friend and I were on our way to a downtown condo for a Christmas party. And, unlike this year, that winter was dry, brown, and colorless. We hadn't had more than a flake of snow.

My friend and I stopped by Surdyk's to pick up a tasty beverage to bring to the party. We found a bottle of soju (my friend was Korean), but for some reason the store was oddly empty. This emptiness was all the more obvious because Surdyk's was having some sort of promotion where they'd mined the store with young women in Santa-themed outfits standing behind podiums giving away free booze. You could literally walk around the store and bored people would just hand you free samples and chat with you. So we did.

No little time later we emerged from Surdyk's feeling refreshed, and that's when it became apparent why the store had been so deserted. It was snowing! And it wasn't just any snow, but that beautiful first snow of the winter that makes you really excited. I know it's hard to think about enjoying snow in March, but there's a magic about that first snowfall every year that escapes description. And that's the snow that was coming down all around us as we walked toward the Central Avenue Bridge to the party.

I remember hearing Nye's before I even saw it. The streets were pretty empty, and there was that dampening snow-effect where someone turns down the volume of the city as the snowflakes absorb the soundwaves. The noise of cars disappeared and Minneapolis became smaller, zooming in until it seemed like there was nothing beyond Hennepin Avenue. Instead, all I could hear were the soft big band tunes coming out of the outdoor speakers at Nye's, lit up in the fading light as flakes glided onto their red awning.

Just then a red Jeep pulled up to the curb, stopping right in front of the Nye's Polonaise Room's front door. A middle-aged man opened up the driver's door. He looked vaguely familiar in his coat, but I couldn't place him until he called over to me. "Hey can you give me a hand?" He was the trumpet player for the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band.

"Sure," I said. And I hesitantly approached the SUV. The man walked round the hood and opened up the passenger door and there was Ruth Adams looking mighty tired, bundled up in a thick coat and (if I recall) pink sweatpants.

"Would you help her inside?" asked the trumpeter.

And so, gentlemanly, debonair, and smiling in the twilight, I held out my elbow and Ruth Adams took my arm. She didn't say anything. She was surprisingly heavy and seemed very fragile, and we walked together slowly, carefully through the newfallen snow, and through the front door of Nye's Polonaise Room as Sinatra sang out onto Hennepin Avenue. And I've never felt more at home in Minneapolis than in that moment.

Ruth passed away last week. She was 79, and she's made more people smile than I could ever hope to.

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