Ranking the Saints Ushertainers

[Saint Paul flag flying over CHS field.]
Saint Paul isn’t known for much. Blank walls. Garrison Keillor. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Coney island dogs with grilled buns. Hockey. Amazing Asian food. Drunken Irish Death Roads.

OK, Saint Paul is pretty cool. (Except for that last one.)

But to add another one to the list, there’s the Saint Paul Saints, the local city’s famously obscure independent “minor league” baseball team co-owned by Mike Veeck, he of the Disco Demolition Derby riot, and Bill Murray. There are many reasons that the Saints are awesome, not least of which is their great new stadium in Lowertown, but it’s easily my best-recommended baseball experience for people who don’t like baseball. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. It’s a thing. There’s so much good stuff in the “fan experience” category at a Saints games that it almost doesn’t matter if you can’t name any of the players, don’t know what the score is, or don't even know the rules of baseball in the first place.

(On the other hand, it’s also legitimate baseball, with quality players. And if you’re into it, the game is worth watching. So it’s like the best of both worlds.)

The entertainment factor is so high that the Saints actually hire people to be what they call “ushertainers.”

What’s an ushertainer?

[Seigo Masabushi, Mudonna, and a (retired ushertainer) lumberjack.]
No, it’s not the same thing as a mascot. The Saints have a mascot, defined as a person wearing a furry suit. It’s Mudonna, a giant female pink pig, and she’s OK as far as mascots go.

But on top of that, there are the ushertainers: people who are dressed up and (presumably) paid to hang out on the top of the dugout or in the concourse, mingling with kids and fans, and raising fan spirits in support of the home team. They’re like cheerleaders combined with vaudeville actors, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Each year, the Saints add one or two to the stable, and if you go to a game you might see a couple of the ushertainers hanging out in your section. Unless you’re a misanthrope, they’re a lot of fun.

But how much fun?

[Ushertainers waiting in the wings.]
There are a few keys to evaluating an ushertainer, little things that separate the good ones from the great. I’d say there are three categories, each ranked from 1 to 10:

Visual Appeal - how they look from a distance
Inter-personal Appeal -
how they interact with the crowd
Je Ne Sais Quoi -
I don't know what

Together, you get the overall cumulative score, with 30 being the theoretically perfect ushertainer.

One final note concerns gender. As it turns out, a great deal of ushertainment depends on playing with a cultural repertoire of visual cliché, easily recognizable roles or figures. And as it turns out, many of these roles stem from professional images that wouldn't be out of place an any children’s book. (Think of doctors or nurses, fire fighters, or a Richard Scarry's Busytown.) The problem is that, most of the previous generation’s public roles were male roles, and for that reason, I suspect it’s a lot easier to become a male ushertainer than a female one. In an era when most working women had to choose between becoming a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary, there are simply fewer iconic female archetypes. And so much the worse for the modern day ushertainment industry.

So without further ado, here are the playful rankings. The stable of ushertainers changes every year, so I reached out to the Saints to find a definitive list of this year’s crop of eleven candidates. 

#10 [Tied]: Belle of the Ballpark and Miss Adventure

These two are tied because I don’t know who they are. I have been to about five Saints games this year, and I think I might have spotted an ushertainer I didn’t know on the far side of the field. There used to be a “Stepford Wife” ushertainer, and she wore fabulous skirts, all of which reinforces my gender role hypothesis. Sorry ladies!

Visual Appeal: n/a
Inter-personal Appeal: n/a
Je Ne Sais Quoi: n/a
Total Score: n/a

#9: Pig’s Eye Pete

[A glimpse of Pig's Eye Pete.]
This is the guy who dresses like a pirate who has to hang out on the pirate ship for underwriting reasons having to do with Treasure Island Casino. Props for the name, though an actual eye patch would really tie the look together. I never go over to the pirate ship so I have no idea what's going on over there. I assume it’s not that great, because to me it seems like people who are into casinos aren’t interested the kind of people that would be interested in ushertainment in the first place.

But on the other hand, I bet he gets to do a fun pirate accent the whole night if he wants to!

Visual Appeal: 7
Inter-personal Appeal: 3
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 4
Total Score: 14

#8: The Chef

This is the guy int he chef suit and chef hat with the thin black mustache painted on his lip. Maybe it’s just me, but I never really get why a chef with a wooden spoon would be that entertaining. I guess it dates back to the Muppet Show or maybe some sort of cartoon like Rattatoille (underrated, IMO!)

Chef doesn’t speak much, in my experience, but when he does, he uses an outrageous French accent. But what would a chef have to say about baseball? He could comment on hot dogs being consumed?

But you recognize the Chef and it's nice to see him I guess.

Visual Appeal: 7
Inter-personal Appeal: 3
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 5
Total Score: 15

[Pretty sure this is the "dancing homer."]

#7: Al Aboard

[Al Aboard and Sir Homer watching a double-header.]
This is the railroad engineer guy in the overalls and the engineer hat. He has a hankie hanging out his back pocket, so that’s a nice touch. But his greatest asset is the wooden railroad horn whistle that he blows. It’s great!

Plus while the concept of railroad engineers might be lost on most kids, Al Aboard's dance moves are certaintly not.

Visual Appeal: 6
Inter-personal Appeal: 5
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 5
Total Score: 16

#6: Sir Homer

An up-and-comer in the ushertainment industry, Sir Homer is the guy with the cape and the sword dressed as a knight. He strides back and forth atop the dugout rallying the fans like Henry V, kneels before young ladies bequeathing their charity, and when he speaks he does so using flowery rhetoric. Sir Homer is basically one of the Monty Python knights, which for me is great fun. A relative newcomer to the Saints ushertainment world, I think the character works in ways that fit perfectly with the crowd and atmosphere, especially for kids.

Visual Appeal: 6
Inter-personal Appeal: 6
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 5
Total Score: 17

[Sir Homer leading a charge.]

#5: Seigo Masabushi

[Seigo singing karaoke while a Saints guy holds up the words.]
While there might be something unsettlingly Orientalist about Seigo Masabushi's place at a Saints game, what with all the white people gawking and/or chuckling at an Asian man's funny clothes and accent, probably ignorant of most of the cultural references at work, Seigo does bring something no other ushertainer has to the ballpark. Despite or perhaps because of the white tuxedo coat and cowboy hat, Seigo Masabushi is the most authentic of the ushertainers. After all, he's the only one that uses his real name as an identity, and is playing "a Japanese guy who likes karaoke" which, I can only assume, he is and he does.

And he backs it up, too, with honest renditions of pop classics coming from the heart. Seigo has a decent singing voice, though nobody will mistake him for Adele. His nightly rendition of a karaoke song from atop a dugout is a Saints tradition going back around ten years, I'd bet. And, though I might be wrong, it seems like Seigo is just being himself, and he's great. HE wears his cowboy hat in the off-season too, when working with Japanese visiting athletes.

Visual Appeal: 6
Inter-personal Appeal: 4
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 9
Total Score: 19


#3 [Tied]: The Nerd

[The Nerd dancing on the dugout.]
And here’s something for my demo, a retro-call-back to the 80s Revenge of the Nerds films that I grew up with. The nerd nails the look, thick black glasses taped and pushed up on the nose, tight garish shirt tucked beneath suspenders, a pocket protector and a fanny pack, and Martin Short-esque hair. Watching the nerd interact with people on the dugout gives me flashbacks, even more so because he’s been a mainstay of the Saints games for years. And in a way, the nerd represents the promise of the Saints and their philosophy, saying that, yes, everyone is welcome at the ballgame, no matter your athletic prowess or social tastes. Even as baseball becomes a sport where nerds and stat heads with their calculators actually rule the roost (except at the last-place Twins' front office, of course, where the old-boys 90s-era jocks are still scoffing at number crunchers), there’s something almost triumphant about the nerd at the ballgame.

Visual Appeal: 9
Inter-personal Appeal: 6
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 6
Total Score: 21

#3 [Tied]: Nerdette

[Proper nerd smile.]
It might seem a bit cavalier to put these two together, because the Nerd has been around so much longer than the Nerdette (a new addition to the Saints team). And, yes, technically it is highly derivative. But it’s also accurate, not only in real life where girl nerds have carved out massive slices of nerd culture for themselves, but also in the 80s mythic landscape of nerd films, which almost always had a female nerd love-interest. And then there are the aforementioned gender inequalities vis a vis character types and access to agency. So, yes, the Nerdette (unfortunate name) is simply a female version of the male Nerd.

But I’ve been impressed watching Nerdette do her thing, and you walk away thinking about how well the concept works. One key to ushertainment is the ability to communicate visually using body language (yes, like a mime), and the Nerdette adopts a whole persona of moving, standing, walking, talking, and (yes) smiling that allows you to enjoy the ushertainment even from a great distance. (I once had a selfie with taken with the Nerdette where she taught me how to “nerd smile.” Basically, you grimace and squint and push your glasses up your nose.) The Nerdette is great!

As the nerdette would say, “Let’s go sports!”

Visual Appeal: 9
Inter-personal Appeal: 7
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 5
Total Score: 21

[Gert waiting out the rain delay and pulling stuff from her Chuck Taylor purse.]

#2: Gert the Flirt

It might seem like the whole concept here — enthusiastic flirtatious grandma / unrepresed aunt — would get lost on some people, and I don’t know, maybe it does. But watching Gert push her granny shopping cart up the steps of the section aisles feels a bit like the night before Christmas, and when she shakes her not insignificant booty to rev up a crow, the magic only intensifies. When you get a lipstick-laden smooch, it’s like a Christmas present and you proudly wear it like a tin sheriff’s badge for the rest of the night. Gert’s whole persona offers the charm of an old family restaurant, a plate of home-baked cookies, mixed with something slightly naughty like a martini.

And she really works it. Gert even has her own website, and makes sure that people know about it. She bonks kids on the head with an inflatable baseball bat, and is constantly moving around the crowd making friends. A criminally under-rated ushertainer and a solid #2, just behind our winner.

Visual Appeal: 6
Inter-personal Appeal: 10
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 6
Total Score: 22

#1: Coach

[Allright, fans. I want to see some cheering!]
You gotta hand it to Coach. Iconic character figure: check. Wonderful cheerleading schtick: check. And the look is perfect: the tube socks, gym shorts, boring grey short-sleeve sweatshirt, sunglasses and mustache. It’s an 80s cliché but as it turns out, the job of a coach is almost exactly like the job of a cheerleader. Getting people revved up, excited, and moving their body. Coach will make you cheer and stay in shape at the same time. When he points at your section, with whistle around his neck, and tells you to shout “Let’s go!” you do it.

Extra points for the calisthenics.

Visual Appeal: 10
Inter-personal Appeal: 8
Je Ne Sais Quoi: 6
Total Score: 24

[Three cheers for ushertainers!]


Twin City Doorways #26

[West Bank, Minneapolis.]

[Northeast, Minneapolis.]

[Northeast, Minneapolis.]

[South Saint Paul.]

[Hamline-Midway, Saint Paul.]

[University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

[Saint Anthony.]

[Northeast, Minneapolis.]


Reading the Highland Villager #160

[A Highland Villager adopting a transient lifestyle.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]  

Headline:  Midway redesign faulted for being overly optimistic; Shopping center owner criticizes redevelopment plan for lacking flexibility
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: [Pity the poor dingy strip mall owner from New York for he is oft misunderstood, what with all these fanciful notions of “multi-story” buildings, “sidewalks,” and “green trees.”] The owner of the strip mall is pushing back on the city’s / Billionaire soccer team owner’s plans to redevelop the strip mall and adjacent vacant lot into a soccer stadium and mixed-use urban development. Among his complaints are “standards for redevelopment” and requirements that the “minimum floor area ratio” are too high. [He does not like that the FAR might be required to be 2, which is greater than 1. For those of you scoring at home, that would be an average of two stories per square foot, which is not that much really, and much less than the original vision plans.] City staff would like more density. Article includes some historical context of the site and its current situation. Article includes a quote from a Planning Commissioner: “it seems like RK Midway helped develop the master plan, but now its backpedaling.” [I had the same thought. During the Planning Commission hearing, the strip mall owner and team owner sat side-by-side and presented a united front in support of this plan and the density goals. And now the strip mall owner is saying that a 2.0 FAR is unrealistic? Seems like very shoddy behavior.] There was an extended discussion of the parking lot next to the liquor store. Most of the new parking lots will be temporary but one will be “permanent.” [Scroll down for further of this concept.]

Headline: Stadium city criticized for rosy forecast on transit use [I’ve had it with all this optimism. I didn’t move to this city to be optimistic! And since when has transit ridership exceeded forecasts? Name one time that happened.]
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The planning study for the soccer stadium and surrounding site has high goals for transit ridership. A grassroots anti-stadium group is stating that the projections are “not credible” and that traffic congestion will occur. [It’s funny to me how ostensibly environmentalist activists are now against idealistic transit projections and defending a car-dominated planning scenario.] Article includes details about parking and projections. [I assume the plan here, since actually stopping the stadium is highly unlikely, is to force the city or someone to spend millions subsidizing more parking lots. Nice job everyone.] Interesting quote: “there are about 2,500 more off-street parking spaces within a mile of the stadium.” [Actually I’m pretty sure this is a low estimate. University Avenue is well over half pavement.] Most ridiculous quote: MnDOT has called for careful planning of pedestrian crossings near I-94 and Snelling so that there are no traffic backups on game days. [Um, maybe should have thought about this before abandoning a pedestrian and bike friendly plan when reconstructing the entire area a year ago? I am predicting traffic backups on game days.] Neighbors are concerned about traffic and parking, and would like some bike lanes. [If you don’t build high-quality bike lanes to and from the stadium in all directions, especially when crossing the auto-heavy streets and areas, you’ll only make all these other problems even worse.]

Headline: Another summer of road work is wearing on Randolph shops; Businesses are hanging in there, but the project can’t end soon enough
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: [When roads and other things underneath roads get old they need to be fixed and you can’t drive on them for a while.] Some businesses have fewer customers when the road is closed because people only drive to them. Article details all the infrastructure being repaired like sewers, water mains, gutters, and something called “bituminous pavement.” [Sounds sexy!] Some parts of the road will open sooner than others. Randolph Avenue will not be widened, but “it will reconfigure the traffic lanes, revise signal timing and relocated a bus stop to improve traffic flow.” [Moving that pesky bus stop, thank goodness. The last thing we need is for those greedy transit-riding people to be dropped off close to the corner where the grocery store is located.] Detours “aren’t helping.”

Headline: Eye of the beholder; Neighbors fail to take a shine to city’s new LED streetlights
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The old street lights had older “sodium” bulbs from the 80s but new street lights have LED bulbs that use less energy but are brighter and also a different shade of light, more blue and less yellow. In the 80s, the less bright bulbs were criticized for being less bright. Today these brighter bulbs are criticized for being brighter. There are 38,000 streetlights in the city, and 5,500 of them have been replaced. Engineers are trying to figure out what to do. Quote from neighbor: “I could do surgery in my living room now.” [Hm.]

Headline: Federation seeks extension for Riverside School proposals
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: It will probably take longer to redevelop an abandoned school building than people thought at first.

Headline: Commission favors 128 Café’s request for full liquor license
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: You will be able to order a cocktail at the restaurant.

Headline: St. Paul grants expanded use of City House along the river
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: An historic grain elevator that was supposed to become an event space but didn’t because it sometimes floods will now have temporary “food truck”-style food and beverage service in it. [Hooray.
Otherwise it’s such a waste. The “beer by the river” test front-runner is here! And finally there will be something to actually do in the otherwise really lovely Upper Landing area. Not much parking, though. You’ll have to bike or walk to get there.]

Headline: Environmental study done on Hill District porch renovation
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Someone wants to tear down part of a house to build a larger porch. It’s in an historic district so a study is required. [There goes the neighborhood.]

Headline: Public comments sought on updated plan for Union Park
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Union Park neighborhood is going to make a plan.

Headline: City Council seeks grants for local developments projects
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is applying for Met Council funding for investing in affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods.

Headline: State receives grant to update Fort Snelling Historic District
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The historical society is getting money to re-think its historic designation for Fort Snelling [which is historically important but not always in good ways, you know].

Headline: Study aims to alleviate parking crunch in Ramsey Hill
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Neighbors are concerned about traffic and parking. And so there was a meeting to talk about traffic and parking in an area of the city that is popular and has many restaurants. [In the 1970s, Selby and Western were a destitute wasteland. In the 1870s, there was a brothel there, but cars weren’t invented yet so parking wasn’t an issue.] There is a study by a consultant to recommend solutions to parking. [I have one idea. It turns out when you ask smart expert people who have studied problems just like this in other cities on the planet about how to solve parking problems they say things like “parking meters.”] Article quotes CM Thao: “with vibrancy comes challenges.” [Like too much vibrancy, when things start vibrating so quickly you can’t see straight any more. Or when you know people have to walk two blocks to their car.] Best quote: “past efforts to resolve parking problems have been criticized for lacking factual information.” [Yep. Factual information sure is helpful sometimes. I prefer it to the visions from my nightmares almost all of the time. Much prefer factual information. Except you know factual information about climate change. That just terrifies me and I completely ignore it, much preferring to think about how to make it easier to drive around.] Ideas on the table include permit parking. [But not parking meters, which you know, would make it easy to park if you paid a tiny bit of money but harder if you didn't?] Another quote: people really want to see more facts.” [I rather doubt it.] [Sort of funny] description of the meeting goes like this [and which is so good and well-written that I have to quote it at length]: “residents greatly outnumbered business owners… those who attended pored over neighborhood maps, stuck sticky dots and notes onto boards, and buttonholed city staff and consultants to make their opinions known. As dots accumulated on posters, several issues became clear. Most people at the meeting drive cars to get around. Fewer walk and even fewer bike.” ["As dots accumulated...." that's just really well written, even poetic.] Quote from neighbor: "how many more businesses are coming in?” [Because you know, having lots of shops, restaurants, cafés is bad news for a walkable city like Saint Paul. And it wouldn't be historically accurate to the area's period of historic significance, which is apparently the early 1980s and not any of the other dozens of decades when there were tons of shops in this area.] One guy who owns an apartment building with no parking tried to get the city to ban other people from parking on his street but was rejected by the city. [Classic Yogi Berra “nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded” moment here, which will henceforth be known by its acronym NGTAMITC. How elegant!]

Headline: Residents hold court over plans to redesign McQuillan Park
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A park is being remodeled. Neighbors want to keep the tennis court but that will come at the expense of remodeling playground equipment. [Won’t somebody think of the children?] It’s in a historic district and will require the preservationists input. [How about a bigger porch?] City plans call for the removal of single tennis courts, but lots of people still play on it.There was a debate about whether the playground should be “traditional” or “more sculptural.” Neighbors are concerned about overgrown basswood trees, a lack of a grill, and flying tennis balls.

Headline: [And buried deep within the Villager bowels] Pedestrian safety upgrades outlined for West 7th intersections
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: West 7th Street will get some changes to corner curbs and sidewalks that will make it less dangerous for people walking around, including a bumpout, narrower turning areas, crosswalks, restricted turns, and small one-way street designations. [This is long past long overdue as the street has been a dangerous often uncrossable speeding car barrier for generations.] There might be some temporary bollards but neighbors are concerned about traffic. Two people have been killed in seven years. [But for each of those people there were likely hundreds of other crashes or near-misses.] Article includes a brief history of the street, which runs at an angle.

Headline: St. Paul considers imposing new regulations on short-term rentals
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: People use the internet to rent out rooms in their houses sometimes. The city is planning to at making some rules about it. Best quote: “[CM] Tolbert who has used such services in other cities, said that while short-term rentals provide a convenience for travelers, they also raise concerns about public safety, tax-free commerce and the promotion of transient lifestyles in residential neighborhoods.” [What the heck is a “transient lifestyle”? No seriously, did anyone really utter those words?] Only CM Noecker voted against the plan to study these. The intent of the study is to draft zoning and licensing rules. Short-term rentals are trendy. B&B’s want to protect their brand. There are taxes on the line. [Gosh I can’t stop thinking about transient lifestyles. The problem is that I don’t know what a transient lifestyle is or what it has to do with AirBnB. The dictionary defines “transient” as meaning “lasting for a short time, impermanent.” This has potential to reach into some seriously ontological and/or theological terrain. If only God is permanent, then surely all our lives are transient, i.e. fleeting, no? Yet what does permanence mean for human being? Perhaps Bergson’s notion of durée is useful here, the overlapping presence of the past and its contraction into a point of immediacy does not preclude the existence of that past. The overlapping co-existence of life in all its forms suggest that transience and permanence have different durations for each of us. Is a river permanent or transient? And yet it moves, as Galileo once said. … Then again, “lifestyle” is something  else altogether. Perhaps this is a critique of taste, and Tolbert’s notion is aimed at forming an essentialist concept of aesthetics based on Kant’s definition of art. If that were so, when confronted with the nature of the sublime, Tolbert is arguing that one must adopt a posture of reverence and even terror in the face of nature's infinitude, and that’s what’s wrong with these kids today, of which Tolbert is one apparently because he uses AirBnB too and is my age more or less I’m pretty sure. BTW I've never used Air BnB but I read about it on the internet.]

Headline: City trims CVS’s signs down to size
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A chain drug store wants two big signs but the Board of zoning Appeals will only let them have one. According to the corporate drug store signage consultant from Indiana, “larger signs were sought for reasons of visibility.” [Ah, that explains it.] Article quotes a neighborhood guy: “In an era of GPS and MapQuest, a sign like this seems very 1990s.” [Saint Paul sometimes seems very 1990s, especially with all this Trump, Clinton, Ninja Turtles, and Ghostbusters stuff lately. And, you know, the whole traffic and parking thing.] Sign guy also said, “we understand that people don’t want a CVS pharmacy on the site, but we’re here.” [At least we stopped their drive-thru.]

PS: This Highland Villager re-cap composed while listening to Wagner's Siegfried, which probably explains the Kant.

[Siegfried does a parking study.]


End of the Line for The Terminal Bar's Flem Shows how Dives Are Precious

I was sad to hear of the death of Flem, who had owned and run The Terminal Bar in Northeast Minneapolis for over fifty years.

Think about that for a second.

Here’s the first half of the obituary:

Fleming, Clarence G. "Flem" 10 year veteran, United States Marine Corps On May 14, 2016, God needed a cribbage partner and he chose the BEST. Flem spent 79 years perfecting the art of telling jokes and becoming a master storyteller. Flem was a faithful son, remarkable brother, devoted husband, proud father, adored grandfather, warm-hearted uncle, helpful neighbor, and valued friend. Flem was also larger than life with his booming voice, infectious laugh, and generous heart. Flem was the ultimate family man, a selfless community supporter, a strong promoter for upcoming musicians, and a contributor to rugby clubs. As owner and bartender extraordinaire at the Terminal Bar for 51 years, he loved to enliven, captivate, and entertain the customers with his sense of humor and joyful hospitality.
Flem's passing holds a special place in my heart because he was synonymous with one of the purest examples of the "dive bar" genre in the Twin Cities. After the tour in January, I recently published a guide booklet that included some stuff about Flem and his bar. Here's an excerpt:
[Flem's back nook.]
The Terminal Bar is Kryptonite to progress, so resistant to change that the walls reflexively tighten with each smart phrase unsheathed. Its timelessness is to the dicey credit of its owner, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of owning the place. 
Flem bought the bar in ‘65 coming out of the Marines and unable to find a straightforward job. For the next half-century, he and his wife have run The Terminal, which he calls a “working man’s and families bar”, though he admits it’s a dive. Annette opens it up around 4:30 and Flem gets there at 7:00 to keep it going until nobody remains. 

The bar itself is 84 years old. I assume Flem is around the same age. I also assume the name comes from its proximity to the old Great Northern Depot. These days it has the feel of last legs: piles of strange objects stacked in corners, forgotten walls, a broken scale. It’s a reminder of mortality and, because of that, it’s one of the purest examples of the dive bar genre you’ll find in the Twin Cities. 
Wandering here resembles exploring the basement of an old uncle’s house, decades of accumulated entropy. Unfulfilled intentions, good ideas at the time, areas of taste and gathered acquaintance piled up and fill rooms claustrophobically like spiderwebs. Across the wall from the bar, a display case half-full of classic car models, small plaques, the remnants of long ago trends. In the back past the stage, a large green scale, glass display cracked, a masterpiece of an era when weight was a novelty. Objects settle like calcium marking time, and it reminds me of nothing more than memories of a childhood home, complete with aging humans. But like Grandma’s, there’s something sad about The Terminal, meaning endpoint.

Say what you will about the atmosphere, hours, or stand-up comedy at The Terminal (and I have), owning and running a Northeast bar for fifty years is one hell of an accomplishment. These are not philately shops, and keeping them running requires constant effort. As the years go on, dives reflect their stewards and owners reflect their dives. Walking into The Terminal was like getting to know Flem himself. And half the time, he’d be sitting at the end of the bar anyway with a friendly word.

[So... don't go to The Terminal for fine dining, then?]

Dive Bar Habitat Loss

Thinking about Flem and the Terminal, both of whom were clearly on their last legs for years, makes me think about dive bar mortality. At root, dive bars are overlooked and under appreciated. You rarely see dive bars appear in the newspaper, apart from those periodic lists which typically focus on former dives, hipster magnets, or some of the most famous and/or played out examples like the CC Club, Grumpy’s, or Palmer’s.

Yet few will people speak for dives. There is no dive bar Lorax, and you almost never see politicians say anything nice about them, let alone spend much time in one. Dive bar ownership, and especially the clientele, have few connections to influence, and it’s safe to say that dive bar regulars don’t often vote.

Instead, dive bars become targets, scapegoats for urban problems. When Eric’s Bar on Saint Paul’s East Side was demolished, the mayor was there celebrating. Ramsey County transportation officials seem to delight in destroying corner dive bars like Diva’s Overtime Lounge in the North End, was torn down to add a turn lane to the Maryland Avenue (four-lane death road). When Lake Street dives like Champions or (the original) Country Bar closed down, you could feel deep pockets breathing sighs of relief, because their disappearance represented a cleansing of the neighborhood, pushing crime or poverty out of sight.

[Newspaper at the Sunrise Inn.]
It’s somewhat surprising because, if you hang out in dive bars for long enough, you realize that the people there pay attention to the news and have strong opinions. There are often newspapers laying around, which men pass around and sometimes read out loud. At many dive bars, people actually watch the local TV news and talk about it. And (unfortunately) there’s almost always a few guys who listen to talk radio all day and are chomping at the bit to deliver a tirade about “tree huggers” at the drop of a hat.

This is to say that the urban dive bar is an endangered species. Dives do not make money and are often for sale. Owners and barkeeps work long hours, forced to be both servant and guardian, breaking up arguments, putting up with stress, and world-wearily bouncing rabble. These are marginal businesses caught between the rock of improving tastes and the hard place of the erosion of the working class. A dive must balance on the fine line between the two great threats: remodeling and real estate.

In other words, when a dive bar is gone, it’s gone forever. Precious few are created, because what kind of fool would intentionally set out to open a dive bar? (As with housing, the vast majority of new bars and restaurants are aimed at the wealthy.) And the loss of the dive is a loss for society, because these places offer experiences you cannot find elsewhere, meat raffles and pull tabs and tasteless jokes and all kinds of music. Dives form a foundation for working-class relaxation and do underappreciated work to bring neighborhoods together and grant them rare identity.  

But dives disappear. Ten years ago, my old North End neighborhood had twice as many dive bars as it does today. And places like The Terminal, planted in blistering real estate soil, are fated to change.

I predict a similar fate to Bonnie's Café over in the Midway, which lasted for about a year after the death of its eponymous owner. For a while, relatives or friends might carry on the tradition in honor of the departed. But eventually, someone makes a deal and moves on. And the place is never the same again. Once a dive bar dies, it never comes back.

[The Terminal doorway: open or closed?]

PS. You can purchase the Noteworthy Dive Bars of Outer Northeast booklet in the new store!

PPS. Check out Chris Strouth,'s great 2013 City Pages essay on The Terminal's music scene:
The hipster movement has taken a lot of the ol- time bars and made them if not posh, a comfortable mix of the old and new. For example, the 1029 Bar whose ceiling is literally covered in brassieres, and walls with shot up police car doors (rumored to have been done by Country kitchener Toby Keith). Yet there you can get the best lobster roll this side of Maine. Anyhow, the part of town where my mom didn't like me hanging out has become a foodie paradise that's written about in pull-out sections of newspapers.

The saying goes, evolve or die, and that seems to be the way of most of the bars in Nordeast. This is what makes the Terminal Bar weirdly special: It has done neither. The interior is much the same as I remember it from when I went in as a dare in college. I imagine it's much the same as it was in 1964, when the current owners, the Flemings, took over from the previous owner who happened to be the parents. They had owned it since 1935. Prior to that it was -- you guessed it -- a bar.

For about four years I shared a wall with the Terminal Bar. The shop that I owned with my wife was next door, and my studio above it, which later became my home as well. The Terminal is a dedicated music venue. They have a band playing almost every night. Cover bands, original bands, good ones, bad ones, really really bad ones, metal ones, even hip-hop ones. It is sort of hilarious watching someone go on stage and talk about what a player he is while drinking a 3 dollar Mich Golden.

The booking and the bartending are all handled by Flem. He's a former Marine, owner, bartender, and just all-around good guy. He also has been sober since 1968, which given that he is behind the bar six days a week, eight hours a day is saying quite a bit. Flem is in his 70s, yet spry as a 60-year-old.

While most bars have a strong curative sense, trying to get a specific vibe or groove that sets them apart from the rest, the Terminal tends to roll with anyone that gets butts in the seats, and in doing so is sort of the ultimate bar of the proletariat. Anyone can play.

Read the rest, a lovely piece of dive bar writing.

New and Improved Twin City Sidewalks Store

[Button in the sidebar.]
I have upgraded the “store” using Big Cartel, which seems like a pretty slick way to sell stuff online without many fees. Now you can actually click on a button and buy the different guide booklets and (eventually) flags, maps, and photo books.

Right now, though, only booklets. I have five different guides for sale currently: #2, Noteworthy Dive Bars of South Minneapolis, #3 Noteworthy Dive Bars of the Midway, #4 Noteworthy Dive Bars of Old Fort Road; #5, Noteworthy Parking Lots of Minneapolis; and #6, Noteworthy Dive Bars of Outer Northeast.

(#1, Noteworthy Bowling Alleys of Minneapolis and Saint Paul is currently out of print.)

Check it out. Feel free to buy one or seventeen of these fine products.

[Store link is here.]


Sidewalk Poetry #54: Waiting for a Cyclo in the Hood

Waiting for a Cyclo in the Hood

Twenty-sixth street, a one-way,
flows by my house, keeps going right
out of the hood before spilling into
Uptown: fertile delta of the young,
disturbingly hip, rich by no fault of their own,
nothing to do on a Saturday night but be beautiful.
I sit on the curb, far from lovely,
empty pocket's distance from rich,
wishing I knew
which way to go.
Back in Viet Nam I could
shout for a cyclo, hold up a fist of small dong
peel each dollar form the tension of my hand
and let them fly away to the Dopplar Effect,
one by one,
scream the words to Prince's 1999 in two languages
and not once look behind me to see
if the driver was whispering:
this street is one way, I can't take you back
to where you came from, no matter how many American
dollar bills you give up
to the wind.

[Bao Phi, from Sông I Sing.]

[Uptown at night.]


Signs of the Times #118


[Fence. Downtown, Saint Paul.]

Where is Bill
Jones? Please
return William
Jones to his
loved ones.

[Alley wall. Downtown, Saint Paul.]

Flowers Are For ALL
Neighbors to Enjoy

[Yard. Sent in by a reader.]


[Window. Lowertown, Saint Paul.]


[Window. Sent in by a reader.] 

The Hennpin Ave Bridge
was the first permanent
fixed crossing of the
entire Mississippi River.

[Boulevard. Nicollet Island, Minneapolis.]

world to

[Mailbox. Location forgotten.]

(im-grent) n. 1. A person or
persons that move from their
country of origin to settle in
another country permanently.

[Fence. Downtown, Minneapolis.]


Talking about Saint Anthony Policing and Housing on KFAI

[Kids sitting in the KFAI parking lot, on Minneapolis' West Bank.]
Last week, I was lucky enough to be the co-host of Truth to Tell on KFAI Radio. Years ago I volunteered regularly at KFAI helping with the news programming. I also volunteered with Truth To Tell, a weekly public affairs talk show, running their "board" and doing the sometimes complicated engineering the talk show.

You can listen to the whole program here. My friend, the retired political science professor and labor historian an Tom O'Connell has taken over as a co-host from program founder Andy Driscoll, who passed away a few years ago.

The program covers a bunch of interesting topics, all relevant today. We discussed my interview with the Saint Anthony police chief, published here. Tom interviewed Dr. Christopher Lehman, a Saint Cloud-based historian researching the history of race in Minnesota. Finally, we interviewed two people trying to save the Lowry Grove manufactured home community, also located in Saint Anthony.

You can listen to the whole program here:


Is It OK to Protest on a Freeway?

The I-94 Demonstration.
The last weeks have seen two high-profile freeway protests, the first on Saturday night on I-94 and the second Wednesday morning on I-35W.

This article is not about whether these are smart political tactics, or about the violence that took place during the I-94 demonstration. To me, debates about what happened, who is at fault, and the nature of the charges are a separate issue from the question I want to focus on here.

Rather, here's the rub of this article: Is there a difference between a civil disobedience demonstration on a city street (e.g., Summit Avenue, Plymouth Avenue, or downtown), a light rail station (e.g., the Green Line at Snelling and University), and a freeway like I-94? Are they the same thing or are they different?

"Taking it To the Street"
umn 72 protest 4
Protests on Minneapolis' Washington Avenue in 1972

First off, all these examples are equal in one sense because, technically, all roads are public space. (Exceptions for gated communities such as North Oaks, with private roads, prove the rule.) So the right of the public to use these taxpayer-funded government-owned spaces should be relatively equal.

And in another sense, all these cases are equal because they're all equally prohibited. Technically speaking, any gathering or demonstration that blocks a road is illegal. This is true for sidewalks, streets, light rail tracks, and freeways, all of which have ordinances or laws protecting their mobility function. For example, the Minneapolis city code says this (385.65) [emphasis mine]:
No person, in any public or private place, shall use offensive, obscene or abusive language, or grab, follow or engage in conduct which reasonably tends to arouse alarm or anger in others, or walk, stand, sit, lie, or place an object in such a manner as to block passage by another person or a vehicle.
Light rail tracks and city streets in general have the same rules prohibiting people from blocking traffic flow. So a demonstration is illegal in all these situations.

(For more on public space and protest, check out the streets.mn podcast conversation with Dr. Nathan Clough.)

The I-94 demonstration.

Is a Freeway Different?

The press conference after the late-night demonstrations on I-94 featured the Mayor of Saint Paul, the Police Chief, and Colonel Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol describing what happened. Here's the quote:
There are many places people can gather to exercise their first amendment rights, but the freeway is not one of those places. Closing freeways endangers the people that are on the freeway, endangers the motoring public, prevents emergency services from occurring and prevents people from doing their jobs and taking care of business in the state of Minnesota by those freeways being closed. Being on the freeway is illegal. It’s illegal always to be there on foot including these protest events. We do our best to prevent these protests from being on the freeway and most of the time we are successful in working with these groups and preventing and keeping that from occurring.
As you can see, Colonel Langer focuses on two things in his argument against freeway demonstrations: safety and economics.

Let's take safety first. Technically speaking, the main difference between a freeway and other types of roads revolves around speed and access. Freeways have much higher speeds and far more limited access than other roads, or even light rail tracks.

But what if you could make freeway protests safe for both the drivers and demonstrators?
While stopping at the Governor’s mansion demonstration the other day, I spoke with one person who was working with the Black Lives Matter demonstrators at the beginning of the protest. Her job was to drive a car at a specific time down I-94, and to slow down in tandem with other demonstrators in other lanes. The plan was to reduce speeds slowly over time on the freeway while not allowing cars to pass. The goal was to make space for demonstrators to safely get onto the road.

To me, it sounded difficult. And according to the woman I spoke with, her Westbound contingent of volunteers had difficulty keeping their line in tact. (Eastbound volunteers managed to pull it off.)  But what was interesting was that the demonstrators had planned ahead, thinking about the safety concerns about demonstrating on a freeway.

If you take the safety issue out of the picture, the argument against protesting on a freeway rests on economic impact. At that level, it seems little different than the argument against protesting in any of the other contested sites that we have seen over the past year or two. The arguments used by Colonel Langer seem a lot like the ones used by the Bloomington prosecutor at the Mall of America: demonstrations are illegal and the disrupt the economy. (You could say the same thing about the demonstrations at the State Fair or the airport.)

And in both cases, it seems the prosecutors are trying to discourage demonstrations in these spaces by throwing the book at activists.

Who is the Audience for a Demonstration?
Demonstrators on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, the Governor's Mansion in the background.

Last week, I found myself with a flat tire on my bicycle, needing to get back to Saint Paul from downtown Minneapolis. Glancing at Twitter, I saw that the Green Line had been shut down by a demonstration march in Saint Paul in support of Philando Castile, and decided to take the #3 bus (my old friend) instead.

While riding the bus, there were two young black men sitting up at the front, talking with the bus driver. It turned out that they were trying to get to the demonstration, but because the Green Line was shut down, they couldn’t get there. The bus driver gave them directions to get to the #16, but I don’t think they ever made it in time. (The bus is slow, after all!) Still, it seemed to me to be a tragic irony.

To me, the main difference between demonstrating on a freeway and demonstrating on a street like Summit Avenue is a matter of degree, not of kind. By moving on to a freeway, the scale and stakes of a demonstration are raised. Instead of primarily affecting people in the central cities, you’re primarily affecting people in the suburbs.

Civil disobedience is always breaking a rule, whether it’s “whites only” or “no stopping on the street.” I-94 between the downtowns carries 200,000 cars a day and is the most heavily used part of our road system. If the goal is to raise awareness of an issue, by changing the geography of the demonstration from a local street to a freeway, you’re turning up the volume so that everyone in the entire Twin Cities has to pay attention, for better or worse.

The violence, tear gas, and concrete-throwing are one thing. What happened on I-94 was unfortunate and I wish it could have been prevented. (The 35W demonstration seemed entirely peaceful by contrast.) But the point I want to make here is that whether or not people have a right to demonstrate on the road has little do with what kind of road it is. A freeway is not a special place where, as Colonel Langer seems to suggest, your "civil rights disappear." It's just a road with higher speeds, wider lanes, reduced access, and a special state-wide police force. And just as much as any other street, it’s still a public space.