This next post is inspired by real events this past week. It's written in the first person, which most of my fiction is not.
Emptiness always had a strange grip on me. One of the things I used to love about North Dakota, when I lived there in the pre-oil boom days, was going into an empty town, driving to the closed gas station late on a summer evening, and feeling the sense that alone-ness does not inherently mean abandonment. Sometimes, the big-wide-open with empty space means peace.
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I drive along University Avenue in Minneapolis heading east into Saint Paul. I just got done writing at my studio at the Loft. Got four pages whipped out in the evening session. It was pretty quiet at the studio and I felt like I was productive.
I actually started driving on the interstate, the way I normally do when I go home, but I wanted to see the Witch's Hat off Huron Boulevard. Besides, I never had taken that exit before. I like to get to know new areas of the Twin Cities. (I've actually started to brag to my Mom that I know St. Paul better than she does, and she grew up here. We'll see, she said.) The Witch's Hat is a tower that looks like a witch's hat. (Clever, eh?) It's on the Register of National Historical Place, which is getting to be less and less of a big deal living in the city, since the house across the street from us in on the Register, too.
Anyway, I wanted to see the Hat. It's a tower. There's a park there. Cool. Now what?
I headed north on Huron to University. Then, I turned east, back to S-T-P, as my friend Andrew calls it. Andrew was the guy who first showed me Saint Paul when I first moved here. He grew up here. I'll never forget how our conversation went when we were driving around:
Me: "Saint Paul is a nice town."
Andrew: "S-T-P is a great town. Minneapolis sucks."
Andrew: "Dude, if you're gonna be a Saint Paul guy, just don't go there. Spend your $ in S-T-P."
I'm hungry. I'm still in Minneapolis. The hell with Andrew. I can eat there. Chinese sounds good.
|Uh huh. Yeah. Where's my fork?|
I turn into the parking lot of the U Garden, a Chinese restaurant just 1/2 mile south of Dinkytown. The parking lot is totally abandoned, except for one car. It has red dingle balls around the inside of every window. An early 80s Cutlass, I believe. Black. Chrome tires. Uh, what kind of place is this?
I take my nylon, black laptop bag from the comfort of the passenger seat and I toss it into the trunk. Might be paranoia, but I don't want it getting ripped off. I think like that now. Now, that I live here - in the city. My thoughts go back ten years to North Dakota, where I never locked the front door of my house. I didn't even know where the key to the front door was...
The U Garden is a box building with a cheap sign on the front. When I mean cheap, I mean the lettering is painted on a white background on a plywood sign. The glass door to the entryway gives me chills. I don't think it's been cleaned for a couple days. Do I really want to eat here? I push onward. Dan the Brave, Clan Sutherland, willing to enter into the foreign land - no fear and a belly fond of exotic fare - to forge new bonds in this alien land.
I get inside. I. Am. The. Only. One.
Just me. And two waitresses (oh, sorry, servers). The owner's behind a red, laminate counter with a cheap cash register from China. (At least they're authentic here, I giggle to myself.)
The female server comes over. The restaurant has to be as big as half a football field. Well, maybe a third of one. But it's big. And it's filled with fifty or sixty identical tables. They all seat exactly four people. None of them are pushed together to make a table of eight; or twelve; or even two. I can hear the owner's voice in a sickeningly stereotypical (and racist) dialogue in my head: Four people per table. Sixty table total. That equal two-hundred forty customer. I rike very much!
Forgive me, God. I deserve hellfire and wrath for my sick humor.
I sit alone, at a table of four chairs in the chair nearest the wall by a window. The server kindly asks if I would like a menu or would I prefer to eat at the Chinese buffet. I select the menu. Too many damn people get the stupid buffet. The menu is huge. Six or seven pages long. And it has a thick, heavy, textured burgundy cover which reminds me of the outside cover of some foreign passport.
I feel like shrimp. I get some shrimp dish. Number Seventeen, I think.
The owner comes over. He wants to chat. I'm still in my stupid mid-brain with dumb accents.
"Hi, I'm Tim," he says in a perfectly Minnesotan Midwest American accent.
Chagrined, I reciprocate: "I'm Dan."
We talk about why the restaurant is empty. He tells me it's Monday. And the Light Rail construction. He hopes it gets done to schedule. "Thanks, by the way, for stopping by. I hope you enjoy your meal."
God I love urban Minnesota.
I get my shrimp. It only took four minutes. Maybe five. There's a ton of food: shrimp, cashews, peanuts, celery, onion, sauce, mushrooms, those little corn-thingies-they-only-have-in-Chinese-food. All over rice. Yum. I notice the musak so kindly piped-in, to enhance my dining experience. I wonder if the musak has been produced in China, too, on some endless Chinese musak loop. But before I figure out this philosophical Möbius strip, I realize I have finished all my food. Holy shit. That was a lot. I must have been hungry. Here, eating my meal in the U Garden, I have experienced Kairos time - a taste of Nirvana.
I just notice something else. There's a cop seated on the other side of the restaurant. What's he doing here?
Well, dumbshit, cops eat, too.
I finish my meal and I walk past the cop. He's got a cop mustache and a cop - belly? Oh, he's a transit cop. I see his patch. He's reading on his Nook or his Kindle, chowing down on Sum Gud Food. As I pass by, to pay my bill, I look at him and say, "Kinda surreal, ain't it?"
"I said, it's kinda surreal here, ain't it? With just us in this big restaurant."
He never looks up from his reading. Is he multitasking? That's impressive, if he is. "Um, yeah. It's Monday. It's never busy on Monday. Plus, it's summer. No school. And the Light Rail."
"Yeah. Well, seeya."
He lifts his head, still reading.
I pay my bill to Tim and he gives me a fortune cookie.
I unwrap it and crack the buff-colored, fake-chinese confection open...
DO NOT RUSH THROUGH LIFE. PAUSE AND ENJOY IT.
I exit the restaurant. I think that car - the 80s Cutlass with the dingle balls - is Tim the owner's. Cool. The sun is setting. The evening is warm and muggy. It's just me in the parking lot. Even University Avenue, usually full of traffic, is empty.
I'm enjoying it. Yeah.