Garbage on the boulevard

Before the University of Minnesota replaced quarters with semesters, June was move-out month in the Como neighborhood. Students stacked garbage on boulevards in front of the houses they rented, which is exactly what the flyers from the Minneapolis sanitation department said not to do. Somehow it all got cleaned up, with a fine tacked onto many a city utility bill, and it stayed clean until everyone moved back in late September. Even if you weren’t a student, you couldn’t get away from it. That was, and continues to be, the rhythm of life in Como.

The last pile of garbage I left on a Como boulevard was in June of 1997. Diploma in hand, I was determined to go out and live life, instead of just preparing to live it. I was full of impatience, not convinced that school meant progress toward what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be (not that I knew what or who that was). But it was a good time overall, and looking back on it makes me realize how good it was. And now, ten years gone, after moving west and coming back, I’ve ended up about three miles south of Como, in a house not too different from that college house, in the Cooper neighborhood.

I’m in virtually the same spot in lots of ways. Ten years ago, I was on Como Avenue every day, I had a brother attending the U of M, and I lived a couple miles from campus. Now, I’m on Como every day, the same brother is attending the U of M (hey, he isn’t the first guy who didn’t finish at the U in four years), and I live a couple miles from campus. From this perspective, yes, you could question my progress.

The truth is, even though they are separated by three miles, those ten years make Cooper and Como entirely different worlds. Those years, plus a marriage, two kids, a stint in Seattle, entry and exit from the National Guard, graduate school, and a muddled career path, have put considerable distance between the two. If you drive the streets and see the buildings and walk the sidewalks of both Como and Cooper, you might not notice a difference, but where I am now is an entirely different realm from where I was then.

I’m an adult now, or I’m trying to appear that way to my kids. I have a minivan. I buy diaper wipes. Teen-aged retail employees have called me sir, but it’s hard to get irritated because I’m very lucky in lots of ways right now. That’s not to say that life after college has always meant being more confident or certain or productive than I was as an undergrad. There’s always something else you want to accomplish; there’s always another obstacle you didn’t expect. Surprise, surprise, life is always challenging, even for those who leave Como with a degree and (most of) their dignity.

Cooper is totally off the radar for most students – I hadn’t even heard about it when I was an undergrad. More representative of the rest of the city, it’s connected to the U of M, but not as directly. It doesn’t have that frenetic energy or that continual busyness. Instead of 23-year-olds walking around, the people you see are 33, 43, 53 or 13. Its routine is the 9-to-5 work week, not the 24/7 all-night kegger-and-coffee-shop chaos. I wonder if we become where we live, or if we gravitate toward the places that fit us at the time, because right now, Cooper fits me. Like those old cargo shorts in the bottom of the drawer, Como fit me back then.

But now I work on Como Avenue, not too far from that college house. Because I am occupying the same space, the geography reminds me of more than I care to remember, good and bad. I drive this same street and can’t get away from the ghosts. Sometimes I wish I had gone to school in Chicago or somewhere else so that I could reminisce about the good old college days without being bothered by every detail. There’s the party house where I chipped my tooth. That’s where I crunched my car. Turn another corner and cue another flashback. Como won’t let college fade into fuzzy feel-good-only memories.

But maybe I should be thankful that I was in Como, this partially-transient village where the houses age but the tenants do not. I should be thankful that there was a part of my life so intense that I will remember a lot of it for a long time, and thankful that I live with the ghosts of it now. It’s good to be reminded that we can feel stupid, inadequate, uncertain, and enjoy life in spite of it all. Whether I live in Cooper or Como or anywhere else, there are always going to be days with garbage on the boulevard, and there are always the days when it gets cleaned up. That’s the rhythm of life everywhere.

The Head Fake is featured regularly on www.readthebridge.info, and every month in the print edition of The Bridge. You can email Jay Kelly at jk@theheadfake.com, or visit his web site at www.theheadfake.com.