Mom grew up in Minneapolis. She went to Edison but graduated from Holy Angels. She always said her Dad was a businessman, but from what I could understand he was a real estate flipper. They’d live in a house, sell it, buy another, live in it and then sell it. Both my mom and dad were only children. Mom was an orphan at 20, during the depression so she always worked — factories, piece work. One day when we were at a movie theatre downtown — I think it was the State Theater — she pointed to the proscenium curtains and said “I made those.”
Mom had tuberculosis when I was three and she had to go to the sanitarium for nine months. My dad had gotten laid off. We got some kind of relief, but it wasn’t enough. My Dad had to ask my older sister, her husband and child to come live with us and pay the mortgage.
I missed my mom a lot. I was sent to a babysitter down the street. Rosy. She was a character. She didn’t put on a dress. She wore a full slip with a chain of safety- pins hanging from it, nylons that she rolled down to her knees, quilted loafer-type slippers and curlers in her hair. She’d go down to the store like that — not Lake Street, but the corner store.
Rosy’s husband frequented the Yukon Bar on Lake Street. When she thought he’d been down there too long we’d go drag him home. He drank beer at home all the time. They were German and she had a tiny one ounce beer stein she’d fill up for me. A shot of beer. My parents knew about it and thought it was OK. I do love beer now. The taste. It doesn’t even have to have alcohol in it.
Rosy would make me barley soup which I loved. She was very very clean. She used to make her own lye soap in the bathtub. She taught me how to play cards. She always smoked. She made me a birthday cake. She’d take me with her to Woolworths. Once every three months she’d buy a new oil cloth for the kitchen table. She’d let me pick out the pattern. She’d buy me a plastic horse — the realistic kind, with saddles.
During this time my dad — partly because we didn’t have any money, and partly because he was looking for work — decided to lose weight. 70 pounds. From 220 to 150. He shaved off his hair and got bifocals. People didn’t recognize him. Even relatives.
Dad always did entry level jobs. He worked in the foundry, as a bartender, at General Mills. He eventually got a job at Minneapolis Moline – a farm implements manufacturer. Moline was one of the first companies to file for bankruptcy and screw all the workers out of their pensions. Supposedly they passed laws in Minnesota to prevent that from happening – but it still happens. My dad worked there for 15 years.
My parents were older than most of my friends parents. My dad was 45 when I was born, in 1955. They were the “children are seen and not heard” generation. Decorum was important in my family.
Dad was always active in his union. So was mom. She worked as a nurses’s aid at City General – which turned into HCMC. She helped organize AFSCME 977 which is the nurses aids union, so they were both very strong union activists.
My Dad was also active in DFL politics. He used to write resolutions and present them at his caucus meetings. He would have all his resolutions in folders on the table and I was told, DON”T TOUCH YOUR FATHER”S PAPERS. When I was six, this man came to the door with a handful of papers. They were shiny and had that ink smell. I wanted to touch them but I knew I shouldn’t. Campaign literature. I think they had Mondale on them. My mother thought Mondale was really handsome. My father didn’t like her going on about Mondale.
Dad and I went door knocking with the campaign literature. He’d have me run up and stick them in the door. If someone came out I would call him up and he would talk to them. I was supposed to just be quiet.My dad was what they call “emotionally unavailable.” Door knocking, was one way to have a relationship with him.
Today I am the consummate door knocker and phone banker. I drive people crazy because I am always pushing something. For a long time I rode the bus with the county budget in my pocket and if anyone complained about welfare recipients I would show them what a tiny amount is spent on cash assistance. I’ve been doing phone banks for AFSCME recently, long-form conversations about what concerns people and motivates them to vote. It is inspired by the Marriage Equality phone banking campaign. We are encouraged to get into deep conversations with people. I love it.
Lake street circa 1955-1970
I grew up at 3051 Pillsbury, right off of Lake Street.
We didn’t have a car, growing up. My parents took the bus to work. We took the 21 on Lake Street, or the 18, going downtown on Nicollet. But we did much of our shopping by foot.
On Blaisdell and Lake there was a Department Store — Gimbels. That’s where my mother bought my first Barbie Doll. 1961. I remember it was in the window. We were looking at it. They were new then. My mom asked, “Would you like to have a doll like that?” I had just had baby dolls. She wasn’t sure it was Ok to give me a doll like that.
Near the Department store was a Kresge’s which was like a Woolworths but it had fabric — a sewing department. Kresge’s went out in the mid 60s and the Glamour Beauty school went in,. I had my hair colored there a few times when I was in my teens. When they had Dollar Days on the sidewalk the Beauty Shop would put out little plastic bottles shaped like elephants filled with shampoo. I thought those were so cool.
Then there was Liebs — a woman’s clothing store. Not Daytons Oval room, but not Sears either. A step up. The stuff they had in there they didn’t have other places. When we were working, my sisters Janet, Karen, and I would sometimes go down there and buy something special.
My mom bought my children’s clothes at Woolworths. I got an Easter dress there with lavender flowers. They had a dressing room that was more like a phone booth. They had party supplies and I’d look at the patterned bridge score cards and wonder what they were for. Fancy napkins and invitations. Stuff laying flat on counters. Shirts wrapped in cardboard. The place was dim — not like stores today. Old, beat up, slivery wood floors. When you went in there it was quiet, stuffy and dry.
There was a men’s clothing store on Nicollet and Lake. The only time we went there was for fathers day or my dad’s birthday. They had boxer shorts — three to a pack — on the table and I got to pick out the designs. A Scientology Room sat on the Southeast corner of Nicollet and Lake. We were Catholic and my mom said “Don’t go in there,” so we didn’t. We went to Incarnation Church on 38th and Pleasant. It’s now a Latino congregation.
A block down on 29th there was a Night Club called Mr Lucky’s. The Underbeats used to play there. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to go there because Dad saw teenagers smoking outside of it. My mother smoked, but my Dad didn’t.
Mom called hanging out in stores or window shopping “bumming around.” It’s something we did together.When I got a little older I’d bum around with my sister Karen. We’d would go in the hardware store and look at all the air mattresses they had for swimming at the lake hanging down from the ceiling — colorful, with whales and seahorses on them. In the late 60s they outlawed them at the Lake, so they stopped having them.
We used to go to Lake Calhoun- the 32nd street beach. My sister Karen wore a nose plug. I didn’t and I got an ear and throat infection. The doctor told me to stop swimming in the Lake “it was a cesspool.” We didn’t ride our bikes because we were worried about them getting stolen. We we’re very conscious of that — always brought our toys in doors. Always worried about things getting stolen. I think it was warranted but not to the point that my parents were fanatics about it.
One time when I was in 6th grade there were two wrestlers down at Calhoun. Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Henning (?)— everyone thought they were something. One of them said something to my sister, but she didn’t pay them any attention. They were older. One had a scar on his back that looked like a knife wound.
Class, race and school in the 1960s.
Where I lived the school districts overlapped. There were lots of kids then and the schools were overfilled. In elementary I had a choice of Lyndale or Whittier l. I went to Lyndale because my parent didn’t want me crossing Lake Street by myself. In junior high I didn’t have a choice. I was supposed to go to Jefferson which fed into West. It took me away from my elementary school friends. I asked them if I could go to Bryant and they said no. Jefferson was very different. The kids were well to do, from the Uptown and Lakes neighborhoods. They bussed kids in from Bryn Maur. It was a whole different culture. The kids didn’t wear make-up or nylons like I did.
Jefferson fed into West High School, but they wanted me to go to Central, Byrant’s feeder school. I had new friends by this time. I felt like I was always being uprooted. Central was rough and I knew that being a new kid it would be difficult for me.I put my foot down then and said — you are not going to take me away from my friends again. My parents were indifferent. I had to advocate for myself as a 14 year old.
It wasn’t hard to get into West. It was hard to get out of Central because I was White. A lot of White kids were leaving, which is why they wanted me there.
My sisters graduated from Central. I know their school rouser by heart. But I went to West.
West — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners.Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox.We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby. Occasionally I went to the houses of other kids,— mansions on Lake of the Isles. Even the more modest were four square houses with places to hang out. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I would have liked it to be with kids from my neighborhood. But there weren’t any kids anymore in my neighborhood.
Model City (“Urban Renewal”).
When my family first moved to Lake and Pillsbury the people who lived there owned their houses. There was a lady down the street with an immaculate lawn and flowers, and a Sicilian couple next door who owned a gas station. Their house was extravagant, with a mural of Venice.There was a lady on the block whose grass was lime green, and she had flowers. I went in her back yard once and I was stunned at how beautiful it was. A big shade tree, lawn furniture It was like a foreign country to me. Our yard was terrible.
In the mid 1960s all the homeowners on our block left. We were the only family left who wasn’t renting. It was hard to make friends, because people came and went. There were riots and some looting in the 1960s and the stores started to close. The city responded with an urban planning project. In North Minneapolis they called it Pilot City. In the fifth precinct they called it Model City.
Model City wanted to buy our house. They made my parents a deal: they could buy a house with the same number of bedrooms anywhere within Minneapolis and the city would pay the difference. My mom wanted to move to North Mpls. My dad wanted to live in South. We ended up on Holmes Ave in a big beautiful house my parents could never have afforded, near the lakes and closer to some of my friends at school. They tore down our old house and built Findley Place — subsidized town houses.
Work and growing up early.
On the corner of Findlay Place and Lake and a restaurant called La Pizzeria which was quite large. It had a Gondola room. My sisters and I worked there. The guy who owned it was Catholic and he had all these underage kids working there who were going to De La Salle — the Catholic high school. Even younger kids — who had school tuition and they’d send them down there to work to help with tuition. 13 -14 year olds.
I started at 13 when my older sister Karen was waitressing there and I came in and helped her bus tables. Then I answered the phones on the weekends, wrote up the orders. Later I worked as a waitress.
I worked through junior high and high school — at 510 Groveland delivering things to rich people, at the La Pizzeria, Kentucky Fried Chicken, — two or three jobs because I was too young for full hours in any one place. I always had my own money. I went to rock concerts, saw the Beatles, the Doors,…
My parents didn’t push college. They didn’t talk about getting married, having kids, just work, supporting yourself. Mom would say — “you can be what ever you want — the Governor” — but they didn’t plan things. Their big thing was GET A JOB.
I graduated when I was 17. I had this idea that college was more expensive than it was and I didn’t know people who were going. I had taken tests at school that said I could be a psychologist or judge. I thought those jobs sounded stressful. Mom wanted me to get a trade. She watched this matinée movie on TV when she worked nights. They had some sponsors —Plywood Minnesota and Minnesota School of Business….
The Minnesota School of Business was actually more expensive than the U. It was a secretarial school, basically. It still exists. It was $2000 for a two-year program. I was selling Avon and making pretty good money. I also worked at Powers Department store — my first full-time job. I saved enough for the tuition. I took speed writing, and I learned the difference between a statement and a bill of lading …
I was in there a year when my mom had a massive heart attack. She was bedridden. I quit to take care of her.
My Dad had lost his job at Moline by then and was working at North Central Airlines as a maintenance person. He would not help care for mom. I was working at Century Camera on the weekends. I stopped working first and then quit school. There was animosity building up between my Dad an I. He was having an affair. Mom told me she was going to confront him about it on the day she had a heart attack. While she was sick, he stayed out all night. I decided that once my mother was better I would move out. I didn’t think to ask my sisters to help me. Twenty years later when my parents moved in with me, I wrote up a contract, enlisting my sisters’ help.
I was still 18 when I moved out. I got an apartment on 24th and Harriet. I didn’t have a job but I had 1,500 in the bank. I went back to Century Camera but my boss was sexually harassing me. I bit him in the arm and then quit. Tore his shirt. He was married . I thought — you go home and explain that to your wife.
I took the summer off — went out at night with my best friend. In August I began working at the President bar. I made $600 a month. A lot. I was paying $125 for rent. The bus was fifty cents. That puts it in perspective. It was a union bar. I had insurance and weekends off. I worked there 1 and 1/2 years, until a bartender told me I could make even more at the Hyatt, a quiet piano bar. I was lonesome . at the Hyatt. The people in the President were my people — South and Central high school grads. They thought like me.
But I was making $800 a month at the Hyatt. — A union place too.
The theme of the bar was the hubcap pub. They had hood things that went over the seats like old Model T Fords. A car theme. Then they decided they wanted to change to a beach theme. They wanted us to wear these white shorts and pale blue polyester tops. At that time I was a size five, 115 pounds. The smallest top they could get was a size 8 . Because I was so short, the blouse came down to below the shorts and looked like it was all I was wearing. I told him that I wouldn’t wear it.
Around this time there had been some sexual harassment suits in the news. Bosses weren’t sure anymore what they could get away with. There was a suit having to do with uniforms at Henrices. Because of that, my manager capitulated. Later he showed me this bunny suit, all black satin. He joked, “How about you wear this?” Well, I knew if I wore that I could make it a lot of money. I said “Great!” He couldn’t believe it because I had used the sex discrimination card to get out of the other uniform. I even said I would pay for it myself. He said No.
I worked alone at the bar, but I was supposed to have a lunch break and a free meal as part of my contract. The manager said “You can eat at the bar between customers.” I said “No. I need a break. You give me my free sit-down meal or I will have pickets out on the sidewalk.”
I had never been to a union meeting. The only thing I had done with the union was participate in the waiter and waitresses race at their yearly picnic, –balancing champagne glasses on trays. But I knew my rights because of my parents, I knew I could push this guy. I got my break! The manager waited on people while I ate. Afterward the cooks were like — “What is she going to do next?”
My sister Karen was 81/2 years older than me, but we became best friends when I was still a kid and she was a young woman. My other sisters got married and had families. We both remained single. Half of my adult life I lived with Karen. We had been living together for 20 years when she died last September.
She got her first apartment in 1968. I was still in junior high. I spent a lot of time there. It was on the corner of Lake and Hennepin above shops, in the old brick building where Calhoun Square is now. The steps were made of stone or marble, worn from people walking on them. She lived on third floor. We dragged a christmas tree up those stone steps. Three flights. After Karen passed away I thought about going to see if the old stairway is still there.
When she moved into that apartment, the place was a wreck.We painted the cabinets bright yellow and orange — the psychedelic colors going on then. We decided to use high gloss paint. The apartment had one window that was glued shut. It was summer. Hot. We both got high on paint fumes. I had gotten paint on my shirt, two circles around the part of me that sticks out the farthest. When she took me to the bus stop on Lagoon and 29th we were laughing so hard about my T- shirt, we could hardly stand up. Some guys in a car saw us and gave us a hard time.
We worked so hard on that apartment. She had blue and white wall paper in the bathroom. The rent was $75 a month. She paid two months rent to get a guy to install the paper. Karen was working at La Pizzeria and she spent every penny she made. There was a green corduroy couch she wanted and never got and she talked about it the rest of her life. Not getting that couch.
It was so hot in there. she took the doors out to try to cool it off. She replaced them with gold-colored beads and a golden shag rug. She had a bookshelf of bricks and board. Bohemian. She bought an air conditioner , but it would only run if she didn’t have the lights, TV, stereo, or clock on. If she forgot and turned on the light the fuse would go. There was no caretaker there. She had to deal with the fuse box.
I had a key to Karen’s apartment and I would go there before and after school, even when she wasn’t there, and listen to the stereo. We bought the stereo for $120, but then we couldn’t carry it home. The guy said “I can put it in the car for you.” We told him we took the bus. We couldn’t carry it on the bus. The guy gave us a ride home. We listen to that stereo all the time. Melanie Safka singing I don’t eat Animals and They don’t eat me. Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, Ike and Tina Turner, Funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter, Delaney Bonnie and Friends, Only you know and I know.
Only she knew and I know.
When Karen died I kept thinking two things. The cliché – “you don’t know what its got till its gone” and “Life Interrupted.” You are just going along, and then it’s all over. After her death I keep coming across all this minutiae — a receipt for the last movie we went to. Grocery lists. There is a Burger King close to our house. When I pass it I remember all the times Karen would say, “I’m hungry and I don’t have any money.” I would answer, “Well if you want to go to Burger King, I’ll pay for it….”
Yesterday I talked to an AFSCME member who was going to staff our booth at the fair. It got me thinking about the first time I staffed the booth, maybe 16 years ago, before the “new” labor pavilion was built. I took Karen along. We had this survey on clip boards we wanted people to fill out. I think it was about health care. It was me and another lady, Barb Streit, handing out the surveys and talking to people — which I love to do. Karen wasn’t real big on persuading strangers to do things, so she prepared the clipboards for us and arranged the postcards and pens. She was always officious. She had a certain unique style.
Minutiae. The little things that add up to a life.
When Karen was dying, I moved her bed close to the kitchen. She was dosing in and out. I went to load the dishwasher. I told her “I’m just going into the kitchen. I’m still here.” She said “Yes Kathy, I know, you are always here.”
She died on Saturday morning at 4am, September 19, 2015. Three days earlier we watched Jeopardy together and she was still answering questions.
When she found out she was going to die she said, “There are so many more books I wanted to read.” That is what she was thinking about. When she was in high school she read this book, Life Without George , published in 1960, about a woman who restarts her life after her husband dies. The memory of that book came back to me recently
I have begun Life Without Karen.