Valérie Déus: Missing New York, Building an Artist’s Life in South Minneapolis

 

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How did I get to Minneapolis? My husband.

I was born in the County of Kings, Brooklyn, Flatbush, New York City.
My world was big but felt small. Everyone I had contact with was Haitian. Until third grade I thought all Black people were from Haiti.

Young Haitians I meet now tell me  “you sound like my grandma.” I don’t know the young slang because my neighborhood was made up of people who left Haiti in the 1970s — a middle class diaspora. There was one older woman of Irish descent who lived in my building. She had polio braces. She told me, “there used to be lots of us here, now there’s just me.”  I used to run up and ask her questions.

I started writing when I was 5 years old. I still have my kindergarten diary. So much of it is funeral plans. I was obsessed with preparing for my own funeral — the sweater I would need — the scarf. I also made a list of things I would need in the event of a hurricane. None of the Noreasters that hit New York when I was little were bad, but I knew about hurricanes in Haiti. I packed a bag with a flashlight, underwear, shirts. My mom found it and asked, Where are you going?

I first visited Haiti when I was three. My mom tells me at the airport the ticket person called my name, testing to see if I was who she said I was, making sure I wasn’t being kidnapped.

When I was six I went again. It was intense. Hot. Big, scary looking trees with shadows that looked like creatures that might eat me.  There was a hurricane when I was there — water everywhere, houses shaking.  There were these giant holes in the streets where all the sewage and water would run. Even at six I wondered, why don’t they fix this? Won’t people fall in? We went to a movie on that trip. I was upset they didn’t sell popcorn. People chewed gum. I don’t remember the movie much. Something with French aristocrats — lots of velvet.

At that young age I was already going to movies with my uncle. One of the earliest I remember is King Kong with Jessica Lange.

My parents let me watch TV sometimes so I could, “learn about my country,”  something they couldn’t teach me, but they worried about me watching too much.  They wanted me to read books.  When I was left alone in the summer they would disconnect the TV wires. I would spend the day trying to figure out how to rewire them. My mother would check the TV to see if it was hot.

I watched everything: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, fantasy, horror and countless Woody Allen movies —Anne Hall, Sleeper, movies without Black people.  They were always on TV for some reason.IMG_2965 2

Reading Highlights Magazine, the Goofus and Gallent comic was a favorite. 

I had to wait a long time before I had a friend. My sister is 10 years younger. Once she came along it was awesome. Together we were unstoppable.  She didn’t tattle. She knew how to keep a secret. (My mother said the same about her siblings. Sisters and brothers kept each other company.) I brought her with me to all of my high school events and beach parties. She kept me out of trouble. I could always say I had to bring my little sister home. A good excuse.IMG_2968 2

 

School 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade I went to Holy Innocents,a Catholic school in the neighborhood.  The church was across the street from the school. One of priests had a pet snake. We would go visit the snake. He passed a long time ago. He was awesome. It was a good school. I used to want to get married in that church. But then when I got married I decided not to do church at all.

From 3rd to 7th grade I went to a French school in Manhattan with UN kids. There was a big class difference there. I met students from Haiti and the African continent. I am still friends with many of them.

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My family moved to Queens and I went to high school on Long Island. That was terrible. I just waited for college so I could get back to the city. Watching the Scaramucci scandal play out this summer triggered me, bringing up memories of horrible sexual harassment and bullying in high school. I had buried those memories.  I forgot, but my body remembered. I told my husband about it. Now he knows why I flinch when when he comes up to me without announcing himself — a defense mechanism from high school.

I was desperate to get back to the City. I went to PACE University in downtown Manhattan. It was everything I was waiting for.  I was smart enough to make friends with the international students. Now I have people to stay with all over the world. My mom was really against me moving into the dorms, but I needed that. I was worried I would not be able to live alone.

My mother worked for this child psychologist so I thought that’s what I’d do. I registered for a psych class where we were required to watch the film Altered States, about a guy losing it after time in an isolation tank.  It was disturbing. And reading Carl Jung was so boring. I quit psychology.  Today I often take the role of counselor for my students and friends. Without Jung.

Becoming a Writer and Teacher

I liked hearing and telling stories. I became an English major.

While in college I interned at Soho Press and met Edwidge Danticat.  Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just come out. She called the office one day and I answered. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She recommended I go to Long Island University, the Brooklyn campus, for graduate school. I took her advice as gospel, never thought to apply any where else.

I loved being in school. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My only teaching experience at that time was CCD communion class — sixth graders on a Saturday morning, there because their parents made them, a curriculum I couldn’t change, no room for questioning the content. It was terrible.

Teaching as a graduate student was totally different. Everyone was grown and wanted to be there.  They did the reading and they wrote papers I wanted to read. I discovered I enjoyed teaching.  Student were reactive. There work was clear.

Teaching in Minneapolis is different. There is something self-effacing about the culture. Students feel like what they have to say is not important. Once they are pushed to talk it’s great. In New York they needed no pushing. I would tell people to write a paper about why they missed class. Even those papers were interesting.

I’d rather not teach on-line. It feels make believe. You’ve gotta be in the room and feel that heat when you say something wrong — sit in that embarrassment. Those moments push you into places you didn’t even think of going.

Escaping New York after 9/11. 

I have trauma from 9/11. I was dating someone who died that day — not at the Twin Towers.

All the phone lines were down.

That morning I picked up my sister at school and we went to the hotel where my mom worked. Micheal Jackson’s limo was in front of the hotel. His fans were gathered twenty feet in front me. I didn’t see him, but I saw his hands.  I looked down the street and saw dust rising. It was the most surreal American moment.

That night my boyfriend’s father told me his son — who had sickle cell anemia — had died.

I had just started grad school. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. Everyone was miserable — out in the streets — people crying.  I was working in D.U.M.B.O. The World Trade Center was right out the window — a smoky pit.

I thought — I can’t live in this cemetery.  I decided to take a trip to Poland to see a friend. The day I bought the plane ticket, flight 587 to the Dominican Republic crashed.

It was good to be in Poland, where I didn’t understand anybody. Just what I needed. I thought I might move there. I did research about the Poles who came with Napoleon  to fight against the Haitian Revolution in 1802, got to the island, decided they liked it and stayed. I was looking for a Polish/Haitian connection to justify my moving plans.

I had a neo-Nazi experience in Poland. I saw these skin heads moving in formation, went into a store and asked the saleswoman if she thought I should stay there. She said yes. I believed her and stayed over an hour, bought some amber jewelry,  until they left.

It made me realize anything could happen anywhere.

I met my husband-to-be in New York. He couldn’t get a job he wanted so he came back to Minneapolis, where he grew up. I thought, well I guess I like him enough to follow. I figured if I don’t like it I can always come back — that is what my parents always told me. I landed in Minneapolis on July 5, 2005 and went immediately to Dunn Brothers to look for a job. I always thought of living here as temporary.

A lot of my moving to Minneapolis was about escaping 9/11.  I needed to get out of that space. New York City sometimes feels like a small town. Sometimes that is stifling. I thought I could come here and start over where no one knows me. Nobody still knows me. Even my husband doesn’t know me, ha.

 

Minnesota Nice 

Nice can be nice.
I’m not against nice.
Maybe I am.

I want people to tell me what is happening. At work there is always someone trying to make everyone feel OK. A lot of time is taken up, but nothing is produced. I think, Its not OK. Let’s deal with what is.

I never had a problem meeting people before I moved here. In New York I was always meeting new people. People are much more open to that newness. Here people like the old reliable. If I stuck with old-reliable in New York I’d never talk to anybody. As an adult I was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew!

I don’t know how to approach people here. I don’t understand the body language. I never thought it would wear me down. I spend a lot of time at home. I feel like I have only a limited amount of patience and I want to spend it on things that are clear.

I never get to have a full map of a person here, because nobody tells you anything about themselves.

Sometimes I think about moving home to New York. It was busy and awesome. Then I realize I’m thinking about how New York was, when I was in my 20s. It’s frustrating when I go back. I’m 43 now.

An Artist’s Life in Minneapolis 

There are many things that keep me here, opportunities I would not have in New York. In NYC I had no time for anything except teaching and commuting.

I have a radio show, Project 35, on KRSM  98.9 FM.  It airs at 9am on Thursday and 10am on Saturdays. Part of the Southside media project.  I like that nobody listens to it. I’m weird, I know. I can say anything. I think of it as an eclectic magazine for your ears.

I curate Cinema Lounge — screening short films at Bryant Lake Bowl that are locally made, third Wednesdays of the month. (Send me your short films!)

I produce an Art Zine: We Here.

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Valérie’s first issue of We Here — just out — is filled with exquisite work by South Minneapolis artists. The free Zine is a hard love gift to the city. Look for it in your closest Little Free Library 

My goal is to publish one a year— essays, poems, rants, Instagram posts, photography, things people write on Facebook that should be in books. Somebody did a project where they mapped them all out the Little Free Libraries. I’m using that map to distribute them.

Radio, print, film, my own work. I have chosen an artist’s life. Minneapolis allows me to do it.

We live in the Central neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  Its been good. My mother came here and she liked it. She knew I was OK.

I have a tendency to want to flee things, but I will probably stay here. Starting over at this point would be too hard. I can’t imagine doing it again. I wish more of my people were here. I wish we had soft-serve ice cream trucks here. I can’t believe how sad it makes me. Those unsanitary New York ice cream trucks are something I miss.

Jerry Rau: Minneapolis Boy, U.S. Marine, Twin Cities’ Troubadour.

 

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… I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over… 

I was born in the General Hospital in Minneapolis — where MCTC is now, ushered into the world during a period of great disharmony. The next seven years were war years — the whole world at war. It made a big impression on me. The intensity. Children can feel that kind of thing pretty strongly. By the time I could read it was 1943. I remember seeing the picture of Iwo Jima in the paper and bringing it upstairs to show my mom. I said – “Isn’t this something!”

I was a serious child. I lived in North Minneapolis with my mother. It was just the two of us. My mother had had 13 siblings. There is a picture of her family. One sister is holding a guitar. My Grandma could play the guitar a little bit. I think guitars were pretty common in the homes of Swedish immigrants.

When I was six we were riding the Minneapolis street car past a pawn shop and I saw a banjo in the window. I told my mom, ”I want that!” I had just seen a movie with Bing Crosby playing the banjo. I liked the sound of it. A few weeks later a man — a coworker of my mom’s — came to the door with a case in his hands, — a full size guitar with the word “Swede” stenciled on top of the case.

I had small hands! I couldn’t handle it . A Banjo I might have been able to handle. Maybe if I’d gotten a banjo I would have become Earl Scruggs. But the guitar was worthless to me. I could make a sound — that was it. Mom didn’t have money for music lessons.

I ended up trading the guitar for a trumpet, and then the trumpet for a 22 rifle.
My mother and I went to war movies. Mom loved John Wayne. The Sands of Iwo Jima was indelibly X’d in my mind. I joined the army reserve when I was 18. We had meetings once a month and a summer camp — Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. At 20 I decided to join the Marine Corps. Why? I was having trouble with my girlfriends. And I went to see a movie.The hero was in the Marine Corp and I liked the way he looked— wanted to be like him.

I went to the government building on Washington and 3rd Ave; walked around it three times. The third time I said to myself “You don’t have a hair on your butt if you don’t go in there”. I took a sharp left and went in. The Officer asked me when I wanted to begin. I said “Right away.”

My mom hardly ever listened to me when I was young. She was always off somewhere else in her mind. I had a droning voice, so I’m sure I put her to sleep. I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and she would be busy cooking or cleaning and she never heard what I was saying.
I told her I was joining the Marines. She said “Un- huh.” The next day when I came home from work mom said, “There was a man from the Marine corp here today. He said you joined the Marine corp?!” She was shocked.

A week later I walked out the door, headed to the recruiters office. There was a group of young guys down there. Because I had been in the army reserve, they put me in charge of the group,
gave me all their records. We got on a plane and flew to San Diego.
The Army reserve had been a pretty low key thing. The Marines was something else. Twenty minutes after I got off that plane I knew I had made a tremendous mistake. The guy who greeted us was Marine from his hair to his toes and down to his bones. He had a voice that scared the hell out of me. They put us in the back to a pickup truck, seated so we bounced from one side to the other. When we got out of the truck there were two Marine commanders yelling at us. They were from the south. We got screamed at more because we couldn’t understand their accent or what they wanted us to do.

That night we had to stand by our bunks until every man had memorized the Eleven General Orders. If one guy got it wrong we had to start again. We were up until the early morning. Two hours later the bugle blew and we had to get up and the insanity began again.

It was always that way in the Marine corps. If one guy got it wrong we all had to pay. It was indescribable. Just shear terror for young kids.

I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California. During leave, I took a bus from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. We stopped in Omaha Nebraska for a break. When I came back to the bus depot, I heard a girl saying she was going to Minneapolis. I asked her if I could sit with her. We got married several months later.

For a woman to have a husband in the Marine corp — its about the worst thing that can happen.
We had two months together before I got sent overseas to Okinawa for 14 months. When I got back and I don’t know who she is — she didn’t know who I was….

After that we lived together at Quantico in Northern Virginia. I was there to train officers to how to use machine guns. We were close enough to Washington D.C. that we got to go see Kennedy speak at the Iwo Jima memorial and lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on Veterans Day 1963.I will never forget it — all those men in black suits with grey hair and the young President with his tomato red hair. Two weeks later, we were in the middle of a graduation at the instructor school. They told us to go home. They said we were in a state of national emergency. Stay by your phone. You may be called up at anytime.

We didn’t know the president had been killed until we got home. We were just leveled. We went up to Washington a few weeks later to see his grave. My wife gave birth to a son during this time. He died 24 hours after he was born. To this day it still kills me to say it. I still cry. His name was John. We named him after the president and buried him in Arlington cemetery not far from where Kennedy was buried.

At Quantico, while I was teaching officers to use machine guns, I was aware there was a war going on. There had not been many ground troops at that point, but I could sense that something big was going to happen. From Quantico I was sent to Hawaii — where my wife was from. She had family not far from where I was stationed. She was happier there.

One night in 1964, we went to see a movie with our whole battalion. Before the show began the officer came out and said to us, “I can’t tell you where we are going — but pack your bags. All I can tell you is— when they ask you what you did during the war you won’t have to tell them you shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
It was gut wrenching. I went home and told my wife I was leaving the next morning. She was pregnant with my daughter.

Vietnam

It is hard to explain war to anybody. Friends of mine were killed. Good friends of mine. It doesn’t go away. Every night in Vietnam was a horror show.

I was there for seven months… until the incident when I cracked up.

We were in the middle of laying in ambush in a heavy rainforest. It was thick – you could barely get through it. We were on a ridge line – we had set up ambush control — something we had to do from time to time. We were all scared as hell. There was movement. All of the sudden I heard a grenade blow up. I turned around. Everyone was saying ”Get off this hill.” I tumbled down. Everything restricted me. I couldn’t make my way through vines. I was like a wild animal. I beat my way through. People were falling down behind me into the bottom of the ravine.There were hogs in the ravine.

In an area smaller than half a closet, seven of us piled up. I had a rifle in my chin and someone on top of me. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. We lay there in a pile until day-break, trying to stifle our breathing. About half way through I heard screaming and yelling. I assumed most of our group were dead.

In the morning we unwound ourselves.

I felt like I had been a coward. That is the way you think. I didn’t know what I would say to my commander. The other guys had already told the officer what had happened. No-one said a word to me. It weighed on me. I felt like I couldn’t be a Marine anymore.

We carried M14 rifles. Every squad had a grenade launcher. As a squad leader I was supposed to have a rifle. I gave it to the guy who carried the grenade launcher — switched with him. I didn’t feel like I could carry a rifle any more. I didn’t feel Iike I was a squad leader any more. I wasn’t in command anymore and I didn’t act like I was in command anymore.

It was a shattering experience. The Marine way of thinking was gone.

That night someone came and told me “At dawn you go down and see the first sergeant.” So, when the other guys were still asleep I went to the first sergeant. He said “ Check your gear. You are going back to Hawaii. Your wife is in the hospital and we are giving you emergency leave.” I couldn’t believe it. My wife had a break down the same time I did.

I wish you could understand. We were defending an airstrip. There were planes taking off all day long. My first sergeant gave me a new set of dungarees and told me to go down to the airstrip and find a plane going to Hawaii. Can you imagine this? I was walking on the airstrip as the planes were taking off, yelling, “Where are you going?”

I got on a plane going to the Philippines with five Coronals in dress uniforms – all spit and shine. They wouldn’t even say hello to me.

That night I ended up in a barrack in the Philippines with some Navy guys. They were heading out on a liberty night. I wanted to go to the club and get drunk but all I had was my Vietnam rags. One of the guys gave me a pair of pants to wear — size 28. I was a size 32 when I went to Vietnam — but they fit. He gave me a white t shirt. I went up to the club and had a couple beers. I ordered some food but I couldn’t eat. I went back to the barracks.

The next morning I found a plane home to my wife. I couldn’t believe I was in Hawaii. No one was being shot at. Everyone was walking around like nothing was going on. Business people. Tourists…

They gave me a position with the arm forces police and told me they would not send me back to Vietnam — but a few months later I got orders to back. I could not figure out how to tell my wife. We had a new baby. They gave me a month to get things worked out with my family.

When I showed up 30 days later, the guy looked at me. He’d experienced combat and he could just tell. He said “How long you been in the Marine Corps?” I said “Nine years.” He said “You’ve been to Vietnam already haven’t you? I think you should try to get a hardship discharge.”

I had never heard of a hardship discharge.

He said “You have to go to the doctors, have them examine you psychologically, visit a priest…”

So I did. Went through all the hoops. Then we waited, my wife and I. We were like zombies — just waiting.

The Rising Sun 

I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over.

One day while waiting to hear about my discharge petition, I was watching television — this is in Hawaii —this woman comes on and she says My name is Laura Webber. I am going to teach guitar on this channel and I invite your to join me. If you send me $5 I’ll send you a workbook. Every Wednesday we will have a lesson.
I got the workbook and watched every Wednesday, come hell or high-water. She’d say This is the E string….  

Then — Laura Webber came to Hawaii!! She invited her audience in the area to come down to the University of Hawaii with our workbooks and she would give us a couple live lessons.  I went down. There were fifteen of us — guys — with our guitars and our workbooks. We sat on the grass and had a lesson. We opened up the workbook and played and sang together.

Laura Webber saw I had a classical guitar and she told me to get some Bob Diamond albums. I went down to the record store, but I could not find Bob Diamond. Finally the record store clerk said “Maybe she meant Bob Dylan?” So I got some Bob Dylan albums.

I finally got the call about the discharge. The guy said , “You got your bags packed? Well unpack them. You got a hardship discharge.” That’s how I left the Marines. We moved back to Minneapolis. I got a job driving taxi, which I hated. The dispatcher was corrupt and I didn’t make any money doing it.
I decided to see if I could make some cash playing guitar.
My wife thought I was crazy.

I saw an ad in the paper that said musician wanted It was at a place.It was in White Bear Lake . Dave’s Courtyard. There was a women with a piano. I played there behind the piano, where I couldn’t be seen. I played there for eight weeks.

Veteran Against War.

The anti war movement was growing in Minneapolis when we returned. Once, my wife and I were going to a movie at the campus theater. The cops were in riot gear and there were 400-500 people there throwing marshmallows at the cops. It was amazing. We walked through the crowd to see the movie. It felt weird. It introduced me to what was happening. Later on I got involved in the Vets Against the War. We were following a group in Chicago. We had a protest at the airport where the reserve. We had a hunger strike.

In the eighties I was involved in another hunger strike — against the war in El Salvador. We fasted for twelve days at the Cathedral.. Roy Bourgeois was the Priest who fasted with us.

I was a leader. He was a leader. Roy and I had some friction.

The Cathedral was freezing. At one point the Bishop came in. I knew him. I was brought up Catholic. Went to Catholic school and I was still going to mass. I had served mass with the Bishop at St Stephens. I said to him “Could you turn the heat up in here?”
I told that to Roy and he said “You said that to the Bishop?

[Jerry suddenly began to cry.]

It was a crazy time. I had an affair with one of the fasters. Her boyfriend came at us with a gun.

Here we were acting like saints, but we were anything but saints.
Becoming a Troubadour. 
After the gig in White Bear Lake, my confidence as a musician grew. I got other gigs. In 1973 I saw Bob Bovie playing on the corner of 7th an Nicollet. He was a cowboy singer. I followed him, getting a corner (where you could encounter people from two directions.) It was noisy as hell but I had a loud voice then — as a Marine you learn how to project — I could be heard down the block.

The cops did not bother me much. Once in a while I’d see musicians packing up, saying, “They are kicking everyone off the Mall.”  I’d take off, wait a little bit and then come back. The cops were done with their sweep.  I could get the best spot then.

Once I was playing where the City Center is now. I had my case out facing the building. A group of teenage kids came around — four or five of them. One said “Let me see your guitar.”
I said “No I’m trying to make a living.”

They came real close, encircling me, talking about how to take my money. I was intimidated by them but something inside me said, the best way to deal with this is to sing and give it your all. I started to play Mr. Bo Jangles, with all my heart and soul. A few people came and stood behind the kids. Then more people came. Pretty soon I had 20 people standing there. People started clapping and throwing money into my case. When one kid started to try to grab the money, someone in the crowd said

“Get away from that case — that guys is a singer, man. A singer! Leave him alone.”

 

I began writing my own songs in about 1968, but it was several years before I felt like it was legitimate to play them. I would test them out on the Mall. It was hard. Most people like to hear the classics they know.

I started playing in the Dinkydale hallway on the East bank of the University of Minnesota — did that for decades. One day in 1975 ,this guy came into the mall. He looked strange. Dressed in white. White jacket, white pants, and a black beard. His face looked kind of like an owl. He stood there listening to me, peering at me like a bird.
After a couple songs he said to me “You know I have a show…”
I thought “Sure – you have a show” I nodded. I was humoring him. “What kind of show is that?“
He said I put up some bleachers. People play. I do some story telling. Would you like to come?
I said “Sure.” I thought “Yeah sure you do.“ but he gave me a date and directions.
I thought, “What do I have to lose.”

I showed up at the address at the appointed time. There were indeed some bleachers and about 40 people there listening. I saw my friends Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson.
I thought “Holy shit, this must be real.”
Afterward the man in white said he had a morning show if I wanted to come. He kept inviting me to play on his morning gig. Public Radio. Garrison Keillor.
I’ve played in clubs in 25 states. In the late 70s I got a tour in Southern California. Some people in Los Angeles had a radio show. They got a copy of my tape, liked my music and set up gigs for me from San Diego to Los Angeles.
I almost missed my radio appearance with them. I was driving up from San Diego. I was excited. I stopped at a gas station and locked my keys in the car. I told the gas station attendant I was supposed to be on the show in 45 minutes. I ask if I could borrow a a mop and a beer can opener. I shoved it through a tiny slit open in the window. After 20 minutes, of praying and finagling, I got it open.

I got to the radio station just as the show was starting.

I did the Nursing home circuit across the country — got that because a man who was 90 years old — a pastor — liked my music. Sometimes my audience was so far gone they ‘d be sitting there saying “Take me away.. take me away” It’s pretty hard to play when someone is doing that.

Now I’m getting to be that age.
I have had a love affair with the guitar. My songs go in many directions. I like all forms of music. Some sound like country, some sound Cajun. I borrow from everyone. Simplicity has always been my game. I heard once that “Any damn fool can be complex — its hard to be simple” — I think maybe it was Woody Guthrie who said that.
I stopped playing for five years. 2010. I didn’t even play on the street. It was a terrible period. I was getting too anxious about having an audience and where I was playing.
I just started again. Bought a new guitar. A “Collings,” made in Austin, Texas,.  Why did I start again? I’m not sure. I guess I just decided I’m not too old. Willie Nelson is still playing and he is a little older than me…. It’s never too late. I should probably start listening to City’s 97 and work my way into the 21st century. I like some of the new stuff, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Memorization is harder now.
I would not trade my life for anyone. I am blessed a thousand times. It’s humbling.. Someone told me I should write a book. I said “It would take a life time to write it.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. Growing up in Phillips Neighborhood; Indigenous Writer; Poet for the City.

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Our migration to Minneapolis started with my Uncle Dale. My family has always been musical. My uncle was in all kinds of Country Western and Country Western Blues bands. Sometime in the ’70s he got a gig in Minneapolis at an old bar right on Nicollet Ave. He came back and said, “Its AMAZING there! There’s the American Indian Movement, incredible bands… I’m moving, I’m getting out of the prairie for awhile…”
One by one, the rest of my family followed.

We are from North Dakota – The Three Affiliated Tribes – NuE’ta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, all within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My ma said she had always wanted to get out of Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was raised in a dirt floor log cabin. When she first saw Star Trek on a friend’s TV it changed her. To my mom, the whole world outside of her Rez was like the cantina in Star Wars and she wanted to see it.

Minneapolis was exactly what mom wanted. Her brothers were playing in bands and the Indigenous movement was going from protest and activism to working from within the system, joining and creating organizations. She helped start the first Indian clinic in St Paul. When we moved to the Phillips neighborhood she did the same kind of helping out but moved on to the Food and Drug Administration.

My dad had worked at the Red School House, but I went to Bancroft elementary where I was one of four Indians — and two of them were my sisters. I had long hair . Everyday I would fight someone who pulled my hair and called me a girl. That went on until 9th grade. My mom let my sisters transfer to the awesome Indian schools — Red School House, Heart of the Earth Survival School and The Center School.

When I asked to go there my mom and dad said No. My grandma said “If you want to hang out with Indians all day you can stay home with gramma and do the dishes. The world is filled with all kinds of people not just Mandans so it’s important for you to be able to talk to all kinds of people”

The places that I’ve been on the short time that I’ve been on this big old turtle have been pretty amazing and I attribute that to my mom and grandma insisting that I go a little further.

But it was Indian youth leadership groups that helped me to build confidence.

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Golden Eagles Baseball Team. Twin Cities Champs circa 1993

I was always a super shy kid around non-Native people and even when I went to Folwell Junior High there were still only a few more Indians. I was in the Soaring/Golden Eagles youth group and and became involved in the Indigenous Peoples Task Force theater troupe. They helped me get out of my shell.

In high school we moved to Corcoran neighborhood and our first house. I got an internship for the Circle newspaper’s Native youth run and produced paper called New Voices The only other Indians in the neighborhood were our relatives the Yellowbird/St. Johns. My mom became a case worker for Ruben Lindh Family Services and my dad went from every once in a while construction jobs to working full-time for a big old construction management company. My parents wanted us to have something a little bit better. The house wasn’t big enough for all of us but it was ours.

What was also really great about moving was that we were going to be living down the block was my very first non-Indian friend. We were inseparable. Shane Caird– my older sisters called him our Albino brother. With Shaneo drawing and my stories, we even produced our very own single issue comic book, “The Adventures of Super Shane and Mighty Vince”

Then coaches at South came to see me play football for Sibley park and recruited me. I was always deceivingly fast and had lots of what they called “upper body violence”. They said “There are all kinds of Indians in a program called All Nations, and you’re going to love it.” So, — though I lived three blocks from Roosevelt High and I knew Shane would be upset (we only cried once about it) — I went to South. Most diverse school in the city. I met my first Somali friend there. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. I wanted to be Vincent Vincent but then he explained to me who Mohammad was. —

I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults. Left me there all day.
My mom and dad — activists from the sixties and seventies —had always told me “If the cops get you don’t say nothin.” So I didn’t. “Luckily”, one of the cops who worked at South saw me and me said “What is he doing here?”

While I was there at the JDC I had a moment. I thought “I don’t want this.”

My parents yelled at me that whole Halloween and then I had to go to Minnehaha Academy. I tested so well I got into The Blake School but my mom said it looked like one of those schools from TV where all the mean white people go, so I went to Minnehaha. I lasted seven weeks. I came home and my parents asked me – how was it? I told them about a math problem they gave us, it was kinda like – “If Jesus had five apples…” They want us to figure out how many apples Jesus would have. I answered “Jesus is magic. He could have as many apples as he wanted.” My dad was not about Jesus at all. I went back to South and put my head down and studied.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

 

14081460_10153623203465518_839800547_n-1 All Nations Awards Graduation Banquet Dinner, South High School, 1998.

Three of those kids and I went to Golden Eagles. For the most part (my pops was gone some times) we had strong male and female role models in our houses. That is the truth. David Paul Saice, Jr., Jesse James Strong, George Chi-Noodin Spears. I’ve known them for forever and a day. My friends who didn’t make it though South? All but one are still just trying to get right and they will, Indians are slow not lazy and stubborn, but when we set minds to something, doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’ll get it done.

Theater also saved me. When I was in Junior High, Sharon Day started a Native youth theater troupe called the Ogitchidaag Gikinomaagaad Players (Warrior Teacher in her people’s language Anishinaabe), but first came a theater boot camp in Phillips. It was taught by Spider Woman Theater, these New York Indian ladies: sweet but tough. You fooled around you were out. They widdled it down till they had the troupe. The Players. We performed plays for AIDS awareness, drugs and alcohol, and big list of other topics and for the play “My Grandmother’s Love” we performed monologue about our gramma Blanche Benson. At that time — ’92-93 — AIDS was an epidemic on reservations. Sharon got the money to train us and travel to reservations. I’ve been to just about every state traveling by van and airplane with them.

I won the Outstanding Youth Award of the year award for my work with the Ogitchidag Gikinoamaagad Players. Right after high school I went to the short program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, “perfecting my craft”.
But then I came home to Minneapolis and I got myself in trouble again…

 

I ended up burning every bridge. I was 20. You couldn’t tell me nothin. All these awards, writing, acting — I had a pretty big head. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. If you are 20 and homeless, you WILL have a mental breakdown. I ended up at HCMC and from there Catholic Charities.

2000 to 2002 — starting back from zero.
My mom and dad loved me however their addiction to alcohol and drugs created an environment where we could do whatever we wanted. My sisters as well. Our structure was loose and because just trying to keep the lights on was an adventure unto itself, we suffered and sometimes when I’d come home from a weekend trip with the troupe or even tired from a football game at South and our the lights would be off, but only for a couple days here and there. We were all really smart so we could always fall back on ” Well, I’m doing well in school… ”

By 2002 I was climbing out of it. I got my own studio apartment downtown. I felt like “I DID IT!” I went from just owning a backpack to having a place of my own! I started acting again. I went back to the Children’s Theater. They were doing heavier plays in their Black Box series. They’d take kids like me, trained in their programs or other places, work with and eventually work with the meatier stuff. They were going to do One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest. I said great – what will I play? The director said Nurse Ratchett. I was like, alright , cool! He said “I’m kidding. I want you to play the narrator.”

I met my partner Megan Treinen through Cuckoos’ Nest. One of her friends was one of the orderlies in the cast. He asked me to go out to Burnsville to a bowling alley. I had never gone out to Burnsville. They used to have an Indian head for their high school mascot. I never wanted to go out there. But I went.
And right when I walked in. I thought — holy smacks — that lady is pretty. I told her as much that night. I stole her away from this really awesome African guy named Duke, I never met him, but I’m assuming as much because Megan is awesome. I always tell Megan that when I’m really old I’m going to tell our great grandkids that I stole her from a Zulu warrior, that I fought for the right to ask her out by fighting him in a ring of fire — my tribe against his — lions against coyotes and bears.

She was my white passport. She hates when I say that, but it is true. I moved down to Winona to be with her while she finished her degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies I got a job at the Green Mill and later at The Blue Heron coffee shop. Damn is Winona racist! Even their foundation myth. They invented their own Indian maiden myth and put her on a statue in the middle of town.
Across from the court-house where all the judges and police hang out is the Red Men Club. In it are photos of white men — lawyers, cops, judges, dressed up in feathers holding fake spears. And they have that statue of the Indian slumped over — “End of the Trail” — sculpted by a white guy.

Winona State University asked, “how do we get more Indians here?” I said, “First, you shouldn’t have kicked out the Santee Dakota that are from here. Second, maybe you shouldn’t have this effigy to the dying of my race. I’m standing right here, my brown-skinned self! Indians don’t want to look at that.” Their response was to hire another white sculpture to put some positive Indian imagery around the dying Indian. I said “Good luck with that. This is a very racist town and I’m out of here.”

Because Megan was white, I knew we could move to North Dakota and she would flourish. Her parents — some of the most racist suburban white people I have ever met — didn’t want her to go — said there were drugs there like somehow people weren’t doing any drugs anywhere in Savage, MN. We went, this is just something they do, justify they’re racism I mean. When we first started dating, she had her own apartment in Winona but for the summer she was staying at her parents. Out of the blue, she had a 12 o’clock curfew, a 20 year old with her own apartment. They could never come up with real concrete reasons they don’t like me, so eventually I started to help them out with some because that’s what I do, I’m a giver.

Almost immediately Megan became an intern for Senator Kent Conrad, and then worked for the Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Needles to say, Megan flourished, but that’s what she does, because she’s a beautiful flower.
With her resume built up, we headed back to South Minneapolis. I knew that I would need this white ambassador and I would need to help this white ambassador’s resume, if we were going to be able to build a life for ourselves.
Because, even in South Minneapolis, even with a degree, even the Indian organizations don’t hire us too much. We did have a short stay out at Megan’s mom’s house. I say short because her mom ended up kicking us out on the street, effectively making us homeless, because I got upset when Megan’s dad decided to grab some of our stuff packed up in the garage and use it as things for their dog to play fetch with. I guess when you live with white people in the suburbs, you have to let them use your things for dog toys and if you don’t like it and you raise your voice in defense, well then you’ll just have to find somewhere else to live. So we did.

There are four types of Indians: the urban Indians, suburban Indians, rural Indians and Rez Indians. (Most people don’t realize that rural Indians are not same as Rez Indians.) Now maybe it’s just me but the non-profit Indian organizations in Phillips, really only seem to hire light-skinned Indians who grew up in suburbia or other places where they may be the only Indians in their communities and here’s the thing, I don’t know why. Indian Health Board, Native American Community Development Institute, American Indian Center, Little Earth, Native American Community Clinic — go into any of those places and you will see mostly light-skinned and/or suburban Indians working, it’s like maybe a certain small percentage are people from the neighborhood, and an even smaller percentage of dark skinned Natives, I could speculate on why this is like this, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that they get money to develop our community aka “help the Indians” but even the ones that got a quarter of a million dollars in funding only put up stickers on the lightboxes, and then just on 1 street, the one thing the Native not for profits in my neighborhood have done in unison is Not hire from within the neighborhood for top positions.

Megan was incredibly excited to move to the city. I had an opportunity to finish my degree at Augsburg College but for the most part, I was scared to move home.

Augsburg was a really different experience.

Augsburg is open to all types of Indians but what they really wanted was the “safe” suburban Indians – those who know how to operate in this world. They elected me to the American Indian Student Association. That was a big scary thing. Some of those Indians were really entitled people. So mean and back stabby, on the southside beef is handled up front and direct, on site, that is not how they got down and the subcultures clashed. They kept asking us for drugs. I told them off.

I said to one guy, “We wanted you to help out with the Pow Wow but we have to pull back because you keep being mean to all the Indians.” His mom and dad were like these mega sciency Indians. They got postcards from Obama. His mom came down and got mean and everyone bowed down to her, I guess when you offer to buy the Indin student group hats and jackets, you can make moves like that. That is when I realized I was not cut out for college. I could not kiss anyone’s ass. I lasted two semesters and then the perfect storm hit. My older brother passed away and every semester Augburg went out of it’s way to remind how poor I was. it was tough. But not as tough as learning about how over and over again Indigenous nations were forced to convert to Christianity to survive in one class and immediately after I had to go to my mandatory theology class where the instructor told us all to just “think of this as Sunday school, because it is.”

Transfer students didn’t have to take this mandatory class, but I did even though I transferred in from a technical college they wouldn’t accept my Algebra credits I tried so hard pass (im not good at math and have had to take algebra at every school ive gone to) and that followed with mandatory Sunday school and American Indian Studies professors who weren’t up to facilitating conversations about misuse of Indigenous iconography by people who have vague Indigenous descendancy. I’m not kidding when I say a senior in film studies actually said that because he was 1/3rd Cherokee (he wasn’t, people don’t come in 3rds of anything, that’s absurd) he was entitled to use any and all Native imagery without asking permission, and the professor said nothing, I on the other hand am a pro at dropping knowledge bombs on the 33.33% Pretendians but not having that backup in the department of study that I switched because it would inform my work as poet, was disheartening. And so because if all of that, I dropped out, still owe the gov’t 5000, I’ll probably never get a 4 year degree. That’s a dream now, like buying a projector, or owning an electric car.

I had gone to technical college and to get my associates degree so I had planned to finish my degree in Information business management at Augsburg. Fortunately I decided to take a few non-management classes. Intro to acting. American Indian Studies. Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet I was getting to be friends with, who had given me a copy of her first book of poetry when I was an intern at the Circle in high school.

Cary Waterman was awesome — that 90 days was like my second birth. I had thought my art was acting, performing. The way I learned to write at the Circle was right down the middle and you piss both sides off. Inverted Triangles. I never thought I’d be able to do creative writing. Now I was learning all these forms of poems….

Cary Waterman wanted us pick a poet and get them to mentor you. Other students chose Walt Whitman, Shakespeare. I didn’t realize she meant we were supposed to read the work of one poet. Asked my playwright/poet, friend who gave me her book, if she would be my mentor. I told the other students “We went to a coffee shop and talked for an hour….”
One of the kids who wrote for the student paper said: “that woman was the poet laureate of Augsburg College.”
I was like, “Dope! I’ll tell her.” I felt like I messed up. I only took the class so I could talk to my poet friend and have better conversations.

I started writing poems, mentored by this great Indigenous writer. That changed my life. She waved her hand and the hallway of closed doors in my life just opened up. I followed her, walking through doors. She was constantly telling me “You’ve got something. You’ve got agency in your braids”
A year later I won my first Jerome Foundation Grant. My mentor told me it was BIG. She never won one.

I was ready to go to my first professional Indian writers conference. Returning the Gift: Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was held at an old University of Wisconsin Mens dorm — a mansion. Those white fuckers had a mansion. But now it was the Mansion that Indian Writers Built. I walked in and there was Jim Northrup laughing and teasing Joy Harjo. I saw Gary Farmer, Denise Sweet, Wade Fernandez, Susan Power coming down the stairs talking with Heid E. Erdrich….

We were about to drive back to the cities when my mentor said “I think you should try that poetry slam. If you win this you go to the next round and they will pay for it.”

I was like — “pay for it? Pay for Indians?”

She said there is only one other Indian champ. Sherman Alexie.

I thought OK, I’ll go and do my poem and get the hell out of here. I was sitting at this table with this guy Norb Jones. He came only for the poetry slam. He was there to win. On the other side of the table was Charlie Hill – he worked for Richard Pryor! He was one of the judges. There were Indians from Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, the Sami even– they were all there to compete. Some of them were reading from their published books.

I got up and put my two worlds — writing and acting — together. The first bout I got all tens. I was like, that was great – can we go home now?

My mentor said “No. Tomorrow is the championship and you are in it.”

It was me and Norb Jones. I got all tens and won the championship. Now it was Sherman Alexie and me, the two champions. That was it. I was a writer. After that I started winning every Minnesota poetry grant you could win.

I went with my mentor to Michigan, and to the Turtle Mountain Writers Retreat and Workshop to work. Dr. Gordon Henry was there at both but while in Michigan he asked me “Do you have 90 poems?”

I thought he was asking me — how much do you write — are you working hard enough?

My mentor said — “Ninety poems is a book. He’s asking if you have enough for a book. He runs a Press, dumdum”

The rest of the time there is a blur. I only remember that he paid for dinner.

My mentor told me to take my time getting the work together. She said “It took me five years – you are in this one year and some change — take your time. It was like she put a force field around us.

Then someone showed my Youtube videos to Sherman Alexie… and because he’s got super powers and he was in town at the Fitz AND my friend was a DJ for the event I got to go. We got box seats. I’m thinking — I’m going to say right to his face that he should stop writing so positively about fry bread and Pepsi. He’s giving us all diabetes.

During the sound check Sherman looked up at me from the stage. “There is an Indian in Lincoln’s seat. Watch out they are going to shoot you.”
After his performance he hung out with a group of Indian kids from one of Indian Schools for about an hour. I thought –he is a really good dude.
Then he looked up at me and motioned with his lips, “Hey – come on down here.”
I had one of those movie moments — Sherman Alexie just called me down… So I did.
He said “I’m Sherman Alexie.” I was like — I know who you are.
He said “How’s it going? Your name is Vince.” I thought “My name IS Vince.”
“People have been sending me your videos.”

I thought, I am about to get in trouble.

“Do you write them down?”
“Yeah.”
“Do you want to show me them?”
I said “Well, they are being looked over by Dr. Henry at University of Michigan Press, I don’t think I can….”
He said “I know Gordy, its OK. Send them to me.”
He asked “Do you have any of my books for me to sign?”
I said “I don’t have any of your books. I read em and I give em to my Aunts and my mom to read. So he said “Do you have anything for me to sign?”

I pulled off one of my red Pumas and he signed it “Less fry bread, more running. ”
That’s when I realized he read my tweets and eventually I would send him my poems, because he asked to see them, he being Sherman Alexie.

When he was back in town — at Macalester, the only college in town that can a afford him – that and the U when he takes a pay cut. I emailed him: “What do you think of my poems?”
I thought he was going to break it down – tell me what to work on — tell me to read more of this or that poet. His email was: “You know your pretty good right?”
That was it! I thought to myself — “fuck that guy.” I thought I was going to catch some knowledge….We went a year. I finally sent him another email.

Sometimes its problematic to be Sherman Alexie. Sometimes Sherman Alexie makes decisions that Sherman Alexie shouldn’t make and he catches some national shade for those decisions. I sent him an email and told him he can’t talk for all Indians…

His email, back said” I’ve been writing this email to you for five days. I write and I delete it, write and delete it. I have been having this conversation with Indians on and off the reservation for 25 years. Instead, for you– I am going to give you a to do list.”
All the things I wanted to hear were there. But then there were other things like: “Eat More Salads” and “Run more.”

I was 450 pounds two years ago. I weighed myself a month ago — 265 pounds. Sherman Alexie didn’t do it. I was already on my way — but you know it’s getting bad if Sherman Alexie is telling you to run and eat more salads.

**********

I took on my niece and two nephews a few months ago, from North Dakota. As we were driving out of Bismarck together, I got text from Sherman. It said “Write me a story about an Indian Kid.” That was it. I thought – doesn’t he know I just write poetry? I don’t write short stories.

I started writing, — my first five pages — not ready to read, but on my way.

It’s all moving pretty fast. I scares me a little bit. I was an actor when I was a kid. I even went out to LA and auditioned during pilot season. I was Indian Famous — which is like being a Z level celebrity. It was awful. I had to learn that lesson hard. I have learned that there are so many tertiary people who want to have a piece of you and they want to be your friend. I had to push those people away. They started un-friending me on facebook. I learned to create a bubble around myself. All you can do is what you can do.

That’s me. That’s where I’m at. I made some bigger mistakes recently but I’ll learn. Then I drove over here to tell you about it.

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr.   Performing his work.

More Than A Single Story

 

strib-photo

More Than a Single Story: Women Writers of the African Diaspora,  was a three session series at the Loft Literary Center, curated by Carolyn Holbrook in the fall of 2015.  Holbrook took the title  from  the Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Single stories are the stuff of stereotypes that dis-empower.

The first session featured Tish Jones, Shannon Gibney, Andrea Jenkins, Lori Young Williams, Pamela Fletcher, and Mary Moore Easter. The second The October 4 session featured three Caribbean writers :Valérie Déus, Beaudelaine Pierre, and Junauda Petrus.

Holbrook asked what they feared writing about. For Shannon Gibney it was the experiences of others. Andrea Jenkins felt comfortable in that space but feared writing about herself. All struggled with writing about those close to them.

“Should there be a cannon for Black women writers?  They disagreed, but all felt It’s important to know you are not the first, when you sit down to write.

Moore Easter and Gibney encouraged writers not to worry about what genre you are filling. Jenkins encouraged people to self-publish and not let the industry get between you and your audience.

 

Déus,  grew up  in a Haitian community in Brooklyn, New York. She fears writing about trauma. She has a ritual of retelling to mark anniversaries, but is waiting for the time when she ready to say something more about them.

She told of countless retellings of the Haitian revolution growing up — the island that overthrew slavery and colonialism all at once — a story that made her unafraid to imagine radical change.

Petrus, who grew up in South Minneapolis of Caribbean immigrant parents, compared inter-island migration that splits families and leaves children without their parents, to African-American great Migration North.

Petrus hears Black Cannon everywhere: in her mother’s voice, in Chicago’s south side, in hip hop. She told of a year her mom took them to live in Florida, of falling in love with the ocean.

Both she and Déus, talked of the difference between Minnesota lakes and rivers and the power and smell of the big salt sea.

Pierre came from Haiti to the Twin Cities in 2009. Her father told her to be a writer because she could speak French well. Now she writes in Creole, a language that most can’t read, but one that best describes her reality.  Coming from a place where everyone is Black and therefore no-one is black-identified she struggles with American racism, especially as a mother of Black children in Minnesota.

Not a single story, but many essential stories.

Photo by Brian Peterson, StarTribune.