One summer in the early 1970’s, I was on my own with vacation time to use. My friend George met a girl from Minneapolis and they decided to marry. The wedding was in August in Minneapolis. I was invited. A few other friends from our office were going, so I agreed to meet them in Minneapolis. It’s about 740 km (see map)
I was driving an orange Volvo Station wagon at the time and had just bought a guitar and was learning some basic chords and scales. I decided I would drive to Minneapolis and after the wedding continue south and west, stopping to see Chicago and then drive around the southern tip of Lake Michigan and north-west to Toronto via Detroit. Another friend had recently left Winnipeg to manage a small Toronto theatre. It would be good to see him and his new theatre. I had other friends living in Toronto that I could see too. It sounded like a decent adventure.
I packed a bag for a couple of weeks on the road and decided to take the new guitar along, hoping there would be enough down-time to practice those chords that were giving me callused finger tips.
To get to Minneapolis I had to cross the Canada/US border at Emerson Manitoba, an hour south from Winnipeg. I had my Canadian passport as proof of citizenship with me (in those days you really only needed a driver’s licence to cross the border, but because of my English accent I wanted to make sure I got back in ok). When I arrived at the border (Welcome to the United States of America, – the sign read) the US immigration and customs officer asked me where I was going. I explained about Minneapolis. “What’s the purpose of your visit?” the guard asked, looking steely eyed and sounding stern. They carry sidearms you know. “Friend’s wedding” I replied. “Would you open your trunk”. I got out and lifted up the rear door of the wagon. The officer looked inside the guitar case and gave me another stern look. “Why do you have your passport with you?”. “For when I go back across the border, I only recently became a Canadian citizen” I said. “Park your car over there and come into the office”. I did as I was instructed.
The officer led me to a counter where two more burly guards were standing. “He says he is going to a wedding in Minneapolis (sneer), he has his passport and he has a guitar and a large case full of clothing” (meaningful glances were exchanged). Oh no pretending to be a musician must be a federal offence in the US. Funny though the Dave Clark Five hadn’t had any trouble). The officer then went back to warmly welcome more tourists.
The two remaining border agents wanted to know whose wedding I was attending. I gave them my friend’s name and the name of his fiancé.
BA: “Is it your wedding you’re attending?”
Me: “No, It’s George’s wedding, I am married already, but separated”.
BA: “Are you George?”.
Me:”What? No, I’m me…”
BA: “Are you planning on looking for a job in Minneapolis?” ”
Me: No, I have a very good job in Winnipeg, with the provincial government”.
BA: “You’re planning on staying in the Sates aren’t you?”.
ME: “Well, just for about a week, I’m going to the wedding then going on to Toronto via Chicago”.
BA: “Hmmm”. “Go and wait over there” pointing to a bench.
I went and sat. Another agent came in with some Japanese tourists. There was a lot of discussion and showing of passports and tickets and bowing. The Japanese tourists were allowed to proceed on into the US to spend money, bow and take photographs. I continued to sit and wait. I think this is called ‘cooling your heals’.
After an hour and nothing happening I went back up to the desk. “Can you tell me what is happening?” The officers gave me some stern looks then one of them handed back my passport and said “Ok. you can continue. Welcome to the United States”. Not the hint of a smile. “You’re welcome to them too” I thought.
I drove another 8 hours or so and arrived in Minneapolis somewhat later than planned. I checked into the motel. My friends hadn’t yet arrived, so I went for a walk and looked for somewhere to have dinner.
I must have gone too far in the wrong direction, towards the bus depot I think, as I found myself amongst lot of grubby looking men sitting around drinking out of brown paper bags. I stretched myself to my full 5 foot eight and a bit, threw out my chest expanding it as much as my 125 pound self could and marched briskly back the other way. I found myself in a better lit and more active street. I felt more secure. I let my breath out. Puffing out my chest for six blocks was harder than I had imagined.
I discovered a warm looking cafe. When I say I discovered the place, it’s a bit like saying Christopher Columbus discovered North America – I bumped into it and it was already inhabited. I sat at a table in the window so I could watch the action on the street as I ate my meal. I noticed a door opposite the restaurant, that opened onto some stairs leading to a higher floor. I saw women coming out and then returning with men on their arms. They would disappear behind the door. Other women and men came out, the men went one way while the women seemed to hang around on the street waiting for another customer. Then a huge, pure white, stretch-limousine pulled quietly up in front of the door. The driver, a huge man with a suspicious bulge under his arm pit, got out and went around the other side and opened the back door for a very dapper looking ‘dude’. Both men were looking up and down the street all the time. The Dude was dressed all in white, including an incredibly wide-brimmed hat with a white feather attached. He had a large leather bag in his hand. He went up to each of the women on the street, said a few words to each and held out the bag. Each one took what looked like bundles of cash out of their purses and dropped them into the man’s bag. The man disappeared for a while behind the door. I gulped down some food, and drank half a cup of coffee.
Just then I noticed a police cruiser coming slowly down the street, it’s flashing roof light heralding its arrival. The limo driver saw it, he pretended to be getting into the car. He held the car door open and leant forward as if about to get in, but actually stayed motionless in suspended animation. The police cruiser drifted slowly by and continued down the street, its flashing lights signalling its progress. The limo driver straightened back up and continued to lean against the shiny white limo and waited for the Dude. Shortly the Dude came back out, waved to the ‘girls’ and was handed into the back of the limousine by the driver, who then drove slowly and silently back down the street. I’ll save the social commentary for another time.
Now, you don’t see things like that in Winnipeg.
The rest of my few days in Minneapolis were pleasant, it’s a lovely city, great people, good galleries and much to see and do.
My first solo adventure had begun. I’ll continue next time with my drive south-west to the intimidating skyline of Chicago and what lay waiting beyond in the darkness…