“You look like a German wrestler” the man said to me. His face was round with a beak nose. He sat with three companions on the steps of one of the pedestrian bridges that cross one of the big highways running through downtown Minneapolis. The bridge wasn’t a pretty one. It was all built of metal with spiny rungs and a cement walking path.
I was out on a morning run around 8:30 on a Monday and the four homeless people blocked my way down the steps.
They were curious that I was from New Hampshire. “Have you ever seen a Native?” “No” I admitted New Hampshire had very few. “We’re from here,” they told me.
We talked about the safe and unsafe parts of the city. They considered my neighborhood dangerous as the demographic is primarily Somali immigrants. Two of my new acquaintances had been mugged there. The woman had to defend the man with a knife. I hadn’t experienced mugging yet in my neighborhood. Privilege. I will pray for compassion and keep a knife at my side.
They were curious about where my ancestors came from. I told them I was boring English.
“Are you related to Princess Diana?” What a joke. Then we were on to a new topic of conversation.
“Watch out for the red-beaked pigeons. They’ll attack you over in Loring Park. The other ones with normal beaks are fine. The squirrels there are really friendly too. They’ll come right up to you. Then they started joking around about the pigeons sitting on the highway divider. There was a huge flock perched there in the sun as the cars on the highway below whizzed by.
‘That one’s from New Hampshire. He moved here two months ago.” They laughed and pointed at the one on the end, the outcast. Not completely inaccurate. That one there’s from Pine Ridge. No one laughed but they seem to find this funny. A almost said that I’d been there but didn’t. There’s one from Powderhorn. He’s a rough one. Look at his feathers all ruffled up. They were cracking me up.
“You seem like you were brought up well.” They told me.
“I guess so. My parents are nice people.”
“You’re young. And you look like a happy person.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m happy.”
“Well bless you,” the one woman said to me. She smiled. I wished we could be friends.
The quartet rose in unison from their places. “We’ll walk you back to your house.” Okay by me but when I patted my pockets to double check for my keys, I found them empty. Did someone steal them? Could my new friends be criminals? I didn’t think so. I explained my situation to them and went speed walking back across the bridge.
“We’ll see you for dinner at your house” someone called to me as I left.
I walked back to the park in front of the MIA where I had laid in a pile of soft yellow maple leaves as a brief break from my run. My gut was all tied up thinking about how I’d have to ask my feather-headed boss for a new set of keys. I passed white neighborhood people who lived in houses walking their dogs and heading to work. I made eye contact with them, smiled, and nodded. When I got to the maple tree in question I could see the indentation where I’d lain a half hour or so earlier. There was the purple glint shining in the leaves. My bottle opener! Attached to that, all my keys.
I crossed back over the bridge to my neighborhood, hoping to see the four homeless people still cracking jokes, but they were gone. The city’s good at letting people disappear. Then I remembered one bit of the conversation I’d briefly forgotten: “Will you write our story?”
What makes a conversation more or less comfortable for you? Why?