Mental Contagion

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Rūs Mental Contagion
Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis

Invasive Species

The front door was propped open, serving up a slice of light. With only narrow windows near the ceiling, the room felt womblike, even when the sun was still proud. This neighborhood bar was built in 1899, most recently purchased in 2005 by a man who has a enjoyed a long and varied entrepreneurial history in Minneapolis. He remains plenty hip enough to know what works. He built in heavy, north-woodsy booths with red Naugahyde seats and hung a few large paintings from local artists over them. He added a compact stage at the back, which delivers top-shelf, homegrown and eclectic nightly entertainment: the Roe Family Singers, Chuck and Sean’s Trivia, Tacos & Turntables and the like. The food is low country, as in grilled sandwiches, hummus (cleverly served in a martini glass) with pita bread, fries, and hush puppies-- rarely seen or cooked properly in the Midwest. (I know this because I grew up in the south.) The difference between a glass of Tempranillo for $6.75 or a half-price happy hour bottle for $12 was easy to figure out. The witty, handsome bartenders were running between a small kitchen and the bar and got distracted in their split duty, accidentally incinerating our tuna melt for which we were not charged. Classy.

The owner happened to walk in after our wine was corked and we struck up a conversation, loosely acquainted through the arts scene for many years. From behind his flesh-colored vintage glasses, he ranted about the Mafioso thugs from city hall who have been beating him up about everything from his fryer that didn’t meet code to the neighborhood noise ordinance since he opened “probably because I voted for Reagan,” he said, which admittedly took me off guard, coming from him. He rambled on, clearly frustrated, about the DFL contingency, which he claims has locked down our state from a time immemorial. I listened to his abbreviated synopsis of the situation and was happy to know that there are art-centric, fiscally conservative Republicans running in our underground tunnels after all, challenging my oft-judgmental views on that spoiled party and where they party. Whatever. There are two sides to every story and this is my favorite bar in Minneapolis.

After another friend arrived, ordered a cocktail and after the three of us chatted awhile, I grabbed my glass and stepped out back to smoke at one of the cedar picnic tables shoring up against the yellow brick wall, the area cordoned off from the street with an iron pipe railing. That meant I could drink my wine out there. I lit up. A small, dark-haired man in his 50’s wearing a classic motorcycle jacket was sitting at the next table and promptly asked to bum a smoke. I refused, using my up front ‘n’ sassy argument about how expensive cigarettes are nowadays and that they are for sale in the bar, which was soon drowned out by yet another perfectly outfitted Harley rider making his deafening, mid-life-crisis statement up University Avenue. I rolled my eyes away from all of it and gulped my wine. We exchanged a few off-handed remarks and then, turning to face him, I asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m a botanist,” he responded.

“Really? Prove it,” I snapped, with a playful, dubious grin, suddenly interested.

Botanist Bob proved it with anecdotes about land management in Idaho and eradicating invasive species at Custer’s Last Stand memorial and went on to educate me on the evils of Monsanto’s agricultural takeover, “90% Round-Up-Ready soybean starters,” and how this related to his small farm and landscaping business in Inver Grove Heights. He had swollen, chapped, grey farmer hands. He was not a fan of genetically modified food or pesticides any more than I. My companions wandered outside with their drinks, eyeing the situation dubiously, slipping into my table where introductions were made. Botanist Bob commented about the way I wore my clothes, my beautiful eyes (uh-oh!), found out I was happily married, passed me his card and talked about “living within the bounds of nature” and then about how his wife hadn’t kissed him in ten years. I told him that wasn’t right and he should go home and make love to her immediately, or divorce her. The latter was not an option, as he explained, because, according to Minnesota state law, she would sell off or own half his farm.

Before we could discuss that topic further, Freaky Bicycle Guitar Man, who had been hollering like a street preacher to no one at the corner table, stumbled down the line of tables with someone else’s abandoned Bloody Mary glass in hand, into which a couple spent condiment packets and a balled-up napkin had been stuffed. He slammed it on the table, clumsily removed the garbage from the glass with his grimy fingers and more or less demanded a pour from the botanist’s beer glass. Botanist Bob looked at me with his sparkly navy eyes, sighed, and complied. FBGM threw the beer back with conviction, almost choking on the remaining ice in the glass. Then he hollered: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” His voice was strained and hoarse, the large veins in his neck bulging and pulsing while he paced back and forth like Rilke’s panther, ranting over the state of the world. I could not disagree.

“I know… I hear you,” I said loudly, since he was looking at me. And then he raged on about not being granted a slot at the open mic event tonight and when I asked why, he boasted about how he likes to get people worked up because he’s worked up and goddammit this and shitfire that and I finally said, “Well, maybe they don’t want you to get on stage because you seem belligerent and they are worried about what might happen…” He spewed saliva intermittently throughout his recharged protest, ramping it up until I cut him off.

“Hey… you are getting really belligerent right now and it makes people nervous, especially if you’re drunk.”

He paused, startled, and, for an instant, my fight or flight hackles rose. But when his face went slowly quiet, we locked eyes and I felt a world and then another pass between us – one rolling beneath his shadow and one beneath mine. Fully softened, he muttered, “Well, you know, I need people to tell me this shit, you know, because I need to know how I’m comin’ off.”

I smiled. “Well, I’m telling you…. and it’s okay… you’re okay, right?” I offered impotently. Behind his aggressive agitation he was exhausted and coveted a bottle of booze and other things he’d likely not had for far too long, if ever. Two beats later, Botanist Bob said something that set FBGM off again, and he reclined into the comfortable trench, ranting again, eager to keep any connection with us for however long and for whatever reason.

Exasperated, we were forced to ignore him and eventually, he moved down the line. Botanist Bob escorted me around the corner after urging me to ogle over his circa 70’s BMW, which was parked coquettishly at the curb on 13th Street. This is where we said goodbye. My companions and I moved on to another bar a few blocks away to meet more friends, eat some nachos, and catch up. Eventually, I stepped outside to smoke again. A cop car rounded the corner and pulled up, rolling down the passenger side window. He asked if I’d seen some guy with freaky hair on a bicycle with a guitar. I said, yeah and where I’d seen him, and said he was mostly harmless, just mad at the world. He made notes on his clipboard and murmured as he wrote. I wished him a good evening adding that if he found Freaky Bicycle Guitar Man, I hoped he’d be gentle and that I didn’t think he was dangerous. He’s just sick and tired of being sick and tired, I said. The cop nodded in complicity. The moon peeked out from behind a tree, staring through its telescopic eye.

Three days later, the rain fell steadily for 24 hours or more. We were mere fractions from drought conditions around the state so the downpour was welcome. That morning, two men arrived in our yard separately, dressed in rain gear, one from Dakota Electric and the other from Frontier Communications, to flag the lines prior to south side tilling scheduled for the afternoon. We’d been planning to expand our garden and get more serious about growing our own food. While we joked with the guy from the electric company, an email flew in from Juliet the Poet, who has been obsessing about the honeybee crisis. Bees of all varieties have been dying in alarming numbers around the world and scientists can’t clearly identify the reasons why, but are concerned that it could cause a tragic, global agricultural event of epic proportions. Pesticides and genetically modified seeds are suspect. Upon further reading, I learned that wild buckthorn, an assertive and unwelcome hedging shrub, provides one of the most substantial pollen sources available for bees in the spring and that the eradication of buckthorn and other errant weeds are adding to the endangerment of the bee population.

Buckthorn crowds the wooded areas around our prairie. Its half-inch long spikes scratch our legs and arms, tear at our clothes and sometimes wound our dogs as they plow through the thick hedges to the river. When it blooms, the smell is sickeningly sweet like the odor of last night’s drink on someone’s breath but there is something alluring about it. We have a neighbor who made it his mission a couple years ago to eliminate buckthorn from the property because of its insistence upon the land. He’s had little success.

……I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

—From "Witchgrass" by Louise Glück.
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