Monday, December 12, 2016

Cracks in the Sidewalk

The Marathon Culture of Franklin Avenue

The 2 takes a smooth ride on the newly repaved Franklin Avenue, right by All My Relations gallery. Photo by Deborah Carver.
The 2 takes a smooth ride on the newly repaved Franklin Avenue, right by All My Relations gallery. Photo by Deborah Carver.

Franklin Avenue

The city looks right into you.
Its motorcars blow smoke and pass you by.
Down on Franklin Avenue.

On Franklin you are overdue;
impatiently the east streetlights standby.
The city looks right into you.

Suddenly a place you knew;
abandoned for your memory to buy
down on Franklin Avenue.

You see Anishinaabe, Sioux.
They walk the lane and meet there eye to eye.
The city looks right into you.

Uncomfortable in your shoes.
A rigidness that tempers your goodbyes.
Down on Franklin Avenue.

Remember when you next pass through
the street can tell a good sole from a lie.
The city looks right into you
down on Franklin Avenue.


The cracks in the sidewalks of Franklin Avenue convinced me to run again.

When we were kids we devised all sorts of ways to make games out of those little imperfections in the cement. We would jump over the fissures; hop one, two, three in a row. Tumble and fall, never touching the cracks. No one wants to repay all the years of a mother’s love, labor, and toil with spinal injuries. Franklin Avenue would be the mecca of sidewalk games if there was such a sport.

Maybe imperfection isn’t the right word to describe the lines between the sidewalk squares. Those breaks and creases and dark spots on Franklin are more than just blemishes on the street. Think about all of the people and pets and bikes and vehicles that have careened onto or off of those blocks, those flat man-made stones in the street. Think of all the creatures who have sat on, or shit on, or slept with those solitary concrete slabs.

Each crack in the sidewalks of Franklin is a page of history for people to read. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the tensile strength of concrete, but it’s really not that great—all the scraping, the shuffling, the running, the soliciting, the pushing and pulling of all the people who tread the pavement without so much as a “thanks for being there” could lead a craggy, salty piece of rock to the snapping point. “What keeps the streets together?” I ask myself sometimes as I walk up and down the lanes of Franklin. Believe it or not, it’s the cracks and imperfections that make Franklin Avenue what it is, give it strength.

Concrete is strong, but it’s strong in different ways. For example, concrete is rigid. Hard on your bones, and your ankles, and your body. Maybe that was why I stopped running this last winter. The weather was hard enough as it was for someone who parked on city streets during record levels of snowfall. Then again, worn out aching bones and bodies make excuses to hang up our healthiest pursuits. The line between sore and sour is a thin rope to tread, and runners have to jog it every morning. It’s no wonder some of the would-be runners fall off the wagon. It’s so much easier, admit it. To just lay on that couch. I know, I’ve been there. It took a transition in my lifestyle to fix things and Franklin was my avenue to a long-distance lifestyle. I just didn’t know it yet.

Transition is difficult, and no transition is quite like moving from a recognizable place to one you’re unfamiliar with. I ran away to Minneapolis, though not very fast, from a string of misadventures and personal disappointments. I spent my childhood in Turtle Mountain. There’s no mountains there and the turtles are hard to find. I hear if you look hard enough you can find box turtles and pocket mountains, but alas, before I could find any my family moved east. (Or Wabun in Anishinaabe, if you’re curious.) You could say I’ve been slowly running here all of my life since then.

Being a Native American in a urban landscape is really touch and go. Around the 1950s, Termination Era–policies encouraged people to migrate into the bellies of America’s greatest cities, possibly to disappear forever. Before I was even born there was a whole generation of transplanted Natives here, families and loners alike, cutting the pavement of this new reservation trying to find a way to bring some of the old hills and mountains into these cities of glass and steel.

Minneapolis is different. You can ask anyone who lives here, especially on Franklin. Franklin Avenue is a hub for Native culture that rivals Santa Fe, if you know where to go. All My Relations Arts, for example, exhibits Native artists from the area and from all over the country. The Frank Big Bear exhibit was my favorite; here’s a guy who drove a taxi for twenty years down Franklin, then decided he was better at art.

Franklin is filled with people like Frank. Do you hang up your ambitions for a while to pay the bills? Do you stop running for a bit to catch your breath? How long until you give your dreams another shot? All My Relations gives people like this a place to think things over.

You need to make roots in this neighborhood fast or you may just get blown away in a storm, or pulled out like a bad weed in a clean street. Fortunately there are a lot of cracks in Franklin avenue. There’s enough room for sediment to stick in the corners and hidden places where no street sweepers dare to clean, but that means adapting to some rules.

Rules like punctuality. Franklin is going to know when you’re late, and will punish you for your tardiness. Need to make the bus? Too bad, should have arrived two minutes ago. But don’t sit there waiting for the next 2A, it may be five minutes late.

Franklin teaches you to be patient for certain things, perhaps to let you slow down and think. One of the most important unspoken rules I’ve learned walking Franklin is get to know your fellow sidewalk strollers. You’ll see them again soon enough, so be good to them. Did you just bump into an old lady without apologizing? Watch out, she’s got your number; next time you walk the block expect to get cussed at from someone old as Franklin. The street is watching you, so you’d better be on your best behavior.

Did you know one of concrete’s greatest strengths is its versatility? It can be adapted to nearly any weather conditions, take the form of whatever shape you need for the job. The people of Franklin aren’t much different from the concrete in that respect. They have to learn to take many shapes and forms to survive in this job market, which is not nearly so easy for the ones who are new to to town, or the “bad weeds” we hear about in the news, or watch on “Cops.”

I believe there is no such thing as a bad weed. There are just some plants trying to make a living out there between the buildings and the alleys, looking for opportunities in the soil or holes in the concrete. Some plants are more versatile than others.

I’ve got a confession to make. I’m not that versatile. If I were concrete, I would have a million cracks all over my body because of my inability to bend with the times. It was either school, or a job, or another excuse that had me hanging up my running shoes and driving to work instead of working on my passion to run. The sidewalk can handle all kinds of pressures, you see? Concrete may be rigid, but it can adapt. That’s what we have to sometimes do to reach our goals in life.

When I moved to the Cities, I learned about the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. It’s right up my alley and down the street, around the lake and over some hills, across the bridge and up the steps of the Capitol. Marathons are meant to take you farther than you thought you could go.

When it comes to lifetime experiences, you need to learn patience. Until this late, late winter, I was squarely in the category of people who are okay with leaving out those twenty plus miles from their weekly jog. How could I ever run more than six miles if running five made me weak in the knees? I have always had ankles that sprained easily. It may have been because I was more heavyset in my youth, and I could blame the fry bread, but really it comes down to patience. If I’m willing to put in the time to improve my distance, Franklin’s sidewalks will be there, waiting for me to tread those cracks in the street, and spend some time learning its history, and about myself.

To live in a city is to love to walk before you learn to run. This fact of metro life was initially lost on me, a winter wallflower, but eventually I learned Franklin’s pedestrian appeal. One of the difficulties in adjusting to my new digs was parking. Besides the frequent and vigorous shoveling to save my car from the impound (I called it my pre-marathon training), I found that you can get a ticket on Franklin for any kind of reason at all: You parked too close to a fire hydrant buried under 10 feet of snow. You parked on an even day on the side of the road where it was clearly designated opposite day for snow removal.

That’s why I decided to start using my feet more often when walking up and down the splintered streets of Franklin. I’ve always felt, even in my winter weight, that I can more nimbly avoid vehicular danger on my feet than when I’m behind the wheel of a full-sized sedan. Besides, there were more interesting sights on the streets for me on foot than any rolled down window could offer a regular visitor to that auspicious avenue.

The people of Franklin! Now there’s a topic I couldn’t finish a book on, much less an article. I could tell you about the man I met on Franklin who’s a Native and a Muslim, or the formerly homeless artist I talked with who’s lived more lives on that street alone than you or I could possibly dream of for ourselves, transplantation or no.  Some of these stories you’ll find in The Circle news, some of them you’ll just have to talk to me about. But who can be described in a sentence? Is there a Big Bear painting that can be summed up in one line? No. So it is with people and so it is with Franklin. It takes a little patience to learn about the places you find yourself in.

While you’re waiting though, you might as well have lunch. My favorite place to eat currently is a small Himalayan restaurant called the… well, the Himalayan Restaurant. It’s a very straightforward approach to naming a restaurant. Definitely belongs on Franklin. You’ll be hard pressed to park your car in its tiny lot but I can tell you the food is worth it. Personally, I would recommend just walking there. You might bump into someone you know on the street, and if you know the street itself, well, eventually it’s like visiting an old friend.

There’s a school for the blind nearby Franklin. You can see its students wandering the road with their training dogs and their walking shades. Not as many carry walking sticks as you might think. It’s probably because they know this city and this street in a way we never will.

The blind take the time to listen to the world around them. Rather than shut out the noise the rest of us are content to ignore, they use it to inform themselves about the place they live in. While runners turn up the volume on their iPods and drivers roll up their windows to penniless solicitors, the blind observe and silently consider the people and objects around them. In their minds’ eyes—granted, for the seeing it is difficult imagine what that would even mean to those blind since birth—do they imagine the self-interested pedestrian beside them on their cellphone ugly? Do they find humor in the short-sighted jaywalkers of the world? Is the urban existence, underneath all the din and raucous atmosphere, a beautiful place to live?

For the spiritually sightless among us, I would recommend Plymouth Church, just off of Nicollet. It’s a majestic old building where you can see venerable poets in a vintage cathedral. The chambers are so vast, and the pulpit so small, that a listener may be hard pressed to hear the syllables in the poet’s sentences if he or she so much as shuffles in their seat. Nevertheless, I’ve never been in a place of such hushed reverence as when Gary Snyder came to read poetry rooted in the deepest ecology.

There is an ecology of life on Franklin. At times it can be a hard and cruel. There are urchins who haven’t found their homes off the street, shuffling around the corners, keeping warm during the winter days. You see their blankets in the snow months and hear about their stories second-hand from soup kitchens. There are youth out on the street as well, though they keep to their own curbs and try not to mingle with others. You want to go out and tell them that mingling is the most important thing they can do to help themselves; every criminal-to-be and “bad weed” has needed some friendly advice. You can get that on Franklin if you know where to look.

Concrete can bleed. I’ve seen it myself. If you have a crew of construction workers who don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll just let the water spill out of the casing, weakening the cement.
But these kinds of slip-ups don’t happen on Franklin. That’s because they’re not looking for strong concrete at all; they’re looking for stuff to fill in the gaps before the whole road becomes asphalt. As of June, that wish became a reality when they began repaving the streets, starting with the hill at Lyndale. It’s okay, though; there will be cracks again in Franklin soon enough.

I took a fall while running down a hill too steep for weak ankles this last April. There was blood—me and the cement down there on the ground were mixing together. I thought about the blood dripping from the gash on my knee onto the sidewalk chalk. I was making some kind of history there in the cement as a passerby helped me up and gave me the look reserved for crazies as he grabbed my arm. Perhaps I was crazy at that moment, but it was at that very same moment I knew I wasn’t going to let some bad footing and a little blood on the street stop me from finishing my run. In retrospect I should have stopped and said thanks to the stranger who helped me up on that hill where my knees went weak, but I think maybe he knew as well as I that Franklin looks favorably on those with good manners. We would see each other again soon enough.

Sidewalks get tired. They get old and run down. Eventually something has to give, bowing to the pressure from above: from the shufflers in the street, the gangs of cellphone-wielding, iPod-wearing, marauding humans. I’ve thought of ways I could possibly thank the sidewalk as I’ve run up and down Franklin Avenue, but I’m only human after all, so I just try to avoid the cracks. Maybe it will relieve some of Franklin’s back pains.

In May I went back to my Dakota roots and ran the Fargo Marathon. I ran beneath the shade of a hundred old trees, before they were destroyed in the wind and storm of the following week, broken and gone forever. Wood and stone can be so much more fragile than blood and bone sometimes. I never would have made it without my family running with me that day, encouraging me from the streets and running along, careful not to step on any of the cracks.

This October I’ll be mingling with 11,200 runners like me at the Metrodome for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. Franklin Avenue will be one of the first streets I cross. I hope not to disappoint it.

Correction: This story originally listed the Franklin Avenue bus as the 21A. It has been corrected to the 2A, which runs the length of Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.

Jacob Croonenberghs also writes for The Circle.