Thursday, June 2, 2016

Three Tribes

Three Tribes

Hilary and I took the drive to downtown St. Paul the other day to see an exhibit of photographs at the Minnesota Museum of Art taken by a friend of mine, Mike Hazard, over the course of several years. They document the efforts of a group of Hmong men and women to earn their living by means of truck farming on a stretch of Highway 52 south of town. The photos are straightforward, devoid of artiness, focused on faces and plants and work, out of which moments of fun occasionally arise. The earthiness and humanity of the enterprise was obvious.

Yet all the while I was wandering the galleries, my mind kept returning to the issue economics. Do these people earn their living this way? How are the proceeds distributed? Who decided where investments for next year’s crop will go? How did they acquire the land? Was the government involved?

I’ve driven by the plots on Highway 52 more than once, with their little sheds scattered across the hills like brown Monopoly houses, and it’s obvious even to a non-farmer like me that these fields are being cultivated largely by hand. And I have little doubt that I’ve often bought produce and flowers from the women and men in these photographs, or their relatives, at the huge northside Minneapolis farmers’ market, which isn’t far from my house.

It was a pleasure getting to know them better at the exhibit.

Having viewed the photos, I stepped into the little screening room, where another dimension was added to the experience: music. As a succession of slides followed one another on the screen—sometimes several related images side by side—I could hear the traditional drone-like music of the qeej (a Hmong instrument vaguely similarly to overgrown pan pipes) playing quietly in the background, and the fields came to life.

The Hmong is a social group to which I will never belong. The obvious issue of ethnicity aside, I find  its complex clan structure bewildering and its seemingly onerous family obligations daunting. (I bought a car from a Hmong saleman at a Toyota dealer once and while we were waiting for the finance department to prepare some documents he told me all about who gets to be chief and who can marry who.) No, I will never belong to that group, but it doesn’t bother me. I like the Hmong I’ve met and am glad they’re here, not only for the vegetables, or because they made great sacrifices for us during the war in southeast Asia, but because they contribute today to the fiber and interest of American life.

On our way back to the car we ran into a different social group—a ragtag bunch of women and (mostly) men wearing blue T-shirts and ponchos. They were racing up and down the streets, then stopping to examine their mobile phones, then loitering as if they were all waiting for a bus. I couldn’t resist asking one of the men what they were doing.

“What is this?" I said. "A scavenger hunt?”

“Sort of. We’re members of a group, the “blues.” And we’re in competition with another group, an evil one called the “greens.” And we get instructions from Europe or somewhere—”

“Brooklyn,” one of the other contestants interjected.

“OK, Brooklyn. And at certain points the people at headquarters pick up our signals and determine who’s gained control of larger parts of the city. It’s sort of like geocaching.”

The man showed me his little black screen, across which green and blue towers seemed to be dancing. It meant nothing to me. What was clear was that this harmless cohort was having a good time. In fact, they were almost the only people out on the street.

This is a group that I could become a part of, maybe. On the flyer the man gave me it said “Ingress,” followed by the words “The world around you is not what it seems” and then, in larger letters: Join the Resistance.

Resistance to what? There’s a web address on the flyer, too, but I’m afraid that if I entered it, my computer would disintegrate or become possessed by zombies. Or something.

I encountered an even less structured opportunity to “belong” the next day, when Hilary and I took a break during a cycling trip around the parks and creeks of south Minneapolis and stopped in at Global Midtown Market. This concatenation of start-up ethnic restaurants and gift shops, located on the first floor of the old Sears building on Lake Street, is like the State Fair but with fewer people and better food. The sometimes lackluster customer traffic notwithstanding, it’s been operating for quite a few years now, and serves as home for several celebrated eateries including Manny’s Tortas, Salsa de la Salsa, Los Ocampos, Rabbit Hole, Holy Land Deli, and the Salty Tart Bakery, the owner of which was named “Best Pastry Chef” by the editors of Bon Appetit magazine a few years ago. The grocery store in the central atrium is also appealing, though when we visit we’re usually on our bikes and therefore reluctant to buy anything much.

On our most recent visit we ate lunch at Moroccan Flavors, which opened only a month or two ago. The stars of the menu are probably the tagines, but they’re relatively easy to make at home. We shared a spicy marinated chicken sandwich that comes with a small dish of peppery olives and other unidentifiable morsels of vegetable flesh. The mint tea (with fresh mint and lemon) was refreshing, and the kindly, slow-moving woman who made our sandwiches also offered us two very unusual cookies as a “sample.”

© Isabel Subtil for Heavy Table

Appreciating a foreign cuisine is a form of participation, I suppose, but not of belonging. In any case, that’s not what I was thinking about. On our way out of the building we passed a print shop that had been set up in the middle of one of the ancillary hallways. There were a few Xerox machines and paper cutters, perhaps even a binding machine, and also a table holding what were obviously short-run and handmade publications, nicely done.

I love that kind of stuff.

“So, this is a print shop?” I said to the woman with scarlet hair sitting behind the card table in the corner.

“We do print jobs and other things,” she replied. “It’s also supposed to be a community space.”

“I see,” I said, though I didn’t see at all. “I wonder what your rates are. I print a zine occasionally. Do people still use that word?”

“Oh, sure,” she said. “In fact, there’s a zine festival coming up in September.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to get a table. I’m working now on issue 121. When I'm feeling flush I have it printed at FastPrint downtown. More often I print it at home.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about the rates. You’d have to ask Sam. He’ll be in at three.”

As we left she handed me a document, “Beyond Repair No. 1: occasional notes” printed in large san serif type on both sides of a single sheet of nice 11 x 17 paper and then folded into quarters. It got a little battered during the bike ride home, but I took a look at it later.

The cover looks a little amatuerish—perhaps that was intentional—but the text is thoughtful and well-written, and it clarified what sort of a community space Beyond Repair hopes to be. It opened in January and printed and bound twelve publications in its first three months of operation. It also hosted Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and plans to put out a series called Publics and Publication, which “will go towards proj­ects and programs that ad­dress the role of the 3rd Pre­cinct here in Minneapolis’s 9th Ward.”

Another proposed series, Tools for Remediation, will be dedicated to subjective inquiries and “histories from below,” designed to look “across issues to consider commonalities and propose methods of heal­ing and release from a culture of abuse that permeates everything from our ecosystem to our economy, from race to domestic struggle.”

That slant seems a little radical to me, and its allegations of universal societal oppression and breakdown slightly overstated. (Then again, I’m a middle-class white guy with a house in the suburbs and money in the bank.) What I like is the sober-minded and articulate tone of the piece, and the broader notion that writing and printing and speaking can come together on a very small scale in a retrofitted palace of bourgeois commerce to nurture a community of like-minded individuals whose points of view are not often highlighted in the mainstream press. Weekly discussions have been taking place at the “shop” examining “how one can swim in and out of institutions, power, and hierarchies, find­ing commonality within the in-between, and instrumentalizing that ‘in-betweenness’ as a lens by which to navigate power and hierarchical social space.”

The author of the broadside, who I presume is the owner, remarks:
That notion, being of the world, while simultaneously elsewhere; in, as well as out, of time is exactly the type of thinking that we hope to pro­mote through Beyond Repair…Three other groups are beginning to materialize, all asking in one form or another a com­mon question: “What does a healthy neighborhood look like?”
The beauty of it all is that the associations I’m describing here are voluntary. You don’t have to hang out at Beyond Repair unless you feel like it, or wander the streets of St. Paul “claiming” digital territory, or work your tail off at the family truck farm in Rosemount—though if you're already part of that group, the social cost of apostasy might be high.

For myself, I’ve never been much of a joiner. I don’t like routine, and no sooner have I committed myself to a regimen than (sad to say) I find myself scheming of ways to disrupt its rhythms. I have also found that the mystery and allure of organized social groups tends to fade as you actually get to know the people, which is precisely the point at which you also become a prime candidate for committee work and donations.

As Charels Peguy once remarked, “Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique.”

All of which is not to say that I’m a snob, or antisocial, or cheap. But I really don’t think I’d make much of a splash at the upcoming zine festival. And as for joining the Resistance, my question still stands: resistance to what?

No, my continuing engagement took the form of an order to Red Dragonfly Press, which published Mike Hazard's chapbook of poems, This World Is Not Altogether Bad. way back in 2013. I'd meant to buy it when it came out but didn't have a PayPal account at the time.

It arrived in the mail a few minutes ago. It's nice. The cover was printed on a cold type press, you can see the relief on the page. Red ink on the title. The poems themselves mostly describe encounters with other people--neighbors, friends, veterans, strangers, family members. A phone call from a chubby Ojibwe with fire in his belly, so much so that the poet smells something burning. A few local celebrities appear: Tiger Jack and Feike Feikema (AKA Frederick Manfred). There are elements of whimsy and nursery rhyme-like repetition, waves of remembered Roman Catholicism, various sorts of suffering and forgetfulness, all conveyed with the utmost simplicity and charm.

Here is one:

Suffer Little Children
We were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.
Right at his feet, his arms
outspread wide as wings,
my child Sonia wondered
if those were real nails.
Wounded, holding hands,
we were really close
to Jesus Christ on a cross.

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