National Geographic : 2014 Feb
No Place Like Home 69 Washington Avenue and past a meatpacking plant where bare-chested men wrestled whole beef carcasses hung on hooks on little overhead trolleys along a rail and into the waiting trucks. I pedaled up Hennepin Avenue, past dirty-book stores, penny arcades, walk-up hotels, men slumped in doorways, to the magnificent old public library on Tenth across from White Castle, home of the ten-cent hamburger (“Buy ’em by the Sack”), and climbed up to the reading room, skipping the swimming lesson at the Y Mother had paid for so I’d learn to swim after cousin Roger drowned in Lake Minnetonka; but the Y conducted swim class in the nude and I was shy, so I went to the library instead and met the book that changed my life—transformed, enriched, diversified, turned it topsy-turvy too—Roget’s International Thesaurus, supplier of idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, and phraseology that transformed me from nerd and nobody to visionary, sporting man, roughneck, bon vivant, and raconteur. Growing up among the Brethren, a boy was ever aware of worldly temptation, and from that comes a keener perception of the world. A school field trip to the Milwaukee depot where the Hiawatha stood throbbing, waiting to de- part for Chicago, steam hissing from the loco- motive, the luxurious club car blue with cigar smoke from slick gents in three-piece suits—for the Brethren boy, an electric vision of worldly success and glamour. When I was 14, I got a tour of the art deco headquarters of the Minneapolis Star and Tr ib un e . Upstairs, pencil-neck geeks tapping out copy and down below, the giant presses roaring, miles of newsprint flying out, chopped and folded into the evening Sta r, bun- dles of papers conveyed onto trucks and rushed to the readers, and the thought rang like a bell: I could be one of those guys upstairs. There were the neon lights of Hennepin Avenue and the promise of naked girls at the Alvin Theater, which our family passed on Sunday morning on our way to church, but that was lost on me, a geek with glasses, pressed pants, plaid shirt, a boy for whom dating girls was like exploring the Amazon—interesting idea, but how to get there? Writing for print, on the other hand—why not? And then came the beautiful connection: You write for print, it impresses girls, they might want to go on dates with you. A boy named Frankie Renko drowned in the river one spring at the sandy bank where we boys hung out. I was eating supper when the fire truck went by, and I wanted to go see, but Mother said, “ There’s no point in a bunch My crude map. The key to our geography is the river. Anyone can get lost trying to navigate the freeways through the suburbs, but once you find the Mississippi, you know where you are.