Monday, July 4, 2011

Call me a Beverage Enhancement Technician

I had to stop in at the hotel to use the phone when I was downtown a couple weeks ago and I noticed something when I walked in. Since I normally come in through the back entrance, I seldom take note of anything in the front lobby. Up until recently, the big wooden desk to the right of the bell stand, the purview of the front desk staff, had a little name card on it saying “Manager on Duty.” Now, the plaque is less specific. It says “Hotel Information/Journey Ambassador.”
I am not making that up. It actually says “Journey Ambassador.”
That’s a bogus title. You’re not a Journey Ambassador. You’re a Concierge. And that’s cool. Say I’m staying at a hotel on business. I don’t need a “Journey Ambassador.” I’m just not that important. All I need is someone who can tell me where the nearest Walgreen’s is because my shaving foam, unwelcome in my carry on, depressurized and exploded. That is not a Journey Ambassador. Again, that’s a Concierge. I work for an international hotel chain. I won’t say which one, just in case our HR people stumble across this blog, but we have the same loyalty program every chain has. If you stay with us a lot, we’ll give you upgrades. If you stay with us a ton, we’ll learn your name and how you take your coffee. If you really drop some change our way, we’ll go out of our way to make sure you never feel want while you’re in our building. Hence the Journey Ambassador.
Here’s the thing: people want us to think right now that we’re special. You. And me. And all those people over there. Every one of us is deserving of an elaborate title, because every one of us is providing a unique service to society. We each, in turn, deserve to have an equally elaborately titled footman to acquiesce to whatever whim we may have. It’s like a short story by Gogol. Everybody has an important sounding sobriquet and a feeling of entitlement, but no one is actually providing a service anyone would miss if the position were gone. You’re not special. Neither am I, nor are any of those people over there. We are not doing anything so important that we need everything we want the moment we want it.
I’ve noticed a trend in T.V. ads lately. Both Starbuck’s and McDonald’s, two of the most faceless corporations on the planet, have started new campaigns that are really heavy on the individuality. Coffee is not only brewed, but also grown, roasted, and ground specifically for you. Every Big Mac is assembled with you, and your personal culinary preferences, in mind. This is incongruous with the very premise of Starbuck’s or McDonald’s. The whole point was that it was fast. It was pre-made and served up the minute you drove through because everybody wants a Big Mac the way a Big Mac is made. Now everybody wants a Big Mac to order?! That’s not part of the freaking deal. You either go to a chain and get what you expect, or you go to a neighborhood joint and get what they give you. You don’t get to walk into a Target and say, “well I think the pharmacy should be over there.” It’s laid out on a template.
So the government of my state officially shut down on July 1st. And this isn’t some sissy, Only The Poor People Feel It shutdown. This work stoppage means business. 22,000 state employees have been laid off. Everyone was turned out of state park campgrounds for the July 4th weekend. Highway rest stops are closed. You can renew your license plate tabs, but if you just turned 16 you can’t take your exam. If you want to get married, you can get a license for that through the county registrar, but if you want to catch and eat a Walleye, that license if you don’t already have it is unobtainable. Yes, I realize all this is goddamned absurd.
On Thursday I went to the DMV because no one knew yet what would remain open if the government shut down on Friday. I had to renew my auto registration, and figured it would be a while, so with earbuds in, I grabbed a number and sat down in the front windows while U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blared forth from my ipod. If you’ve never listened to “Where the Streets Have No Name” at the DMV, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is the situation that this song was designed for. Of course, I recognize the song was written about 1980’s Belfast, but through its ambiguous lyrics and first-track placement on the Joshua Tree album it has become an ultimate anthem to freedom and endless horizons; while hearing it from tiny cauliflowers in your ears that no one else can share while sitting in a fluorescently-lit hanging-ceiling cavern may be interpreted by some as depressing, for me it was nothing short of inspiring. And if you ever need assurance that you’re not that special, this experience will sear it onto your mind. Because hearing this song, all I wanted to do was get on the highway and drive. Fast. But before I could, I had to wait for the woman with the elaborate title to call my number and take my money. The DMV does not do Made To Order, nor should it.
So we really have the two extremes meeting in the middle. There is the Orwellian bureaucratic dystopia where you are a subject to the titled people, or there is the free-market, unregulated utopia where you have the title and everyone in your world is subject to you. Of course, in both worlds you still answer to someone. Both worlds have titled people, but some titles are more regal than others. Is one version inherently better or worse than the other? I mean, for anyone other than those with titles? I personally prefer a world where there is familiarity I can make for myself, where I have a home where everything is to my specifications, but anything outside of that sphere is up for grabs. Maybe I have to educate myself on what the norms and mores are for a different place. Maybe it seems weird, or even unpleasant to me. Maybe I grin and bear it. Maybe I become a better person for it before returning to my comfort-sphere. Maybe that’s the real world we all live in.
Really the only situation where I could justify a Journey Ambassador is in a world where nothing is ever the same. That is the world where I need a Journey Ambassador. When every day I wake up with a different set of rules, I need someone there to show me how to navigate the place. But when every hotel I stay in has the same offerings, amenities, and menu items in the on-site restaurant, I don’t need a Journey Ambassador. I need a more exciting life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stormy Weather

On Sunday, May 22nd, I was at home watching a thunderstorm roll in from the southwest. I had all the windows open to air out the house (our house has deep eaves, so I wasn’t worried about the rain). When the power went off I started closing windows for the oncoming storm. Then the sirens started. I went out the (open) back door to the deck into a noise unlike anything I have heard in my yard before. When I looked eastward, toward the front yard, I could see a cloud of debris beyond the neighbor’s houses moving from south to north, brown and chunky in the yellow-green light of the afternoon. They have said that by the time the warning was issued and the sirens went off the funnel cloud was already on the ground. I went back inside, and downstairs.
Over the last three and a half weeks I have seen things in my neighborhood that I haven’t seen in six years of living in my home. I have seen people who may have lived next to one another for years without exchanging hellos, but now are out working together getting a limb off of a porch, or clearing shingles out of a driveway so the construction crew can get through, or nailing a tarp over a gaping hole in a roof.
It’s almost a clichĂ© to point out the Coming Together and Neighbors Helping Neighbors aspect of it all, but it truly is something of a surprise. The day of the storm my favorite neighborhood liquor store was hit pretty hard. The conventional thought is “liquor store – can’t be a good thing for the neighborhood,” but this place really was an asset. They had wine tastings, they were always out front putting annuals in the giant flower pots on the sidewalk, they almost never had panhandlers around; they were just a locally run small business with a fifty-plus year history on West Broadway – a fixture of the north side. The storm came on a Sunday, when liquor stores aren’t open. No one was there when the windows blew out. They were looted. That is sadly what I expected to hear more of, but as far as I’ve heard it was an isolated incident. I’ve heard stories about renters caught up in bureaucratic snafus with the city inspections division, which do not surprise me in the least (don’t get me started on the city of Minneapolis inspections division – if you’re interested, see the comment from Kevin Moberg after the Newscut link below). But I am embarrassed to admit that, even after six years of saying hi to my neighbors and lending them yard tools and such (even the one or two whom I didn’t care for), it surprised me to see the level of cooperation this neighborhood has risen to.
In the day or two directly after the storm, there were people who just sat in their vans in vacant parking lots on corners, waiting for someone to need a ride somewhere. There was one guy who got kicked out by the city for his volunteer efforts. There were shops that, as soon as they had plywood over the still-exposed broken glass in their windows, immediately spray-painted “We’re open!” all over the outside of said plywood and threw their doors open to the people of the neighborhood. Monday morning Lisa and I went to the Lowry CafĂ© for some breakfast, and our waitress said they were the only building on that corner with electricity. People were coming in all morning to charge cell phones and blackberries, without being made to purchase anything. Now that’s neighborhood.
I grew up in an insular suburban community. We all would have pooled our resources to help Mrs. Pearson, or the Sawyers, if they needed it, so I’m familiar with neighborly bonds. What is weird is that in that community we all already knew each other. In north Minneapolis, some dude could walk up from the alley and tell me he’s lived here for ages, and needs some help getting debris out of the way down the block, and I’d grab a saw. I wouldn’t ask who he is. I wouldn’t question his motives. Because I’ve been on the receiving end of this Good Samaritanism, and I am more than happy to pay it forward.
I have nothing against suburbs - I loved growing up in them. And I love visiting my friends on the south side of town, or across the river, or outstate. I love living in a state where everyone is happy to help one another no matter where they come from or what their background may be, but I will say that I really love my neighborhood, and my neighbors. We on the North Side are a resilient people, more resilient than may be obvious to most of the Metro Populace, and I am proud of my neighborhood for having set a high bar as the standard for communities working together in the Twin Cities. God bless, and god speed your recovery, friends.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Abraham, Martin, and John.

Right now in Minneapolis there is a controversy raging. A racially sensitive controversy. The kind of controversy that tears communities apart. It’s about an off-leash dog area in a park. I will repeat that. In Minneapolis right now, respected elders of the civil rights movement are arguing to prevent an off leash dog park from being opened between a soccer field and a freeway because the larger park is named for Martin Luther King Jr.
I admit, as a white guy raised in one of the whitest suburbs of one of the whitest cities in America, I maybe don’t have the kind of historical or cultural perspective to comment on such a controversy. However, I have owned a home in the poorest and highest-crime area of this city for the last six years, which in this town tends to mean it is populated mainly by people of color. Not that this issue is more economic than racial – it would appear from reports of the park board meetings that it is divided exactly along lines of race.
Here’s why I think that’s unfortunate: It should be about socio-economics. Dr. King’s namesake park in Minneapolis is on the more affluent south side, but it is still wedged between a freeway sound wall and a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It is a memorial park, yes, but it is not solely a memorial. Here’s its park board website. You will see, I believe, numerous sports facilities, youth recreation areas, public art installations, and if you GoogleMap "4055 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, MN," some quality wooded knolls in the corners. Dogs are (& I can’t believe I have to say this) allowed on leashes in public parks in Minneapolis. The only controversy about the proposal is the idea that the city would allow a small parcel of these (approximately) 20 acres to be fenced in and free for unleashed dogs.
As someone who lives in an area of the city where people of all ethnicities try to kill each other every day (and we’ve lost a few in the surrounding blocks over the last twelve months), this offends me. How can someone spend their energy fighting a dog park (F.Y.I. the nearest dog park is over two miles away) on racial grounds, while in my neighborhood poor black people are killing other poor black people because they associate with the wrong crowd? How is a dog shitting in the woods more offensive to the memory of Dr. King than a hoodlum catching a baby girl in the crossfire of some stupid turf war that adds another tally to the homicide rate of an ordinarily peaceful city?
Let’s build a city where people in any geographical space have a chance to create something good and profitable for everyone. Let’s dwell not on past superficial slights, but on future opportunities for the common good.
If the opponents to the dog park really care about creating a place for the majority of minority constituents in the city of Minneapolis to raise children free of violence, they should embrace my neighborhood too, and they should try to keep guns off of our streets, on the north and south sides, but they should also allow dogs to shit in the grass next to I-35W, because that has nothing to do with race or economics, but everything to do with the responsibility of cleaning up after oneself, a healthy dose of which I think could benefit anyone in any neighborhood in this city.