Thursday, October 9, 2008

Close to Home

The Matron actually does believe in talent--especially the hidden kind! Is there anything more delightful than stumbling across the essay that stuns? Or how about the time she walked into a new friend's house, only to discover the entire structure FULL of incredible art.

Insert New Friend's Shrug: "Oh, I paint a little when I can find the time."

Indeed! Well, thanks to that south-bound bladder, the Matron recently encountered Talent--sweet and pure and inspirational--in her own tiny 'hood. In an attempt to teach Satan's Familiar the beauty of poop in the Great Outdoors, the whole family was out for a walk--when all of a sudden, the Matron had to PEE. NOW.

At dusk on a gorgeous August night, they hustled over to the nearest house of folk they knew and liked well enough to knock on the door and say: "She has to pee right now that's why she's running past you, upstairs, thanks!"

Being that this was summer--August and all and dusk and a beautiful night--that pit stop led to a bottle of wine on the deck ( and more pee later), and the sweet ease of conversation, the kind where nobody has to be anywhere soon or get up in the morning, and the children race around outside in varying stages of stealth and pursuit, feet wet and hearts racing with the safe thrill of chasing stuff--and each other--outside in the dark, night.

In the midst, as a means of wrangling for an overnight with Stryker, 12 year old, Henry, who resides in the house was called upon to play his guitar. Now, the Matron had heard about Henry's successes. She knew of Lesson, Conference, Concert and Calling. But she hadn't heard him play in a couple of years.

She was floored.

How does a 12-year old boy play classical guitar with the emotional complexity and acumen of a seasoned veteran, an adult? The only analogy she can draw (at the moment) is to ask if you can imagine a 12 year old girl singing like Billie Holiday. The kid is ready for Carnegie Hall -- at 12! Now, she knew, theoretically, that those kind of children existed. But that night she got to see one in flesh and blood. (and ponder again her son's choice of yo-yo as his Art and most recently, the declaration that he would attend Yale on a Dance, Dance Revolution scholarship.)

So the Matron attended a free concert. She imagines the neighbors, perched on their own decks and porches, caught by beauty and surprise as music struck out into that already stunning August night.

Henry's neighbor was there --a grandfatherly sort who has been pretty much adopted by the family to fill that role. Now, the Matron knew he was a retired historian, a man who made a living with the hit and miss rhythm of an adjunct. But beyond that, he was more or less kinda like her, all: "Who's driving the boys to baseball" and "Can the boys play at your house because my head will explode?"

So when the parents were all like, "Forget Henry -- Steve wrote a book!" the Matron was taken aback. Actually, horrified, in the way she every single time someone else succeeds where she has failed, twice. Isn't SHE THE ONE WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE GETTING A BOOK DEAL?

Once THAT was out of her system, she was able to scrape herself off the ceiling and be stunned, yet again. Talent! In the flesh! In the blood! Her backyard!

Published by Turner Press, the book, Historic Photos of St. Paul, is just that -- a panoramic view of a city, from 1840-1970ish. The Matron allowed herself the luxury of paging through this lovely text, cover to cover, and she highly recommends the experience. Why? There's something unsettling--humbling and humanizing--about seeing an intersection as a patch of dirt and following its progress, uninterrupted, to a major urban hub. How far we've come! This book made her wonder what her world will look like, when she's not here.

The book is stunning! Talent, unfurled! Why, she's so proud of Henry's Adopted Grandfather-Neighbor, that she has tapped him to be . . . . .

The First Ever Matronly Interview

But before she begins-a nod to the Minnesota Historical Society and the Ramsey County Historical Society because she's certain that the pictures she found on Google Images are nearly entirely from them! She could only find TWO from the actual book online. Isn't she gifted? So Copyright God - these pictures belong entirely to someone else.

What was your great challenge writing this book? (clever question, honey!! go right for the tough stuff)

There were several challenges. The first was how to tell the story of St. Paul's development over more than a century, in only 200 images with a limit of 75 words per caption. The next was finding appropriate photos--in some areas there were not many to be found. I wanted to make sure to adequately cover basic urban themes, such as transportation, work, entertainment, immigration and city infrastructure. In addition to being informative, the images needed to be visually interesting. Then I had to convince the publisher that I needed to replace many of their initial choices with images that would do a better job of illustrating the development and diversity of the city, its downtown, neighborhoods and people and the institutions they built. Finally, sometimes it was a challenge find out enough about a photograph to create an interesting story to go with it, particularly if there was just a name written on the back.

Your favorite three photographs?

It's hard to decide which are my favorite, so I'll chose ones that are my East Side home base and that illustrate the sort of information I wanted to offer readers. There an 1870s shot (p.23) looking at downtown from Dayton's Bluff that's great because it allows a person to compare this old view with today. I love how the horse-drawn vehicle is coming up the hill and the railroad in the distance is shown on pylons to raise it above the extensive wetlands. Next, I choose the 1915 Johnson High School girls basketball team (p.99) because it may surprise many readers to see that women's sports flourished long ago and it's not just a recent phenomenon. Finally, I have always loved the photo of the two Railroad Island residents (170) proudly showing their baked bread. It illustrates the neighborhood, its ethnicity and deals with an important aspect of everyday life.

This is one of the Matron's favorite photos!

The Swede Hollow photo that was one of your favorites was picked to include one of the legendary St. Paul communities, in this case an area where poor families lived. You can learn a lot from looking closely at this image, including the row of outhouses that extend over Phalen Creek and the less than linear arrangement of the residences.

The Matron was struck by the complexity of garb on turn-of-the-century children. Was the fully loaded girl on page 69 from the upper class? In the photograph's earliest days were the uppper crust its primary target?

I didn't look into their background, but the clothes would indicate at least middle-class. These may well be Sunday clothes and a Sunday afternoon drive. I doubt the girl would usually dress this way. Mother may have been along to take the photo, but at the time, not a lot of families had their own cameras. The photographer might have been a professional, hanging out around the park. If the family owned the horse and carriage, they were well to do. If it was rented, middle-class.

Can you guarantee that photograph on page 163 won't be repeated?S now in May!!

Anything for you, darling. This seemed like a fun-photo to reinforce the supposed Siberian-like nature of our city. The photo also shows a bus, one of the many photos in the book that show the many forms of urban transportation.

She notices an African-American face first on page 167 and from then on, the book refreshingly diverse. Do historic or archived photographs themselves serve as a template of Minnesota diversity? Were the earliest photos exclusively Scandanavian?

You are right that after Hallie Q. Brown there is more diversity shown. However, you missed the earlier image of the African-American mail carrier. But on your question---there are not a lot of early photos available for early African-Americans. Those that exist are often portraits and don't show the sort of action I was trying to find. The photo of the Red River Ox carts on page 10 also shows early diversity, since the drivers were Merits--mixed blood French and Indian people who developed a culture of their own.

Thanks, Steve! Welcome to the ranks of people better-published than the Matron. Her hat is, off. And here is a picture from about 1935, taken from her very own front yard.


sh8un said...

You have talent not just close to home but IN your home. Remember Scarlet?

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Talent abounds in your neck of the woods!

Minnesota Matron said...

Forget Scarlett. What about the Matron's own fine self! People! She needs attention!

Mrs. G. said...

Beautiful photographs. Congratulations Steve! Back to the desk, M.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful photographic journey. Thanks for sharing Matron, oh furture famous author lady :)

phd in yogurtry said...

I'm going to choose wisely the next time I have to take an unexpected pee! Wow.

Tammy said...

Lovely post...just wish the pictures were bigger! Perhaps that was a cue to buy the book for myself... Off to B&N!

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

How very cool.