270 Minneapolis, MN: Office at Night

Minneapolis, Minnesota: Office at Night

Minneapolis was closer to my home in Chicago than most of the cities in this book. But it was one of the last I got to visit. Early on in the project, I had asked about seeing their Hopper, but they said that it was in storage and a viewing could not be arranged. I asked again a bit later and was told a second time that I couldn't see it. When I called a third time, they said it was set to leave in two weeks to go on tour for a year and a half and that I had better come see it quickly.

When I arrived, I was again made to wait a long time, so I struck up a conversation with a young museum worker who said he was also an art student. He wore a white Oxford shirt with the collar open over his blue vest. Wiry black hairs sprouted from the bottom of his acne-pitted face. His breath smelled of smoke and mint. When I asked him about how Hopper might relate to isolation in Minneapolis, he asked in return, "You've heard the phrase 'Minnesota nice,' right?

"'Minnesota Nice'" he explained, "is, if someone asks you for an ashtray at a café, you’ll be like, 'please, yes, go ahead, take it, no problem.' You're not using it, and the person asked politely. But as they walk away, you'll both be thinking, 'Asshole.' I don't know where that comes from, maybe the weather. But I equate the solitude of Hopper's characters with quiet and strength: independence. They are strong enough to be on their own."

Finally, I was shown upstairs to see the painting itself by Joe King, who was fresh-faced, round-shouldered, buoyant, and balding. I resisted the tempting opening line, "You must be joking." [Joe King, get it?] Instead, I asked if he thought people here were isolated. "Absolutely not," he barked. It seemed like I had unknowingly offended him: Minnesota nice. "A lot of people come here from other places in the Midwest. It's like a magnet." He seemed a little put off by my question and by having to show me the painting.

Office at Night shows a man at a desk studying a piece of paper, while across the room a woman in a tight blue dress stands at a filing cabinet with her body unnaturally turned so that you can see both her breasts and her buttocks, which are disproportionately large compared to the rest of her body. Many critics see in it a scene of sexual tension. If the typewriter bottom-left is on her desk (assuming she would be the one to do the typing), then she has moved across the room and is closer to him, whether she intended to get close to him or not. Easily overlooked is a piece of paper on the floor next to his desk. Will she bend over to pick it up?

Jo suggested other titles for the painting: "Confidentially Yours" and "Room 1005." She described it as, "'Shirley' in blue dress, white collar, flesh stockings, black pumps & black hair & plenty of lipstick."

Edward handwrote a letter to the Walker. "The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the 'L' trains in New York City after dark and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. …. Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended."

Hopper's Office at Night was shown in the Walker's 1948 "purchase exhibition," "New Paintings to Know and Buy," meant to inspire the public to buy art from well-known living painters. The show, in fact, sold only eight paintings--all to the Walker. Hopper's Office at Night was one, though only two of three voters recommended the purchase.

[Local friends in front of the Walker's Claes Oldenburg sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry]

If the couple in Office at Night were from Minneapolis, they would already be set in their circle of friends and spouses. That’s what everyone there told me. After the museum, I had dinner at the house of John, a friend of mine who had moved from Chicago to Minneapolis eight years before my visit. When I told him my experience with the museum, he said, "I can't put it into words, but that is so Minnesota."

John put his children to sleep, and, in order not to wake them, we stepped into the next room, an office at night.

"Minnesotans," John began, "are some of the most insular people I've met in my time. Friendly, but insular. When we moved here, I wasn't meeting anybody, wasn't making any friends. It's harder than a lot of other cities. Minnesotans don't bond. They don't need to bond. Like three out of four were born here. They have family here and their neighborhood friends, so they don't need to get to know anybody more."

"They don't go anywhere," he concluded. "They don't know anything else, so they think this is the best that there is."

The next morning I started my day with a good dose of coffee and Minnesota Nice. I went to the Mill City Café, a local artists' commune, in the neighborhood called Northeast (pronounced "Nordeast" by the locals). A former industrial area that was traditionally home to blue-collar Slavs, Nordeast recently had an influx of art studios and galleries.

Inside, tall, narrow, mullioned windows let light onto a warping wooden floor worn smooth beneath a ceiling held up by large timber beams. The owner behind the counter handed a cup of coffee to a goateed young man ahead of me who started to reach in his pocket. The owner mimed taking money from him and opened the cash register and threw in the imaginary dollar bills, saying theatrically, "Thank you."

I sat at a table with Aaron, a tall, stringy young man who had short wavy hair and green eyes. He wore glasses, a ragged sweater, and tan corduroys with fraying cuffs.

To my question, he answered succinctly, "No."

"Okay, thank you, that's it," I joked.

"Well," he tried again, "those kids at the café [the characters in Nighthawks] aren't isolated. They don't seem like they are. A few of them are talking to each other. The bartender and the one guy may have had a conversation. But you come around here, everyone talks to each other, in Northeast Minneapolis that is. When I walk down the street, I say ‘hi’ to people; I had a great conversation with three great people on my one-block walk here."

"People you didn't know?" I asked.

"Well," he ahemmed, "people I kinda know but really don't know. Maybe we are isolated in that way. I don't really know who I'm talking to. But I don't really know you. So I don't know if that means we're isolated or not. Well, in a way we are feeling more isolated, like when it comes to computers. A lot of people work from their home. Basically, we're preoccupied but at the same time we're much more interactive with computers."

"Before I came," I told him, "I had an image that Minneapolis would be isolated because of the clichéd Scandinavian coldness."

"Oh, rumors," Aaron airily joked, "rumors, you know. Nobody's isolated here at the café. But superficial relationships are wide, not deep. We crave a deeper connection. It's why people couple or want to have a certain clique. If we didn't feel isolated in the first place, we wouldn't crave it."

When I left the café, a man had his car door opened against mine. "Can I get into my car?" I asked.

"Would have been easier if you didn't park so close to mine," he growled.

I got confused. "Oh, was yours here when I parked?"

"No, I just got here," he said. "But that doesn't make a difference, does it."

I stopped next at Blackey's Danish Bakery, a Nordeast institution since 1908. The woman behind the counter was named Michelle. She was maybe five-foot-three-inches, with dark eyes, freckled skin, and a mole on her right cheek. The strap of her red apron criss-crossed over a black T shirt. I asked her my question, and she said, "No." I waited for more, but that single word was all that was forthcoming. "I have to explain my answer?!" she asked indignantly. Maybe she thought I was just taking a poll. "I don't know," she repeated. "I just know what they aren't like.

"I guess," she yielded, "that [isolated] would be the word. Not the word I would come up with. Northeast is really it's own little community. I was born and raised Northeast. It's a nice place. You probably passed Edison High back there? Everybody in Northeast went there. And everybody in Northeast has worked at Blackey's at one point or another. Any stranger stands out. When I bring friends to my bar in Northeast, everybody stares at them. They're like, 'Who's that?' because they know everybody from this neighborhood so well. My boyfriend lives in St. Paul, and he hates to drive over here to visit me. I hate to drive over to visit him. We each think that the other's town has a weird way of doing their streets.

"I live in the suburb Crystal right now, but I'm always hanging out around here. My mom still lives around here. A lot of people have moved to like South Minneapolis. Central [the main drag through Nordeast] has changed an awful lot. There was never any Mexican stores. Now, a lot of different nationalities are moving in. The new people don't seem to join in the neighborhood. Which, that's okay, too. But there was a time when I was a teenager, right across the river there were a lot of blacks. They would never go here, never. And now they're everywhere."

If I did find an office at night in Minneapolis, it would probably be the office of a miller, like Pillsbury or Gold Medal Flour. Minneapolis, at the edge of the Plains' wheat fields and with the Mississippi River to power mills, became the flour milling capital of the world, and earned the nickname Mill City. Because of its milling and food processing background, Minnesota was the birthplace of American icons Cream of Wheat, Wheaties, Bisquick, Green Giant, and the bundt pan. The well-known company 3M got that name as a shortened version of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing.

Minnea-polis means "city of Minnehaha," a Native American princess immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Song of Hiawatha" and associated with Minnehaha Falls--a place that local kids beg to be taken and a symbol of the city. The name means "laughing waters."

If the couple in Office at Night wanted to share a romantic meal (maybe after work), they might head for Basil's on Nicollet Mall, a 12-block pedestrian mall downtown. That's where Mary Tyler Moore ate. You can find it by the Bronze statue of Mary throwing her hat in the air like at the end of the show's intro. The hostess said that they constantly get requests for "Mary's" table, which is exactly in the middle of the balcony and labeled with a bronze plaque.

It was not yet noon and the temperature was not quite in the 60s, but the outdoor restaurants in Nicolette Mall were filled with Minnesotans out to enjoy the "nice" weather. I interviewed two women at a sidewalk cafe. One was fortyish. The other was old enough to be her mother and probably was her mother. The younger one said, "A lot of people who move here might feel that way [isolated]."

"I don't think so," the mother objected. "I think that most people who move here are happy here."

"If you move here with a family," the daughter clarified, "it's fine. But if you're single, it's more difficult. It is a cliquey kind of town."

"Is this a hard-working city?" I asked, "Would people be in their offices at night?"

"No," the mother said, "it's a cultural city. They'd be out at a show of some sort."

The city’s "other" art museum was the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). In one of its small scattered galleries, I found a squat little man with a graying goatee and bushy black eyebrows. He wore tri-focal-lensed glasses, creased gray slacks, a crisp white shirt, and a tie with no suit coat. His crooked front teeth stuck out like a rabbit's. Two young women approached, and he answered their questions about a painting in a way that I knew he was their art teacher. So I asked him about Hopper.

"Well," he hesitated, "there's some question about if he was actually painting isolation and alienation of modern people. I think that he was actually just painting light at different times of day. And the most interesting kind of light is early in the morning or late in the evening. If you're trying to get a dramatic lighting early in the morning, there's not people around then. I think if he was alive and you could grab him and talk to him... Well, he didn't say much, so it's hard to know. His wife was the talker for the family. She was like a rocket; she was like a mosquito going around in the room.

"I think people look at his everyday deserted streets of America or people sitting at a diner or people looking out a window, and they think that he's making some kind of social commentary about the alienation of modern man and so on. I think people, when you hear their comments, they're talking more about themselves than they're talking about what's in the painting. That's the good thing about art: that interpretation. You know, people look at it from their own psychological makeup, and cultural background and expectations, state of health. All of that stuff influences what you see. I just think that the art historians and people looking at that art are projecting some of their feelings."

"People who write in books about Edward Hopper," he noted, "may be wrong, too. Education, of course, is about synthesizing everybody's view so you come to a kind of a consensus. But we learn through that; the critics and commentators have often been wrong. We know that, but still why do we accept everything they say?

"I have a friend who does Raku sculptures. It's a very iffy kind of thing. You're at the mercy of the smoking and the rapid cooling, and the crackling. And he says that two out of three just don't work. So behind his house he had dug a pit. And over the years, he's been discarding these clunkers into this pit. Then he moved recently, and he covered this pit. Well, you could imagine two thousand years from now some anthropologist or archaeologist would dig this up and go, 'Oh my God. It was a ceremonial center, and they made offerings here.'

"Minnesota," he continued, "is more isolated. I mean, it being in the interior of the country. The people obviously have a different perspective than people who live on the coast who run into and are connected with and see lots of influences from other parts of the world. By the time it gets filtered into the Midwest, I think people in the Midwest have a different slant of things."

"Probably," he mused, "Minnesota has a better chance of that [looking like a Hopper painting] because there is the time of day where there's no one on the street. In the Midwest where they have smaller communities and small towns, five-thirty in the morning, you're the only one on the street. If you lived in Los Angeles: four in the morning, there's a hundred thousand other people with you on the freeway. When I had moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles, I felt like I was going into another planet. In the days when I moved there, in Minnesota there weren't any stores open on Sunday. Sunday was a forbidden kind of thing. And the day I arrived there, I went to a grocery store that was open on Sunday, and they sold liquor. There was a woman in a bikini buying a quart of Scotch and a watermelon, and she had no shoes on. I was just aghast. And of course she was about eighty. In a bikini! I couldn't have been any more surprised if she was purple with green hair and antennae growing out of her head. There is a difference from Minnesota."

There's even an "other other" museum here. The University of Minnesota Weisman Art Museum was designed by noted architect Frank Gehry and thus nicknamed "MinneaGuggenheim" after his most famous design: Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. The bending silver building looked like he gave a child a series of tin pie plates and asked him to put together a building of the future.

The Museum was set on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi beside a two-tiered bridge, painted University of Minnesota Gopher maroon with yellow "M"s. I visited just a couple months after the closing of a show the Weisman organized about vaudeville that included Hopper's Two on the Aisle and Sheridan Theater. Now on exhibit was "Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway." The aural complement to Hopper's visuals.

At the front desk, below a huge Warhol portrait of Weisman himself, sat a jowly young man with a beard coming in in patches, wearing the museum uniform: a black T-shirt with a red silhouette of the Weisman building. He had shoulder-length hair, thick on the side, so that his hair looked as dumpy as his body, and the way he rested his arms on the table in front of him made him look even frumpier.

"I guess I don't feel that way," he answered. "My experience of the city has been it's a very vibrant and changing community. It's got a lot of diversity, and there's a lot of action. And I guess I view a lot more interaction between Hopper's characters, so I don't view us as less isolated. Maybe it's just that I haven't had the experience of being alone with a lot of very lonely nights as much. I'm around more during the day, but it doesn't seem to me that Minneapolis people have the cold distraughtness of Hopper's characters."

"I'm an art history major, and I think Hopper's a brilliant painter. I think he's one of the best painters before 1950 in America. His figures and their expressions express solemn-ness brilliantly. There's just this quality about his characters that their isolation within the city really speaks more than most of the American painters that were working at that time."

I accosted another student looking at the art whose short blond hair was pulled back and held down by a white macramé tiara. She had blue eyes, tiny ears, a bump on the bridge of her nose, and straight white teeth. "People in Minneapolis," she answered, soft-spoken, "are isolated, but that is a measure of protection against perceived danger. I grew up on a sheep farm, I hope some day to return. In the country people say hello to each other when they walk past. Here, we just go," and she made blinders with her hands beside her eyes. "I think it's sort of a measure of protection, though, maybe from being overwhelmed? Cause in the country it's easy to said 'Hi' to the ten people. Here, there's hundreds of thousands of them. And you never know what people are gonna do, either. There's more danger, I guess. More danger perceived."

Minneapolis was known for coffee shops, so I headed off to a local fave. Bob's Java Hut still had tables out front, despite the fifty-degree weather. Sprawled at one was a tall, lanky man about 50, wearing a brown leather beret and green corduroys. His face looked like one you would see in a Dutch Masters painting. He had yellowing teeth, high cheek bones, and sad brown eyes with a cigarette-ash mark right above the brow that I wanted to brush away. His black sweatshirt bore a large ornate dragon, and around his waist nestled a fanny pack with a Chinese symbol on it.
When I asked him if it was okay to ask him some questions about Minneapolis for a book I was writing, he stared evenly at me, blew smoke, and croaked, "No names, right?" He talked in fits and starts.

"Well," he thought, "I would probably say a yes and a no. For the most part, no. In Minnesota, the whole upper-Midwest, it's easy for people to join groups: sports, cultural, religious, whatever. In that way, they're not isolated. But they are isolated, in that the groups are isolated.

"In some senses, people are very isolated in how deeply they are aligned or committed to any one particular group, and whether they really know what they are committed to--other than living this nice little upper-middle-class lifestyle free from economic worries, you know? It'll be interesting in the next year to find out how that changes. Many things since 9/11 have played for and against that. And it's going to be very interesting now to see what's going to happen with respect to Iraq in the next year and the economy and everything else that's going on; how these things are going to break us and pull us again into something else.

"I spent twelve-and-a-half years as a tour guide in China. I always end up back in Minneapolis. I've been here pretty much continuously since 1967. Minneapolis is a hell of a cultural node. We have more repertory theater seats than New York, and we have a better music and art scene than Chicago. It's hard to leave it for that reason. But it also has a lot of cliqueyness. Most natives stay in the metropolitan area. I would throw out a figure of anywhere from ten to fifteen percent that would be attracted to Chicago and New York and larger urban areas with an East Coast-type of mentality.

"There's still a lot of people," he went on, "that believe, or try to believe it, that Minneapolis and St. Paul are really 'big small towns.' The wave of immigration, population growth, overpopulation in the urban areas, the huge blow-up of the outer ring of suburbs and everything has changed that dramatically. But a lot of people are not aware of it. The kids, teenagers now, early twenties; they don't see it at all. This is a large city to them."

The typewriter in Office at Night has been the subject of a surprising amount of scrutiny, and many are used here in Minneapolis, which has a reputation as a writers' city. The Loft was a legendary gathering place for them, and I popped into Ruminator Bookstore there and bought as a memento a book of poems by Mark Strand, who also wrote the brilliant Hopper. As I was paying, I interviewed the stocky woman behind the counter. Dark hair spilled out from the bun it had been pulled into atop her head above blue eyes. She had a big red nose, and her two front teeth had chiseled out of them an upside-down "V."

"I guess," she hedged, "I would qualify it with I don't really know. Do you mean isolated from each other or more just sort of interior? Because I think that there may be some of that here because of weather. And so you can have a sort of heavy inner-life. But I don't necessarily think that they're isolated. There's this stereotype about Minnesota says the opposite, which is like they're the most over-friendly nice people in America. So I would tend towards that being more true than isolated. But I think that also these are different times. It's changed [since 9/11]; there's more of a sense of community now. I guess that you do see people who live very isolated lives. I drive past the White Castle on my street, and it's like a Hopper painting. You know, it's like an old man at every table.

"There is a community of writers," she put forth, "that are very social, that are very connected. But there is also many writers who work in total isolation because they can't become a part of that community. Because, as welcoming as that community tries to be, there is a certain type of writer, type of writing, type of interaction and personality, that a community attracts. And if you fall outside of that community, you'll still feel isolated. And some of the better creative minds, I think, are part of that outsider contingent. But it's always hard to get to know who they are because the money and the grants and the coverage and the publishing and everything goes to the known writers. I find that a little tiring. I think that some of the better creative work actually happens in isolation."

[Hopper's Corn Belt City]

Like writers, coffee houses, art museums, and "nice" people, Minneapolis also as a bevy of old Hopperesque diners. Many had Hopperesque names. The Ideal Diner, or The Modern Café. I chose the generically named The Diner. By the back door as I entered I spied a tile painted with a scene like Nighthawks, titled "The All-Night Diner." Inside, red Naugahyde stools on tin stands fronted the bar, and booths with wooden backs lined the walls. All the customers were lone men--smoking, bearded, bald, and wearing oil-stained sweatshirts, jackets, and hats. The older waitress, whose teenage granddaughter worked beside her, said she didn't think people in Minneapolis, were isolated from each other. "I can't tell you why I think that, but I just do." That was all I could cajole out of any of the nice people in there.

One of Minneapolis's many theaters that the guy at Bob's had mentioned was in a bowling alley. Actually, several Hopper subjects co-existed at Bryant-Lake Bowl: behind the chic diner/bar was an eight-lane bowling alley with a little theater off to one side. This was a local institution. But, like several places touted as "local hangouts," it was more "local" than I cared for. When I entered, it was like a scene from a comedy where a stranger enters and the noise stops and all the locals turn critical gazes on the out-of-towner. Maybe the music didn't really stop when I entered, but every face did turn toward me. The only person who would talk to me was soliciting me to come in and see a comedy improv show. The show was titled "Send Help," and that's how I felt after trying to interview at such impenetrable in-crowd places.

At another local spot, folks were a little friendlier. But that could have been because they wanted my vote. A political fund-raiser was being held at Lee's Liquor Lounge by a Napoleonic, boyish, man with a thick beard and hair that made him look like an Irish leprechaun. He was running for soil and water supervisor.

Lee's Liquor Lounge had Naugahyde stools, yellowing foam ceiling tiles, yellow canned lighting, a huge Vikings flag on the wall, and a niche filled with Elvis memorabilia. One of the women working the candidate's table was Abby, an urban studies major and Hopper fan. "I love Hopper," she roared, and then named and described several of his paintings. She wore a brown leather jacket over a shirt of a soft material swirled with mauve and lime. She had a round face, brown eyes, and brown hair swirled around her head with an extra curl at the base of her neck as if she had not cut it in a long time. "I also love Tom Waits, and there's a definite connection between their two arts.

"In the winter," Abby downed her drink and shrieked, "downtown Minneapolis is a Hopper painting. Minneapolis has the largest skyway system in the U.S. and is really known for it. You can live, eat, work and shop without going outside."

I mentioned that Des Moines claimed to have the largest, and she said, "Well, Minneapolis is really known for it."

I was eager to visit the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices to get the bumps on my head read in the neighborhood of St. Anthony Main (also called St. Anthony Falls). I also read that there were unbelievable "curing" devices and a real fun owner who had been on David Letterman and other talk shows. But when I went to the new address, the building was locked. I went to three restaurants nearby asking direction. No one knew where the museum was. I renamed it the Museum of Questionable Location.

At one bar, I finally was told that it was no longer in business. Maybe as a consolation to myself for the fruitless search, I asked the waitress for an interview.

"As long as it won't take really long," she rolled her eyes.

She was, like everyone I met here, willing enough to be interviewed. But because of "Minnesota nice," I couldn't help but worry as I left if they weren't thinking, "Asshole."


sosolobi said...

"I have a friend who does Raku sculptures." what's his name and does he have a website? I LOVED the work.

The Hopper Guy said...

So sorry, sosolobi, on 2 counts. I do not get notified when comments are posted and only am checking in now. Also, the "friend" in question was a friend of someone I quoted, not me. I don't know the friend's name. Sorry but thank you for the comment.

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