Three Duluth Stories

I moved to Duluth in March of 1998. It was during the El Nino winter, in which every single human with whom I interacted informed me that this winter was NOT NORMAL FOR MINNESOTA. It came up in every conversation, which, over the course of the six months that normally would comprise one Duluth winter, provided a more vigorous facsimile of the suspended, punishing experience; only instead of shivering from the cold, I was shivering from collective dread, carefully cultivated by the city’s entire populace. In the wake of such calamitous portent, simple freezing fucking winter was actually a relief. Thus it was that I spent an entire terrifically warm winter in Duluth scared shitless, forming alliances and hoarding dry goods, waiting for real winter to come, like Duluth was some kind of folksy, sitcom version of Game of Thrones.

In fairness, Duluth is a really strange place. It was going to be strange, whether or not the winter was briefly co-opted by an exotic air current. I have a hundred examples of Duluth’s magnificent wackiness, but that’s too many for today. So here are three.

I. My First Job in Duluth

I moved to Duluth from a short stay in Minneapolis where vacancy was so low, I couldn’t find an apartment for me and my 2 ½-year-old son, let alone afford one. My sister suggested we look at Duluth, where she was going to school, so I did. I found a $350-a-month apartment literally around the corner from hers. It was a two-bedroom within walking distance of town, stores, and most importantly, the House of Donuts and Tacos. I forked over all of my savings and moved with my son to Duluth.

I loved everything about my new digs. My son and I really were just starting out, and our furniture was largely innovated: a moving box covered by an artfully draped quilt was a nightstand, pilfered milk crates affixed with GB ties were shelves, and an approximately 500-pound coffee table, recovered from the alcove of my sister’s apartment, filled the space. My kitchen table was held together with GB ties (they are really handy) and duct tape, so everyone sat down gently, like we were at church, to prevent Richter events upending the coffee.

I got a gigantic box of a TV (it was 1998) from a friend of a friend, and somehow the picture-making portions of the machine (tubes, wires, mice with tiny hammers and Bjork’s cities of electrons) were damaged, resulting in an uncorrectable darkness in the display. While this made it hard to see any scenes shot in the dark (see you later, sex scenes), it did make it possible for me to watch Scream with my horror-fan sister, because all of the murder bits were blacked out by my puritanical television. It was kind of a radio/TV hybrid experience.

One weekend morning, just a few weeks after we moved in, my son and I were lazily enjoying the bright parts of Aladdin when what sounded like a flash mob in combat boots stomped up the stairs to my neighbors’ apartment. The mobbers pounded on the door and announced they were, in fact, not dancers but police, who would appreciate the door being opened immediately. I hopped up and cracked my door open. The entire hallway, the stairs, and assumedly the upstairs landing were filled with police in SWAT gear, weapons drawn, hunkered down in what I like to think of as the “squatty-shooty” position. One officer glared at me. “REMAIN IN YOUR APARTMENT, MA’AM.” My eyes darted back and forth between his face and his gun.

“Yeeaah?” I said, skeptically.

“MA’AM, PLEASE REMAIN IN YOUR APARTMENT.” I nodded, gently closed the door, and looked at my son, who was, no less than fifteen feet away, intently watching Aladdin, apparently unvexed by the sudden introduction of possible uberviolence in the stairwell.

I felt certain the apartment, delightful and cozy as it was, was not bulletproof. “Let’s go get breakfast with bacon!” I said to my son, clicking the TV off as the police shouting changed from entreaties to open the door to plans for sudden and vehement renovation of the entryway. Our winter boots were in the SWAT-populated hall, so we wore our sneakers out the back door, down the snow-covered stairs, through the foot-deep snow in the neighbor’s back yard, and down to Uncle Loui’s Café. I wasn’t sure how long a sting-operation would take, so we stayed for a long time, during which I had the chance to really get to know our server. She explained that this neighborhood was a little touch and go, but generally good. She said my neighbors must have really done something terrible for that kind of police response. The only thing out of the ordinary I’d noted had been a weeklong dance party, which started around 8 p.m. and extended into the wee hours of the morning, and was, according to my deductive skills, attended exclusively by very heavy people in high heels with a demonstrably deep appreciation for Def Leppard’s 1980’s work. My son and I are heavy sleepers, so this was really more curious than troublesome. And certainly no clue as to what kind of nefariousness might incite this ire-storm from local law enforcement. I explained all of this to our server, while consuming a molecule-vibrating volume of coffee.

On the way in to the restaurant, I had noticed a help-wanted sign in the window. As I chatted with the server, I decided to ask for an application. I filled it out while my son colored and ate bacon. And that’s how I got my first job in Duluth.

II. Perspicuity

In 2003, I drank a record-breaking quantity of alcohol on New Year’s Eve. Not a shoulda-died quantity of alcohol, but definitely a how-did-you-get-this-far-without-puking-let’s-start-right-now amount of alcohol. I woke up, so hungover I could scarcely function. Walking made me dizzy. Food was not an option, since even water smelled and sounded like a glass of melted cheese to my tortured stomach, which had spent the previous six hours negotiating with my delirious cerebellum about whether we should spin, sleep, puke, or all three. (All three!)

Up until that morning, I had always wondered about the rustic but inscrutable aphorism, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind,” but it made gruesome sense to me as I attempted to put my sock on a foot that was comically far away from my bloodless hands. I finally just jammed my hammy foot parts into my winter boots, and prepared to walk up the hill to my mother’s apartment, where I’d left my car.

My mother loves me so much. She loves me so much she made me leave my car at her apartment after I had consumed one single Molson, pre-gaming my New Year’s Eve plans. She loves me so much she bought me the most wintry winter parka in the history of winter parkas. She bought me a human duvet cover, with an eyehole like a fur-lined periscope through which I could see the Duluth landscape, five inches at a time.

I began the uphill trudge fully ensconced in this supreme parka, stopping every 25 yards or so to literally rest my hands on my thighs, hang my head, and recover from the screaming exhaustion of every cell in my body. About two-thirds of the way up the endless fucking hill, I noticed another figure walking down. He was also enparka-ed, swallowed up by a gigantic down pouch, his face obscured but for the narrow opening left for his eyes. We probably looked, from a distance, like two human versions of South Park’s Kenny, slouching toward one another in the real. We walked slowly, painfully toward one another, and over that approximately fifty yards, I realized he was suffering as mightily as I, and I believe he had a similar epiphany. He was on one side of the street, and I was on the other. When we were within shouting distance of one another, I instinctively crossed the road, ambling slowly toward him. He did the same. We met in the middle of the street, and simultaneously unfastened our parka hoods, opening the parka portholes to allow our faces into the winter air. And then, without discussion or explanation, we kissed, like it was what we were both walking all this way to do.

Neither of us said a thing. We resecured our hoods, and simply walked away, each in our separate directions.

III. As Happy Does

There used to be a guy in Duluth who walked around my neighborhood a lot. I believe he had some form of disability, although I hesitate to call him disabled, since he was always so happy and contented when I saw him, it made me question what “ability” really meant in the context of sustained human happiness. He carried two things with him on his recurrent perambulations: an old, leather-clad suitcase and an AM/FM radio on which some country station perpetually played Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn songs. The man walked along at a ruminative pace, engrossed in the passing scenery and animatedly, gleefully singing along with whatever song was playing. Whenever I drove by him, he was almost always smiling ear to ear.

About five years ago, I was driving home from Two Harbors in my old Volvo. The odometer on that beloved car had quit at 298,000 miles (I imagine it quit with an audible sigh, like when I take off a pair of cruel shoes or sit down after standing on a cement floor for too long) about a year before, so it’s safe to say the car was really closing out its time as a viable mode of transportation. Most of the windows no longer worked, the gas gage was possessed, and the engine head was cracked. Slowly but surely, the car was dying, and I knew that all it would take was whatever the automotive equivalent of pneumonia was, and that would be that.

Driving home from Two Harbors, I kept hearing someone honking their horn behind me. I craned my neck and scanned the horizon for people I might have offended, but there was no one close enough. I concluded that someone was honking at someone else. A few minutes later, I started to realize the honking was coming from my car, a sort of tepid version of the realization Drew Barrymore has in the movie Scream, when she figures out the murderer’s calls are coming from inside the house.

I pulled over, rolled down the window, and enjoyed a righteous festival of beeps from my car’s horn. By way of investigation, I turned off and restarted the car, lifted the hood (why?), honked the horn manually a few times, and generally concluded that the horn was making its own honking decisions now. This still left the matter of getting the car home, so I set out with the idea that I would apologetically smile at people as I passed, shrugging guilelessly at them to indicate my innocence in the fervent beepstorm that was my passing.

It turns out that when you’re behind someone at a stop sign, beeping like you are pounding your horn with both fists, people will not notice your guileless shrugs. It also turns out that there is no universally-recognized hand gesture for, “my horn is BROKEN!” Try right now to do one. If you’re like me (and I know you are) you’ll point to your horn and then raise your hands to make a breaking gesture, followed immediately by the splayed fingers and raised palms of surrender. From the perspective of the beep-ee in front of you, you are gesturing threateningly while beeping furiously. According to my research, this makes other people very angry. I got flipped off at least five times as I drove home — a few people actually pulled over to let me by and flip me off. I finally abandoned my attempts to make any explanation as I honked my way home.

As I crested the hill of my home’s avenue, I saw him: the happy walker. There was nothing I could do. As I passed, he was clearly startled and frightened by the unwarranted aggression of horn frenzy, and sort of staggered backward onto the berm next to the sidewalk, sitting down on the grass with his radio in one hand and his suitcase in the other. I did the only thing I could think to do: I plastered a gigantic, loony smile on my face and waved maniacally at him. Slowly, his face lit, and he smiled back, raising one hand in a kind of shocked, pageant wave as I rounded the corner, parked the car, and turned it off, forever.


We all know the joke, and you can fill in your own punchline: it’s harder to ________ (vote, fish legally, join Girl Scouts) than it is to get an assault rifle in the United States. It’s funny because it’s so true.

Or at least it was funny until kids — so many kids — started getting killed. It’s February, at the time of this essay, and there have been seven school shootings in 2018 so far. In total, there have been seventeen firearms incidents in schools in the same timeframe, when you include suicides on school grounds, and the accidental discharge of a weapon in school. To teachers, parents, and kids, this means that every couple of days — three times a week — there is another incident where school is interrupted by gunfire.

Teachers and administrators are running drills in their classrooms as though we were in WWII England, listening for bomb raids. So, in addition to hearing news every few days of another firearms incident in schools, kids are reminded every couple of months that someone might come into their school and kill them and all of their friends.

Anyone who has ever cussed in front of their kids and eaten that cuss word in front of their kid’s friend’s mom knows that kids learn from everything around them, more by observation of what’s actually happening than by what they’re told. I don’t care how many times you tell a child they’re safe — if you look terrified, they will be, too. If you prepare them for violence, they’ll come to expect it.

There are only seven states in which zero school shootings have occurred. So right now, in nearly every state in America, a kid knows somebody who knows somebody who was involved in a school shooting — whether they’ve discovered it or not. Every child in U.S. public education who is scared to go to school is legitimately scared. I’d love to be able to tell you the specific likelihood that students will be involved, witness, or killed in a school shooting, but those data don’t exist since researching them amounts to anti-gun advocacy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the primary agency responsible for researching situations pertaining to public health, is forbidden to do. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, explicitly prohibits the CDC from providing us with the data we would need to evaluate this issue, objectively. I.e., what are the long-term psychological effects on students who survive, witness, or are adjacent to a school shooting? What relationship exists between gun ownership, mental illness, and wealth? What things make a child likely to become a shooter?

I can tell you more about the likelihood you’ll contract Ebola.

But at this point, all of those data would only elaborate on a conclusion evident in the bloody empire of data we’ve unwittingly amassed in the past three decades. It would be informative and illuminating to know more about why more people are shooting people (and shooting more people when they do), but we already know they are. We know they are male, we know they’re white, and we know what they’re shooting them with. So we really don’t need arm-deep datasets, pie charts, and infographics to tell us where to start.

Folks are arguing vociferously between two ideas: that we have a gun problem, or that we have a mental illness problem. The latter argue that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so we should focus our attention addressing the mental illness elephant in the room. On the matter of researching mental illness’ role in gun violence, I couldn’t agree more. We have a serious problem when the second-most powerful people in our society — young, white men — are willing to kill to express their feelings of alienation, disenfranchisement, and despair. I’ve heard loads of sardonic discourse on the matter, snarky comments about the way the new world of feminism, hedonism, and heathenism are breaking the morale of young, white men, and if we need to dig into that, fine. Let’s dig in so we can face it. Maybe it is male entitlement. Maybe it’s the widening chasm between what young, white men were taught to be (and expect in return) and what the world currently values. Maybe the transitioning and evolving role of men in our society is painful and complex, and not well-supported by our current systems. As a feminist, I can’t say those sentences without a small amount of ire, having lived in the subjugated role for my entire life — it makes me grit my teeth to acknowledge sympathizing with the grief my oppressor feels, losing his job as my oppressor. But I have some experience on the oppressor side of the fence, too, as a white woman, and I have been extended sympathy and support. I have the chance to learn to be better, and the resources, as well. My ugliness has a name, and a course of redress. So, painful or not, I’m not more afraid of the answers to those questions or that poignant sympathy, than I am of a generation of children growing up broken by gun violence. Or, for that matter, the constant, unbearable weight of fear readiness for gun violence imposes.

Other folks are focused on guns as the problem, listing other developed nations’ tightened gun laws as the cause of their marked reductions in gun violence, per capita, and they’re right, too. Less guns mean less violence, period. More guns mean more gun violence, period. From a data perspective, anyway, and data doesn’t care how you vote. Guns with the ability to fire many rounds successively, whether by repeatedly chambering a round expeditiously, or by bump-stock modification, are easy to get in America. And they are the weapon of choice in school and mass shootings. The “guns are the problem” argument has gotten stuck in circular logic problems regarding the particularities of individual weapons. Perhaps exhausted by the argument, the popular retort has become that single-shot rifles and even six- or eight-bullet handguns would be preferable, since fewer people would die before the shooter ran out of ammunition or was stopped. This seems like the functional equivalent of saying it would be better to give Jason Vorhees an axe, rather than a chainsaw, because the axe gives his victims a fighting chance. He’ll only have time to dismantle one or two people before the cops get there, and the others will have escaped by then. I hate to see the conversation degraded to arguing about which guns are more killy, because that materially changes the conversation from how to limit gun violence to how to limit the number of deaths by gun violence.

While I’m interested in both, a horrible truth is that experiencing gun violence, even without being killed, is terrifically violent. Twenty to 31 percent of combat veterans (varies by war) experience PTSD, and they’re grown-ups, with fully-formed coping strategies, indoctrinated and trained to kill. Imagine what happens to kids.

People always talk about how resilient kids are. About how they bounce back from just about anything. But the truth is, they don’t bounce back — they survive. Because at young ages, whatever happens to them enters their schema — their expected construct of everyday living. That means that institutional racism, sexism, refugee-camp life — whatever — becomes the norm for them. But it being the norm, and them being adapted to it, doesn’t mean that it is psychologically healthy for them, or sustainable. No one can swallow their anger, maintain hyper-vigilance, or feel acute fear for extended periods without consequences. The body is not made to endure those things for long.

The remaining kids at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Parkland — they survived, but they are certainly not the same.

Finally, the conservative response to the “gun problem” argument tarries on the possibility of arming teachers with guns with which they can defend their class. This option neglects to include the terrible reality that gun violence makes victims on both sides of the weapon. Those veterans with PTSD? They aren’t sick just because of what happened to them. They are sick because of what they had to do. Killing people, or even trying to kill people, damages the people with the guns, too. And this is why we extensively train and indoctrinate our military and police before we ask them to wield those weapons on our behalf. Those weapons are heavy, and they come with a catastrophically steep cost: many of those who are forced to use them are never the same afterward. To ask someone to kill on our behalf is not the same as asking someone to usher children safely to the school bus, to break up schoolroom squabbles and interrupt any bullying or mistreatment.

And we’ve also neglected another critically important fact: we wouldn’t just be asking teachers to kill to defend their students, we’d be asking them to kill one of their students to defend their students. While we can all likely agree that the student with the gun should be stopped, in whatever way possible, asking a teacher to not just kill, but kill one of their own is unethical, unreasonable, and represents the most profound conflict of interest I can imagine.

We know more guns cause more violence. We know more guns cause more violence, particularly in wealthy nations, so we know our gun problem has a psychological problem. So in answer to the question, do guns kill people, or do people with mental illness kill people, the answer is yes.