Minnesota Style Chronicles: Herbert Stead has been volunteering as a greeter at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for the last four to five years. A native of Rhode Island, Herbert came to Minnesota decades ago to work in the airline industry and is now retired. He conceived of this outfit himself — from the Chesterfield coat to the white gloves and black top hat. You can’t see it in the picture, but he’s wearing English riding boots he bought from the J. Peterman catalogue. His sartorial creativity isn’t inspired by a love of menswear. It turns out that people are the point. “It’s just people,” he told me. “People love it!”
Saint Paul artist Nate Christopherson likes working by himself while surrounded by the humming buzz of people. That’s why you might find him drawing alone in a coffee shop. Nate is an illustrator, wood engraver, printmaker, and charter school teacher. He used to have a studio, but he didn’t get as much done there.
I met Nate about six months ago at Kopplins Coffee in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While everyone else there that day was either plugged into laptops or chatting with friends, Nate stood out with his analogue sketchbook and magic marker. I didn’t know Nate, but I asked if I could interview him about his work and he said yes.
That day, Nate was refining a prep illustration for a wood engraving. I noticed what looked like a child’s crayon markings etched across the page. I learned that Nate has two children, a boy and a girl, who are both under the age of four. His daughter had recently become obsessed with hexagons, so he’d been drawing a lot of those. He told me that having kids has changed him as an artist in some pretty fundamental ways.
“A lot of what I do has to go on top of being a parent. My kids are often all over my sketchbook, and that’s kind of cool because I think it’s a document of our story.”
Before he was a dad, those solitary hours Nate spent drawing in coffee shops were accompanied by a tinge of loneliness. Now, it’s rare for him to be alone.
Nate also used to wrestle over his identity and calling as an artist. Those feelings have softened with age. He’s clear-eyed that dabbling in projects just for fun can’t be part of his artistic equation. Put simply, whatever work he does needs to bring in a pay check of some kind. Nate’s younger self would have agonized about that, but the Nate of today is simply grateful to get paid to make stuff with this hands. “This is not something most people get to do,” Nate says. “I’m really happy I just get to sit here and draw for a little bit.”
You can listen to an edited version of my interview with Nate here:
I just see what happens to people when they sing together. It’s an old way of being humans together and we don’t do that much anymore. — Barbara McAfee
As a kid, I loved to sing, but I never did any serious voice study. There was a brief moment where I even sang on stage with Bob from Sesame Street when I was in the fourth grade. But mostly singing was a fun thing to do at summer camp, or later as an adult, in the privacy of my car while listening to Erykah Badu.
I remember auditioning for some kind of choir in college, but I didn’t get in. By that point, my singing ship had sailed. I had no ability to read music, and I couldn’t reliably sing on key. The choir rejection was disappointing but not devastating. Soon I discovered dance as a hobby, and I didn’t think much about finding ways to sing together with other people.
Then in the deep, dark Minnesota winter of 2011, a friend told me about a monthly community sing called Singing in the Light. You could just show up, even if you had no singing skills whatsoever. I decided to check it out.
Singing in the Light is run by singer-songwriter Barbara McAfee. She’s always reminding the group that there’s no way to be wrong in the space. If you sing off key, who cares? If you mess up the harmony, no big whoop. It’s not about perfection or rehearsing for a performance. The point is to make music with and and for each other right then and there, and also to (God forbid) have some fun.
That first time I went to Singing in the Light, I wept like a baby. It was such a relief to use my voice and not be judged. I could make mistakes and it didn’t matter. I think as adults we’re horribly starved for those kind of experiences. As Barbara says, this collective fixation on perfection has us wearing girdles all the time.
I was curious what Singing in the Light has meant to the other people who’ve shown up for it. So I decided to make this radio story to find out. It turns out that I’m not alone in my reasons for wanting to sing with strangers.
Editor’s note: This radio story originally aired in October 2014 on KFAI community radio in Minneapolis and was produced with support from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Many thanks to Catherine Winter for her editorial guidance.
Roberts Shoe Store has been a fixture at the corner of Chicago and Lake Streets in Minneapolis for the last 77 years. But in November 2014, the store will be closing for good. This audio feature I produced for KFAI, tells the story of why the store is shuttering now and what it has meant to the people who’ve worked and shopped there for generations.
The day I reported this piece, I commented to the store’s co-owner, Mark Simon, that Roberts Shoes feels like a real place. “Well you’re definitely in a real place,” Mark replied. “We’ve got 77 years of history here.”
You can see evidence of that history tucked into the nooks of Mark’s upstairs office which is adorned with family photos and framed City Pages “best of” awards. As Mark and his wife Ricki Roberts have been preparing to shut things down, they’ve been sifting through old photos of Ricki’s late father Nate Roberts, who founded the store back in 1937.
Nate Roberts was a Polish immigrant who came to America with very little formal education. As someone who knew the struggle of gaining a financial foothold in this country, Ricki says her father would hire anyone who needed a job and was willing to work. Some of the store’s employees are now in their 70s and 80s and have been at the store for decades.
It would be easy to cast Roberts Shoes as a casualty of modernity, and while that’s partly true, it’s not the whole story. Sure, they’ve struggled to compete with the likes of Zappos and Amazon, as well as the mighty Mall of America, but over the years, Roberts Shoes found creative ways to be the David against those Goliaths. For instance, Mark set up an online store in the late 1990s where he focused on stocking specialty items like saddle shoes that other retailers didn’t carry. Even today, he sells saddle shoes to customers all over the world.
Roberts Shoes was forged on being a neighborhood business. So many of us are lonely and also hungry for meaningful connections in the places where we actually live. Roberts Shoes has served as a reliable balm against that kind of isolation. To go there was to be known, seen, and also remembered.
As customer Steven Mckee told me, “They’ve always made me feel like I was LeBron James. I think that speaks volumes for a shoe store.” Indeed it does.
Back when I was working full time as a public radio producer in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I would sometimes eat lunch at a nearby diner. I liked going there with one of my colleagues when I was feeling low. It’s the kind of place that serves up comfort food like homemade pie and chicken noodle soup. I’d walk away from those lunches feeling a little more hopeful.
Over the years, I came to recognize one of the waiters there. I never knew his name, but his familiar and friendly presence was as much as fixture as the food.
Back in the winter, I stopped by in the late afternoon and sat at the counter. The familiar-looking waiter recognized me, and we started talking. I learned that his name is Erik and that he’d just returned from a road trip to Tennessee where he’d been volunteering in a prison through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These prison trips got started after Erik signed up to be a pen pal with a Tennessee inmate who’s also connected to AA. Over time, the relationship grew and Erik started visiting his pen pal. Erik has been sober for over six years now. He has been down to Tennessee seven times to share his recovery story with inmates there. He summed up these experiences as “a meaningful adventure.”
That day at the diner, Erik commended me for doing meaningful work as a public radio producer. I pushed back and told him to look around the restaurant. It was a winter day and the place was empty except for a few older people and a scattering of others on the 9-to-5 margins. I told Erik that these people count on the diner. It gives them a place to go, especially in the desolate winter, and that his reliable presence is an important part of the place. Those Tennessee inmates probably count on Erik, too. He’s choosing to drive over 12 hours to spend his vacations with them, and that very act says they matter.
Editor’s note: This story originally aired on KFAI 90.3 FM on August 29, 2014 and was produced with support from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thanks to Catherine Winter for editorial support.
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