When I was an undergraduate, all of the foreign language classes on campus were taught in the same building.
It was a brick pile, tucked into a space near the campus administration building, and the story on campus was that it was designed during the height of the student riots of the late 1960s or early 1970s, with special care to make it assault-resistant and siege-proof. It had narrow, vertical windows that jutted out at an angle from the building, making them both useless as entryways and convenient for defensive sniping. You entered between levels and had to take the single staircase up one flight or down one to get to a floor. After that, if you wanted to get to any of the other floors you had to go all the way down to either end of the building to the staircases there. And the top floor was accessible through a separate staircase that only went down to the floor below. It was a miracle of defensive architecture, designed to confuse, bewilder and frustrate anyone trying to do anything in a straight line.
I thought about this today while I was driving around in Minneapolis.
As the performing arts procurer down at Home Campus, one of my more pleasant duties is to go to the Midwest Arts Conference every other year (we don’t need to go every year – we’re not that big a venue). This is a four-day-long meet-and-greet between most of the venues in the upper midwest and most of the performers who want to be booked into those venues. It’s a very busy conference and a lot of work, even as a mere attendee, but it’s a lot of fun, especially now that I know a few of the people there to hang out with.
But it’s in Minneapolis.
Now, I like Minneapolis, really. It’s clean and relatively safe. There seems to be a lot going on there. And there is a used book store that specializes entirely in science fiction and fantasy books that I managed to get to last time (though not this time). It also has a network of overhead walkways so you can travel all across the downtown without ever going outside, which pleased the indoorsman in me no end and which I suspect is a wonderful idea in the dead of a Minnesota winter.
But the streets were clearly laid out by vandals.
Nothing goes in a straight line from anywhere in Minneapolis. There isn’t a two-block-long section of any street in that city that doesn’t curve, double back, or split into two or more new streets. It’s Escher-esque. Boston is a model of rectilinear clarity compared with Minneapolis.
And all of it is under construction right now.
Which means, for those of you keeping score, that if the hotel guy tells you, “Oh, it’s easy to get to the BIG HONKING INTERSTATE – just go up two blocks and make a right and it will take you right there,” and you do this but six blocks after the right turn the street disappears – literally: there was no road surface after a certain point, just dirt and traffic cones – and there are no signs anywhere to tell you what to do instead, you will spend an hour trying to find the BIG HONKING INTERSTATE that was less than a mile from the hotel door and eventually, if you are like me (and who isn’t?), you will end up on the other side of the Mississippi River with a splitting headache, shouting random obscenities at the drunkards and chemically-imbalanced goat-herders who thought it would be a good idea to lay out the streets of a major American city in just that way.
I’ll bet nobody will ever successfully invade Minneapolis, however.
The conference itself was, as noted, a lot of fun, even if I only managed to get to a couple of days’ worth of it this time. There are an astonishing number of people on this planet with completely insane amounts of talent, and many of them were doing their best to impress us so we would book them. During the days you mostly wander around the Marketplace, snarfing up literature and CDs and DVDs so you can persuade people that they should believe your reports of said talent, but in the evenings and during the big lunches, there are showcase performances. I saw a pair of jugglers do things that I would swear to you are physically impossible, the evidence of my own eyes notwithstanding, and do them all the while spouting some of the finest comedy I’ve heard in years. I saw musical acts whose mistakes were more finely presented than anything I’ve ever even attempted as a singer in the three and a half decades since I joined my first choir. It was beyond impressive, what some of those people can do.
There are certain trends in performing arts, I’ve noticed.
For one thing, there seems to be a great deal of interest in using musical instruments in ways nature never intended – there was a quartet made up of three cellists and a bongo player, for example, who regaled us with what can only be described as Baroque punk music. And it was amazing.
For another thing, most of these performers fell into several physical categories. There were beautiful young women, alone or paired with scruffy middle-aged men. There were scruffy middle-aged women, alone or paired with more scruffy middle-aged women. There were beautiful young men, always alone. And there were impeccably turned out middle-aged men in sharp tailored outfits that were clearly meant to compensate for the absence of beautiful young women. And they all, every one of them, had talent oozing out their ears and puddling around their ankles.
I have hit that period of my own scruffy middle-aged manhood where, for the first time, I noticed just how young some of these performers are. That cello group? None of them looked old enough to drink legally. The consensus break-out star of the conference – an up and coming country singer currently the subject of a bidding war among the major labels in Nashville and whose showcase performance was still the subject of buzz days later when I arrived on site – was all of 19.
I had a very nice time at this conference, nice enough to justify the sheer volume of work I now have to make up for being away from class prep for three days.
But next time? I’m bringing bread crumbs and a very large ball of twine so I can find my way back home without touring the entire city.