Last week, biking on the Greenway, I smelled the burning mattress before I saw it next to the tents pitched in the grass along the trail. My first urge was to dial 911 but I have lived through some history in the past month and have learned to second guess that urge. Instead I called out to the homeless people living in the tents. An older man sitting in a wheelchair called back. I explained that there was a mattress on fire and asked what we should do. I asked if I should call for the fire department, if they would be respectful to everyone living there. He said it was ok to call them. Then a crew of arborists from the Tree Trust drove up in their pick-up. They had been trimming branches nearby and noticed the smoke. After another brief conversation among all of us, it was agreed that the Tree Trust crew would call the fire department. I biked off to pick up an order from Moon Palace bookstore. A burning mattress was no longer much of a big deal to any of us.
One of my friends observed that as history unfolds we each see just a tiny slice of it. History happens in the nooks and crannies of our everyday routines until it spills over to obliterate and transform everything that has been familiar and ordinary.
On Tuesday, May 26, when I called my husband to let him know I was heading home from the hospital, he told me he had terrible news to share: the night before another black man had died in Minneapolis police custody, this time at 38th and Chicago, five blocks from our house. I might encounter demonstrations on my drive home. Later that evening we read accounts of the killing and saw a still from the video where a police officer appeared to be grinning as he knelt on the neck of another human being.
The next morning I got up early and biked over to 38th and Chicago before heading in to work. It was raining. No one else was around. Soggy cardboard signs lying in people’s yards showed evidence of the peaceful protest the night before. An altar was made up on the sidewalk in front of Cup Foods: flowers, votive candles and a bag of gummy bears. George Floyd died there, between the gas station and the corner store, where his face was ground into the rough pavement of Chicago Avenue as the life was pressed out of him. I felt sick and scared but it was tempered by the tenderness of the flowers laid on the street. I biked home, crying in the rain, pulled it together and left for work.
After work I sat on my porch trying to read the news as sirens blared and helicopters buzzed all evening.
On Thursday I biked to work passing shopkeepers on 5th and Lake Street sweeping up broken glass from their looted shops. On the Greenway I smelled and saw black smoke billowing to the west where the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct and surrounding businesses had been set ablaze the night before.
On Friday morning I biked to work passing broken glass and the torso of a female mannequin on the sidewalk at 5th and Lake. White looters with a shopping cart picked through the remains of the same Latino-owned shops I had passed the morning before. Windows that had been repaired had been rebroken overnight. At work that day I transferred prescriptions for patients because their pharmacies had been destroyed or damaged by riots. That evening we ate pizza from Jakeeno’s at 36th and Chicago like we do every Friday night. It was familiar and comforting.
After dinner helicopters continued to buzz overhead but the smoke had cleared so I sat on the porch trying to read. Shouts and car horns sounded in the distance as mobs moved down Lake Street from east to west. A pick-up truck sped down my street, bumping over the berms of gravel that cover water pipes supplying homes while our water mains are relined. Moments later I smelled and saw black smoke billowing above the houses and trees to the north. As the sun set, the sky turned red. I learned from a friend on Facebook that the Shell gas station three blocks away was on fire. Houses and apartment buildings stand next door to it on the same block. The rest of the night my husband and I followed that fire and several others on news streams from Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune documenting events happening blocks from our house. On the other side of 35W the post office and a bank were set on fire. The National Guard moved in coming down through 32nd and Nicollet. Early in the morning we learned from the Twitter feed of a reporter from MPR that the fire department had made it to the Shell Station. I went to bed and slept for a few hours.
The next morning I woke up and numbly went about my Saturday routine. I biked to my favorite bakery, passing the burned out shell of a car at 35th and 35W, as I skirted around the still smoldering buildings near Lake and Nicollet. Biking past Uptown I saw people looting the Verizon store and windows boarded up along Hennepin Avenue. Miraculously, the bakery was open. On the way home I saw that the co-op was closed and boarded up. The fire station across the street was open. I had a box full of pastries for my family but I saved one for my mom and gave the rest to the fire fighters.
Then I drove to see my mother in Como Park, taking highway 36 from the north avoiding the wrecked areas at Snelling and University to the south. Driving in from the north, I passed the memorial to Philando Castile. In July of 2016 he was killed by a police officer at Snelling and Larpenteur six blocks from where my mom lives.
Mom didn’t mention the riots when we had our window visit that morning. She doesn’t remember where I live so even if she saw the fires on TV, she wouldn’t be able to put it together that I live three blocks from Lake Street. She wasn’t worried about me and I was grateful for this. We had the same conversations several times over like we always do and I made sure she got her apple Kouign-amann.
The rest of that week was a blur of sirens and police helicopters, meetings with neighbors, locking up our waste bins in the garage every night and filling buckets of water in our yards in case there were more fires, writing e-mails and checks from an exhausted social distance.
In the weeks since, I have continued going to work as a nurse every day, passing the burned out shell of the post office when I take 31st instead of my usual route on Lake Street since it’s still blocked off at Nicollet. We have progressed from window visits to in person visits at my mom’s assisted living. I try to call her at lunchtime every day. She is getting more confused about what day it is and when to take her pills. She seemed relieved and readily agreed when I asked if we could have a home health aide administer her medications.
In the evenings I have sat on my porch reading about my neighborhood in long form pieces in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Jelani Cobb aptly summed up the charred remains of Lake Street as “evidence of what the world looks like when a crisis is cubed.” 38th and Chicago is now known simply as the George Floyd Memorial, a site for pilgrimage that continues to transform week by week. At Lake and Minnehaha, across the street from the burned out Third Precinct, there is a massive air conditioned tent, billed as a community food market and set to open on July 8 in the parking lot between the shuttered Target, Cub grocery store and Aldi.
Last week biking home from the bookstore I checked to make sure that the mattress had been extinguished and the tents remained standing. It was lunchtime. I continued on home to call my mom.