A couple of weeks ago we were at one of the local (okay, oldest in the nation) malls, and decided to stop at Caribou for coffee. (Caribou is a midwestern Starbucks wannabe. ) It was mid-afternoon, and as always, I glanced up at the daily trivia question, always hoping to get a dime off and feel smart at the same time. And I often have some luck, except when the questions are about sports. (I did once get a sports question to which the answer was: The Minneapolis Lakers.)
On this particular afternoon, the question was about poetry. I read: "In Longfellow's poem, what was the name of Hiawatha's love?" I had one of those, "I'm an English major, I should know this," moments, mentally going through the most famous lines of the poem, the ones that all schoolchildren, at least at one time, were forced to memorize:
"By the shores of Gitche-Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis
Daughter of the moon, Nokomis."
Then, totally independently of the poem, the answer came to me. "Minnehaha?" I ventured to the clerk. "You're right!" She smiled. "You're the first person to get it right today."
Now that made me feel smart, at least for a minute of two. And then I thought: at 3:00 in the afternoon, in the land of Minnehaha Falls, Minnehaha Park, and Minnehaha Parkway -- nobody got it right before I did? There's even a statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha in the park -- a beautiful place to visit, by the way. In fact, I think it was my ancient memories of seeing the statue, the many times my family and I picnicked at Minnehaha Park, that jogged my memory of the famous name.
And it made me think: what do we know, anymore? In whatever place we are in, whether Tokyo, Japan, or Portland, Oregon, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- do we have a sense of the place we are any more, its unique history and landscape? Do we see the birds who live there, the wildflowers that color the summer? Do the names of the places (Hennepin, Nicollet, Hiawatha, Pillsbury) make us curious to know the travelers who were here before us? Or do our eyes glaze over as we travel from one strip mall to another, stopping in at Starbucks and Walmart and Toyz 'R Us?
There's a way in which each big city now begins to resemble every other city. Minneapolis no longer has Daytons and Donaldsons downtown, and you don't have to go to New York to experience the thrill of entering Macy's -- so it's not such a big thrill any more. I miss Young Quinlan and Powers, and innumerable small shops now disappeared. And there is something handy, I'll admit, about going into a Target in any city and knowing exactly where to find what I am looking for.
And yet, under the surface, if we dig a little deeper, the unique places in each city still exist. Lac Qui Parle and Nicollet remind us of the French traders here long before the Norwegians or the Swedes. Hiawatha and Minnehaha (although fictional) remind of of those who were here longer still. Scratch the surface, and there are a million stories of famous and ordinary people, of famous and ordinary places.
But what do we know anymore ... about the places we live?