I didn’t linger at Margot’s but kept fleeing north, moving quickly, cutting through yards the way I did when I was a kid. I was out of breath when I reached Larpenteur Avenue. I hung a right and reduced my pace to a purposeful stroll, pretending I wasn’t a fugitive, refusing to glance at the vehicles that whizzed past, resisting the urge to look behind me. I knew where I needed to go and calculated the safest route to get there. It wasn’t in a straight line, and it certainly wasn’t from behind the steering wheel of my Jeep Cherokee—I was sure there was a stop-and-detain order on it. Smarter, I decided, to acquire new wheels when the time came and let the golf course tow the Cherokee to an impound lot. I continued to follow Larpenteur east.
Like me, the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota was actually located in Falcon Heights. No doubt it was just as embarrassed by the fact as I was, since it was never, ever referred to as the “Falcon Heights campus.” It wasn’t long before I reached the student center. That’s where I caught the free shuttle, a full-sized MTC bus that carried students nonstop from the St. Paul campus the few miles to the Minneapolis campus. You’re supposed to be enrolled or an employee at the U to ride the shuttle, but no one asked to see an ID when I boarded.
I found a seat and waited. The bus filled quickly with young men and women dressed as though they had just finished cleaning out the garage. And pretty. Unmarked by the changing seasons. Looking about as intense as a Sunday afternoon. Especially the women, the finest women in the United States. Normally I would have taken pleasure in being among them, but it’s difficult to enjoy girl-watching when you’re also on the lookout for men in dark suits carrying guns.
I didn’t begin to relax—and then just barely—until the bus shuddered and shook as it accelerated from the curb and slowly followed a circuitous route through the campus, eventually crossing from St. Paul into Minneapolis. It rolled up to the edge of the East Bank of the campus; the West Bank was located on the far side of the Mississippi River.
I took my leave of the shuttle in front of Mariucci Arena, where the Gophers played hockey, walked past Williams Arena, where they played basketball, and found a seat on the bench at the bus stop on University Avenue. The MTC stopped for me and several other commuters. I couldn’t remember the last time I rode a city bus and didn’t know the correct fare. I dropped an extra quarter into the meter and probably would have paid more if the driver hadn’t looked at me like I had the IQ of a salad bar. I quickly found a seat, the shoe box balanced on my knee.
The bus headed east, crossing back into St. Paul. It made frequent stops, but the number of passengers never seemed to grow or diminish. For every one that disembarked, someone else boarded. Still, I had a seat to myself until we reached Snelling Avenue and a man dressed for business joined me.
“How you doin’?” he said.
I nodded and looked out the window.
“Some weather.” He spoke with the enthusiasm of a telemarketer, trying to engage me in conversation, trying to interest me in his product. Whatever it was, I wasn’t buying.
“Where are you headed?”
I turned casually toward him. He smiled. His teeth were stained by grape juice, and when he brushed his hair off his forehead the way bad actors do, I noticed that it was very thin on top. I estimated he’d be bald by the end of the week.
“I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but I’m in a very bad mood. You don’t want any part of it.”
“Oh.” The purple smile faded quickly. “No problem. I was just trying to be friendly.”
“Normally I’d appreciate it.”
He wasn’t a bad guy. A Minnesotan trying to be nice just for the sake of being nice. Outsiders—and a few of our more cynical natives—often ridicule us for this behavior. I can’t imagine why. When he left the bus at Lexington Parkway, I said, “Have a good day.” He said, “You, too.”
After crossing Lexington, the bus began a two-mile stretch of University Avenue known as “Asian Main Street” because of the hundredplus Asian businesses found there. As a nickname, “Asian Main Street” wasn’t very catchy. Nor was “Asian Avenue.” Some had attempted to tag the area “Chinatown,” but the label hadn’t stuck because there were hardly any Chinese there. The inhabitants were mostly Hmong refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, with a smattering of Japanese and Koreans mixed in. I read somewhere that St. Paul had the greatest concentration of urban Hmong in the world. Which puzzled me. I would have thought the culture shock if not the climate change—we have six months of snow and ice, man—would have sent them scurrying to the southern states.
I pulled the cord that signaled the driver to stop the bus at an intersection near Rice Street.
Phu Photography sold film cameras, digital cameras, camcorders, lenses, gadget bags, tripods, darkroom equipment, film, and binoculars. One corner of the store had been reserved for passport photos, and a door behind the cash register led to two studios where individual and family portraits were taken.
A tiny bell sang when I entered the store, although no bell hung above the door. A moment later a young woman asked if she could assist me. She spoke in the clear and precise English that only foreigners speak.
I asked to see Phu. I would have used the owner’s first name, but I couldn’t remember it. A few moments later, I was approached by an older woman who looked the way I imagined a Vietnamese librarian would look. She pointed and said, “I know you maybe.”