Late summer 1978 and I’m driving east on Lake Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the radio, preceded by an a capella jingle (Double-you-C-C-O… F-M one-oh-three…) comes what will soon be awarded Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are.
I turned 20 about six months ago in Wichita, jammed all my worldly possessions in a splotchy metallic blue ‘73 Pontiac LeMans and made for the Twin Cities to pursue a technical school education in broadcasting.
At least that’s the story I told my father. After graduating high school three-and-a-half years ago, I’ll cop to being somewhat aimless. Lackluster college performance, mostly because I didn’t want to be there, but I thought society expected it of me and I know the old man did. He’s a true believer in this notion of organized post-secondary education as a means of gaining a skill and the knowhow to keep me in bread, beans and beer.
The truth is I’m stone in love with a girl from up here and there’s nothing keeping me in Kansas. When she smiles at me, I just kind of melt all over the floor.
Up on the left is the Minnehaha Mall. I work at the SuperValu market there. My résumé listed three years of all-purpose grocery work at Mr. D’s IGA back home. I’m a pro. I stock dairy. Milk, cheese, yogurt and Land O’ Lakes butter. These Scandihoovians love their lactose.
In the springtime after the thaw, I stowed my engine block heater. (“It’s an electric dipstick? You gotta be kiddin’ me!”) They weren’t.
My girlfriend lives with her family in the outer ring of the suburbs in Wayzata. Her family’s as hospitable as can be and turn me on to snowmobiles and Chinese food (careful, that mustard ain’t French’s Yellow).
She’ll dump me in a couple of months for a Stallone wannabe. “Stay away from her or you won’t have any teeth to broadcast with.” OK, knucklehead. You win. No more snowmobiling or moo goo gai pan.
There’s a billboard up on the right promoting the Minnesota Twins, which reads, “Mike Marshall Saves at the Met.” (Marshall = Twins closer, the Met = Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington). Rod Carew gets a hit every time he comes to the plate. He’ll hit .378 this year. The Twins have a player named Bombo Rivera, who will be a flash in the pan, but this year, he’s my guy.
Billy wrote this song about his first wife, Elizabeth. Four years from now, he’ll meet Christie Brinkley and it’ll be seeyalater Elizabeth. I wonder if Elizabeth called Christie a knucklehead? She took the good times. She’ll take the bad times.
South on 36th Avenue. The place I live is just up ahead. Six guys in the upper two floors of an old Victorian. I actually lock my door with a skeleton key. We each have a bedroom with a common kitchen and bathroom. If you’re not the first one up, the shower is ice freaking cold.
I hang out with these guys, chums from school, my girlfriend, her friends. We do the discos. An Italian joint in St. Paul called Rosa’s. Snowmobiling. Ballgames. Lake Calhoun. Blatz, Grain Belt and Heileman’s Old Style comes in these handy new 12-packs and one of the three is always on sale at the corner liquor store.
My new friends grew up here, Wisconsin or the Dakotas and talk with this strange Minnie-soda northern plains accent. They call me a southerner. Uh… have you looked at a map? Kansas is smack in the middle of the country. Their logic: Well, it’s south of here.
Real good, then.
My life here is similar to back home in Kansas, but the truth is, something’s different. At 20, I think maybe I’m taking my future more seriously. I make straight A’s at the trade school and seem to have a knack for broadcasting. Could it be my father was on to something?
The trade school prides itself on placement and a radio station in International Falls wants to talk to me. Wait a minute. Aren’t you the ones that always have the record low temperature in the country? No, thanks. I’m a southerner.
I park the wide ride LeMans in the street next to the Victorian as Just The Way You Are’s alto sax solo washes over me. The boys and the Blatz await upstairs, but I don’t want clever conversation. The truth is there’s nothing keeping me here and I wanna go home. To Kansas. George Brett (who will hit .390 in two years) over Rod Carew. Coors Light instead of Old Style. Great Plains twang, not Minnie-soda. My father’s advice, informing my decisions.
To this day, when I hear that song, I’m transported immediately back to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1978. The truth is, it’s become my favorite year.