Just got home from the Music Box, where I was putting up words on the lit-up marquee for a show I’m doing there. It was the hottest night of the year so far, good and muggy, my Fran King “Prodigal Sunshine” T-shirt sticking to my ribs like honest hard work; the chlorine fresh in my nose and hair from swimming/pounding on the neighbor kids earlier in the day. Yes. Yes. Yes. Heat. Summer, finally.
So I was feeling good as I climbed the ladder, up and down and up and down again for a couple hours until all the letters had been spaced out properly and spelled correctly. I had plenty of help: two brothers who are putting on a talent showcase called “MINNEAPOLLO 2009” (the marquee for which we also put up tonight); a Somali businessman, and a few rappers whom I insisted come hoot with us at the Music Box, which was most recently the home of “Triple Espresso.”
Every time I pressed my hand on the marquee’s white panels or felt the heat of the bulbs, I thought about what a kick my grandmother Rose Mullen Hanna would get out of the sight of her grandson up on a ladder on 14th and Nicollet Avenue, under the stars and bathed by the heat of the mosquito-drenched prairie night. She came to America when she was 14, grew up dirt poor, got married and raised a family during the Great Depression with her coal miner-postal-worker husband Roland, and became manager of the torn-down-but-not-forgotten Nicollet Hotel.
It’s the most connected I’ve felt to her since seeing her name on the wall at Ellis Island two summers ago, and tonight I could almost hear her chuckling and shaking her head at me the way she did when she taught us grandkids how to play poker. From that and whatever else I remember (and I remember her Irish burr best), my grandmother was the sweetest-toughest Irishwoman you could ever hope to go to a baseball game with, which I did in the summer of 1977, the year I graduated high school.
I don’t remember who the Twins played or who won, but I remember we sat behind the plate at Met Stadium about 10 rows up, and Rod Carew stole home twice — which is probably why summer especially makes me think of my grandmother: Her cigarettes, tea, and the AM radio with the game on coming through her apartment window screen. Halsey Hall, probably.
When I visited her on her deathbed at her house on Garfield earlier this year, I asked my Aunt Jane Holzinger about my grandmother, specifically about the Nicollet Hotel, which was the biggest thing in town at the time. I told her my favorite story about my grandmother from that time, the one about when she dumped a bucket of ice on a couple of kids who were making out by the hotel elevator. Then I asked her about one of Minneapolis’s first businesswomen.
Aunt Jane’s thin lips curled into a faint smile. She opened her eyes, turned her head on the side of her pillow, fixed my eyes, and nodded. I think she was glad I asked.
“She was,” said my dying aunt, “very ambitious.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.