The Saturday before Christmas started with a brunch at the home of our friends Brian and Joanie, whose cozy dining room is plastered year-round with artworks by their kids Marina and Carlo and, in the corner, a poster of the 30–year-old John Lennon-Yoko Ono message “War Is Over! (If You Want It).” The gathered group is a bunch of old friends, but we only see each other once or twice a year now, so I was happy to catch up with my boy Tony and his new job as an event coordinator at a downtown Minneapolis institution.
“I work with a lot of Somali people, and at one event this [white] guy who’d rented out the place wouldn’t move his truck because he was afraid ‘those Muslims will blow the place up,’” said Tony, reporting one more on-the-ground example of what happens when the flame of ignorance gets fanned by racist knuckleheads. “I walked away from the guy, got my boss, and told him he had to deal with him.”
I’d forgotten about Tony’s story, and about Brian and Joanie and John and Yoko’s poster, until a few hours later when I found myself standing atop the sledding hill on 40th and Bryant Avenue on a fantastically starry winter night. The hill sits behind the park board mansion and abuts the Lyndale-Farmstead skating rink. Ever since I can remember, kids have called it “suicide hill,” which low-balls the awesome powers of suicide hills on Newton Avenue, where I memorably wracked my tailbone one New Year’s Eve, and the one on Minnehaha Parkway near Pleasant Avenue that leads straight into the Minnehaha Creek and certain doom.
This one, however, lives up to its name: A luge run from hell with dips that make the State Fair’s giant slide feel like a Slip-and-Slide; craters worthy of the Sea of Tranquility; a coat of ice that ensures wicked speed and extreme loss of control; and, just in case you forget your own mortality, the grave-dotted hill of Lakewood Cemetery looming in the distance.
Our crew consisted of two preteen girls, one dog named Zero and me. We piled out of the minivan and found that the only other souls hardy enough to take on suicide hill this chilly eve were four Somali girls, aged 16 to 5. Together the six girls tackled the hill like pros, unified in their fearlessness, but the Somali girls kept their distance. Finally the oldest spoke up.
“Will you keep your dog away from us? Our religion doesn’t let us pet dogs.”
I got hold of my dog and told the girls that he was Zero the Love Dog and that he loves it when people pet him. Then I threw a tennis ball down the hill, and we all watched as our 5-year-old Black Lab-Australian Shepherd shot after it, gobbled it up on the fly, rolled around in the snow, and offered his belly up to the heavens.
The girls’ laughter peeled out over the Kings Highway.
I told the girls I hadn’t realized that “all Muslims hate dogs,” as the youngest asserted, but I did know that Islam considers dogs and their saliva to be impure, which explains why one of the girls — a rubbery teen who took on the craters like a solo surfer conquering fierce whitecaps — freaked at Zero’s tongue as something unsanitary and unholy.
In the face of all his bad advance press, Zero persevered. Over and over again he came bounding up the hill, indefatigable in his appetite for fetching. Soon enough, the Somali girls turned their full bright-eyed attention to the dirty dog. Their smiles lit up the night. I told them Zero sleeps with us, and that he’s the best winter blanket anybody could ever hope for. The girls chanted his name, took turns throwing him the ball and, when all four leaned in to pet and kiss him, Zero curled himself in a giddy semicircle, wagged his tail and a new unnamed religion was born.
After which I retired to the warmth of the minivan. When I turned the key in the ignition, the words “John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band” crawled across the dashboard screen. When I turned up the volume, the choir coming out of the speakers sang this:
So this is Christmas
And what have we done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young
A very merry Christmas
And a happy new year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.