The kids are alright

The Lake Harriet ice couch at night, earlier this winter. Credit: Photo by Jim Walsh

Sunday afternoon I made my weekly trek to the middle of frozen Lake Harriet, where some hardy Washburn High School kids built an ice couch earlier this winter.

Y’know, to chill on.

Of course, we can’t be sure it was a Washburn-made ice couch, and God knows, given the controversial times the hallowed halls of West 50th Street have seen of late, those hooligans don’t need any more bad press when it comes to freedom of expression and questioning authority. But the fact is, when I first happened upon it, the couch’s icy finish was spray-painted with a peace sign and an orange and blue “WHS,” just like on the rocks in front of the school.  

It obviously took some serious snow sculpting done by multiple hands, and it did my Huck Finn heart good to see the charred wood, black snow and empty cans of Red Bull and PBR scattered in the obviously well-tended fire pit that sat in front of the couch. Constructed with maximum partying and late-night bull sessions in mind, the sofa/love seat combo became something of a touchstone for me on my walks over the last few months.

It’s a pile of snow now, eroded like the rest of us by the Wicked Winter of 2014, but that doesn’t diminish the ice couch’s organic grandeur or myth. I’m always on the lookout for signs of life that haven’t been dulled by the onslaught of the unnatural world, and I took the ice couch as a sign that the kids indeed are alright. It made me ache a little the first time I saw it, maybe pine for the wildness of my own youth, and ultimately I was glad to know that that in this world of screens and super achievement, kids are still capable of creating something of their own that goes against the grain.

I got another sign of the same spirit a little later down at the corner corporate coffee shop. Because I’m a card-carrying supporter of absolutely everything local and independent and can’t stand putting anything in my stomach that might enslave the human soul, the Caribou on Nicollet and West 46th Street is normally my last coffee shop choice, but it was close and I needed a hot jolt on a cold day.

To say the joint was bleak this Sunday afternoon would be charitable. Dead of winter, polar vortex III bearing down, the fake fireplace mocking our desire for fake warmth, no music, and everybody in the long line lost in their own sunshiney somewhere else thoughts.

The wait gave me plenty of time to notice the changes they’ve done to the place, most notably the tearing down of the bulletin board that hung by the coffee pick-up station, where for years captive bulletin board-readers could find business cards, newspaper clippings, and fliers about area performances, employment opportunities, and various goings-on in the neighborhood.

In its place now are small chalkboards featuring tidbits about the store’s baristas, their likes and dislikes and favorite coffee drinks, which hang on the wall opposite a large chalkboard that encourages patrons to share their thoughts. I saw the whole thing as yet another example of gentrification and homogenization, and just when I was getting sick of the sound of my own first-world echo chamber, I made it up to the counter and ordered my $4 mocha.

As I paid and then took my place in line at the pick-up station behind a mom and her preschool-age daughter, I tried not to get too worked up over THE END OF BULLETIN BOARDS AS WE KNOW IT and watched the little girl move to the big chalkboard and pick up a piece of chalk. She never said a word. Her mom and I made eye contact and exchanged a nod as the girl started to write on the blackboard, in perfect penmanship, slowly, deliberately,

“Be…”

Her mom got out her camera phone.

“Your…”

Given the afternoon I’d spent considering youth and conformity, I honestly couldn’t believe it was happening.

“Self.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected] and www.jimwalshmpls.com