“Dad, I feel dumb,” I said, meekly. “I’m not smart. I don’t know what’s going on.”
I was 10 years old, the summer between fourth and fifth grade. I had my head down, standing before my father in the shag-carpeted living room of our house on Colfax Avenue in South Minneapolis.
My old man brightened, put his book down, and, come to think of it, this was the first of many good conversations I would come to have with him over the next five decades, which thankfully continue to this day.
“Read the newspaper,” he said, instantly, generously, perfectly, in that encouraging lilt of his — the same lilt he used to say, with genuine wonder, “How’d you do that?,” when one of his kids did something cool in school or life, followed by, “I’ll be darned.”
I was overwhelmed. I loved comic books and the Hardy Boys and I was swimming my way through “Moby Dick” that summer, but all those real-world real-time stories felt out of reach, and I was in no hurry to join the ranks of worried adults. I wanted to be a kid; newspapers were serious business.
“It’s too much. Where do I start?”
He picked up the paper and pointed at the front page. “You don’t have to read every story,” he said, leaning forward, keys and coins jangling in his pocket. “Just read the headline and maybe the first couple paragraphs.”
So I did. I read all the great Minneapolis sportswriters, then started reading the rest of the paper, and was drawn to columnists like Larry Batson, Jim Klobuchar, and the syndicated Ellen Goodman, because they talked about life, themselves, their friends, families, and neighbors. I grew up reading the two daily newspapers, the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune, and it was in the 1970s that I got addicted to the feeling of picking up a newspaper off the front step and unwrapping my daily dose of what the Irish call “the craic,” or, as the Urban Dictionary has it, “the news of the day, often delivered loudly and with music and alcohol.”
I cut out photos and stories from both papers and put them in scrapbooks I own to this day. Somewhere along the line, as I devoured the amazing Minneapolis alt-weekly writers of the ’80s, I figured out that writing columns about myself, my family, and neighbors might be a good way to connect and cure loneliness. I was right.
Because we’re celebrating 25 years of the Southwest Journal this issue, and because I’ve been digging through a few decades’ worth of my columns, essays, liner notes, and reviews for a proposed collection, I’ve been looking back and feeling damn lucky to have had my words dropped on your doorstep every other week for much of the last decade.
I wrote my first story for the Journal in the summer of 2001, a fantasy about a creature I invented, Ollie The Octopus, who lives to this day in Lake Harriet. It was a trippy read; pretty different from the stuff I’d been writing at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and I liked the fact that then-editor Linda Picone ran with it, including a big photo illustration by Rich Ryan, of kids running screaming from the lake: No wonder neighborhood newspapers continue to thrive amidst massive print casualties and the digital revolution.
For about eight years now, I’ve pored my guts out in this space and from time to time I’ve told you of my life’s ups and downs. More to come. The job of a columnist, as I’ve always understood it, is to reveal something of yourself, to be open-hearted and open-minded, but to also have guts enough to risk putting yourself out there; laying bare your hopes and dreams and confessions and warts and all. It requires both a sensitive nature and thick skin, and I try to balance both with my reporter’s chops.
“I love it. I read it cover-to-cover,” is the refrain I hear time and again from readers when they learn I write for the Journal, and here I want to thank editor Sarah McKenzie for her ongoing guidance, encouragement, and her willingness to let a writer write. I also want to thank you for reading all these years, and for allowing me to be a small part of your life. For a kid who still romanticizes the tactile magic of newspapers and doorstep delivery, it remains an honor I do not take for granted.
Besides, at the end of the day, you can still use our hard work for those old used-newspaper standbys, fish wrap and birdcage lining — or for picking up your horrible neighbor’s dog poop.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org