Spring has sprung in all its glory and, as you may have noticed over the last dozen years I’ve been writing in this space, my favorite nature-in-the-city perch has been the two benches that, for as long as I can remember, rested — and welcomed resters — across the street from 42nd & Fremont.
One afternoon last fall I was shocked to find that my beloved benches had been ripped from the earth and obliterated without my permission like so many other gone-but-unforgotten landmarks of this bursting-at-the-seams city. Sigh. It was just two conjoined benches, but over the years it became much more to me. It was a special spot, and I can’t help but think that with all the unfinished construction, traffic, and road and highway closures choking the natural world in this purportedly bucolic burg, the demolition of my little corner of the world signals a darker side to this city’s relentless progress, as it gets less and less human while it expands and experiences growing pains.
Or maybe that’s just me: just another old man lamenting yet another loss of an old friend.
“Best spot in the city,” I’d often mention to all who landed there as I walked past with my dog, always to knowing nods. An excellent solo spot, the two benches were nothing less than a sanctuary built for two, amazingly conducive to long conversations. For my buddy Pete and me, it became our self-anointed “guru lounge,” where we’d regularly meet to solve not the world’s problems, but our own.
As a couple of free and freaky-thinkers, we’d land at the guru lounge a couple times a week to watch the sunset and hash it out. We talked about love, work, music, humanity, the ego, science, marriage, family, beer, weed, the neighborhood, sex, philosophy and spirituality, but rarely politics, television or gossip. The guru lounge was our sacred space, our hallowed ground, and in our most earthbound moments we fancied ourselves more owls than men, a couple of wise middle-aged birds feeding, observing and taking an aerial view of the chaos created by the human world.
We played music there. We sang there. We traded ideas and books. One of our favorites was a pamphlet I found on my father’s bookshelf, amidst all his novels and books about life, UFOs, history and alternative spirituality. If our guru lounge sessions were to be boiled down to a single quote, it could be found in a 1958 pamphlet from writer Hilton Hotme, a kindred spirit and seeker who questioned everything about human existence, society, government and Christianity: “The ego is the entity most difficult of analysis and demonstration. The study of this entity and knowledge of its principles constitute the highest occupation of human intelligence.”
Beyond my regular guru lounge bull sessions with Pete, I hung with friends and family on those benches. I wrote columns and songs on that wood. I watched people draw, read and picnic there. For a couple summers, Pete would leave geocaches with gifts under the benches and return a few days later to discover reciprocation. I took great pleasure in hanging at that spot, one that sits a pine cone’s throw away from what I’ve dubbed the Mars Brothers bench, from where the great artist and musician Chris Mars and his late brother Joe would likewise take in the beauty, chillness and easy magic of the Rose Garden.
I discovered the guru lounge was gone just before the snow flew last fall, and hell if I didn’t gasp at the sight of the gaping hole in the dirt before me. I stood over the spot with my mouth open, then called Pete in Montana, who talked me off the ledge with, “Dude I’ve lost good friends this year, I can’t cry about a couple of benches.” For sure, and I’m in the same loss boat, but this one carried a unique sting.
“It’s been there since the ’80s, and it was deteriorating, and it had been vandalized, so they took it out. Now it’s slated to just become one of our standard benches,” explained Sue McGrath, who works in the bench dedications department at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “It wasn’t put there by [the Park Board], it was a rogue. There’s no other reason given for its [demolition], other than it was time. That space will now feature a park bench with one of our standard dedicated plaques.”
Time marches on, change is the only constant and the guru lounge — at one time equally quiet at any hour of the day or night — was bound to be discovered, bought and sold. In the end it was festooned with political graffiti, puppy lovers’ initials, weed jokes, and anarchy and peace signs carved into the wood. Of late it had become a preferred destination spot for cigarette smokers and beer drinkers, whose butts and empties I’d often grouchily clean up as a way to do my eco-part, hoping that the powers-that-be wouldn’t deem it an eyesore and party place to be monitored.
Alas. Spring is otherworldly in the Rose Garden, with the annual explosion of flowers, trees and grass, and these days the sound of airplanes, strollers, sun worshipers, lollygaggers, Frisbee freaks and bocce-ballers combine for a humming, harmonious cacophony. The invasion of the teen hammockers took over the place a few years ago, and the skeptic in me can’t help but think the guru lounge got torn out because the owners of the mansions across the street complained to the city.
I’ve tried other quiet perches — Beard’s Plaisance, Karl Mueller’s bench off the Rose Garden fountain and a few more — but I always returned to the guru lounge to write and meditate. I’ll miss it. We live in a loud time of hurried anti-contemplation, and for me, the destruction of the guru lounge feels something like a metaphor for all the crap we can’t control as citizens. It was a small thing, but small things make a big city charming, and the small things and their small histories should be protected.
Sure, I’ll return to the new bench to watch the sunset and work, but I’ll never forget the trippy charm of the guru lounge, and all the wit, wisdom and wackiness it inspired. To not take a moment to pay tribute to it feels like a sin, and in honor of its passing, I’m off to find another new spring spot, far from the madding crowd and as close to the guru lounge as I can get.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]