Weird stuff happens to me when I go out drinking in strange towns. I was traveling recently and this is a vague approximation of what went down on that weird and twisted night…
I have business these days that takes me to Minneapolis. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d spend time in Minnesota. When I was younger the word Minneapolis conjured visions of people ice fishing, Bud Grant and the Purple People Eaters with their fans shivering in the blowing snow. In short, I always considered Minneapolis a winter wasteland. But then I started to travel there for business and all the perceptions of my youth flew out the window.
After my first trip to the “Twin Cities” I discovered that Minneapolis is truly a hidden gem of a city. I mean, the winters are brutal, but I think most of the natives are Nordic types descended from actual Vikings and they don’t seem to care. In the winter they have an intricate system of walk ways, similar to an ant farm I briefly had as a child, to navigate the cold streets. In the summer, the city opens like a flower. Granted I think summer only lasts about 36 hours up there, but it is awesome. The downtown has a long road, whose name escapes me, that is filled with cafes, restaurants and groovy bars with great live music. Each of these places seems to have an outside patio and when I was up there recently the patios were packed with people who were partying like bears coming out of hibernation. Well, if bears partied when they came out of hibernation instead of eating salmon.
I was staying at my usual hotel where I ran into a business acquaintance of mine, Keith (*name changed to protect the guilty). Keith, who like me is not from Minnesota, was there with a small group of hearty natives and they were doing what I’ve noticed many Minneapolis folks do – drinking like Vikings. After a drink or two, I realized that Keith was pretty loaded on the rye he was drinking and I was about to slip up to the room when suddenly I was pulled into this hearty mob because they told me they wanted to “show Keith and you downtown”. What harm could that cause?
We started on the roof patio of a British pub that was packed with Twins fans but soon got restless. There was a pregnant woman in the bar and that always causes anxiety in drinkers, unless you’re at a Kid Rock show where I’m guessing it’s common. Someone in the group of natives decided we would pub crawl all the way down this main drag of bars and at the very end we’d find an oyster bar where we would dine. I’m no seafood expert but based on geography I was wondering what kind of quality oysters one would find in Minnesota, but hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a group of Vikings. We hit a small jazz bar where we were asked to quiet down as we were drowning out the vocalist who was trying to scat. I hate scatting and frankly I thought we were doing a public service in shouting her down. We hit a bar/restaurant with a vaguely Asian theme and then a tequila bar. Things were getting out of hand. I came to realize that we were never going make the oyster bar, which I was quietly thankful for. One of the natives, while we were in the jazz bar, told a story about a ruptured testicle which had also greatly reduced my desire to eat oysters. I mean, do the math there.
Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. It was Keith and I and two of the natives, one dude and a lady a few years younger than me. The gal was saying the oyster bar was too far to keep going. I thought this would be my chance to get back to my hotel room and barricade the door, when suddenly someone said something about a place called Nye’s.
“Yes, yes, we must take Keith and his friend to Nye’s. It’s essential that they see it before its torn down in a few months.”
I had never heard of Nye’s but apparently it is a Minneapolis institution. Once voted one of “America’s Best Bars”, it was local landmark. Alas, it had been destined to close in the near term, it was losing money. My interest was piqued. I had to check this place out. The full name of the bar is Nye’s Polonaise. It was opened in 1950 and apparently for Minneapolis’ youth it’s a right of passage to go to Nye’s and buy your first legal drink. The only thing that made me feel this might be dubious is that it was a piano bar and had a “famous” polka room. Every family reunion I attended as a child there was some drunk, distant cousin of my father’s with an accordion so naturally I was alarmed by the polka reference.
I incorrectly assumed Nye’s was somewhere on this main drag we were meandering on but I was wrong. We were going to have to catch a cab to get to Nye’s. This concerned me because I knew despite how far we’d wandered thus far, I could still get back to my hotel on foot, if it became necessary to run to avoid the authorities. A cab ride seemed dicey but the next thing I knew I was in the back of a cab, rushing through the Minneapolis night time toward’s Nye’s.
I’m no geography expert, but I had no idea the Mississippi River cut through Minneapolis. But suddenly we were jetting across a massive bridge, headed over the Big Muddy. I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell we were going. Keith, who was slightly drunker than I was, was more disconcerted than me. He slurred, “Hey, wait a minute, nobody told me we were going to Canada?” He was apparently as confused by the Mississippi River as I was, except he apparently thought we were crossing the border. I was also wondering how close Minneapolis was to Canada but I was too drunk to be sure. Keith, who seemed to become more agitated the farther out on the bridge we got, suddenly, yelled, above the wind blowing in the open window of the cab, “I don’t have my passport?” The mood in the car was turning weird. The cab driver, a kind Ethiopian gentlemen was laughing hysterically because we were stupid enough to think we were in Canada.
When at last we pulled up in front of the bar, Keith I leaned into the window of the cab driver and I said, “I only have American dollars, do you still take those in Canada?” which only caused Keith to freak out more and the cab driver to laugh louder. He kept trying to reassure us we were still in Minneapolis though we were having trouble understanding him through all the laughing he was doing.
A few steps later, we were in Nye’s…and it was spectacular. Keith whispered in my ear, “Don’t be alarmed, they may be speaking French here, we might be Quebec…” and he quickly staggered up to the bar. All the furniture was covered in what looked like plastic seat covers. This was the grand daddy of all dive bars. In the corner by the front door was a piano behind which was an older woman and she was belting out what I believe might have been a Taylor Swift song, but how would I know what that was?
As quickly as Keith had run up to the bar, the woman we were with kicked her shoes off and sat down squarely at the piano, right across from the singer. Her shoulders hunched over and she stared at the pianist with an intensity I’d never seen before in a bar. There was a college a girl who was dancing around the piano area and a line from a Springsteen song popped into my mind, “Angel starts to shuffle like she ain’t got no brains…” This was getting weirder.
An elderly woman was given the microphone and stood up and did a stunning rendition of Strangers In the Night, during which a round of drinks arrived at the piano that drunken Keith had sent over. Next a bald guy at the end of the bar was given the microphone. He sang an old 50s rock song but he changed the lyrics of the song so it was about a man with bad dandruff. He was like that guy on PBS, Mark Russell, who used to do piano based, politically satirical songs. After the song he was introduced to Keith and I as “the local satirist.” Keith muttered, a little loud, “That’s not satire, that’s just stupid.” The Local Satirist was not amused.
He asked where we were from and I muttered, “Kansas.” He said, “Kansas’ main exports are coal and wheat, which business are you in?” I wasn’t sure that was true or not but he was angry with Keith and I didn’t want to get kicked out. Before I could answer his query, Keith leaned forward and said, “We’re coal barons, don’t we look like it?”
Luckily at this point, the woman we were with requested to sing “the Billy Joel song about the picture from Sears.” Somehow, the woman behind the piano knew she was talking about Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. But since we’d already ridiculed the Local Satirist and claimed to be Coal Barons, the pianist was refusing to play a song that long unless we tipped extra. After a quick collection we tipped her $20 and I expected this woman we were with, who had been very boisterous all night, to blow the lid off the Billy Joel song but when they gave her the microphone, suddenly I could tell she was seized by what Hunter S Thompson called “the fear.” The best she could do was mumble, in a low voice, “Bottle of red…uh…. bottle of…white.” The pianist was underwhelmed.
The evening began to devolve from there. I seem to remember Keith staggering and falling into the college girl who was dancing around and a table of drinks being spilled. I was going to slip into the polka room, next door, where a band was playing loudly but I decided discretion is the better part of valor and finally agreed with Keith, “leaving, what a good idea.” We quickly staggered out to the curb where I pulled up Uber and summoned a driver.
Keith seemed calmed by this momentarily but then suddenly panicked and said, “Does Uber come to Canada? Without my passport, I’ll have to ride in the trunk…”
Maybe next time, I’ll go to Nye’s without Keith. It really is a spectacular bar.