Man in black coat, gray beanie and mask walks through the snowy memorials outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis.

“It felt like war” — a Minneapolis chef’s reflections on the upheaval of spring 2020 and the flashbacks it brought


October, 2020.

Outside the windows of Sameh’s black SUV, the slush piled along the curbsides indicated an entire season had come and gone, but the wreckage — still black from char — looked so fresh I almost expected to smell it.

As we crawled along Minneapolis’ Lake St., rubble lined the road. Not on one particular corner, or for a couple blocks, but peppering miles of the thoroughfare known once for tacos, Somalian food and mom-and-pop groceries; a stretch now known for the end of one era and the start of a next.

It was spring when George Floyd’s life was seized not too far from here; outside the local Cup Foods that has now become infamous: an eerie memorial filled with blockades, self-appointed protectorates and impassioned art painted on the brick walls of nearby buildings and strung from lamp posts.

On that day in May, the city erupted— spurred by anguish and mourning, anger at decades of policy and neglect, and finally, simply chaos and anarchy.

Everything in the path of these emotions was a matchstick, and together, the local businesses lining this intimate corridor were licked up into the bonfire; hundreds of buildings turned to scrap, to empty lots, to piles of destruction where neighborhoods once hummed.

A man holding a stack of clothes, a slurpee cup and a blunt stands outside his tent construction

“I’m not,” he said, “gonna smile.”



Roberto looked around, nervously, and motioned to me with his finger over his lips as we approached the entrance to his home: a small, worn pathway that led into a dense bamboo forest.

“They’re always watching, listening,” he said.

Besides the semblance of parting stalks, one couldn’t see anything but a dense thicket of long, green cylinders from the street.

I took a deep breath, and followed him in.

There, maybe two yards into the urban jungle, he had built a hut — made from boards and tarps and crates to hold his mattress above the foliage-laden floor.

He looked back at me, and my camera. The single tattooed tear beneath his left eye drooped from wrinkles; the products of years and stress.

“I’m not,” he reminded me, “gonna smile.”

I had met Roberto at the nearby Valero gas station an hour earlier after he offered to wash Bertie’s windshield, which was filthy with bug residue from our latest drive, to Dallas from Tulsa.

He generally made enough to survive this way, and by washing windows and navigating plumbing issues for the station and a couple nearby businesses.

Roberto — originally from Corpus Christi —had struggled for many years with crack and meth addictions. He had gone to prison, years ago, for robbery. It was a convenience store, and there wasn’t much to be had. He made off with $97, a case of beer, and some peanuts for his niece. He was slapped with seven years.

When he got out, he found housing, and a job at the Dallas convention center, via a former offenders’ program, where he worked up until the start of Coronavirus this spring.

After he was laid off, Roberto lost his housing; that was part of the deal. He stayed as long as he could with family, but when he felt his welcome grow stale, he collected objects from road sides and dumpsters, and built a hut in Oak Cliff, near Hwy 35E. When he was kicked out, he built another. And another.

Finally, he had found a refuge in this bamboo grove behind a Burger King; a sanctuary where the core was dark enough that he could see nearly to the road, but no one could see him.

That was how he wanted it.

two oyster farmers with colorful plastic tubs walk through an oyster farm at low tide

Amidst a changing environment, these oyster farmers see beauty, delicacy in their work

Working with the instinctive motion that comes only with years spent at the job, Jen and Greg pulled gloved hands through metal trays, examining the contents.

Oysters; and some of Massachusetts’ finest, grown in Barnstable’s Great Marsh — a wide expanse tucked into the bicep of Cape Cod’s long peninsula and forming one of Mother Earth’s natural paradises: a glorious protected basin that enjoys 12-foot tides in the summers, washing saltwater and nutrients over these bivalves and infusing them with the richness and flavor that will eventually be described by restaurant staffs: sweetness, brine, creaminess; handheld sips of the sea.

That morning in early October, I had met the two Moon Shoal Oyster farmers on the docks with the sun still low on the milky horizon, a deep blue sky evidence of the warmth that would overcome the mist hovering at the base of the boats in Yarmouth harbor, and along the miles of grasses tinged yellow and orange with the impending fall. 

In the small white skiff that forges their work commute, we cut through the ocean’s glass, across a landscape dotted with a labyrinth of oyster farms, the tops of the trays gleaming above the surface.

The oysters grow beautifully here, yes, but it’s a two-way street: they also keep it beautiful — functioning as natural filters for excessive algae and improving the quality.

“Barnstable one of cleanest harbors and its because of all the oysters here,” Greg said.

“This is the nursery. The hatchery of the ocean.

“It’s worth paying attention and protecting.”

Meet Ida and Manhattan’s factory maos

As I left the factory, Ida stopped me. She gestured toward a particularly fluffy employee, and shot me a parting offer.

“Let me know,” she posed, “if you want to interview my cats.”

I did.

I really, really did.

And besides soliciting ‘meows,’ and capturing the fashionable felines decked in their typical work attire, I just wanted more time at Caroda Inc, a Chinese American-run clothing factory that I happened into while accompanying my friend Erin — a local advertising rock star — as she checked in on a client’s product.

Here, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, two blocks from Madison Square Garden, a small elevator takes visitors five stories up an unassuming brick highrise and into another world.

Workers pull khaki camo pant legs from stacks that threaten to challenge the height of the ceiling; the low hum of a couple sewing machines working in hamonious unison fills a room packed floor-to-ceiling with material.

Meet Mia; introducing #realvanlife

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I met Mia in the Walmart-adjacent lot where I stayed in the van just outside the central core in Philadelphia, and I met her because I had to go up to her RV with an ask: Bertie’s battery was dead, and I needed a jump. I’d moved from another (rat-infested 😂😰) lot that morning around 6 am, exhausted, and had crawled into the back to get another hour of shut-eye sans turning off the lights. I had to go find someone to help, and a woman with curly blonde hair, her keys and wallet stung around her neck, greeted me with enthusiasm. Mia is kind of person you connect with right away — a relentlessly optimistic woman who looks you in the eye, engages you with a contagious laugh, and makes you feel like you’re part of some inside joke, like when she asked her boyfriend to open the car hood. “I KNOW how to do it,” she said, “it’s just… your hands are dirtier.” She turned to me and winked. Mia, her boyfriend and her cat have lived in the lot for a couple months now, since the unraveling of her bold plan for a new beginning: she was taking everything she owned and moving to Florida, where the weather and the people were warmer. She’d been through Daytona, and it seemed nice enough for a fresh start. “I don’t care about beaches,” she said. I just really love the people. People say hi to each other on the street there. People are nice to each other there. “It’s not like here.” When Coronavirus hit, Mia felt stuck, and she’s been in this lot treading water since — spending the evenings and nights here, but trying to leave during the day when security starts hassling them. “Sometimes I just want to be like ‘Leave me alone,’” she said. “I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not hurting anybody, I don’t want to LIVE here. I’m just passing through.“ After 40 minutes of trying, we still couldn’t manage to get Bertie started, which may have bummed out Mia even more than me. She left me with some parting tips: buy a new battery (lol, I did), carry a knife in case I need it, don’t forget to lock my doors, and never stop talking to and smiling at people. Mia, if you can’t get to Daytona, let’s get Daytona to you. ❤️❤️❤️ #philadelphia #therealvanlife #homelessness

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Meet Riley, an autistic, transgender former student living in Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy encampment

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Riley, an autistic, transgender 26-yr-old w/ a heart full of empathy & a head full of big ideas, has lived at the newly populated tent encampment on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy since June. They, (Riley’s pronoun) are 1 of about 150. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the BFP camp, which formed in part as a reaction to Coronavirus. Recently, the community has gotten a lot of attention, thanks to the standoff between the residents/local activists & the mayor, following a judge’s decision to allow the camp to be forcibly cleared. Philadelphia maintains a poverty rate of 25.5 percent, far higher than either LA or New York. The city’s rates of *unsheltered* homeless, however, are a fraction of the other two cities. This divide is possible thanks to temporary housing solutions in Philadelphia. But permanent housing is another issue altogether; one largely absent from public discussion thanks to its lack of visibility on the streets. The Philadelphia Housing Authority currently manages a permanent housing waitlist of 47,000 families. And it hasn’t accepted a new applicant since *2013.* The Benjamin Franklin Parkway encampment emerged as part housing solution, amidst more tumbling into homelessness and more leaving homeless shelters because of unpopularity and risks relating to Covid, and part protest against the lack of affordable housing. Before they arrived at the encampment, Riley was a social engineering student at Drexel U. working to find solutions to poverty & hunger. “How people eat, how they get water, that’s network engineering,” Riley said, getting emotional. “We’re not focusing on the right things.” Riley fell into homelessness, they said, due to Coronavirus’ push to move things online — a relative impossibility considering their inability to process learning or working from across a screen. Still, they’re not wasting this moment. They wants to use this large tent to create a “camp counseling center,” a safe space where people can zone out or talk ab what they’re dealing w/ physically & emotionally. “Everything that comes out of (this encampment) is so negative,” they said. “But there is so much beauty here, too.”

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Tour Bertie