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

MINNEAPOLIS, MN —

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.”

DALLAS, TX. —

“Shhhh.”

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.

Reading aloud: my column about a journey through the Deep South

Star Tribune column: a tour of Civil Rights landmarks reveals what’s changed and what hasn’t

While recently traveling from Missouri to North Carolina, I embarked on a somewhat spontaneous 10-day road trip through the former Jim Crow south.

It gave me the opportunity to visit a lot of Civil Rights landmarks I never have, and to do so amidst the backdrop of the current Black Lives Matters movement.

But my journey from Memphis to Atlanta, stopping in Jackson, MS, Selma, AL and Birmingham, AL in between, also struck me as a gauge of just how far we have to go — from the homeless camps in walking distance from MLK’s home, to the abject poverty evident in a hitchhiker’s neighborhood, to the thinly veiled racism I witnessed on the streets of Memphis.

Transpiring simultaneously with the demonstrations fighting police brutality that have seized widespread attention, these quiet injustices — the faces of which are still overwhelmingly Black — manage to persist, I found, in relative anonymity.

Amidst Coronavirus, stimulus checks offer hope, hindrance for off-the-grid homeless

This is a story about unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe, and how our collective failure to see it led to the further victimization of  a chronically neglected community.

Shorty leaned against the plexiglass window outside the brick building, her wide cheekbones springing toward her eyes and pulling her entire face into a smile.

“Drumroll please,” she crooned, her small, wiry frame a coil of energy. 

We were at the Los Angeles Mission in the heart of Skid Row — one of the country’s largest communities of homelessness; a tent city smoldering beneath the wealth of downtown Los Angeles’ soaring high rises. We’d come to the charitable organization in downtown LA, to ask, again, about any mail for Shorty; to keep going through guessed motions even though I had no confidence that one day a government check would show up.

I had arrived here, to Skid Row, in April, curious to see how Coronavirus was affecting a community that in some ways mimics a developing country; where sewage is tossed into the street and water is accessed from fire hydrants.

One of my many adopted projects was this: to try to find out if it was possible to get a CARES Act Coronavirus stimulus check for someone like Shorty — an unhoused woman who is essentially off the grid, lacking income, taxpayer status or a history of government assistance.

Over the two-plus months I spent in the community, even sleeping side-by-side in a tent for a few nights, this would be a process that would take me on a roller coaster through highs and lows; twists and turns that served to both offer unexpected hope and reinforce the very structures of oppression that created such a conundrum.

But in this moment, back at the Mission, Shorty was feeling optimistic. 

“Happiness is on the way,” she sang. “Peace and quiet and serenity is ON. THE. WAY!”

When the man working the window indeed produced a government-marked envelope, it felt like a miracle; a victory won against long odds.

But the real miracle, though I didn’t know it then, would come later.

A woman looks down at a man leaning against her from the sidewalk amidst an unhoused community.

Why I fell in love with Skid Row

On a Wednesday in April, armed with my camera, a notebook full of questions and a vague idea about reporting on the area amidst the Coronavirus era, I strolled into Skid Row like a tourist in a foreign country.

It wasn’t all that smooth. I hadn’t yet make connections, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I stayed only a couple of hours — until just before dark — and managed to be the recipient of a couple death threats before then.

But a seed had been planted, too. On that first day, I met both Shorty and Blue, the two individuals I’d develop the closest relationships with, months later.

Something about those first hours lured me in. I started to return every week, then twice a week, then three times.

Day after day, the notebook slid into my backpack for longer stretches. I was no longer reporting all the time, I was just there. Skid Row was good for storytelling, for compelling photography, for a different kind of reporting. But it was also where the excitement was, where new friends were, where my mind expanded. It was, frankly, where I wanted to be.

Eventually I decided to stay the night, just to see what it was like — borrowing an extra tent and camping out on the sidewalk alongside my new community. Those wee hours were difficult in a lot of ways; filled with drama, noise and gunshots. But soon I stayed over again, and again, entranced not just by seeing a new world but by being in it, and discovering so much about life and myself and what’s really important along the way.

To someone who has only abruptly passed through or heard of Skid Row in the broad — overwhelmingly negative — media strokes in which it’s usually painted, this might seem confusing. Isn’t Skid Row the place people arrive when they have nowhere else to go? Isn’t it some place that everyone is trying to get out of, desperate not to be?

My friend Joey, who graciously housed me the rest of the time I was in LA (since then, I’ve spent a couple weeks in North Carolina, a couple weeks in Missouri and am now road tripping east) came along with me on several occasions and experienced the uniqueness of Skid Row for himself.

Still, one night back in Santa Monica, when I just got back from The Row — as its often called locally — he posed the question.

It’s clear this isn’t just a “job” you’ve given yourself, he acknowledged. “You love it there. What makes you love it so much?”

CARES Act money changes lives for those fallen out of the system

Shorty hasn’t paid taxes in years, isn’t receiving any government assistance and doesn’t even have an ID. She’s not in the system; the government doesn’t even know she exists. Still, FINALLY, we managed to get her CARES Act check, and the result was life-changing.

Shorty has evacuated her sidewalk tent and is now living in her Nissan Pathfinder.

Star Tribune op-ed: the picture of poverty in LA and El Salvador is not so different

We tend to think of a place like El Salvador as very different from the U.S. and its famously lauded cities. But my latest op-ed column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune examines the stark similarities in treatment of the very poor from one border to the next.

In many ways, the poverty evident in Skid Row, Los Angeles, is some of the world’s most egregious.

Read my column here.

A community without walls: Skid Row’s tightly-knit nature sows conflict but reaps beauty

Under the shade of the bulbous ficus trees that root this quiet neighborhood block, Pastor Blue glides from the white cargo van to the gas burner with rhythmic ease,  crooning to the Luke Combs’ tunes that stand in place of hymns this evening.

“It’s a match made up in heaven, like good ‘ol boys and beer,” Blue sings as he prepares Saturday supper.

“And me, as long as you’re right here.”

On this stretch of Crocker Street in downtown Los Angeles — where a pop-up draped with international flags and filled with seating forms the “Sanctuary” — just about every evening feels like a backyard barbecue.

Blue cooks — hot dogs, sausages, oxtail with rice. Neighbors drop by and linger over beers and a passed blunt. Stories fill the warm, California air as the sun falls low over the city scape, its shards of golden light bouncing off the asphalt, the brick buildings, the lush, stately branches of Indian laurels that frame the sidewalks.

“Like God himself did the afro,” Blue pronounced one evening, sweeping his arm over the view. “Those trees …the skyline …the weather.

“You’ll see the beauty of California, if you can open your eyes past the tents and the cardboard and the trash.”