When most Americans think of Minneapolis, all roads lead back to the cultural curiosities that have come from that very northern metropolis. The land that Bob Dylan comes from (“called the Midwest”), where Prince developed his signature sound (named for Minneapolis), the locale of Mary Tyler Moore’s eponymous show, the location of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon and perhaps the Minnesota Vikings come to mind. Poll cats know it has been the home of progressive politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, as well as libertarians like Jesse Ventura. Business folks know it as the home of the Radisson and Target corporations. And of course, the University of Minnesota calls Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, home.
If politeness has a source like the fountain of youth, then Minneapolis is that font of kindness for the Midwest. For me, the city has one of the nicest dispositions. Perhaps the bitter cold of their winters keeps bad attitudes in circumspect. Perhaps there is something in the DNA, as so many Minnesotans claim Scandinavian heritage (That may explain the love of socialism and progressive politics). Maybe it is the Swede-like dialect that adds to the coziness.
I am not alone in this observation. There is a term for this stereotypical mild-mannered, polite-to-a-fault, self-deprecation: It is called Minnesota Nice. And while it may appear saccharine at first to the uninitiated, I find that the experience is like a mental spa day, as the armor of urban anger, social Darwinism and existential ennui melts away under the kind charm of the Minnesotans.
Minnesota Nice pops up in every venue. On one trip to the Twin Cities, I arrived on a college game day, back when the Golden Gophers used to play at the Metrodome. Seizing up an upper deck ticket, I took in a Big Ten football game. There is something rather hysterical about hearing 20,000 Minnesotans chant their battle cries at a football contest, as the dialect makes even the most aggressive chant sound, well, nice.
MinneSOHTA. See? Nonplussed. Too polite. Especially the wiggly-wrist maneuver at the end of the chant. Much of that “niceness,” I believe, comes from that sing-song dialect so common among Minnesotans. That dialect is a legacy from those sons of Sweden who immigrated to the Northwoods. Swedish is a tonal language–a language that places value on the pitch of certain vowels just as much as the grammar in words. And that musical concept carries over into the modern day. The Coen Brothers celebrated that local color in their film Fargo, as the clip below exemplifies:
I took my singular seat, mid row, tripping over a bunch of fans as I apologetically took my place. And of course, I forgot to buy a beer before I sat down. Despondently looking toward the vendor as he came and went, the couple next to me decided to go get some food. Without missing a beat, they asked.
“So, we are going downstairs to get a beer Brat, we can bring you back something if you want.”
I was puzzled. I didn’t know these people. “Oh, that is okay, I appreciate the offer, but I am fine.”
“No, it is no trouble at all.”
“Youbetcha” they offered (before a certain Alaskan destroyed that plesantry)
I surrendered to the Minnesota Nice. After a rousing victory, and some new acquaintances made, the Golden Gophers nation spilled out into two main pedestrian areas. Some head back to campus to hit up the bars in and around Dinkeytown. As for me, I headed with the older crowd downtown to Nicollet Mall–the core of the revitalized downtown Minneapolis.
Nicolette Mall is an historic landmark of a kind. Like many downtown urban areas, Minneapolis’s center enjoyed a vibrant economic boom until the 1950’s, when the growth of suburbia, the automobile culture and white flight from urban centers hollowed out the downtown core. In 1968, the progressive politicians in Minneapolis took back their downtown before the last of the major department stores abandoned it. Nicollet Mall became the first pedestrian/transit mall in the nation, converting an otherwise boring street scape into an outdoor mall–perfect for strolling, window shopping and grazing at supper clubs (as they say in the Northwoods).
Nicollet celebrates Minnesota’s cultural heritage–as Mary Tyler Moore and her iconic hat toss from her sitcom is preserved in bronze outside of Macy’s. Hubert Humphrey holds court outside city hall. And the Minnesota Orchestra (or what is left of it) performs in their boxy Orchestra Hall. The recent strike and lockout of the Orchestra has been particularly hard on a city that is so used to being nice to one another.
After the game, I was looking for pub fare, and Brit’s Pub fit the bill. It is perhaps the biggest draw on the strip and for good reason. Aside from an excellent gastropub menu of bangers and mash, the bar features an expansive second floor outdoor bowling green. Here, under lights even, the pubcrawler can take in a a game of lawn bowls (or if you must say it, bocce ball) roof side, with metal stands waiting to hold your pint while you roll.
I bellied up to the bar (as those who frequent pubs are able to do after a few years of pints) and ordered up some bitters. A gent in the Golden Gophers gear heard my funny Pittsburghese and offered “Oh, that pint’s on me.” I had never had a perfect stranger buy my first round before, and my natural east coast instinct would have thought that this guy was making a pass at me, or had some other agenda. No, this is just Minnesota Nice again.
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
I offered up the usual list of places, and asked if he’s been to any of them.
“Oh no, I do not leave MinneSOHta much,” he said.
Where Brit’s begins to quench the thirst of this traveler, I met up with a friend at The Local to finish off my the desire for a hand-pulled pint of ale. At the Local, the waitress saw that we were two guys with nothing to do. She offers that she had been given two tickets for a concert over at the Target Center by another patron (Minnesota Nice again), and that we could have them (Minnesota Nice Paid Forward). My drinking buddy was obligated to ask if she was included in the deal, almost costing us the tickets. But again, in that Minnesota Nice sorta way, gave us the giggle, and the tickets.
The headliners were the Violent Femmes, and well, for the price they were worth the experience. While not Minnesotans, they did get their start in the nearby burg of Milwaukee, Wisconsin–a place that could rival Minnesota for nicest in the Midwest. The Femmes played through their set to their one hit wonder, featured below:
You may think this litany to be a singular experience, but I assure you it has not been. Perhaps I have been fortunate that Minneapolis has never shown me her bad side. But of my several visits, people are eager to chat, eager to pick up your tab and more than happy to please. And why do they do it? Because niceness begets niceness.
Feeling the need to pay this niceness forward, I have taken on the same tone when traveling, chatting up some other business road warrior at the pub, sharing my wisdom and offering up convivial conversation.