Stories from the corner of 37th and Nicollet

A new normal

Every now and then I realize that what I take for granted as “normal” actually isn’t.


The latest: the city would like restaurants to stop using styrofoam, and would like to encourage them to compost their waste. Wait.  Isn’t that just normal?


I live in a world without stryfoam.  I don’t choose it. I don’t use it.  When it does show up I gasp and wonder how this thing is still around.  Somehow, I have been able to keep a food business running without styrofoam (for 8 years).  It just seems normal to me that using items that are plant based and can return to plants is the way things should work. Is that abnormal?


Creating a new normal does include a pretty big mind shift, a bit of discomfort, some stumbling around trying to learn, and even longing for the good old days.  Somehow things get easier, somehow a bit of time passes, and then one day you realize you can’t even remember what the good old days were like. 


As a young teen I had the job of cutting grass for my family and my neighbors (on both sides, across the street and behind me across the alley).  I became a sort of a lawn czar on the block mostly because I was a year or two older than most of the other boys on the block and didn’t mind being outside pushing a lawn mower.  The mower was one of those old two cycle engines that required mixing a can of oil into the gasoline (leaded because it was cheaper).  I’d walk the block to the Standard Station with my gas can and oil, and although I was officially too young to be pumping the gas, Larry, the attendant usually let me help.  We’d chat about the engine (how’s it running for you?), the weather (great for grass growing, huh) and what I’d do with the few dollars as I was earning (mostly baseball cards and airplane models).

My grandmother had a push reel mower (and a scythe) that would probably qualify as antiques, which were kind of fun for the novelty, but to really cover a lot of ground and get the lawns looking great – the power mower was the way to go.  Until it would break down.  I got pretty good at engine repair, but every now and then, in order to finish a job I’d grab the push mower and just go to it. 

So, now I am realizing that I don’t think I have used a gas engine mower since my college days (30 years ago) and wouldn’t even consider one now.  Our push reel mower just feels normal.  How did that happen?


Behind my grandmother’s garage (she lived next door to us – another abnormal thing), was a compost pile. I grew up with tossing food scraps, leaves, and grass into this pile, turning it with the pitch fork, and shoveling out amazing black soil each spring for our gardens.  It was so normal to me that I didn’t realize that all other kids didn’t have one behind their garages until I was at a friend’s house while he was cutting grass, and he had to put the grass in bags to go to the trash.  What?  Really?  My neighbors all had gardens so they all had compost piles. It just made sense.  It was so normal I couldn’t imagine anything else.


The year after college, I travelled to Baltimore, Maryland to participate in a year of volunteer service.  I lived with three other volunteers in a row house in the southeast neighborhood of Canton.   Our front yard: a stoop (the steps), the sidewalk, and the boulevard/curb (also sidewalk with small trees in grates every few houses or so).  Our back yard: concrete patio and the alley.  Not a blade of grass, ok, maybe a couple weeds busting through here and there, but certainly nothing to mow.

We set out a few containers with plants just to have the illusion of a yard.  They mostly fried in the concrete oven created by the rows and rows of row houses.  A few blocks from our little house was Patterson Park.  Grass.  Trees.  A fake pond.  Lots of playgrounds and playspaces.  This was where everyone went to have a yard.  It was their normal but I could never get used to it.


When we moved into the Kingfield neighborhood 10 years ago, we bought a house whose driveway and garage filled the back yard.  With the help of a Kingfield grant we tore up the driveway, created a small garden shed, and put in a lawn and garden space that included rain gardens that are able to collect the rain that used to rush down the driveway. We are now, however, gradually replacing the lawn with more gardens, so that we won’t have to use our push reel mower much at all.  One of the first things we built…a compost pile. It just seemed normal.


So, is it normal to ban Styrofoam and ask restaurants to compost? I can’t imagine any other way to walk this green path.