My Mom is a great cook and my sister is a professional– a pastry chef who has worked at 5 star restaurants. But I learned to cook in my 20’s at a fish restaurant in North Omaha.
North Omaha is strikingly similar– racially and economically– to North Minneapolis; matching demographics, parallel struggles. There may be a little less despair in Minneapolis now than Omaha 20 years ago; maybe also Omaha today, from what I read.
Malcolm Gladwell says to achieve mastery in one’s field, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. I put in 25,245 hours (9 years) at Joe Tess Place at 58th and Ames.
In all those hours, there might really be just one moment when I learned to cook. It was a slow afternoon, and I was the only one behind the counter. An upbeat young black man came in and placed an order. “Put a little love in it,” he called after me.
After a minute, he came down to where I was working to explain. “My grandmother always say that, put some love in there for you. I never paid it much mind as a kid, til I had food without it.” He turned to the waitress who was watching us both. “You can taste it, can’t you, when there’s no love in your food?”
“Mm Hm,” she said, nodding.
“I’ll do my best.” When I handed him his order, I said, “Call me if it’s missing.”
Cooking and construction work share a lot of the same skill-sets. A surprising number of my General Contractor friends are also foodies. At home, I make a decent meal. In a remodel project, I make an excellent kitchen. Part of this comes from trying to put a little love into every day’s effort. Many of my clients tell me they miss me when their project is completed.
My stepmother is black. When I was 16, my father married the distinguished African-American scholar Hortense Spillers. She insisted I read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, and her personal stories opened my eyes a bit. But when I moved to North Omaha at age 22, my white privilege was still completely foreign to me.
In my nine years in North Omaha, I became comfortable with my whiteness. The restaurant had a staff of 30, and sometimes I was the only white employee. On a busy Friday night, sometimes I was the only white person in the building. When the first Rodney King verdict was announced, there was a little rioting in Omaha too. One person was pulled from a car and beaten up. Riding the bus to work that day, some young guys threw rocks at it. There was only one white person onboard. At work, a customer asked how I was doing. “I feel like a duck.”
He laughed, compassion in his eyes. He was a towering teddy bear of a man, a decorated Marine in Vietnam, someone who made everyone around him feel safe. “It’ll pass soon. Hunting season will end in a day or two… for you.”
He laughed again. I nodded. His hunting season never really ended.
I moved to North Omaha in 1984, the same year the crack epidemic became widespread, which ignited a nationwide war between the Crips and the Bloods. Omaha– in the center of the country, on I-80– became a primary battle ground. There was a lot of death. It was discussed quietly though.
“Can’t sit on the porch no more.”
“My Grandma won’t let nobody sit by the window.”
“My auntie, she’s lost two.” Meaning that two of her children had been killed. “They starting all that silliness at school again.” Meaning that if you didn’t affiliate with a gang, you were left unprotected in school.
It took me years to understand the tragedy behind these muted conversations. It took me years to understand that despite being a minority in my community, my whiteness helped keep me safe.
One of my first meetings at the Brick House project in North Minneapolis was with an asbestos abatement contractor, a white dude who stepped out of his car and said, “Man, we are deep in the hood now”. The we thing didn’t sit well with me. When we reached the kitchen, he said, “They’ll trash it, you know.”
“I’ve seen these places, after they’re fixed up. They get trashed.”
“This one won’t.” He insisted again. Even if his price was lowest, I decided, I wasn’t going to hire him now. He could locate his lack of love deep in some other– much less sunny– part of town.
Hopefully my clients don’t take this the wrong way, but I will probably put more of my heart into this first Carbon Zero Home than any previous project. This place just needs a whole lot of love.
It isn’t just that your food doesn’t taste as good when the love is missing. The experience of the meal changes. The world looks different.
In 1991, a straight-line windstorm (borderline tornado) came through Omaha, concentrating its fury on a beautiful park in the center of the north side. Almost every old growth Maple and Oak in the park was knocked down. The rest of the city received only nominal damage. People came in the restaurant saying that “white folks knocked down the trees.” I stupidly argued back with logic. After the tornado hit north Minneapolis a few years ago, one of my black friends said the same thing. “They can control the wind,” he insisted. I understand better now. When you’re a duck, and every day is hunting season, after a while it feels like even Nature is against you.
Fontenelle Park today. The trees in the background right were some of the few to survive.
The first year I worked at Joe Tess Place, we were robbed at gunpoint. We were not robbed again in the next 8 years. Others businesses in our area were robbed at least 4 times a year. The convenience store down the street was robbed almost monthly. The nightclub across the street that had bouncers and security guards was robbed twice.When I started telling people I was going to rehab a house in North Minneapolis, I heard horror stories– break-ins to steal tools and materials, vehicles being broken into. When I asked the PPL project manager how likely it was our project would be burgled, he shifted his weight from foot to foot, reluctant to answer. “Just a rough number. Take a guess”
He told me about a finished house with a security system installed, and the appliances were stolen anyway. The thieves knew the police response time was slow enough to allow them to get everything out and get away.
That could happen at the Brick House too. Love is no guarantee. But when it snows, I shovel the neighbors’ walks along with mine. When people walk past, I introduce myself, take off my work glove, offer my hand. One gentleman told me his Dad and his Uncle were both in the construction business. I said he was welcome to come in and take a look any time.
The hardest part about my years in north Omaha was watching the young people enter adulthood. They came from school to work with a glow to their face, worked hard all night, and left with a bounce in their step. But after they graduated high school, it was like they were pushed off a cliff. A few years would go by, and many former employees would come back in the restaurant looking grey; their feet now heavy. They had entered a world without a future.
It became so alarming to me the last few years that I tried pointing out different options like working for UPS, becoming a firefighter. “Electricians make good money.” “See that guy fixing the walk-in cooler, that’s a secure job with benefits.”
The last year I worked at the fish restaurant, two young black women placing an order said to me, “We’re leaving for college in a few days. We feel we should say good-bye.” I didn’t know either of their names; I was a bit puzzled. “We grew up with you. You’re like Mr. Rogers.”
“Mr. Rogers is a nerd,” I said.
We all chuckled. One of the women spoke into the air, “He said nerd.”
“Yeah,” the other woman looked me in the eye. “But you’re our nerd.”
Most likely, I will never meet the people who end up living in our first Carbon Zero project. They will not miss me when I’m gone. But they should feel the love put into their house. I don’t see it getting trashed.