An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

When I came to the University of Minnesota as a freshman in 1955, I didn't know a single African American person. I'd never been inside a non-white household, or had a serious personal conversation with anyone of any other color. In this regard, I was pretty much like most folks of my age and skin tone. "Blacks" were exotic, unknowable human beings. They had their own "thing" up on the North Side, a frightening and dangerous place to be, especially fter dark.

I discovered the "bohemian" side of Dinkytown in 1956 or 7. Dinkytown was the name that had been given to an area of southeast Minneapolis next to the main campus, a mix of commercial and residential buildings. It was indeed a small town unto itself, with restaurants, book stores, a hardware store, a laundromat, and a few grocery stores, many with apartments above.

One night, I was invited to a party at a bachelor pad in Dinkytown, rented by a graduate student named Jim. I didn't know more than a few people, and felt a little out of place. Not too long after I got there, this very large, muscular black dude with a mustache, goatee, long sideburns wearing an earing in his ear and sporting a mischievous grin walked into the kitchen and began to pour himself a drink. While he was still fixing, I heard a voice shouting from out in the hall: "Hey, who let the Nigger in?" I thought, omigod, there's gonna be blood. The whole place went silent. Nobody moved.

The owner of the voice, a smallish, slightly built guy with a goatee, strolled through the doorway, as the Big Black Guy turned around, smiled, and said "Hey, Dave my man, how you doin'?" It was my introduction to Bill Grimes and Dave Matheny, and the beginning of my education about my own racism, an education that is ongoing.

There were few people of color in the Dinkytown scene. (Come to think of it, there were damned few in the whole University.) All were men, a few were graduate students, and the rest were there for the Bohemian chicks.

I became pals with Michael "Sinker" Jones, who at one point stole my girlfriend away from me. Since I hadn't had many lovers at that point, the fact that we are still friends stands as some kind of testimony. I have lived in his house, and we each tried seducing the other's wife, with no success - and no hard feelings on anybody's part.

We did most of our drinking in a workingman's bar called the East Hennepin, not far from Dinkytown on the near Northeast side. Bill, Sinker, and other friends of color drank with us.

One day, about two years into our almost nightly drunkathon, the place got sold. A new sign got put up: Ferrara's. A few days later, an African American grad student and poet named Lew, who stayed by himself and was a little aloof, was refused service. Dave braced the owner: what's the deal? He has his own places, Dave was told, he doesn't need to come here.

Dave turned to the crowd, shouted for silence, and said "These assholes just refused to serve Lew because of his skin color. I'm going to the Two-and-a-Half", and walked out. Within five minutes, the place was virtually empty.

This was my first brush with a civil rights action. I think it was for many of us.

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