Featured Writer - Barry Menuez
“Excuse me young man, are you alone?” asked the new bellhop in the lobby.
“Yes, for now, I just want to buy a comic book in the gift shop,” I answered.
“But you shouldn’t be here all alone.”
“I live here in the apartments in back, my parents are upstairs. I come down here all the time.”
I watched the bellman go to the front desk and ask about me. I couldn’t hear the words, but I saw the manager on duty nod in my direction as if to say, “He’s ok.”
This was the old Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, 1941. I was eight years old and had been there for about two weeks. My parents had gotten back together a year before, remarried, and now my dad was here in Minneapolis on assignment for ten months. He was part of an early management consultant firm and had the task of helping the Honeywell Corporation re-organize for war production. We lived in the apartment complex attached to the rear of the hotel. Our permanent home was in Chicago, the headquarters for Dad’s firm.
From September 1941 to June 1942, I had the run of the place, a boy version of Eloise. The Curtis Hotel billed itself as the Largest in the Upper Midwest: 800 rooms, with restaurants, ballrooms, clothing stores, public steno, travel agency, drugstore everything under one roof. I was the only kid living there and the staff got to know me and looked out for me.
I was enrolled in the nearest public school, in third grade, about four blocks from the hotel, nestled in the middle of old tenements and worn out frame houses. This neighborhood was mainly newly immigrated Scandinavians: Swedes the majority, then Norwegians and Danes and a few Finns. Added in were poor Sioux Indians from the reservations in the north. The men worked the hard manual jobs at General Mills, Pillsbury, and the railroads, ten hour days, six days a week if lucky enough to have a job.
My classmates were mostly bi-lingual and spoke with a distinct accent. I sensed a common strain of pride, intelligence and stoicism. No complaints about their poverty and deprivation. I was quietly tolerated but felt held at a suspicious distance for the first weeks of the new term.
I made friends soon enough. I was good at it. This was my fifth school change and I had picked up some techniques for being the “new boy”. My rules for survival: stay cool, be prepared for all class assignments, but never volunteer to answer questions, wait to be called upon. If someone hit me, strike back full force immediately even if he’s bigger and older. Bjorn was my first and best friend there. He and his pals approached me one day and asked, “What are you doing here with us? Where do you live?” I had feared this question, but told them straight up that I lived in the Curtis Hotel due to my dad’s temporary work here in the city.
“How can you live in a hotel?” Bjorn said.
I did the best I could again to explain that our real home was in Chicago. This time in Minneapolis was a temporary deal and the Honeywell Corporation was paying for all of it. We couldn’t ever afford it on our own.
I could not begin to explain to them the strange irony at work in my life. They did not know that only a year and half ago, my mother and I were living in a shabby boarding house in Akron, Ohio. Three years earlier Dad had gone off with another woman. My mother and I were surviving on corn fritters and hot dogs through the last years of the Depression.
I understood my classmates’ poverty but didn’t know how to express myself at that age. I felt I belonged with them but my current circumstances created a chasm between us. How could I tell them I went with my parents every Sunday afternoon to the main dining room of the Curtis for their lavish Swedish Smorgasbord? If my father had not come back and remarried my mother, I would still be Akron, Ohio, eating corn fritters.
I slowly blended in, even though my clothes were new, while those of my classmates’ were ill-fitting hand-me-downs. Their shoes had rounded heels and holes in the bottoms. We all ate the same free lunch under some government Depression era subsidy.
School was fairly easy for me; my Chicago experience had put me a bit ahead of the pace of this immigrant oriented curriculum. I became one of the boys and even did well in the coed gym classes. During the harsh winter, we were indoors and gym time was usually Swedish folk dancing to old 78 r.p.m.’s.
The Minnesota winter came early with deep cold and snow.
Sunday, December 7th dawned, the day that will live in infamy, and life changed in the city, the hotel and at the school. My classmates’ dads got better jobs as the factories shifted to war production. Their older brothers enlisted for a chance at a job and to serve their new country. The hotel was filled with military brass, defense contractors, engineers, all juggling for position in the war boom. The Scandinavian immigrant mothers were yet to discover the meaning of a Gold Star in their window, one for each son killed in combat.
Just before Christmas, Bjorn finally accepted my repeated invitation to come to my place after school to listen to our radio serials and have some Ovaltine. Leaving the school, I looked at him and gasped, he was wearing only a thin flannel shirt, no sweater, and the wind chill had to be minus twenty.
“Where’s your coat, Bjorn?” I said.
“My brother Nils has it, it’s his turn. Let’s go!” Off we went into the bite of the bitter wind. No more questions. When my mother opened the apartment door, I saw how shocked she was, but she recovered swiftly and warmly invited Bjorn to come in. She made us the Ovaltine drinks I had promised.
Bjorn, sometimes with Nils, came home with me occasionally, but I was never invited into their home or the homes of any classmates for the entire time I was in Minneapolis.
During the Christmas break, my parents were going to Chicago for the company holiday party. I was to stay behind in the care of my twenty-one- year-old brother, Ross, driving with friends to Minneapolis from college in Ohio. My folks went off on the Hiawatha, the super luxurious and high speed train to Chicago. Ross was due shortly. I was excited to see my brother; this would be fun. I knew we would go to movies. After a few hours alone in the apartment, the phone rang. It was Ross on a payphone. I heard him deposit a handful of nickels and dimes, “I’m snowed in here. A blizzard has shut us down, the roads are closed. Are you ok?”
“I guess so. Mom and Dad left at noon. I’m by myself.”
“I’ll call Dad’s Chicago office and leave a message. He should be there soon. They can find him and let him know. Stay where you are and I’ll call the Curtis to let them know you’re alone.”
“When will you get here?”
“I hope sometime tomorrow. You’ll be ok. We’re close to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When the roads open up we can move. See ya soon.”
I hung up. I felt very alone. It was dark now. I turned on the radio for my shows and tried to stay calm. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” I had been told never to open a door without knowing who was on the other side.
“Hello, Barry, it’s Mr. Fitzpatrick from the front desk. I need to talk to you.” I did know him, so I opened the door. He stepped in a few feet and stopped.
“Your brother just called and then your dad, too. I understand what’s happened, but you’ll be fine. You stay in the apartment for the rest of the night, ok?”
“Sure, but I’m getting hungry. Can’t I go down to the drug store for some snacks?”
“Please stay here,” he continued, “Rita, the waitress, is coming up from the Coffee Shop with a dinner for you in about an hour.”
“Wow. I know Rita. Thanks a lot.” I said.
“Rita will make sure you’re set for the night. In the morning one of us will come and take you to breakfast in the Coffee Shop. Do not leave your place in the meantime. We’re all here for you. Goodnight.” Rita came as promised bearing a tray with a cheeseburger, fries, a chocolate shake and a bag of cookies for later. She briefly sat with me as I ate, then she had to get back to work. She went over how to double lock the door and told me to call the front desk immediately, at any time, with any problem.
“You know we’ll be looking out for you. Charlie Anderson is the in-house detective on tonight and he’ll keep close watch on this section. You know Charlie, right?” Rita said.
“Yes, he’s the one going off duty when I leave for school. He says Hi to me.”
A quick look out the window confirmed my earlier survey, the city was completely shut down, nothing moving. I listened to the radio until I got drowsy.
About 8:30, my mother called from Chicago, jolting me back to attention. “I am so sorry this happened,” she said. “Are you alright? Did they feed you? Did you hear from Ross?”
“I’m ok, Mom. Rita came with food, the manager stopped by and the detective is going to be watching this area real hard.”
“We’ll be home the day after tomorrow. The railroad is supposed to be back in service,” she said. “ Maybe Ross will be there tomorrow. It’s going to be fine and you have no school to worry about.” A little voice inside me suggested that I might use this situation to my advantage, “I’m running out of things to read and I can’t go outside to the library. I know the new comic books are on sale downstairs.”
My mother, never fooled for a moment said, “I guess you deserve a little extra. When we call the front desk in the morning, I can tell them to charge five comic books to our bill. Will that help?”
“Thanks, Mom. I miss you.”
“We’ll talk in the morning. I love you. Bye for now,” she hung up.
I remember lying in bed listening to news and weather reports--all bad, war and blizzards. Finally, I heard a lone snowplow working the street below our windows. I remember falling asleep listening to the wind rattling the windows and the snow swirling. I half dreamt I was snowbound in a log cabin in Alaska, a low fire in the fireplace warming the room. I was the hero of my favorite radio serial, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. A rap on the door early the next morning sent me scurrying to see who it was.
“Hello, are you there? It’s Bill Johnson, the bell captain, time for breakfast.”
“I’m here, Mr. Johnson, give me one second.” I had slept in my clothes and only needed shoes and a sweater. I followed Mr. Johnson down the hall; he was in a hurry but friendly. The Coffee Shop was crowded with Army officers, colonels and captains. I had learned to recognize their insignia. Mr. Johnson tucked me into a banquette in the far corner and Kiki, the waitress for that section, came over, “Look at you, you look like the outcast of the islands. Did you sleep in those clothes?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what’d you do with the eggbeater?”
“The one you combed your hair with this morning,” she laughed with great self-appreciation, “I know what you want, right? It’s pancakes and syrup with lots of butter and bacon.” She was back quickly with a glass of orange juice, milk, and a big stack of pancakes. On the side were the bacon and the butter which came over from a German dairy in Wisconsin, pure butterfat and salt.
“Thank you, Kiki,” I piped up.
“If those don’t hold you, I’ll bring you some more, Sweetheart.” I came to love coffee shop waitresses at an early age.
Dad called after breakfast to tell me that they would be on the Hiawatha tomorrow: The Milwaukee Road had all lines open. He said their big party was that night. He was sure Ross would be with me by bedtime, “You’re doing ok, I can tell. You’re a real trooper. I’m proud of you.”
I couldn’t complain after that so I kept up my brave act. “See you tomorrow, Dad!”
Mr. Fitzpatrick, the day manager, was back on duty and called the apartment. He suggested I come down to pick out some comic books at the drugstore.
“After that, you come by the desk and I’ll get Mr. Johnson to take you down to lunch,” then he added, “please do not go outside the hotel” After lunch, I wandered the corridor behind the main lobby reception desk. It was lined with shops: The Poppy Shop, Western-Union, the Nordic Travel Agency, and my favorite, The Public Stenographer and Notary Public. Each small office had floor to ceiling glass fronts and glass doors with gold lettering identifying the business.
Miss Kaplan, the steno on duty, had placed her small sliding nameplate in the bracket under the door sign. I knew her from a couple of visits with my Dad who gave her occasional dictation and typing assignments.. She saw me looking in, and since no one was with her, she beckoned me to come in, “I heard about you, all alone. How’re you doing?”
“I’m doing fine. I'm sure my brother will make it here tonight.”
Miss Kaplan was warm and reassuring, “I know the highways are open now and the trains are running. Just be patient. You know, you’re the talk of the hotel staff, this never happened before. I think it must be fun.” I was sitting next to her at her desk and noticed a thick volume sitting on the near corner. It was titled Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler.
“Why do you have a book by Hitler?”
She took a breath and replied, “My father gave me the book and said I had to read it to understand the evil we are fighting and to know why the Jews, and our family is Jewish, are in great danger.” Before I could respond, a client came in and I slipped away. This moment with Miss Kaplan and the image of the Hitler book was to come back to me when Life Magazine released photos of the liberated Nazi concentration camps.
I went to the drugstore at the end of the same corridor and picked out my five comic books: Captain America, Superman, Batman, Red Ryder, and Smilin’ Jack.
Late afternoon, Rita arrived with dinner, exactly the same: cheeseburger, fries, milkshake and cookies. It was good to see her, but she couldn’t sit with me this time. I remember being lonely and a bit apprehensive as I solemnly ate my food. Everything changed an hour later. There was a knock at the door and Ross yelled, “Any survivors left in there?”
“Just me,” I answered, and threw open the door. There were big hugs and smiles from Ross. He was pretty rumpled himself, unshaven, and in need of a hot shower.
“I need to get some food. Come downstairs with me, you can have dessert,” he said, looking at my tray with the remains of my dinner. He had already spoken with the night manager to let him know he had gotten through.
My folks got back on schedule the next day. I still had a few days of Christmas break left before school started up and was so happy to be with Ross. He had to be in Miami, Florida, on January 6th to report to flight school with Pan American Airways. He had earned his basic pilot’s license at Ohio University under the Civilian Pilot Training Program and was eager to sign up. Pan Am would train him with hundreds of others and then lease them to the Air Transport Command. Ross had dropped out of his senior year of college to enlist and wanted to see us all to say good-bye. It would be five years before the four of us would all be together at the same time again. I remember Ross going out to a New Year’s Eve party with his college pals and disappearing for two days, a final binge. My mother was quite distraught when she had to see him off on the train, a scene played out all across the land every day in early 1942.
My ninth birthday came in February and I went with my folks that evening to the main dining room of the Curtis. A twelve piece orchestra played, literally, behind the potted palms. A cake was brought and the bandleader went to the mike to tell everybody it was my birthday. The whole dining room sang Happy Birthday and the bandleader asked what song I would like him to play, “Chattanooga Choo Choo," I said. Dozens of couples hit the dance floor. It was great.
Winter faded, spring came. Bjorn, my other pals and I went on long exploratory walks through Minneapolis. We thought it fun to go racing through Dayton’s Department Store to look at the model trains in the toy section before being shooed out by the floorwalker. Once, on a warm spring day, we walked the bridge over the Mississippi River into St. Paul and back.
The end of my sojourn in Minneapolis came too early; Dad took us back to Chicago immediately after my last day of school. I barely had time to say good-bye to Bjorn and my schoolmates. I found Rita and Kiki in the Coffee Shop, they both gave me a hug and made me promise to come back soon.
I didn’t make it back until 1976.
A convention assignment took me to Minneapolis and I arranged to stay a week at the Curtis Hotel. Years earlier, the hotel had torn down the apartment section and replaced it with a health club with indoor swimming pool and elaborate workout facilities. The lobby and corridors seemed tired; worn carpets covered the open spaces and hallways. The glass enclosed cubicles had been taken out to make a big open space for trade show display. There was no Public Stenographer, no Western Union, no florist, all the rest long gone. The Coffee Shop was still in the lower level beneath the front lobby. I had breakfast there every day and let the memories float to the surface. I could see Rita and Kiki working the floor, teasing me and chatting up the customers.
The Curtis Hotel was razed in 1984 at age seventy-five.
This was a real delight to read, and I could easily read more of this. You brought it vividly to life - the lopsidedness in school (sharing a coat!), the small luxuries and fine pleasures of living in a mid-century full service hotel, the war. All seamlessly woven together, in a lush story. The voice of the child is captured quite well, too, even in memory. Thank you for sharing this with us.