Paul Lask is a writer, musician and kayak instructor living in San Francisco. Feel free to contact him here.

The Northerners

posted Dec 17, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Seth has a trimmed beard and plain button up shirt over his corduroys. We are both in our early thirties, yet I've always made it a point to dress older than I am. See, I inherited more of my mother's Polish than my father's Swedish, and have sandy colored hair and light blue eyes and a squarish chin I've for some reason always associated with maturity. Regardless, he rocks wingtip boots, while I, throughout high school and my short career in music and now, have worn burnished leather work boots a half-size too small, as I'm self conscious about my feet.

"What'd you think of that chapter on the miner's strikes?" Seth asks after taking a seat.

"Man, crazy. I didn't know," I said, trying to think of what I didn't know. I was distracted by one of the smoothie women at the table over, who looked vaguely familiar, like an old babysitter or something. It's been happening since I've moved back--seeing these faces from my youth. "I didn't know our country was so based on class struggle," I said, repeating one of my instructor's--he insists he's an instructor, not a professor--mantras.

"We lost a good one when Zinn died," he said.

"Sure did," I said.

I could tell he suspected I hadn't read this week's chapter. I like the Howard Zinn essays Seth has been teaching. Jean noted the other day that I've been using the word "capitalism" a lot lately, which may or may not have been a compliment. But truth is, it feels kind of silly to be this old and still just complaining about free markets and the order of things. Which is why I want to be a lawyer: I don't want to bitch about the system, as much as get in there and change it. As for the chapter on the Ludlow Massacre, I had read it, about the National Guard sending in troops to pop the strikers, about how that paved the way for bigger strikes and such, but as I've said, I'm not good at saying things in the moment.

"But you were asking about going out?" Seth said, changing the subject. "We try to get over to Madison whenever we get time," he said. "There's not a whole lot to do around here."

"We took Claire there last month," I said. "She liked the State Street juggler hippies."

I tried not to think about the fact that Seth hasn't offered a play date for our kids. I don't know if it's a problem because Jean and I aren't married and Claire's not actually my daughter. I have a feeling it is. But I've just kind of been showing up to his café now and then when work is slow. It's nice to be around somewhat smart people, and I'm not exactly over-extending my friendship skills or anything.

That he suggested Madison did strike me as a little pretentious. Who drives forty five minutes because they can't figure out what's fun where they're living?

I then realized who the smoothie woman was. When she stood up and began to walk off, there was a sway to her hips that I recognized having seen at the forest preserve. I saw the familiar white and red tennis shoes, though she had put on jeans and a blouse for the mall, usually wearing a nylon outfit in the woods. I briefly wondered if I should catch up with her and ask if she'd lost a camera. But there was some part of me still holding out, still wanting to have discovered something important or funny.

"Those wannabe bohemians get under my skin," Seth said.


"The trust fund kids asking for change on State Street. Seeing their opportunities as a curse. Amazing."

"Oh, yeah. Definitely," I said.

"Maybe we'll just go to Rounders," I then said, thinking out loud.


"For dinner tonight," I said. "Sorry, I was thinking out loud. Bad habit. But look, before I forget, I wanted to ask your opinion on something."

"Sure," Seth said, holding a finger up to the barista and nodding.

"So, I was taking a walk this morning out at Whitetail. And I found somebody's camera under some leaves."

Seth looked at me with slightly knitted brows and a slight smile. I had his attention.


"Yeah. I was thinking about having the pictures printed."

"Well, you've got to. I mean," he stopped himself. "I mean. You could post something online about a missing camera first. Maybe put a sign or two at the preserve. But if that doesn't work, I'd go ahead and print them up, yeah. To find out who it is."

"That's what I was thinking," I said.

"Where was it?"

"Just under some leaves. It looks like it'd been there a while," I said, taking it from my pocket.

I made to hand it to him, but he declined; three teenagers, hyper on skipping school, had just come in. He got up to watch them, though I could tell he was still interested in my found item. It was already becoming the thing I'd wanted it to be, and I hadn't even gone to the Walgreens yet.

"I'll talk to you later," I said, getting up from the table. Before leaving, I added, "Oh, I do have some ideas on Ludlow." I was glad that I had thought of that and said it while he was standing next to the barista. The confidence of having something interesting happening in my life was showing.

So I'd left the mall on a high note. I hurried back to the truck. The engine turned over on the first try, and the classic station had CCR's "Fortunate Son" just starting. It seemed like a good sign. I drove along the mall's service road a little under the suggested 20 m.p.h. limit, proving to myself I was in control of my excitement, all the while singing loud enough so that anyone outside could hear.


I stood there staring at the camera kiosk screen at the Walgreens. I was waiting for the first image. I had my thumb hooked into the pockets of my jeans, and was tapping my fingers against my thigh. But nothing showed up. I took the memory stick out and reinserted it. The screen again told me to go ahead and upload my pictures. I said quietly that I just had. I then asked the photo desk worker, a skinny guy with a blond Sir Lancelot haircut, for help. He told me the camera was blank. My hope was that the camera had water damage or something, and that it just needed to dry out.

Outside was cloudy and cool, the temperature somewhere in the upper thirties, and a little boy was playing a prank on his mom. He had somehow managed to get in the car before her, or she had left him in while she shopped. Now it was locked and she couldn't get in. She stood with her arms crossed against her sweatshirt. The boy was laughing, having a good old time. He gave the horn a honk. Though she must've tried already, she went for the handle. I went ahead and put the camera in the glove box. I thought about going over and telling the kid to knock it off.

The mom ended it before I could. She just walked away. She was leaving her son, and the son noticed and right off opened the door. I got in my truck; I didn't need to see the results.

I drove home angry about the camera. I didn't let it affect my driving, though, and something like sadness took its place. Life is like this--you find something you think will be a game changer, and you end up worse off than you were for even thinking the game could be changed.

When I got home I sat in the driveway for a minute, calmed some by our little rental house. It's an old a-frame with brown clapboard siding and faded forest green shutters. The roof's three layers of shingles are starting to pull from the stone fireplace, which I'm going to mention re-flashing in the spring. I'd already tried selling the landlord on refinishing the driveway. It hasn't been blacktopped in years, and weeds are popping out of cracks that are only going to expand this winter. He said he would think about it. He offered to give me a hundred off rent for taking care of the landscaping instead. That includes mowing the lawn and clipping the hedges under the windows, grown wild during the house's unrented months, and clearing the driveway of snow. Though we signed a lease, and though he knows my dad from Menards, I got the feeling the landlord sized us up as city people that wouldn't make it past April; I'm banking on sealing that driveway when the weather warms.