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Front Row Seat: My first summer in an East Hillside house

Giant thistles, an eerie attic and an uphill climb all come with the territory in a century-old Duluth foursquare.

A white man pushes a manual lawnmower in the side yard of a house, with large, tall, thorny thistles visible in the foreground.
Our columnist takes on the thistles.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — I forgot about house noises. Sometimes those little creaks and groans mean someone's moving around, but sometimes they happen for no discernible reason. My mom used to say they were the sound of the house "settling."

The East Hillside house where I live ought to be plenty settled by now. According to county records, it was built exactly 100 years ago. If the house settles much more, it threatens to slouch all the way down the hill and come to a comfortable reclining position against the back of the Kitchi Gammi Club.

It's smaller than the Chester Park house where I lived as a kid, but it's not too dissimilar. Porch out front, living room in the front right corner, kitchen in the back left corner, bedrooms in each of the four corners upstairs. Before and after our Duluth sojourn, my family lived in different St. Paul houses built on the same foursquare template.

My wife and I don't own our new house; we rent from one of the larger local property managers. We had to act fast to land this lease. I toured the house with an agent and another prospective tenant, being careful to moderate my reactions. Having been beat to the punch on two previous house rental attempts, I didn't want the other prospect to get too interested in this one.

I acknowledged the big, bright living room with a neutral nod. When I noticed the bar-style seating between the kitchen and the dining room, I didn't make a peep. When I realized that not a single room was redolent of dank haze ... well, having toured a few student rentals, I didn't take that for granted. I waited for the other prospect to drive away before I turned to the agent and said, "We'll apply."

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We signed the lease, and hired movers to bring our stuff up from Minneapolis. I must have apologized three dozen times while they were hauling boxes. Noting the landlord had a dehumidifier running 24/7 in the basement, I figured all the books and records had go up to the back bedroom. "It's OK," one of the movers grunted, elevating a heavily loaded dolly one step at a time. "This is why you hire movers, right?" I apologized again.

Unpacking was the first priority, which meant the lawn came second. Our landlords had practiced "No-Mow May," which segued into No-Mow June once we moved in. By the time I had assembled our newly purchased manual mower, the lawn looked like a nature preserve. After the first mow, the grass looked like a quarantine haircut: It was shorter, and that was all that mattered.

Aside from the lawn, such as it is, I've been afraid to touch anything growing in the yard. I don't mean I'm afraid of what I'll do to it — I'm afraid of what it will do to me. Every time I contemplate garden shears I think of the movie "Annihilation," where Natalie Portman leads an armed assault team into a forest of aggressively expansive greenery. For most of the troops, the movie doesn't end well.

Two months in, our columnist is beginning to grasp the Zenith City's quirks.

At our front stairs, vines snake up between the slats. Birds have built a nest in the corner of our porch roof, and there's definitely something moving around inside that roof. The sidewalks need to be mowed as often as the lawn does. Our solar path lights are completely overgrown. Sticks of all sizes regularly rain down from an aged tree rooted next door.

The most intense plants growing in our yard, though, are a species I've started calling "Northland Murder Thistles." They line our fence and guard our side door, growing nearly as tall as me and threatening the unwary with thorns of all sizes. These monsters don't recall "Annihilation" so much as the enchanted bramble from "Sleeping Beauty," and I always saw myself as more of a chill-in-the-tower type than a come-to-the-rescue guy.

After the first mow, the grass looked like a quarantine haircut: It was shorter, and that was all that mattered.

I also made some unsettling discoveries inside the house. After working up the nerve to open a walled-off basement storage area, I found cobwebs, a table saw, and ... a pair of crutches. Perfectly normal! After that, I needed to work up even more nerve to explore the attic.

Opening a door in the front bedroom, I discovered a narrow set of stairs. I did the limbo under a pole intended for clothing storage, and poked my head into the attic. The entire attic floor, I discovered, has a thick, eerie coating of fuzzy foam. I'll appreciate that insulation when heating bills come due, but I still can't shake the feeling that if I went up there and said "Beetlejuice" three times, a miniature Michael Keaton would pop up in a pith helmet.

On the first and second floors, though, everything's nice and cozy. Our shady, south-facing front porch isn't as glamorous as the sun-blasted deck at our last place, but it's much more functional: Any time there was more than a light breeze outside our Minneapolis apartment, sitting on the fifth-floor deck was like trying to relax on the wing of an airplane. We also now have a view of Lake Superior. To see the lake we have to peer across the street between two houses and past a tree, but hey, it's there!

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They call it "Hillside" for a reason. One day I was sitting on the little landing connected to the back of our second story, and I looked across the alley to the next east-west street running parallel to ours. Despite the fact that you have to climb three sets of stairs to get to that level of our house from the street level, I realized, cars driving along the next street up were elevated well above my head.

That extreme slope will bring new challenges when winter comes. I'm trying not to think too much about that, but this week I'm celebrating my first Duluth birthday since I was a kid, and I didn't ask for Transformers or Star Wars figures — I asked for a snow shovel.

Short cuts

Congratulations to Duluth musicians Lyla Abukhodair and Samuel Miller (Robin Hood Was Right), who were married Saturday at Hammarlund Landscape Nursery in Esko. Fellow Duluth artists Gavin St. Clair, Adam Herman and New Salty Dog performed at the wedding. Abukhodair has been riding a wave of buzz behind her eight-song release "Scream," which came out earlier this year.

A hand holds a copy of picture book "Troll Magic: Hidden Folk from the Mountains and Forests of Norway" in front of the Aerial Lift Bridge
There's no such thing as an unsalted sea troll ... right?
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

The University of Minnesota Press has published a new translation, by Tiina Nunnally, of a 130-year-old collection of Norwegian fantasy stories written and illustrated by "the godfather of the Norwegian troll," Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914). "Troll Magic" marks the first time the book has appeared in English, and while the evocative volume might make a tempting holiday gift for Northlanders interested in Scandinavian heritage, it would be just as appropriate for Halloween. Kittelsen's creatures include a 12-headed mountain troll (the heads stay up all night arguing), a witch (she spins wool with "stupidity and backbiting, gossip, envy, malice, and devilment"), and even a "horribly ugly" sea troll. Those only live in salt water ... right?

"The Bachelorette" is now airing Monday nights on WDIO; there are weekly watch parties at the Duluth Tap Exchange, if you want to share the guilt. This week the reality dating show landed in Bruges, Belgium. There, Bachelorette Gabby Windey and suitor Johnny DePhillipo went on a date to De Halve Maan brewery, where they took a "beer spa" that involved beating each other with sauna brushes and then climbing into a hot tub of beer (or, at least, water with some beer ingredients). How has Duluth not hopped this trend? Beer spas are totally a thing, with at least one as near as Chicago. Fitger's already has a spa and a brewhouse under one roof, right on the shores of Lake Superior ... just a thought!

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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