The Black Forest Inn: Anarchists 2; Scientists 1

(This post has a sister. Please visit her here.)

In the email, she had asked for my time. She wanted to talk to me about a strategy for finishing her degree in anthropology, and she wanted to know whether there was some research that she could do with me. At the end of the email, she said, “Can we please meet at the Hard Times? I’d be more comfortable.”

To this day, even though Lizzie has been my student, then my colleague, and now is my friend as well (and still my colleague), and even though it has been many years since this particular email (how time flies!), I have never asked her exactly why she wanted to meet in the local anarchist coffee shop rather than in my office. But I don’t think I’ve needed to ask her that; I have a sense that I know why.

So I arrived at the coffee shop not entirely sure why I was there or what I was going to do or even exactly whom I was meeting. I had a vague idea of who Lizzie was, but it would be all too easy to get it wrong and mistake her for someone else or someone else for her. She was small, had red hair, and would be wearing black, as most of my students seemed to. Among the young women in the coffee shop, this ruled out…almost no one. So I went to the counter and ordered something, figuring that whatever needed to happen would happen. When my coffee was ready, I paid and picked it up and turned around and there she was. Maybe.


“Yes. Hi.”

“Okay, then, let’s talk.”

And we walked over to one of the tables by the front window and sat down. Almost immediately a young man came over and sat down on a nearby chair and said “Oh, Professor Laden. Hey, I was in your class two years ago. Your human evolution class. I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I just wanted to tell you how great it was.”

I got the sense that Lizzie knew this young man.

“Well, I’m glad you liked it.”

I also got the impression that this young man was a regular in the Hard Times. He was probably one of the local anarchists.

“Yeah, it was great. I couldn’t’ believe the things you were saying. You totally changed the way I think about…everything…,” and as he said this, a young woman came over and sat down next to him, joining our little group.

I realized as this conversation developed that the reason these two kids had come by to talk was because Lizzie was there. Lizzie was with me, so they could come over too. I’d been in this very coffee shop countless times previously, and most of the young anarchist crowd were polite but avoided me unless they specifically knew me. No particular reason for that…other than that I was probably known to most of them as someone who taught at the U, and who may have been a bit intimidating (those of you who’ve met me know that I’m a big, scary guy with a mean face that most people avoid getting anywhere near). With Lizzie sitting with me, unharmed and clearly not intimidated, it was safe to explore, say hi, ask a few questions.

“Your lectures were totally awesome. They made me rethink everything. Everything. In fact, that is why I dropped out of college. Now, I mainly hang out here.”

Oh, great, I thought. I converted a perfectly normal young man into an anarchist. I wondered whether there was a particular lecture that did it…

“Me too!” Suddenly the girl was animated and involved in the conversation. “Some professor I had in some class three years ago. He was totally awesome. He made me realize that I did not belong in school and that I just needed to do my own thing.” Then she looked at me, rather closely. “But it wasn’t this one. It was some other professor.”

“Hmm, I wonder who?” I said, glad that I was not the only one who was busy ruining the entire system of education.

Now, the boy was looking at the girl with a quizzical look, and the girl was looking at me. “He had long hair and a mustache,” she said, remembering her wayback.

A moment of silence. Then the boy said to the girl, “Imagine him with long hair,” and his thumb pointed to me.

Lizzie chimed in, “And a mustache. A big mustache like a pirate.”

And the girl’s eyes widened and her mouth made a big “O”….

“It’s you!” she shouted. “You’re the one. You changed your hair, but it’s you!”

Oh, brother. Turns out I was ruining the entire system of education pretty much single-handedly.

Over the next few minutes, the two visitors wandered off and Lizzie and I were able to get down to business.

…Now, that scene you have in your mind, of Lizzie and me sitting across from each other at a tiny table in a dark and smoky coffee shop on the West Bank in Minneapolis …let it get all wavy and foggy and slowly fade away. Then it fades back in, but it is different. It’s still Lizzie and Greg, but now they are sitting next to each other at a bar, in a different but still darkish location, and the barkeep has just put a plate of Königsberger Klops in front of Greg and a plate of Wiener Schnitzel in front of Lizzie….

Greg had just been saying to Lizzie, “You know, the downside of knowing a blogger is that whatever happens…,” eyeing the Weiner Schnitzel, “…just might get blogged. Like this Wiener Schnitzel. I’ll probably have to blog that.” And verily, the Wiener Schnitzel was huge and impressive. Totally bloggable. “Plus, for some reason, I tend to write a blog post every time you and I have dinner together.”

“I did notice that,” replied Lizzie, with a measure of snark but not taking her eyes off of the Wiener Schnitzel–I assume calculating which parts to eat and which parts to load onto her bike for the ride home.

We were sitting in the Black Forest Inn in South Minneapolis, on Eat Street. The Black Forest is across the street from Azia and is also the location of a party PZ Myers and I threw a few months back for our readers, so some of you know this place. This establishment has been extant for a very long time and has a rich and interesting history.

To our right, as we sat at the old traditional bar, sipping the custom-made beer and munching on very authentic German food, was the famous Richard Avedon photograph. It seems that some years back, Avedon was a student at a nearby art college and came here regularly to hang out at the bar. At some point later on, he gave the owners of the Black Forest this photograph…a huge, almost life-size blow up of six or seven women, all Daughters of the American Revolution. They were sitting and standing around like they were about to get their portrait taken, or had just gotten their portrait taken, and they looked like a bunch of pretty tough broads. Most people who see this photograph, hanging behind huge sheets of Plexiglas off to one side of the rectangular, centrally placed bar, think it is a group of Germanic royalty. The women are wearing formal dresses with crown-like tiaras, and they all look very Germanic and stern. And their photograph is hanging in the Black Forest, which is otherwise adorned with myriad specimens of Germanic art and kitsch. But no, they are not Germanic royalty, just old-fashioned, upper-crust blue bloods from somewhere in the U.S.

Some time after the photograph was hung, a gentleman who at that time frequented the Black Forest and still frequents the neighborhood pulled a .357 magnum pistol out of his pistol-hiding place and put one bullet into the forehead of one of the ladies and another bullet into another lady’s chest. Bam. Bam. He double tapped the Avedon. The owners got really mad at that dude, and he is no longer allowed in the restaurant. I hear tell Avedon was not too happy about this either. The bullet holes are still quite visible, no repairs having been effected.

Anyway, Lizzie and I had gotten together for dinner very late on this Wednesday evening for a number of reasons. We needed to talk about some science and some personal stuff. We never got to all of the personal stuff because there was so much of it, with things happening in her family and my family and among mutual friends.

One of the things I wanted to touch on was this: We have a mutual friend who had gotten himself into trouble some years back and was now paying the price with an imminent stint in prison. I’ve given the details elsewhere. A few days before this dinner, I had gotten an email from him, and I didn’t think he’d mind if I shared it with Lizzie. For some reason I didn’t want to just forward it to her. That that didn’t seem right or respectful. So I had a printout which I let Lizzie read at the bar, before the dinner had been delivered by the barkeep.

What is relevant to the present discussion about this long letter with many things in it was this one part, which I shall paraphrase: “When I started to take your class, way back when, I was involved in these illegal things I was doing. But in your lectures, you showed me the value of science and scientific thinking. This totally changed my mind about everything, and I walked away from the life of an anarchist and decided that I needed to become a scientist.”

So. Anarchy 2; Science 1.


There is another feature of that night’s dinner that I’ve decided to relate in a different forum. Here.

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7 Responses to “The Black Forest Inn: Anarchists 2; Scientists 1”

  1. April 25th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I still find myself wishing I could have seen the expression on your face in the Hard Times, as it all sunk in and you tried very hard not to startle the dropout kids by reacting. All the various, almost completely suppressed expressions….

    Good thing I didn’t. They’d have been offended when I laughed.

  2. April 26th, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I still don’t know what to think about it all, but over time I’ve learned more about these “kids” … e.g. one is the sister of someone who took classes form me and is a best buddy of a good friend of mine (this brother … you met him once, Stephanie), and so on. And they are all doing good things as far as I know. I guess in the end, I’m very happy, and we are all lucky, that these “kids” (now in their late 20s, getting married having kids and buying property in the city, or at least some of them) are doing what they are doing. I’m happy to have been part of their history.

    But I honestly don’t remember my exact reaction at the time.

  3. April 26th, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I’m guessing there were approximately seventeen reactions all happening at once, all suppressed, which is what would have made it fun to see. 🙂

    And yes, “kids” should be in quotes. It had everything to do with being in a stage of life where they were figuring this stuff out and nothing to do with ages. You’ll have to tell me who the brother is sometime. I have a terrible memory for people I’ve met once unless I spend significant time with them at the first meeting.

  4. April 27th, 2009 at 9:06 am

    DuWayne says:

    You make me feel much better about the random folk here and there, who decided they should drop out of school because they though I was such a interesting and nifty person – and a dropout. After all, they looked at me and saw a guy who got high a lot, got laid a lot, fronted in a band and aside from that was also a right musical whore (if playing with random musicians could cause VDs, I’d so have all of them now). Yours were students.

    I was definitely amused by the notion that you were basically led into an ambush of this sort. Having spent quite a bit of time around anarchists and other deviant social dregs (of which I was/am certainly one), I can totally picture it and the picture makes me chuckle out loud.

    I do find it interesting when folks from that period wander across my radar – especially the ones who managed to reconcile reasonable economic success with their very heartfelt beliefs and didn’t lose the latter or compromise their values much in the process. Unfortunately some of them are in rather dark places, but for the most part the ones I’ve seen are doing reasonably well…

  5. December 9th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    naught101 says:

    Wierd. Why do these people seem to think that anarchy and science are mutually exclusive? They complement each other beautifully.

  6. December 19th, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Wazza says:

    Well, naught, anarchists might take issue with the research done by psychologists and social scientists which basically show that the anarchist philosophy is untenable in large-scale society. Mostly ‘cos people are douchebags in the main.

    That said, science runs on a system quite close to what anarchists envisage, but only because it gets lots of grant money and you only get into the field because you’re passionate about it. It wouldn’t work if people were drafted.

  7. April 19th, 2010 at 3:30 am

    MadScientist says:

    Bah … and all these years I was blaming the rotten education on greed and fundumbmentalists.

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