Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Ice Man and his dog June 20, 2011

I’LL NEVER SEE THIS GUY again, this man in the muscle shirt with hair shaved scalp-close, fingers cradling a cigarette, a can of Keystone Ice nearly knocking at his knee as he slumps, cross-legged, on a block of Kasota stone by Riverfront Park in Mankato.

Lines harden his forehead. Shadows darken his eyes. Skin exposed to summer sun has already bronzed his face, his upper body, his muscular arms.

I wonder about his life, but don’t ask. Have he and his two buddies, passing the time nearby on their own blocks of hard, hard stone, had hard lives? I can almost see it in their eyes, imagine their lives. Jobs lost. Relationships broken. Regrets. Bars. Beer and cigarettes. Maybe whiskey and women.

But I don’t pry, and only he—the guy with the Keystone Ice—volunteers any information, speaks to me after I approach the trio because I see a photo opportunity in a man and his dog, brick buildings and a riverside railroad track. My eyes sweep across the scene, pushing the view into the lens of my camera, into these images that tell a story.

Rugged life in a river town. A blue collar man’s grimy, steel-toed work shoes. Elevators. Train tracks leading away. Peeling paint. Boarded-up buildings which The Ice Man wishes were torn down and which I tell him should be refurbished.

We disagree. But he still smiles a smile as wide as the manic, muddy Minnesota River raging past the park.

He tells me then, after I snap a series of photos, that he can’t take his dog—a service dog, he claims, and says he has the card to prove it—into Riverfront Park. Dogs are banned from some Mankato parks and this is one of them.

He suggests I photograph his dog next to the white line and words sprayed onto the tar: NO PETS IN PARK.

At first I balk, say, no, I won’t do that.

But then I reconsider, give The Ice Man his defiant moment. As his dog struggles to cross the line into the park, he tugs on the leash, holding her back. He’s already told me how, a day earlier, he hasn’t crossed the line to hear a $15 outdoor concert staged here. Instead, he’s followed the trail nearer the venue site, listened to the music from there. He’s clearly proud of his evasive, I’ve-outsmarted-them tactic.

Then we part ways. I continue reading poetry imprinted upon a sidewalk circling the park’s trail head building. He returns to his hard stone to swig his Keystone Ice beer and smoke his cigarettes.

His life is so different from mine. Yet, for five minutes we’ve connected and the poetry of his life shows in these images of The Ice Man and his dog.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling