What is the greatest thing any person has ever said? This is a question that has gripped many historians and philosophers. William Shakespeare said a few impressive things, as have Gandhi, Lincoln, and King. But no one, at no time, has outquoted an anonymous woman in Minneapolis in 1999.
It was May Day. Each year, on the first Sunday in May, the May Day Parade takes place in the Powderhorn Park section of South Minneapolis. Stilt-walkers and puppeteers, community activists and weird-bicycle riders - they all convene for a festive pageant of spring time, madness, and love.
The greatest thing ever said was not uttered at the parade, or at the annual festival in the park that followed the march down Bloomington Avenue, No, the greatest thing anyone has ever spoken out of their mortal mouth was uttered on the porch of a nondescript Minneapolis working class house. I wish I remember the house, or even just the street. I don't. All I remember is that the greatest thing ever said was said during the walk that my friends and I were taking from our car to the parade.
On May Day, one often has to park very far from the parade. But, after a long miserable winter of indoor life, a long walk on a sunny day is welcomed. I don't remember exactly where we parked. But I think we walked somewhere between 5 and 10 blocks. I would place the location of the greatest thing anyone has ever said as somehwhere between Lake Street to the north, 36th Street to the south, Cedar Avenue to the east, and Chicago Avenue to the west.
I am not the only one who heard the greatest thing anyone has ever said. There were three other witnesses: Laurel, who many of you know and one of you is; John, who some of you know and one of you is, and Greta, an old friend of Laurel's who I don't remember ever seeing again after that day. The four of us had driven to the parade together in my 1995 Honda Accord. We parked. We walked to the parade. And somewhere during the walk, we heard it.
Like I said, the greatest thing ever said was said on a porch. The houses on the south side of Minneapolis are big and old, sometimes decrepit but often not. The houses were mostly built between the World Wars, though some of them date to the turn of the century (between 19th and 20th). Most houses have porches, many of them covered (or "Three Season" as they like to say in the upper Midwest). The one non-porchworthy season is winter of course because it's too cold to sit on an uninsulated porch when your tongue is freezing and your nostrils are crackling.
I think Laurel and I were trying to set John up with Greta. It didn't take.
At one point, Laurel and I were walking together, with John and Greta trailing, smoking as they unwisely did back then. But, when the greatest words ever spoken were spoken, John and I were talking and it was Laurel and Greta who were trailing, perhaps discussing the fact that the John and Greta set-up just wasn't going to work out.
The words rang out from a porch. There may have been many people on the porch. Or just two. I do remember seeing at least two people there: the older African American woman who said the greatest thing ever and the young boy to whom she as speaking to.
She said it in a rush. To untrained ears, or to ears who only heard the first part of the quote, she may have sounded angry. But she wasn't angry. She was undeniably happy.
The boy was playing havoc on the porch. The woman was sitting down. I don't remember what she was sitting in - a rocking chair perhaps. Rattan patio furniture maybe? I don't know.
Later that day we were at a post-festival party in a big old house in the worst neighborhood in Minneapolis. Not until I left the party did I realize that I had spent a few minutes talking to the brother of my first real girlfriend. It had been 12 years since I'd seen him so I didn't make the connection until later. Someone at the party played Brimful of Asha over and over again. I like that song.
Back to the walk to the parade, when the greatest thing anyone has ever said was said. Again - there was a porch, with two or more people on it, there were four of us walking, in gender-based pairs, John and Greta just weren't into each other, the houses were old, and the sky was sunny.
She said it. The old woman said it. I heard her. The other three heard her say it too. Presumably, the boy she was talking to heard it too. I hope he still thinks about what he heard that day. This is what she said:
"Don't be putting a run in my stocking. Grandma's got a hot date tonight."