Road Trip! I checked the Minnesota Department of Transportation webpage before we left, looking for construction. If theres one thing i dislike, its those one-lane / no-shoulder passages where youre stuck behind a semi doing 50, with NO WAY OUT. I always like a little escape room. A little strip of grass where you can coast if you blow a tire or a ventricle. The website was helpful, if a bit surreal - only in America, or rather certain portions of America, can you see things like this;
Road maintenance operations, paving operations, reduced to one lane, width limit on Interstate 94 from Exit 77 - State Route 78 to Exit 82 - State Route 79 since 8:58 PM, 07/28/03 until 4:04 PM, 09/05/03, link restriction width: 12.00 feet
Im not kidding. Thats what it says. Construction begins at 8:58 PM. On the dot. Construction ends at 4:04 PM. On the nose. Of course, whod notice? Who would be driving by, note the few remnant cones, note the time on the dashboard - which is synced every 10 seconds to the Robert Byrd Memorial National Atomic Clock in Timebyrg, West Virginia - and think my GOD its 4:06 and theyre not done! But generally they get the work down when they say they will, which means they start on time, too. One of the construction zones was a 20+ mile Corridor of Greatly Diminished Options, along with several other patches in which delays could be expected. I took them at their word.
Well. The Interstate isnt the only road in town, you know. Theres Old Highway 10, which for decades was the main highway from Fargo to Minneapolis. It began as a two-laner, but now its all grown up - mostly four lanes from here to there. Best part: instead of avoiding towns like plague sites, it walks right up, knocks on the door, and saunters through every burg on the road. Four lanes narrow to two, the speed limit drops, and youre strolling in the center of a map-blip, looking the locals square in the face. Some of the towns are just rusty smears - a busted down garage, a grain elevator, a Cenex gas station, a tavern whose sign has the Hamms Beer logo from 1967. You wonder who lives here; you wonder if this is just a large disorganized nursing home, with old widows counting out the few last pennies of summer #78. In ten years the town will lose its postal designation. In twenty itll be gone. When people can get from A to C in 27 minutes, theres no reason for B to exist. And so it dies.
But A and C thrive nicely, if theyre near a lake. To the modern small town in Minnesota, a lake has the value a railroad line once had. They bring the tourists, and the tourists like to golf, too. They like to eat. They like to hunt. They buy bait in the summer and bullets in the fall and Miller Beer all year round. Add the needs of the local farmers - insurance, implements, hospitals, groceries - and you have a petri dish of urban life. If the towns big enough to have a north side and a south side, you have rivalries and reptuations. You can't imagine how much you'd learn if you stopped and spent a year.
The prosperous cities have a water tower; they have a proper traffic light at the intersection of Front and Main. They have a sign that welcomes you with a variation of the same old sentiment: Warborg: A nice place to call home! Smagsburg: Youll feel at home here! Stupley: Youll Get Used to the Turkey Barn Smell! The sign is spattered with the emblems of the local booster boys, the Lions, Kiwanis, Eagles, Elks, Wombats, etc. Theres a sign reminding the world that the New York Mills girls softball team have been State A champs three years in a row. The downtown saw better days, but its seen worse ones as well. The old bank on the corner: antique store. The old movie theater: antique store. (The old antique store: espresso.) Names are carved in the cornice of every brick building, the names of the men who put up these whimsies in the middle of nothing for reasons you can only guess. Look at the Slicer Block - stores on the ground floor, apartments or offices on the second. Who the hell was Slicer, exactly? Stay long enough and youll find the town historian - either an old kind lady who has the local stories mimeographed and stapled, or some 40-something guy who moved away for college, came back with his family, and works on the town history in the winter on his Compaq. He has a satellite dish that gets him on the Net. He doesnt miss a thing.
I love these towns, and I missed seeing them. Even Motley.
We were fifteen minutes out when the sign said TRAFFIC STOPPED AHEAD. Thats not a good omen.
I realized I hadnt checked Highway 10 on the web. *#$%$%#$. Traffic was, indeed, stopped. A motionless line of vehicles reached over the horizon. Well, thats the beauty of Ten: alternate routes! I cut through downtown Anoka, bypassed it all, rejoined ten and set course for Fargo. Dry roads, no smokeys; 80 plus all the way.
Lest this sound too idyllic, we had to deal with Road Food. In another era I might have pulled over into a roadhouse, taken my chances with the laminated menu, but when you have a child on board you look for places that feature hideous redheaded clowns and play areas. Havent been to a McDonalds in quite a while. Wont be going back soon. A few bites into my quarter-pounder sans vinyl I thought: this doesnt even resemble food. Oh, it could be food if youd been trained to think it was, if you grew up eating nothing but damp gray meat, but man: this is like humid newspaper that spent a week impacting in the colon of a flyblown cow corpse. The fries tasted like pencils. It was horrible, but Gnat enjoyed scampering around the playground. Back on the road, with hopes of better meals to come.
Supper? Hamburgers! But palatable ones, this time. My sister & brother-in-law hosted the clan; my aunts and a cousin showed up to meet Gnat for the first time in a long time. Gnat got to play with her cousins, whom she idolizes. They played in the backyard pool, and as good diligent parents we made sure everyone had flotation devices, 2 spotters for every tot, ropes to haul them to the surface, etc. (The water was about two feet deep.) At one point Gnat lost her footing and went face down in the water; her cousin snatched her up in a second. Gnat had that what th expression, so we all put on BIG smiles: you were swimming like a fish! She liked that idea. Ten minutes later she went down again, and came up with a slightly frightened look: I was swimming like a fish! she said, and we all agreed that she had. Then we went home, back to Grandpas house; she played in the hallway I'd traversed for years, never once looking down to think my daughter might one day play with the old worn Buffalo nickels Id set aside from my paper route money.
Americans move around too much to put down roots in anything, were told; our lives are just crab grass in sand. But 41 years after we moved into this house, heres another Lileks, v. 4.7, playing in the same hallway where I was a little boy, where my sister played as a toddler, where Mom and Dad walked a thousand miles three yards at a time. As with so many other things, Im lucky; I can go home again. As often as I like. Te details havent changed; the house still sports mint-condition equipment born of the vision of postwar modernism, Domestic style. The dual-squiggle loudspeaker announcing the doorbell, or the toast:
The clock built right into the wall which controls the oven - electronically! Thank you, General Electric!
Alas, the turquoise boomerang-patterned formica counter is long gone, but the classic linoleum pattern is still extant in the utility room. The cone lights in the knotty-pined basement are gone, because they shorted and died. But its still knotty-pined. People whove visited this site over the years would walk around the house and think, well, of course.
What did you do tonight? I asked when she went to bed. She was tucked into bed in my old room, the tidy safe square where I'd spent my childhood. Play with my cousins," she yawned. "Swim like a fish. No better day for a three year old. But what of the morning? I checked the fridge for breakfast supplies, figured we might need a few of Gnats favorites. She needed her liquid yogurt . . but more than that I needed to walk alone to the grocery store on a pure perfect summer Fargo night. It was midnight, but I can do that now. (I'm an adult, Dad. I'll be okay. Don't wait up.)
It's just a block away. It was the SuperValu then, the anchor tenant at the ultra-modern Northport shopping center. It had automatic doors. It had fresh bread and Muzak. Northport was a 60s strip mall with all the basics - grocery store, Carousel jewelers and gifts, Johnson Drug (Mr. Johnson lived just up the block), a hardware store, a Three Sisters store for fine ladies clothing, and a big glorious Ben Franklin with candy, records, parakeets and games and popcorn and a horsey ride outside that went forever for a dime. Its been redesigned a few times, and a requisite addition made the long strip into a sheltering L. The drugstore, hardware store, Carousel and Ben Franklin are still there. Three Sisters is a chain video store.
I walked north, accompanied by crickets. Whoever lived in these houses now were just interlopers, squatters, transitory shades; the real occupants were the ones whod lived there when I was growing up. Most were gone now. The neighborhood still looks good, but like many developments that were oh-so-modern in 62 it leans a little here, sags a bit there; the modernism is something of an embarrassment now. Give people a severe California-style rambler c. 1960, and by 2003 theyve geegawed the lawn, hung kitsch in the windows, rosemaled the letterbox. Its like that all over town. Modernism is tolerated, but theyre not going to go out of their way to preserve it. Its the ranty old socialist cousin at the reunion. Let him talk, but dont expect anyone to agree.
The SuperValu is called Hornbachers. Every city of Fargos size has a grocery store that elbows the outsiders in the ribs, and Hornbachers is Fargos brand. Its where you go for food. End of story. Theyd spiffed it up since my last visit, and to my astonishment they had installed gigantic blown-up photos of the 1956 Northport area over the dairy chillers. I stood there agape looking at the grinning buzz-cutted crew in their aprons: first day. Another photo showed Northport with an early 60s sign Id completely forgotten.
There were a half-dozen such photos on the wall. Aerial shots of northside developments. Postwar commercial strips. Its like a giant historical website with microwavable burritos and Pop-Tarts. Midnight in Fargo on a Friday night. Im happy.
Back home. Sneak into the house with ancient skills. Store the goods, head to bed.
The curtain pulls in the bedrooms are the originals. Theyre shaped like rocket nosecones. They assure you that youre going to experience some up-to-the-minute modern darkness. My wife and child slept in my old room, the one with Captain America decals on the doorknobs. My sister got that room when I went to college. All my furniture was moved to her old room, which had been my mothers sewing room before sis came along. I always forget that; I always remember that I was sitting in this narrow room watching TV with mom, and a gangster movie was on. I remember asking if she was a broad. She was quite emphatic that she was not.
If its summer, I open the window and listen for trains. They must come when Im asleep, because I always dream that I hear one. And before I drift off, I realize again with a smile: tomorrows my birthday. And here I am.
Tomorrow: thrill! to downtown Fargo, the old mall made new, and the lake.