Woke up birthday morning, thought: let’s go downtown Fargo and shoot 87 photos with the white balance incorrectly set, so everything has an unfixable blue tint! And that’s just what I did. But before we went for breakfast at the old Sambo’s. It hasn’t been Sambo’s for a long time. And even when it was Sambo’s, the mascot wasn’t that dreadful pickaninny archetype - this Sambo was an Indian child. That always made me wonder why they named the place Sambo’s at all.

Gentlemen, I propose a nationwide chain of restaurants based after an old story about a clever colored boy. We’ll call it Sambo’s.

Fine, boss, but that’s not going to go over well. In the North, anyway. Why don’t we make him an Indian child? I mean India Indian.

Brilliant! Little Brahmin Sambo. Our dinner values are Untouchable!

There were two in town back then - one on the north, one on the south. Both had the turquoise & orange design that we loved in the 70s, deplored in the 80s, and now regret losing. Chain restaurant design hit a trough in the 70s and never recovered - once they let go of that jangly chrome wire called Googie, they got dumb and ugly. The Googie style was about the push-button / jet-age / punch-card future that was right around the corner, but somewhere around 1969 we turned the corner, and it wasn’t there after all. The future was dead; long live the aimless present. When the chains retooled for the 80s, some adopted this cozy domestic home-away-from-home look; others opted for the explosion-in an-antique store look with tin signs, expired license plates and farming tools up on the wall. (The presence of these items came to guarantee that the menu would have giant stuffed potato skins.) The brief Miami Vice vogue made no lasting impression. Cozyness rules forever, I’m afraid to say.

The old Sambo’s had little trace of its previous beauty, aside from the heaps of giant igneous rocks that made up one wall, and dated the architecture as surely as a light fixture in the shape of a star or atom. If there is such a light fixture left in a Fargo cafe, it’s probably intended ironically.

Had a birthday breakfast - some sort of “skillet” dish. Eggs, nitrite-soaked meats, pulpy tomatoes, raw hash browns. The coffee was plentiful, though. Gnat ran around and I chased her - past the spot where I used to sit at the counter, past the place where Mary Jo dumped me in the summer of ‘76, into the backroom where we used to go for breakfast after church. If memories were weeds I wouldn’t be able to move an inch in that place. I’d need a machete. Some sort of memory-weed-hacking machete. You know the kind. Home Depot sells them.

Went downtown, screwed up the pictures. It was a cloudy day anyway - even if I had the proper white balance everything would have been washed out and ugly. To be truthful, things did look washed out and ugly, at least in the back alleys and parking lots.

But they’re spiffing up downtown - the trees that smothered
Broadway are gone. The “mall” has been ripped up; there’s angle parking again. It looks as if someone cares, which is more you can say for many towns with dying downtowns. Dying? No: dead. At least for retail. Picturesque and historic as it is, it’ll never come back until you block off freeway access to the burbs, and force people downtown at gunpoint. Spending a lot of time and money trying to bring it back to life is like disinterring the first mayor and putting the paddles on his brittle bones. CLEAR! Bzzzz. Crackle. Damn.

I say this with no cheer, since I love downtowns, especially this one. To my surprise the Civic Center has been upgraded - the old Miesian box reswaddled with modern curves. But the old City Hall is still the same, a low clean modern building with the Ten Commandments standing out front.

They’ll be gone soon, I’m sure, and that will be a powerful message to all those Fargoans who’ve been tossing atheists on the bonfire every Sunday morning.

My wife and child were at West Acres Mall, so I drove out to meet them. And here I learned where everyone was on a gloomy Saturday. The place was jammed. The Mall was finally rehabbed a few years ago, and it’s one of the more incoherent overhauls I’ve ever seen, but the place still draws the traffic. And why not? All these bright stores close together, all these commingled scents of coffee and doughnuts, of candles and perfume; all these people - packs and claques of teens, rumpled weary families with small kids, idle middle-aged men cooling their heels in Mission easy chairs, stolid moms and tarted-up daughters shopping for shoes and face-paint. There’s more life here on a Saturday than you’d ever find downtown outside of the day before Christmas. No weather; no worries.

It’s the inescapable truth: people prefer malls to downtown. Malls lack the character, the history, the charm, the serendipity. But they are intensely social in ways downtowns never are, aside from the occasional parade or summertime farmer’s market. Fargo made its choice. It’s ugly, but it works for them.

Supper at a steakhouse: cheap and delicious. Off to the ballgame - Fargo has a small perfect stadium that has everything you want. Beer, hotdogs, a silly mascot, a PA system that pumps out all the Pavlovian cues. Right there I thought: summer’s complete.

Ended the night at my sister’s house, making smores over a brazier in the driveway, kids playing in the cul-de-sac. They have a four-level house with a yard bigger than Vermont. Just tending that lawn gives my brother-in-law more environmental experience than Howard Dean. For what they paid you couldn’t get a closet in Hoboken.

Life’s good up there, and if no one else realizes that fact: so what. No one lives in North Dakota because they’re concerned what people in New York think.

Sunday: the lakes. Detroit Lakes is the local spot for sunning and boating - but it’s also a resort town that has a year-round life of its own. The downtown is completely intact - it has a small indoor mall, which thrives. It has an independent department store, like all towns once had. And the Ben Franklin has the original 1960s doors:

Cool, I say, but I'm a dork. Details abound: The Carnegie library was designed in the Louis Sullivan style. The bleat-banner above is a marquee from a downtown DL restaurant. The courthouse has a memorial park with a small 9/11 memorial - fifteen hundred miles away from Ground Zero, there’s a monument. Don’t ever underestimate how personally we took that day.

There’s this, which is amusing and mystifying as well.

After a few hours in the sun, we went back on 10 to go home. Huge rainstorm - it was like being pelted with a billion jello shots. But it was a thing of beauty; out here there’s nothing but sky, and there’s so damn much of it that you wonder why anyone built anything. Just look at those clouds, the towers and bluffs and ranges of alabaster vapor - why would anyone build anything here? It could never compare. Every day the skies improvised a dozen different worlds, and each one was pulled apart and rebuilt as the sun did the long slow roll overhead.

It reminded me what it was like to live out here: you see a long ways; you see where the rain is, and where it’s not.

Home. Tired. Nap. Back to the usual; set the sprinklers sprinkling, made some coffee, fired up the computer, called up the news.

And thought ahhhh, who cares.

Turned off the computer. Called Dad, just to tell him we made it back fine. It was a good trip home, and I feel blessed to have this moment of equilibrium. Everyone’s fine, the gas station’s doing fine, Dad’s fine, the house of my childhood is still there, and I made my daughter stand on the front steps for a picture. My mom made me stand there the first day of school every year. It’s hardly a great & weighty tradition, but it was a tradition nonetheless.

And it continues:

And dig those crazy shorts!

Daddy-o’s little girl, indeed. You see that stone in the back? You read the part about the big mall, the historic downtown, the perfect summer ballgame, the ingenious sky? I repeat what I said on the Fargo website. If all you know are the jokes and the Coen Bros. movie, you have to realize this: everything you know about Fargo is wrong.

Unless you suspect that the Thai food situation sucks, in which case you are dead on the money, friend. Dead on the money.

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