The Trip Home, Con't. Back to the ancestral cradle. Back to the loam from which I rose. Back to the land of instructive concrete towers.
Pulled into Fargo, parked the car, and started shooting. It took me all of sixteen seconds to realize something was different: the Ford Building had been gutted. Condos: always a good sign. Or a bad sign, as the harbinger of a crash is always a condo boom. Of course, it might be years off, but mark my words! Real estate will suffer a downturn! It wasn’t the only condo project downtown; an entire block across from the Fargo Theater was being rehabbed, including the venerable Fargoan Hotel, a bum-haven occupied so long by transients the structural analysis of the frame probably concluded it was held up by dried urine. I wandered along, amazed: the new streetlights, the planters, the historical markers: it was quite different from the downtown I photographed for the 1999 site.
I shot a few blocks, then headed to the Holiday Inn. Checked in. I’d requested a smoking room, since I wanted the rare opportunity to enjoy a cigar indoors. Well. Upon reaching the wing of the hotel where my room was located, I was met by the Blue Wraith, rolling down the hall from the smoking wing. Old smoke and fresh smoke. And this was the non-smoking half of the wing. Remember how planes had smoking in the back and non-smoking in the front, and everything smelled like smoke? To this day? Like that. By the time I got to my room my eyes were stinging. The room didn’t smell bad, but they’d hosed it down with some powerful agents, some special motel spray – Smok-Eet, or Cig-B-Gon, or whatever. Its primary objective was to banish cigarette odors, and what it left behind was an afterthought.
I drove over to West Acres, the local mall across the street, found a Bath and Body Works, bought a small canister of Orange-Mango room freshener, went back to the room and doused the joint. Ah.
Then I opened the window, let the humid July weather flow in, and had a cigar.
That night my father and his bride and several aunts were at a wedding reception of my cousin’s daughter, so I headed over to visit. The ballroom was one of several in a gigantic hotel; each room was vast and dim, each room had its own celebration, and the halls were crowded with young burly guys in rented monkeysuits and frothy young women in deep tans and deeper necklines. A few old bony men and smallish grey wives. I found the right room, and it was a lesson in modern North Dakota. For all you who get your Fargo ideas from “Fargo,” consider this: the bride’s cohorts came from a large circle of tattoo enthusiasts; the groom was part Native American. Guys with Mohawks and guys who could be Mohawks. Didn’t seem unusual to anyone.
I took a seat, had some cake, shot the breeze, caught up with the talk. After an hour I headed back to the motel, wrote a little, watched some TV and collapsed: long day. Hard road.
Saturday I did most of the photography for the Fargo site. It was deadly hot; it reminded me of the summers of childhood, when downtown baked and simmered on my Saturday afternoon trips to the library. Aside from general improvements and the aforementioned condo-boom, everything was pretty much as I left. The before-and-after stuff is interesting, sort of. Here’s a preview of the Fargo site – which of course will have larger pictures with better quality.
On the right, the old Waldorf hotel. My dad watched it burn down; he supplied the fuel to the fire department in those days. Now the site is occupied by an architect’s office. It used to be a bank; they gave me rolls of Life Savers when my dad made the weekly deposit. It was, and is, the best International Style building in Fargo. On the left, DeLendrecie’s department store. The site today:
The lobby elevators have Art Deco parrots on the doors.
There aren’t enough door-parrots in modern elevators.
Another before & after shot:
The right side took the worst of it, apparently. That's a firehouse on the right. The empty space belongs to the overflow parking for the old Lark theater, which was the downtown movie house in my youth. Cavernous and dank but modern – and it was on stilts! You parked underneath!
NP avenue, then:
And NP avenue, now. No matter how much we still have, it doesn’t equal what we’ve lost.
I walked back to my car to shoot the Old Cowboy Ghost, a fatally faded liquor-ad sign on the side of the old Universal building:
That’s a picture from 2001. Imagine my utter gobsmacked dumbfoundedness:
THEY BROUGHT HIM BACK. It’s not an exact match, but who’s to quibble? He’s back, and if the symbol of downtown reborn is the Grinning Whiskey Dude, it’s fine by me.
By now it was one o’clock and time for lunch, dum de dum de dum. I drove down to Kroll’s Diner – ersatz and gaudy, a theatrical set, but still a good diner. I had the best hamburger I have had in a year. There was a copy of the paper on the counter with my column turned face up; always nice. As I paid and left my cell rang; Dad. He wanted to know if I was dropping by. Sure, I said, after the tour of the school. Fine, fine, he was thinking he’d drive to the lakes on the Harley, but if you’re –
No! Go, for Heaven’s sake, Dad. I’ll see you at breakfast.
Like I’d keep an octogenarian from taking his Harley out on the side roads to visit Detroit Lakes. Go!
He was relieved, I think.
At two I drove north to North Fargo to my old high school, Fargo North. First I stopped off at Northport, the stripmall by my old house. This, I know, means nothing:
But it does to me. That bricked up door once led to the hallway outside the Ben Franklin. In the wintertime they piled up snow against the wall; one year we built a fort, and one of the kids brought a Playboy he swiped from his dad’s drawer. It was kinda weird – do moms wear things like that? That’s what they look like under the bra? – but we all faked our sophistaced proto-Hef responses nevertheless. One summer I went to the store with the ne’er-do-well kid who lived across the street, the one with whom I’d formed a two-boy gang called the Ortho Brothers; he bought some Testor paint bottles for the express purpose of Mayhem, and once we passed through those doors he turned and flung the bottles at the wall. They shattered and left bright damning spatters on the wall. They lasted for years. I saw the ragged stars every time I passed, and felt a pang of guilt. I see them today.
I went to the old supermarket where my Mom shopped. It’s now modern and big and slick, but they have gargantuan archival photos of the store in its infancy. The staff circa 1956. A buzzcut Cass-Clay milkman waving from his truck. An aerial shot of postwar North Fargo, the flat treeless Levittown of the Plains where the men of the last world war would raise their children. I bought an apple, and wandered around the strip mall; the Carousel jewelry store was gone, but the drugstore was still there. The owner lived down the block from us. His son was my age and his daughter was older. The last summer I spent in Minneapolis I ended up in the apartment of the daughter, who’d moved into flats by the DeLendrecie building. (You took the parrot-doored elevator to get to her place.) Becky, that was her name; hadn’t thought of her in years. (Nothing happened! We talked about Life over candles stuck in chianti bottles. Really.) The hardware store: still there. The Three Sisters clothing store: long gone. Ben Franklin: still there. I walked back to the corner where they kept the pets, expecting the old terrapin perfume, studying the linoleum for signs of the old tanks and cages. Nothing. But it was still the same, really. A hot idle summer afternoon at Northport. The only difference between now and then was the lack of a Herb Alpert “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” album cover in the music section to provide a guilty thrill. (Moms most certainly did not wear that.)
I left the store. Five to Two: time to go back to high school.
It was a tour for the reunion attendees. I’ll spare you the personal bits about who I saw and who I remembered, because it’s boring to outsiders, and because I’m saving that for tomorrow. The tour was a disappointment, really. The school was built around 1969 or so. The old style was dead; no more three-story boxes, no tiled hallways echoing with the crash of slamming lockers; no more banks of fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. The New Modern School was rational and humane. Men with sideburns and turtlenecks would relate to the students in a sunsplashed commons. Small thin windows would focus the student’s mind on his Journey of Learning, instead of giving him a glass canvas on which to project his idle daydreams. The most innovative idea was a dome: basketball courts below, classrooms around the perimeter. Carpet hushed the clatter; earth tones soothed the savage breast. A soft machine for learning.
But it proved inadequate for the needs of a growing population, so they built a new gym. They added a Natatorium. They built a 600-seat theater. They have a ceramics lab with two kilns. There’s a computer lab with 30 Pcs. And so forth. On and on, room after room, additions grafted here and there, ending with an incomprehensible dark charmless labyrinth.
They’ve recently turned it into a four-year school, and I can see why: it takes that long to find your way out.
I left and drove back to the motel, thinking about the tour. I’d recognized the place where the front door used to be. I’d recognized the commons where we had our square slices of pizza and discussed Iron Man. I’d recognized a blank space in the wall where there used to be a door, leading to the Speech and Debate room. The hallway leading to the teacher’s lounge was the same, but it no longer had a cloud of smoke coming from the end. The chemistry labs hadn’t changed, and I could still see Mr. Pederson leaning against the blackboard. (He was retired but still around, the tour guide said. The tour guide was the current principal. He looked younger than the group he was leading.) I had good teachers, and remember two the best: Mr. Olson, who gave me a love of history, and the inestimable Rhoda Hansen, who coached speech and debate. To the callow student who drew her for English, she must have seemed like a bemused bird of prey; to those of us who had her for a coach, she was the ultimate authority on the superficial aspects of our craft. How to stand. How to walk. How to gesture. She was also the one who tore apart our arguments and built them back up, taught us to construct a thesis, rebut on the fly and think on our feet, act like junior Barrymores, deliver a humorous speech or a tearjerking monologue, then head over to the Extemporaneous Speaking round and whip a defense of Israel or the 55-MPH speed limit out of our own heads in 15 minutes. She had a sense of sarcasm sharp enough to shave granite in micrometer-thin slices. When you got one of her exfoliating critiques you felt it down to the bone, and when she reacted to your humorous speech with her dry smoker’s cackle – the tenth time she’d heard it! – you were on top of the world. She treated us all like grown-ups who’d unaccountably ended up in high school, but she wasn't our peer and she wasn't our pal; if we doubted her authority, it took one arched eyebrow to bat us back into place. She expected victory and she got it. She loved us and we loved her. She was the most important teacher of my life.
I sat at my desk in the motel; I cracked the window. I made a pot of coffee. I got out the phone book. I had a cup, collected my thoughts, dialed the number, and wondered why I felt so oddly nervous. Well, because it was Mrs. Hansen, that’s why.
She was pleased I’d called. She read the column; she’d kept up. She was happy I’d done well. I told her what I wrote above, more or less. I felt 15 again. I felt like I should be standing in front of her desk, hands clasped behind my back (the reverse fig-leaf position, she’d called it) while she gave me a critique of my career since leaving her charge. She was dismissive of her impact – why, I had so much energy and so many ideas, I was easy to teach – but I had to set her straight on that. She gave me confidence and craft, without which energy and ideas just fizz away. I will always owe you everything.
We said goodbye. I closed the phone and put it on the desk and looked at it. Damn.
What took me so long to do that.
I finished my coffee, ironed a shirt, nixed the dress black slacks for jeans and Chuck Taylors, stuck a tin of stogies in my back pocket and headed downstairs to the Harvest Room, where the reunion was held. I entered the room and was instantly back to my first day of school at Fargo North.
Meaning, I didn’t know a soul.