JUNE 1999 Part 4
I was standing in the middle of the Broadway on a hot Sunday morning, waiting for the wind to part the trees. Downtown Fargo is overrun with foliage; bushy branches hide all the buildings. Every facade wears a fake green beard. I was trying to get a shot of the Lugar building, one of the many silent citizens on Broadway whose heritage and history is mostly lost, mostly forgotten. Postcards from 1919 show the Lugar name on the building’s side; postcards from fifty years later show the same sign, the same name. But not anymore.

You can stand in the middle of the street and take pictures on a Sunday morning in downtown Fargo. And you can stand in the middle of the street and take pictures at noon on Monday, too.

A car rolls past; Louisiana plates. A white man behind the wheel looks at me, and says something into his cell phone. Not ten seconds later another car comes past: Louisiana plates. The window whirrs down and they wave me over. Man and a woman - she’s Black, he’s Black-Hispanic. She has a cellphone in her hand.

“Excuse me,” she says. “Where could we get some souvenirs of Fargo?”

I wanted to say: Is that other guy driving point for you?

I wanted to say: What brought you hear, and why?

I wanted to say: You can’t get any souvenirs of Fargo, because there’s nothing left. If you want to park the car, we’ll go over here and put our hands on this brick wall and I’ll tell you the stories of this building, this block, this place, but as far as Fargo itself goes, it’s gone; now it’s everywhere and nowhere and Anyplace USA.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know what’s open on Sunday now . . .” Then I remembered the Shelf of Dusty Curio Crap at the station, out by the highway. Saturday night after leaving my sister’s house, my dad and I drove to the station to fill up the car. While I gassed the Defiant he walked around the parking lot picking up trash. Cans. Loose paper. Well, he is R.J., and the sign does say RJ’s Conoco. I went inside to get some cough drops, and he followed; went around the corner to the bathrooms. The clerk was a goateed slacker. I had no idea who he was. I used to know all the guys who worked for my dad. But of course dad was retired now, sort of, and the convenience store and station was bro-in-law Dave’s operation.

My dad came out of the bathroom with a slightly consternated look. He went in the back and got a mop.

The slacker looked somewhat plussed: what the hell was this codger doing? My dad marched back to the lavatory hallway and began mopping up footprints.

I wandered over to an end-cap on aisle one, and noted a shelf of Fargo trinkets. A snowdome. A thimble. A spoon. Two plaster wolves howling at the ceiling. A big comb that said FARGO.

My dad came out of the hallway and decided to mop the cooler room. By now the slacker clerk was attempting to give directions to a sunburned jerk in a polo shirt. He couldn’t find a certain street, and asked if I knew where it was. I didn’t; I called dad, and he went behind the register, stood next to the slacker and worked the map for the customer. The clerk never said a word.

I asked my dad later if he knew that clerk, and he laughed that he’d never seen him before. My dad’s the last guy to exude that I-run-this-joint spirit, but the clerk had figured it out anyway. Hey: maybe this is RJ.

So I gave the Louisianians directions to the station. They thanked me with merry smiles and drove on. I got in the car, and thought: what was I thinking? West Acres has souvenirs. Much better ones. So I caught up to them, honked, ran over and gave them directions to the shopping mall.

The very shopping mall that had made downtown an empty sarcophagus. You can’t avoid it; that’s where Things Are. That’s Fargo today: this long low smear of signage and pavement, fresh roads and new apartments and matchstick houses, each of which has a driveway loaded with SUVs and minivans all clustered at the edge of the cul-de-sac like beasts driving from the asphalt pond.

Not my Fargo.

But. Better that death. Fargo booms; prospers; eats the ground and spits out houses, marches south and south - never up, rarely north. Everytime I go home another 100 acres have been tamed, platted, paved and plugged into the great grid of power, light, water, cable. It’s just astonishing, really, and the more the town grows out the more downtown feels left behind. It’s like a zoo for the elderly now. Walk past the grand old hotels and you see them sitting in the lobby, staring out the window, smoking. The office buildings are inhabited, but they have the indifferent business of computers - all the activity goes on within, with no outward manifestations. There’s no retail, really. Bars and restaurants for the downtown crowd. Everything stopped around 1979; the motor stalled and it hasn’t turned over since.

I don’t mind change. Go ahead, mix it up, adapt, adopt, improve. Cities grow or they die, and there is no in-between. Your hometown ought to challenge you on every trip back; it should always be your family, but there should always be a half-dozen kids you hadn’t seen before, a new addition to the house, a fresh coat of paint. The desire for home to be The Same when you deign to return is pure selfishness, lazy egoism.

But. Fargo is one of a thousand examples of cities ruined by the suburban aesthetic. I’m not blaming cars and I’m not blaming suburbs, just the ways these factors are addressed. When Fargo burst its boundaries and headed west, they had the change to build New Fargo, but planning was anathema, then as now. One simple rule could have changed everything: Thou Shalt Build Thy Structures With The Parking Lots Behind Them. I drive down 13th av, the main drag with the sad superstitious name, and I imagine all those big-box stores clustered along the street, not marooned in their parking lots like mastodons stuck in a tar pit. Sure, the stores would have been the same old chains; sure, the roll call of brand names would have been indistinguishable from any other city. But it would have felt like a place instead of an empty progression of indistinguishable opportunities.

As it is you sit at Denny’s and look at the ass end of a K-Mart, with ten thousand shiny car-roofs glinting like the backs of a herd of metal reptiles, dozing in the sun. If you think “I could be anywhere” it’s a sure sign you’re nowhere in particular.

But in West Acres you can buy a souvenir that proves you were in Fargo . . . even if there was no other evidence to support the assertion.

All I’m saying is this: if you’re going to wreck the heart of a city, build a new heart. Don’t just pave a network of arteries and assume there’s a heart there somewhere.

On the way back from the station we drove through downtown. It was ten o’clock, Saturday night.

“It used to be busy,” Dad said. He looked out the window. “There were people on the streets and it was bumper-to-bumper down Broadway.” He gestured to one of the ugly concrete planters dropped on the street in a disastrous attempt to make downtown an urban mall. “Look at that. Stupid. There’s nothing even growing there.”

I imagine myself at 73, driving through the empty ruins of Minneapolis - the shuttered stores, empty blocks, and - well, I can’t imagine it.

But neither could they back then.

Tomorrow: the good news.

When the rent gets cheap the antique dealers move in, and sell off the parts. There weren’t any antique dealers when I was growing up, and this trip I stopped at four. The first was at the Holiday Center, the first enclosed mall in the area, and the first to fail. There’s nothing as spooky and sad as a failed enclosed mall - why, this isn’t supposed to happen in America. But it does. The storefronts still have the name of dead merchants; low-rent operations are squatting in the elegant remains of a previous tenants. Sometimes Muzak still pipes tinnily from the speakers. The carpet is stained with soda, the bathrooms are locked, weeds sprout in the parking lot.

Anyway - there’s an antique store in the Holiday Mall, and I always find something there. Postcards. Knickknacks. I could drop a Franklin on every trip, and I almost did. The next day, downtown, I parked my car to get some photos of the old Ford plant by the train tracks. The used bookstore was still in the same spot it’s been for 20 years, the proprietor sitting outside boxing books. I noticed a small antique store that advertised “postcards,” so I went in - spent half an hour rummaging around the merchandise, talking Fargo history with the proprietor. She had great stuff, but it all had that Mad Max feel - the world has run down, and small messy caves sell the old bits of the civilized world for those who can’t bring themselves to forget.

Down the street I found another, by the Gardner - two stories of stuff, mostly crap, as usual, but some sweet finds. An astonishing collection of old 33 1/3 records. A wall of brilliantly restored old phones. Enameled soda signs. And so on. A few blocks away, another antique store, this one dealing in plains furniture. They had a few knick-knacks as well, and I bought a bottle: an old soda brand called Dream. It’s quite lovely, and sad: an empty clear bottle with a painted cloud and the word DREAM in black letters. Had to have it.

These stores are like chocks on Fargo’s wheels, keeping it from completely flattening its past. No coincidence that these stores sprang up downtown when downtown faded and fell into its empty slumber.

Down the street was the Fargo theater, and the empty lot where the popcorn man had his stand. He’s long dead. The Fargo theater abuts a parking lot, which was created when a bar named the Flame burned down. O, irony. In this lot stood a small shack that sold the best popcorn in the world. Anyplace, anywhere, ever. So good and so greasy that the bag nearly slid from your hands when you took it. In those days you could walk into the theater with Outside Popcorn, and we did. The theater stunk back then - the stage was dusty, the orchestra pit was empty, and the seats bit your back and creaked when you moved. But it was a magnificent place with a high gloomy ceiling, and when the lights dropped down and the speakers cracked with the soundtrack of a coming attraction, you were in the presence of Entertainment. As I grew older, I wondered what had occupied that orchestra pit; I wondered what shows had been held on the stage in the vaudeville era, what faces had hid in the offstage shadows, pulling ropes, whispering directions. The Fargo was like the Roman Forum, a ruined repository of an ancient civilization.

One of my first movie memories was at the Fargo; we saw The Ghost And Mr. Chicken. This movie terrified more than any film before or since, and I had to leave. My mother took me out of the theater, and I can clearly see where we went: the hallway of the upstairs balcony lobby. Maroon curtains, heavy 20s decor. Grand staircases fore and aft. Mom bending over solicitously, Don Knotts nattering in the cavern beyond the walls.

This is the point where I decry modern Fargo, rail against the death of old monuments. But the grand Fargo theater has been completely restored. The marquee is back, a gigantic green and white affirmation that says FARGO left to right and shouts FARGO up and down. I’ve got to go back; I’ve got to see something there again. It’s the last of the old theaters left downtown, but it’s the best. There’s hope.

Then I went to buy some - sorry, I went to look at the fireworks. They are illegal in Minnesota, so I couldn’t bring any home, and I surely won’t be shooting any off on the fourth. But they are legal in Fargo. However, they cannot legally be sold to North Dakota residents until the 27th, so all the patrons to the fireworks store were Minnesotans. So absolutely every patron in the place was there to break the law.

When Black Cats are outlawed, only outlaws have Black Cats.

I was in heaven. Absolute gunpowder nirvana. I don’t know if it’s a male quirk, but there’s something about that smell that gives me deep wild joy. Bang! I couldn’t buy the loud noisy crackers, or the big rockets, because even if I intended to bring them back to Minneapolis, they would probably annoy the neighbors who have small sleeping children. So I would confine myself to not buying fountains and Roman candles. Visiting a fireworks store after so many years of living where they’re illegal - well, it’s like visiting Vegas after ten years in Iran. It’s not the items for sale that entice and thrill - it’s the fact that they’re sold openly without apology. Even the smallest cracker is titillating, a glimpse of female ankle beneath the chador.

As an experiment, I loaded up my basket with 40 dollars worth of explosives. I passed on the Titanic package - a 28’’ ship that spewed smoke from the stacks, then burst into flames while the lights in the passenger cabin flickered (really.) - and got a mild selection of things that fizzed and, like government bureaucrats, did nothing more than issue reports. Got in line. After ten minutes I wondered what the hold-up was - seems that new regulations required the merchants to enumerate EVERY SINGLE FIRECRACKER you’re buying, listing them all on a sheet of paper which you must sign. The fellow in front of me had $420 worth of explosives, so his form took a while to fill. Then, as in the USSR, you took your receipt to another counter to pay. The staff was harried and humorless; the young woman who helped me was obviously the owner’s daughter - she had the same weird dead eyes and goiter-neck as the fellow in the back room, and she was disinclined to explain why they had this two-pronged approach. She rattled off a few lines of legal boilerplate and commanded me to sign on the line; I took the trouble to actually read what it said, and this seemed to annoy her.

“That’s what I just told you,” she said.

I wanted to say: Yes, you joyless spawn of backwoods incest, that is what you said, but since you delivered it in the voice of a helium addict who’s had ten cups of coffee I couldn’t understand a single phoneme.

But I did not.

After my selection was totaled, I went to the other line, where Mr. $420 was having his bill added up one item at a time. I had to present my driver’s license to pay, and it was the oddest thing: I had to prove I lived in a state where these items were illegal in order to legally buy them.

And then I left the bag outside the store. Wouldn’t want to take them back to Minnesota, after all. That would be wrong.

Perfect, sweet, all the drama you need in a day. Humid as Cuba in the morning and afternoon, with a supper storm and a placid night. I like this. I’ll take more.

For some reason I couldn’t write today. Well, no, I could write, but I couldn’t write anything good; every sentence felt like a lead sinker. My fault; I wasn’t paying attention. The spirit finally filled me around 4:47, which meant I banged away until six. It’s the same with every column: eight hours of folderol, 45 minutes of stern grim labor. Went home and whipped up an Indian feast, sat on the porch and glared at the dog; I’d read an Atlantic magazine article called “Why your dog pretends to love you,” and it painted a rather bleak, deterministic & mechanistic model of dog behavior. It was nothing I didn’t know; I know that dogs live in a state of dependency and social maneuvering; I know that wagging tails often express uncertainty - it’s not always a happy-to-see-you gesture, but a geez-you’re-big-don’t-eat-me gesture. I know that dogs do not feel guilt as we define it, and that most of their charming deferential postures are means of deflecting aggression. So? I slump my shoulders when my wife catches me slacking off on a household job I’d promised to do; does this mean I’m just a meat machine reacting to genetic imperatives?

The article called dogs “social parasites,” and I glared at Jasper as though he’d been tricking me all these years.

“Prove you’re not a social parasite,” I said.

He could not.

“Do you love me?” I asked. No expression. I rubbed my thumbs along the side of his muzzle; he closed his eyes and leaned into my hands. Which means nothing.

Later I took a nap, and he clacked up the stairs and jumped on the end of the bed while I slept. Which means everything.

I no longer trust nature films. Saw one last night about a family of coyotes. As a sucker for all canid documentaries, I had to watch it, because you’re always guaranteed a saccharine awwww moment when the inevitable pups come squeaking out into the cold feral world. This documentary, however, seemed manufactured. To demonstrate the dangers coyotes face, the filmmakers set up in a tent with a bounty hunter, who played tapes of wounded-rabbit-shrieks and waited for coyotes to arrive. Sure enough, up trots Mom Coyote - or so the narrator says. The hunter took aim: bang.

“And now the pups are alone,” said the narrator. Well, yes they are, no thanks to you, buster. Later the three starving pups - all of whom looked exactly like Jasper Dog, who was asleep on the sofa with his head on my lap - went scavenging in a trash can. Cue the rancher’s housewife, who came out with a gun: Bang.

“Only two of the pups escape,” said the narrator. Again, I’m wondering how true this is; the wife was lit rather dramatically when she came outside. The documentary was also about condors - I didn’t quite get the juxtaposition - and it turned to ten minutes of ugly scraggly birds clambering out of cages and flying away. At the end, we saw the condors soaring over a peak; then we saw the two surviving pups up on a ledge.

“The third, miraculously, had survived,” said the narrator, and sure enough, the previously shot pup shows up, intact, none the worse. Please. The rancher’s wife was about four feet from the pup when she squeezed off a round.

I fear the Discovery Channel is lying to me.

But I should know better than to trust the media, especially after a day like today. Occasionally I get to live the life of someone much more interesting and exciting than I actually am; I get to pretend, play parts. Today was such a day. It was as if everyone went for their rolodexes and decided to start with the letter L, and all the Larsons and Lehmans were busy.

You wouldn’t think it from the way the day began. I was supposed to meet my cousin-in-law & broker to discuss some financial matters, and since I was down to a teaspoon of gas I stopped at the local station. The gascap cover did not pop out when I pulled the lever, so I pulled the lever again. Didn’t work. I tried it a few more times - yank, walk around car, check, walk back, yank, walk around car, etc.; you can do that forever if you’re not careful. Realizing that I’d have to head to the dealer and get it fixed, and that I couldn’t make it out to the suburbs on the gas I had, I phoned to cancel lunch. After which the gas station attendant came out. His right arm hung straight from the socket like a 2 X 4, and he had the odd neutral calm personality of a character on the X-Files who initially unnerves you but is quickly revealed to be the Trustworthy Decent Local.

“Problem?” he said. I explained my gascap lid was busted.

“Pull the lever,” he said. And then he swung his inert right arm into the lid. It popped open.

“Spring’s busted,” he said, and I couldn’t argue.

Gassed, sped to work. And here the fun began. First phone call: a radio station in San Francisco, doing a story on Governor Ventura; would I be available to do ten minutes around six? I said sure. Next call, a few minutes later: KTCA TV, wanting a monologue next weekend. I said sure. I checked my messages - there was a call from a local radio station - the one where I used to work, in fact; the host who’d taken over my time slot had read a column I did on this SLA revolutionary, and wanted to know if I’d come on the show to talk about it, or anything else. Then the phone rang again: BBC television. They were doing a live segment on the anniversary of Spam, and they listened to my bits on BBC radio about American food; might I be able to do something on Spam? Tonight?

Only problem was, they had no TV affiliates in Minneapolis; it would have to be done in Washington, D.C.

“Let’s see,” I said. “I’m supposed to do an interview at 6, but I can cancel that . . .” I envisioned running home, throwing a few items in a bag, hitting the airport . . . I could be in DC by 6, get to the studio in plenty of time -

Wait a minute. It was a lovely day. I had planned to go see a friend’s new baby that evening. Did I really want to fly across the country, sit in front of a blank camera and babble about SPAM, for God’s sake? Then fly home? I did not.

Checked the messages at home: KSTP wanted me to fill in on the night I was doing the TV show.

So then: three radio offers and two television offers in the course of a few hours in the afternoon. Exciting! Flattering beyond belief!

Total compensation offered: $197!

I wrote a column I had forgotten was due today - a computer gaming column, banged out in desperate haste between all the phone calls - then went down into the book vault to get some new books to review. Got the new Stephen King book, “Hearts in Atlantis,” and no, I hadn’t heard about it either. But I have it. Picked up a novel called “The Autobiography of Josef Stalin,” which is quite good. Like a warm fireside chat with Uncle Joe. Went home, cooked up a mess of linguine and salmon; did the radio interview. It was fun; I got to do a Jesse impersonation.

The lesson is simple: never trust the media. My opinion and observations on the Governor are no more informed than any other observer of the scene; they called because I was in their rolodex, I can talk, and I know how to get on and off the stage. Likewise the Spam bit. I might have done a good job, but I’m sure there are Spam experts and historians out there who’d have pulled out their hair over what I omitted or forgot or misstated. People are on TV and radio because they are Available: that’s the first rule.

Anyway. I had pudding and sat on the porch and read until sunset; one of the neighbor’s daughters plinked her way through a piano practice as I read of Stalin’s childhood. She played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” while I read about the purges. Jasper sat in the sun and snapped at bugs. The coffee was Folger’s and you know, the coffee was good. Much better than flying east to declaim on Spam. Much, much better.

Of course, if they’d given me a day’s notice, wild coyotes could not keep me away.