|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 buildings 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 - shes Black, hes 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 cant get any souvenirs of Fargo, because theres nothing left. If you want to park the car, well go over here and put our hands on this brick wall and Ill tell you the stories of this building, this block, this place, but as far as Fargo itself goes, its gone; now its everywhere and nowhere and Anyplace USA.
Well, I said, I dont know whats 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 sisters 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 RJs 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 Daves 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 couldnt find a certain street, and asked if I knew where it was. I didnt; 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 hed never seen him before. My dads 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 cant avoid it; thats where Things Are. Thats 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.
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. Its just astonishing, really, and the more the town grows out the more downtown feels left behind. Its 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. Theres no retail, really. Bars and restaurants for the downtown crowd. Everything stopped around 1979; the motor stalled and it hasnt turned over since.
Anyway - theres 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 its 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 cant bring themselves to forget.
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.
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 youre 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 owners 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.
Thats 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 whos had ten cups of coffee I couldnt 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 drivers 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. Wouldnt 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. Ill take more.
The article called dogs social parasites, and I glared at Jasper as though hed been tricking me all these years.
Prove youre 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.
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 ranchers housewife, who came out with a gun: Bang.
Only two of the pups escape, said the narrator. Again, Im wondering how true this is; the wife was lit rather dramatically when she came outside. The documentary was also about condors - I didnt 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 ranchers wife was about four feet from the pup when she squeezed off a round.
I fear the Discovery Channel is lying to me.
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.
Springs busted, he said, and I couldnt 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 whod taken over my time slot had read a column I did on this SLA revolutionary, and wanted to know if Id 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.
Lets see, I said. Im 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 friends 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 Gods 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!
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 Im sure there are Spam experts and historians out there whod have pulled out their hair over what I omitted or forgot or misstated. People are on TV and radio because they are Available: thats the first rule.
Anyway. I had pudding and sat on the porch and read until sunset; one of the neighbors daughters plinked her way through a piano practice as I read of Stalins childhood. She played Yankee Doodle Dandy while I read about the purges. Jasper sat in the sun and snapped at bugs. The coffee was Folgers and you know, the coffee was good. Much better than flying east to declaim on Spam. Much, much better.