This is actually a reprise of a reprise. The “Mongerer” was a zine that we (just to clarify, that’s Liz and Sarah) ran in around 2005-2007. In 2008 (or was it 2009?) this concept was resuscitated in the form of a kind of travel blog about a driving trip undertaken through the midwestern United States of America in 2008.
The one-off zine in question was called “The Midwest Mongerer”: Memoirs About Some People We Met During A Trip To Illinois, Iowa, and the Dakotas in July 2008. I’m just reprinting the whole thing from 2008 below – it’s a long form piece, and unedited from back then.
So there’s no guarantees against strangely dated or incriminating comments from 2008 – again, this is unedited from back then.
But first a few quick updates. The ghost towns of Fargo are now gas fields. Detroit is considered cool. Facts that have since come to life regarding the town of Waterloo, Iowa (as mentioned in on section) are that a) John Wayne Gacy Jr the serial killer ran a Kentucky Fried Chicken store there (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne_Gacy) and b) Waterloo was the location of a school desegregation program as described in This American Life (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/transcript) . And as a more general update, time has passed – without even getting into the more substantial changes Liz and Sarah are now mid 30s not mid-late 20s (even less ‘bar hot’?), and Instagram now exists (those retro photos are actually from a disposable camera not a filter).
Why resurrect the “Midwest Mongerer” now (November 2016)? I guess just as one of those reminders that the US has been an interesting and divided place for a long time.
“The Midwest Mongerer”: Memoirs About Some People We Met During A Trip To Illinois, Iowa, and the Dakotas in July 2008 (warning: long form and unedited from olden days i.e. 2009?)
Welcome! If you like geography, eavesdropping, true life stories, or just having something to read available next to the toilet rolls, then there’s something for you in the following pages.
The Midwest Mongerer is a special once-only edition of The Barkly And Station Street Episodic Gossip Mongerer, our gossip zine which ran from 2005-2007. The Midwest Mongerer has a similar budget and look to the earlier incarnation, but relays the real life travel adventures of Liz and Sarah during their trip through Midwestern America in July 2008. We’ve also included some high school level geography and history to help put things in context.
Back in 2008, it struck us that our month long trip was full of unusually conversational locals and serendipitous encounters. It seemed that the travel gods had indeed been shining on us. Liz feverishly wrote some notes and transcriptions, Karuouac style, directly from her Dictaphone shortly after returning to Melbourne. We thought perhaps that the novelty of the trip would wear thin, but finding them years later the notes are still interesting.
There are six parts to the Midwest Mongerer, taken from different stops along our trip from Chicago to Fargo. At each point on our trip at least one local person talked with us. This was thrilling to us in a way that people who like visiting supermarkets on holiday – just to see what they’re like – will hopefully appreciate.
The photo on the front page was taken at our furthest point west, from a motel room in Fargo with a view over the rooftops and water towers even further to The West. As Liz noted at the time:
“The sun stays up for hours over the plains. It feels very much like the edge of something, yet that something is still quite a long while away.”
As well as an ode to The American West and the strangeness of normality in a strange land*, The Midwest Mongerer is also an ode to the usefulness of carrying a Dictaphone on holidays, or at least writing down quotes. Because unless you have a tape reel running in your brain, people say much more interesting things than you remember at the time. Just ask Richard Nixon!
*And admittedly there are many excellent big travel books on this subject. To name just a few: Ticket To Ride, by Sarah Darmody; Down To The Crossroads, by Guy Rundle; American Journeys, by Don Watson; The Call of The Weird, by Louis Theroux. Luke reckons that American trains are booked out by foreign travel writers eating fast food as a cultural experience and waiting to find an authentic American.
Above: One of the tape recorders used in the White House during the Nixon administration. These were used by Nixon to help remember conversations, but were a bother to have around when he started getting in trouble.
Liz carried a small portable Dictaphone (a brand of tape recorder favoured by reporters), with analogue tapes, which are way more fun than digital. Note that the presence of the Dictaphone was always announced and visible – usually on a bar or café table. In the fashion of Nixon, they were usually forgotten about by the time meaty things were said. The less dialogue-heavy sections of our writing are from when the Dictaphone was not running and we relied on memories.
PART 1: A man from Iowa in the lobby of a Chicago Hotel
“I’m not going to give you my number if you’re not going to call me. I’m not a fucken stupid idiot, you know”
The bar of the hotel sits in the middle of a huge, brightly lit lobby covered in colourful chairs and carpets, around which is wheeled an endless series of hefty luggage. Outside it is a warm July night in Chicago.
It is late on a Saturday evening, and mixed in with all of the luggage and waiting and the reading of newspapers by people wearing shorts and pulled up socks, is the distinct feel of a pickup joint. People are dressed up and perched on bar stools, exchanging flippant comments and fixed stares. The drinks are unexpectedly expensive, and are paid for with credit cards.
Liz and Sarah manage to pool enough change for two beers of a cheaper brand from Milwaukee. Shortly after the beers arrive, Iowa Baseball Man crosses the room and asks if he can buy Liz and Sarah a beer. They point out that they already have beers. Which, presumably, isn’t the point. The man from Iowa hasn’t thought through the exchange beyond the point of either an obvious acceptance or refusal.
Liz and Sarah refuse a further couple of times on the basis (truthfully) of already having the better parts of two large beers still to finish, and of not wanting to stay up much longer. Eventually Liz and Sarah tell Man From Iowa that he is welcome to sit down, but that they don’t need any more beer. He accepts warily.
A huge number of American men, of all types (although presumably with the commonality of being slightly drunk) seemingly fearlessly strike up conversations with women they don’t know – and quite possibly have no interest in getting to know – in bars. And they can never tell which ones might cut them down, or drink all their money, or which ones might be confusingly Australian. It all seems faintly terrifying and expensive. Perhaps this is just the American way.
Man From Iowa discusses how he has come to stay in the hotel in order to see a baseball game tomorrow, and how he has driven up from Iowa (about a five hour drive from Chicago). He is a keen baseball fan, although he notes that the games are expensive (about $60).
Man From Iowa is also slightly drunk, although this only becomes really apparent when feeble efforts to engage in lightweight bar banter are met with ever more foggy stares and with conversations progressing along ever more intense themes. The table’s conversation begins with chitchat where neither party seems to understand, or be sober enough to answer, the other’s questions.
SARAH: “Are you a Chicago native?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “No, I come from Iowa”.
LIZ: “Iowa! Do you know Bill Bryson, the travel writer?”
MAN FROM IOWA [concerned]: “What do I look like?”
LIZ: “I don’t know. He comes from Iowa”.
Man From Iowa’s most noticeable feature is his swirling, melodic voice that emphasises every second or third word like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. His voice rolls up and down, and his conversations continually loops back to certain points. He repeatedly asks where Sarah is from – “where did you come from?!” This is not, it seems, because he has forgotten, but because it seems genuinely to amaze him that people come from anywhere but the American Midwest. His only experience with Australians, he says, was while serving in Vietnam. He suggests that this experience was not an endearing one.
Man From Iowa is retired but used to work for General Electric. He is aged probably in his late fifties. He looks very fit and blonde and the tip of his nose is pink, perhaps sunburned. Man From Iowa lives in Iowa with his cats, and quickly manages to claim to be friends with Robert Redford. Some of his clothes and personal effects come across as expensive – his jacket, for example, and the credit card he charges a series of drinks to. Man From Iowa also drops a few references to money, to friends in high places, and to brands of car, but it’s difficult to say what this all means. Many Americans really are wealthy, and drive around in cars with personalised numberplates. And many others may like the idea of having money, or at least think it’s important to make self-conscious references to not being poor.
Despite refusing the offer of drinks a few times, Man From Iowa fidgets as he tries to flag down a passing bartender to order another round. Then, when a bartender stops at the table, Man From Iowa pointedly inquires as to: “whether that couple are being looked after?” To which the bartender, looking like someone who is paid to be patient and who has heard this question several times already, replies to the affirmative. Yes, they are being looked after.
By way of explanation, Man From Iowa then turns to Liz and Sarah and asks them whether “you’ve ever done something that everyone told you was the wrong thing to do?” The question refers to the fact that earlier that night, Man From Iowa has seen a homeless couple begging on the street with their daughter. This cheerless sight compelled Man From Iowa to arrange for the family to stay a night in the (quite pricey) hotel. And, evidently, some people – whether real, or in his own head, or for the sake of argument– would suggest that Man From Iowa’s charity has been misplaced. Hence the question: “have you ever done something that everyone told you was the wrong thing to do?”
Americans and social security are not widely mixed. For this and many other reasons, a huge number of people in America manage to be amazingly, hopelessly, staggeringly poor. Individual philanthropy is, on the other hand, more widespread.
But, not unlike an investment mentality, it does tend to be tied to the expectation of particular outcomes – smart kids, grateful orphans, rags-to-riches memoirs. With so many potential paths down which things to go horribly wrong in America, the ‘return’ on such philanthropic investment is fraught with moralising and risk. Man From Iowa thus seems torn between wanting his good deed recognised, and not wanting to look stupid if something ‘happens’.
The homeless couple upstairs become one of the points that Man From Iowa keeps returning to. He sits in a fog, pondering aloud on big- ticket items like poverty, morality, love, and fate. The hotel lobby hums away in the background, in a slow crescendo of clanking glasses and rolling luggage wheels. Liz and Sarah drink their beers and wonder whether he is like this often, or if he has just had way too much to drink.
LIZ: “I wouldn’t worry about it – what’s the worst that can happen? Do you feel good about it, having put the couple up in the room?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “…well, yes…”
LIZ: “Well, that’s your answer, isn’t it?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “No, no, I don’t feel good about it, because, I just feel like…they shouldn’t have been there to begin with. You know, I don’t feel like, it’s my responsibility to do it, I feel like they should have had it anyway. I just feel glad that they’re off the streets, you know, and whatever happens, I don’t care.”
This is a surprisingly left-of-centre view for an American – that homeless people “shouldn’t have been there to begin with” and that they “should have had [somewhere to live] anyway”. However, the fact that he is confused by the situation at all is symptomatic of how far right the centre line is drawn in American politics.
SARAH: “Yeah exactly, cool. Do you know the saying that virtue is its own reward?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “It is. That’s the irony of this thing here”.
At this point Man From Iowa significantly fondles something metal sewn into his blazer.
LIZ: “Is that some kind of award?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “My daughter put it there. It’s a bronze star. It’s from Vietnam.”
[Man From Iowa ponders this weightily].
MAN FROM IOWA: “But what I did to get it, it had to be attested to, you know.”
[Confusingly, the small stars seem to in fact be Bronze Service Stars, indicating three tours of Vietnam, rather than the Bronze Star Medal, which indicates the ‘merit’ or ‘valour’ that Man From Iowa is making inferences to.]
SARAH: “So do you take part in like veteran’s groups, and stuff like that?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “No, I…what do you think?”
SARAH: “I dunno, I mean it’d be good to see old friends you went through something with, but then on the other hand you’d be celebrating something you didn’t want to do to begin with.”
[Man From Iowa looks up with sudden, but still foggy, attention].
MAN FROM IOWA: “Can I tell you something man, what you’re saying, you just said something that I wanted to say for thirty, fucken, years”.
Again, Man From Iowa draws out this statement in a strangely tune- like way.
MAN FROM IOWA: “Thirty, fucken, years. But you just said it right then”.
Sarah looks flustered. He is twice her age and is either drunk or strange.
MAN FROM IOWA: “Where did you come from?”
[Again, the sing-song tone of his voice sounds a lot like the hookah smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.]
SARAH: “I’m from Australia. Actually I flew in from Los Angeles today”.
From this point on Man From Iowa’s conversation becomes fixated on Sarah. He shakes off diversionary questions – which cities does he like, for example – with silences and stares. And he grows annoyed by Liz’s occasional comments or chortles.
MAN FROM IOWA [to SARAH]: “You’re in big trouble, dude.”
Liz [alarmed]: “That’s not a nice thing to say!”
MAN FROM IOWA: “What?”
LIZ: “You’re in big trouble? It’s sounds like you’re going to kill her.”
MAN FROM IOWA: “By big trouble I meant, I have feelings here. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Man From Iowa now becomes overwhelmed by a sense of fate. He tells Sarah he’s falling in love with her and makes a series of esoteric statements like “you are just like me!” and “you are me!”, and “how did we come here?” Sarah fiddles with the multiple beers on the table. Liz sits by staring ominously.
MAN FROM IOWA: “You came all the way from Australia, and I came from all the way from Iowa.”
SARAH: “You don’t hear that every day.”
MAN FROM IOWA: “I feel really bummed about this…I mean, you know, you meet somebody you know like and…I don’t know how, I’m going to have to walk away.”
LIZ: “But, you know, you could go crazy thinking like that, thinking about all the people you pass on the street. Whether you’ll get along with them or not, and then having to keep walking anyway.”
MAN FROM IOWA [pausing, upset]: “Do you really think that I’m some kind of stupid American! Some kind of a brass, crass…”
LIZ [alarmed]: “Where did you pull that from?!”
Sarah placates the situation by paraphrasing what Liz just said. ManFrom Iowa still feels “bummed”, and converses fairly one-sidedly about fate. More minutes pass over the beers.
MAN FROM IOWA: “I could give you my phone number if you wanted to call it.”
SARAH [seeing an opportunity]: “Well, you can give me your phone number.”
MAN FROM IOWA [with sudden clarity]: “I’m not going to give you my number if you’re not going to call me. I’m not a fucken stupid idiot, you know.”
This last line is spoken with such exaggerated pronunciation that it sounds not unlike the start of a song from a musical. Eventually it becomes clear that Liz and, more importantly, Sarah, really are going upstairs and won’t be having another round of beers. Man From Iowa says that he likes a quote from a book, “The King of Cards” (or something like that – it is difficult to hear over the noise in the increasingly nocturnal hotel bar).
MAN FROM IOWA [significantly]: “He says, I’ll only ever be this far away.”
Man From Iowa uses his hands to indicate a distance of about half a foot.
MAN FROM IOWA: “You know, I’ll only ever be, this far, away.”
The meaning is probably something to do with the difference between physical distance and the other worlds in which we all move. A sort of parallel universe concept. This seems roughly to be the way Man From Iowa is presenting the quote.
SARAH: “That’s nice. What’s the significance?”
MAN FROM IOWA: “It’s a nice way to end the conversation.”
Later on Jan tells us that he reckons people in hotel bars feel lonelier than in regular bars because the prospect of going to bed, alone, is just upstairs.
A college bar in Iowa City
“I can tell you right now that Iowa City is the most interesting city in Iowa”
The Wikipedia entry for Iowa states that “the state of Iowa has many attractions”. These many attractions apparently include the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, the Iowa State Fair, and the “nation’s longest running soda jerk”.
In fact, Iowa is a state more significant for its very lack of anything significant. It is iconic as a middle of middle America state, “the heartland”, and as such is somewhat overrepresented in literature and film (eg. A Thousand Acres, Field Of Dreams), though less so than nearby Kansas. Politically, Iowa has often been used as a gauge of the American middle ground, with the Iowa Primary watched closely as an indicator of likely Presidential Election results.
Driving through in our rental car, heading somewhere “out there” (but not too far…we had to get the car back to Minneapolis) Liz and Sarah find Iowa to be dark green and densely farmed in a way that is very foreign to Australian visitors, used as they are to more of a burnt pastel view from the car. There are farm buildings every minute’s drive or more (and not the falling-over historical variety), and the road slices through person-height corn fields that feel, in the humid summer heat, not unlike driving through an armpit.
One motivation for going to Iowa was that Bill Bryson, the travel writer, started his first book with the line:
“I came from Des Moines. Someone had to…” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, Bill Bryson)
Iowa also features in Kerouac’s semi-autobiographic On the Road, published 1951. The author hitchhikes along a very similar route to Liz and Sarah, from Chicago through to Joliet, Illinois (home of the Blues Brothers jail scenes) and then to Iowa City.
“It was beautiful there. The only cars that came by were farmer-cars; they gave me suspicious looks…”
In Des Moines, after travelling through the “purple darkness” of the Iowa countryside, he awakes to sudden introspection:
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen…”
In 2008, there is only one, quite overpriced, hotel downtown in Iowa City. It is a classic American college town, hemmed by fields but well stocked with coffee, apartment buildings, and people who go to frat parties(yes, they are real!). Being downtown is crucial to Liz and Sarah’s holiday logic, in order to be be able to frequent the many student bars. They check in and the room is of course nearly identical to every other hotel room they stay in, neither offensive nor inoffensive. It looks out over a parking lot.
In the evening Liz and Sarah go to a cavernous double story bar with upliftingly banal college rock music playing, and end up drinking with two locals, Jeff and Sean. The bar is probably intended to house hundreds of partying people during peak times like football matches, but at the moment it is about 30% full. It’s perfect for dive bar drinking.
Sean has trouble holding his drinks and winds up stringing words like “Australia!”, “accent!” and ”whaaat?!” together nonsensically in with at least an hour’s worth of giggling. Liz at first assumes her accent is too hard to understand, but then figures the strange banter has more to do with him having been drinking since 3pm. She asks how drunk he is, and he replies that: “I am deeply offended. I have never been so offended in my life.” And then continues to giggle in the general direction of her boobs. Jeff urges Sean to “take it easy, aggressor!”
Jeff is a hotel chef, originally from nearby Waterloo, Iowa. His accent is so strange that Sarah thinks he is saying “Marnoo.” Of Waterloo, he says to “don’t stop for long”. It used to be an industrial town, but the industry left at the end of the 1980s:
“When it closed down was like the 1980s but it took til like the late 1990s to get to the point where it was really bad.”
Waterloo has subsequently been in decline and has been marred by problems like unemployment, abandonment, and drugs. Jeff puts it in less hands-off terms. He describes the “white people, they’ve got a country club” side of the river and the “black people – don’t turn right off the highway!” side of the river. Sarah bristles as he describes his whacky “adventures” doorknocking on the other side of the river.
Jeff is more approving of Iowa City’s merits in comparison to Waterloo. He advises that:
“I’ve been living down here for a long time. And, I like this town. I can tell you right now, that Iowa City is the most interesting city in Iowa”.
Clear Lake, Iowa
“The day the music died”
After a long day of driving, including an accidental trip through a small town that had been hit (on one side of the road only) by a tornado, we saw a spot on the road map for Clear Lake, Iowa. We picked it as a destination for the night because it had “lake” in its name. By this logic it would, hopefully, be the sort of place you could go swimming.
This assumption turned out to be correct, and very welcome given the sustained sweatiness and sitting down of the previous few days in the car. Driving into town from the Interstate, we found Clear Lake to be similar to the seaside towns of Australia except that, in a thrillingly exotic twist, it was situated on a lake. A kind of boring, circular, greenish lake, which appeared man made but on later reading turned out to have been a summering spot for the Sioux and Winnebago. It was nowhere near any coastline, but full of water and entirely serviceable for boats or swimming. This was amazing for us as Australians at the peak of the drought, but also subconsciously familiar from many American movies about summer holidays (eg. The Parent Trap, My Girl, Friday the 13th, or the classic Canadian telemovie Degrassi High: School’s Out!)
Aside from the usual Interstate highway molasses of motels and gas stations, most of the town clustered around the circular shape of the lake. We saw hundreds of cottages with private piers, then various motels and caravan parks in the streets beyond, where after, at the end of each street, the cornfields started up again without ceremony.
The smell of pig farms could be detected when the wind changed, but there was no doubt that the lake was an attractive proposition and that it would be awesome to jump off one of the little piers into the warm shining water. It was evidently a popular holiday spot but certainly not on a global, or even national, scale. The possibility that visitors from far away were not common was hinted at when the girl at the Heartland Hotel commented on Liz and Sarah’s rental car number plates: “so you guys came all the way from Illinois?!”
Liz and Sarah ended up staying two days, and did indeed jump off a pier (the motel’s) into the warm water. They took a few long swims around the perimeter of the lake, from private pier to private pier, and found that when you ducked your head under water the sound of distant power boats buzzed and the view was murky and glittery with minerals (just like Cairn Curren, an artificial lake in Victoria, which at the time was utterly without water but still remembered by Liz and Sarah from childhood).
The days were long so far north, and the sun hung over the water and glinted at long angles off the UFO- like steel water towers dotted around the lake. We felt a long way from anywhere but Iowa, and an even longer way from any kind of sea. Even stranger, we found on reading the visitor’s guide that in winter Iowans ice skate on the same lake. It’s not like England where they have hilarious 25°C “heat waves”, or Melbourne where “freezing” means it’s 5°C – much of the Midwest sits in a Humid Continental Climate zone, so it’s bona fide hot and bona fide cold depending on the season.
Out by the highway we ate at a pizza place, staffed by young stoner guys. Black and white pictures of old rock stars covered the walls. One of the guys behind the counter was recounting how a girl they work with never shuts up about her hometown in Colorado. The night before a truck driver had come in who happened to be from the same place. And she had “bailed him up for like two hours”, talking about Colorado. “He was a real sweet guy about it, you know, I really felt for him.”
Someone came to collect their pizzas and asked if the pizza place “was hiring” at the moment. “I got pizza experience”, he said. He had moved to Clear Lake recently, from Chicago. His motivation in moving was to get away from break-ins, having been broken into two times in the same week.
The guy behind the counter said that well, he wouldn’t have to worry about that sort of thing in Clear Lake. Apparently they don’t have crime in Clear Lake and people usually leave their doors unlocked. (On the other hand, Clear Lake didn’t look to be short on drugs – the “Silver Boot Motel”, for example, opposite the bar with the “foam parties”, was occupied entirely by men sitting outside their rooms on arm chairs, waiting for persons unknown). Sadly, the pizza place had fifteen casual employees already and it wasn’t all that busy. The guy with pizza experience probably wouldn’t be getting a job there.
In the visitor guide it was mentioned vaguely, and only in a small article buried among ads for restaurants and boat equipment, that Clear Lake was the setting for a big day in popular music history, “the day the music died”. A few miles out of Clear Lake was the cornfield where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper met their end in a light plane accident fifty years earlier.
This was a very interesting factoid indeed to discover towards the end of our stay, considering that we had viewed the town as a kind of anonymous America theme park. Reading about it later on the internet, we discovered also that the ill fated musicians played their last concert in Clear Lake, at the Surf Ballroom. They had then chartered a plane to fly to Fargo because the bus was too cold. The plane had crashed a few minutes after take off into the “frozen landscape” of Iowa in February.
Various parallel-universe type accounts were given of the people that almost went in the plane but didn’t – the passing decisions that ultimately determined which rockers would, or would not, end up being sung about at length by Don McLean. One guy apparently didn’t get on the plane because the $36 fare was the same amount his parents used to pay for a month’s rent, and so he felt guilty paying it.
(We also figure that if the event had occurred in summer, it would be feasible that they’d have chartered a plane because it was too hot, then crashed into a warm lake full of people swimming…such is the climate of the Midwest).
Incidentally, Buddy Holly had, apparently, wanted to do his laundry on that cold day in 1958 but didn’t get to because the Clear Lake Laundromat had been closed on the day of the crash. He was out of clean socks and underwear.
Unaware of this titbit at the time, we spent a couple of hours in the Clear Lake “Laundromat and Tanning Salon” (people must tan themselves while the laundry is going?), replenishing supplies of clean clothing and reading discarded romance novels.
So, on reflection, fate deals out very different deals indeed. In one random Iowa town Liz and Sarah got to do their laundry, eat pizza, go swimming, and not die in a light plane crash. In the very same place Buddy Holly not only missed out on the Laundromat, but met the misfortune of being freezing cold, and dying young and famous in a plane accident. Don McLean even wrote a serious, longwinded song about the whole affair:
“And as the flames were climbing high into the night, to light the sacrificial light, I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died”.
Dell Rapids, South Dakota
“I wish it would just snow at Christmas”
Dell Rapids is a small town a few miles off the Interstate in the south east corner of South Dakota, not far from Sioux (pronounced “Sue”) Falls. It was a slow, hot July day when we arrived, which made the street sign saying “no parking when more than two inches of snow” look incongruous. We stopped into a coffee shop called Jabberwocky. An old piano stood in the corner. It, and the floorboards, and the place in general, had been recently renovated. Fans whizzed but Liz still felt the backs of her knees sweating. The woman behind the counter served huge mugs of coffee with syrupy flavours in them. This woman was talkative and we learned a bit about the town from her.
Referred hereafter as Dakota Cafe Lady, she mentioned something about working in a hospital, but for that day at least she seemed to working in the coffee shop. A slightly sweaty man in jogging gear was also in the shop, sitting up the back near the piano. He seemed to have something to do with the shop’s operations, and talked about the process of renovating it. The old foundations of the building had been “four foot thick”, he said, and they couldn’t run cable through them. He also owned a kind of museum down the street (although it was closed at that point, because he was out jogging).
Dakota Cafe Lady was born in Dell Rapids, but moved to Detroit, Michigan, to work and raise a family. In the late 1980s, however, “about 20 years ago”, she and her family moved “home” to Dell Rapids. Her family had originally settled in the Dell Rapids area in the 1800s. The area had first been homesteaded (“homesteading” refers to self- sufficient pioneer farming, usually where you spend a lot of time fending off the native inhabitants and going to church), before German settlers had moved in. It was a harsh place to try settling – the nicer depiction is Little House On The Prairie (the children’s books and TV show) and even that was pretty intense. Sarah had been playing the Bob Dylan song Hollis Brown in the car when we entered South Dakota, but didn’t mention this to Dakota Cafe Lady:
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm Somewhere in the distance There’s seven new people born.
Dakota Cafe Lady’s reasons for moving back to South Dakota from Detroit basically stemmed from Detroit’s problems with economic restructuring and racial conflict. The city used to be built on the car industry, and that industry was booming in the post war period. The demise of the American car industry, however, in the 1970s and 1980s, saw Detroit characterised by huge losses of jobs and population. The city centre, particularly, became a vacuum.
Dakota Cafe Lady phrased it in less distant ways – describing Detroit as “the toilet bowl of America, it really is.” She said she had children of about the same age as Liz and Sarah. A couple of times she had taken her kids back to Detroit and they’d asked her, accusatively, “how you could have let us live in a place like this?”
Detroit was one of the many American post industrial cities to experience textbook cases of ‘white flight’ – white residents leaving the inner city and settling in suburbs away from black people and public transport. People, apparently, will move across states, and even all the way to the Dakotas with their quite frightening climates, to escape some of America’s problems. The problems are still there, of course, in fact they’re probably incrementally worse for each person that moves, but they at least become a day’s drive away.
In a not unrelated theme, Liz and Sarah were told by Dakota Cafe Lady that the kids of Dell Rapids, and possibly of South Dakota in general, are dedicated to school. Dakota Cafe Lady reported, with significance, that 96% of the local kids went on to finish college. “And not just start it, finish it.”
The mind also gets to boggling at this kind of statistic – would the same kids have finished “not just started” college if they lived in Detroit? Is there any science in the statement at all? What does it all mean, and what exactly is at stake? And what’s the worst that could happen if you stayed in Detroit? In the US the answer to the last question must be obvious, at least on some unconscious level. Because at any given moment in America you know, perhaps even can see from the window of your car, that ‘it’ is happening to someone else.
This tends to give the soothing streets of towns like Dell Rapids the hint of a scary, bubbling dream. They’re very nice – but it’s like that bit in The Labyrinth where the room looks like the girl’s own room at home, with all her favourite toys. The room is just a dream, though – she wakes up and it turns back into trash; she’s still lost in a big malevolent maze where everything keeps going wrong. It was nice for a few minutes though.
So far as kids are concerned, Dell Rapids’ biggest problem locally was holding on to their educated progeny, who tended to move away to bigger cities. Dakota Cafe Lady’s son is a stockbroker and lives in Dallas, Texas. Her daughter lives in Minneapolis. Dakota Cafe Lady talked about a local girl who had gone to Australia to study and had met an Australian, married him, and stayed there. This girl and her family came back into the conversation when Dakota Cafe Lady described how cold it got there in the winter, how much it snowed, how many clothes they had to wear. The area has a very extreme climate.
“It gets a little cold here! We have all four seasons”, she said with deliberate understatement.
“There’s a man in town here, a relative of mine, it’s his daughter that went over and met the guy in Australia, many years ago”. “Well her girls, they’re about probably your age now, but they would come when they were little, every three or four years. And they absolutely loved the snow, and they loved going sledding.”
But the snow is only fun for a few days, whereas Dell Rapids is under several feet of snow for months.
“Sometimes”, says Dakota Cafe Lady, “I wish it would just snow at Christmas, and then go away. My daughter in law, who is from Texas by way of Laos, over near Cambodia, always says ‘I don’t know how you people live up here, in this cold.’”
The town isn’t proud to admit it, but Dell Rapids is increasingly a dormitory town for Sioux Falls, with people working in the city and living in the town. They also do most of their other business in Sioux Falls. As a result, the more practical shops in Dell Rapids’ cute little main street are closing. The Jabberwocky café is an exception, said Dakota Cafe Lady, as it’s not the sort of thing you can also get in Sioux Falls. There is a cinema in town but the locals are also happy to drive an hour and a half each way to go to the drive-in cinema somewhere else. Liz commented that she thought this was “extreme”, but Dakota Cafe Lady misheard her and said, “yeah – it’s pretty neat.”
Dakota Cafe Lady also misheard when Liz said what her thesis was about. Liz said “it’s about the price of houses”, but Dakota Cafe Lady heard “the price of gas”, and went on to talk about that. “Well I mean it’s up to nearly five dollars a gallon in some places.” (To which there was no rational reply, so Liz just nodded along).
Dell Rapids may be losing the sort of shops “where you can buy a pair of socks” but the population is increasing. There are even “lofts” in old buildings on the main street. Many of the local buildings are made of distinctive pink quartz. The coffee shop people suggested that we should check out some of these buildings, and the rapids. They then tried to make recommendations for where we might want to go next and for things to see further up the road.
The locals thought the Mall of America (the world’s biggest shopping centre, in Minnesota) should be on the agenda. They also strongly recommended the Redlin Art Centre in Watertown, to the north. Neither of us had ever heard of this Redlin person, but didn’t let on because that would seem almost as socially jarring as asking what had happened to the Sioux in Sioux Falls. Watertown and its mysterious Redlin Art Centre was a couple of hours up the long, flat Interstate to the north and, in the rhythm of long distance driving to which one quickly adapts, seemed about dinner time away.
Watertown, South Dakota
“Una historia larga”
Watertown was flat, and the late night sky was a dusty pink. It felt very north and the sky definitely seemed bigger (Sarah had wondered whether “Big Sky Country” was technically possible). In the summer it stayed half light until around ten at night. The “Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant” was tucked into a line of small shops on the side of one of those big roads on the outskirts of towns, lined with hotels and tyre stores and chain restaurants serving variations on the theme of meat, potatoes and ice cream. A sign said you got a free drink or entrée if it was your birthday (you had to show ID for this). An array of piñatas and other Mexican doo-dads hung from the walls and roofs.
Nearby customers included a couple looking as though they were joylessly celebrating a birthday or anniversary, and a stoic man in cowboy type clothes eating by himself. Liz and Sarah were served by a quiet but smiling Mexican American man, probably in his late 30s (to be referred to now as Watertown Restaurant Man). Somewhat cautiously, Watertown Restaurant Man struck up a conversation with Liz and Sarah in Spanish, which later slipped back into English.
It turned out that Watertown Restaurant Man had been living in Watertown, South Dakota, for about eight years. How he came to such a flat, cold, out-there place with hardly any Hispanic people in it was “a long story” (una historia larga). He said this with a tired expression. Watertown Restaurant Man presumably didn’t tell Liz and Sarah the full story, but geographically speaking he was originally from Guadalajara, Mexico (hence the restaurant’s name). He had grown up there then moved to Tijuana, on the border of Mexico and California, to live with his mother. Back in those days Tijuana was not, apparently, as dangerous or as desperate a place as it is now.
Watertown Restaurant Man had been back to Tijuana since and described thousands of people all waiting, as in a holding pen, for the chance to get into the United States. Not all or even most of them were Mexican – “a lot of people come from down south Mexico, Central America, it’s not just Mexican people – Philippines, Chinese people”. Many waited until they had the money to buy their way across the border or buy false identification. Recently a group of Chinese workers had been caught travelling on forged Mexican passports. Watertown Restaurant Man reported that it cost about $10,000 to bribe an official.
Of Tijuana, said Watertown Restaurant Man, “when I lived there it was a long time ago and it was not bad. It was so beautiful. And then I moved back to Guadalajara”. Later, he moved to Los Angeles. “It’s so smoky. You have to go to Hollywood to the mountains where you can see the city”. The divisions of cities like Los Angeles were discussed – “a lot of people are so poor, but there are a lot of rich people. If you can see where the rich people live, you see the difference”. In Hollywood and Beverly Hills, however, said Watertown Restaurant Man, “people like me” are soon spotted and moved along. He later moved to Seattle, which he described fondly. It was in Seattle that he met someone who was setting up a Mexican restaurant in far-off Watertown, South Dakota, and a couple of other places. So, on the promise of a job managing a restaurant, Watertown Restaurant Man had moved.
Not many Mexicans lived in South Dakota but many local people had second homes in parts of Mexico, or in Florida or Arizona. The reason for this was the local winters. In winter in Watertown, the snow sometimes piled up four or five feet – Watertown Restaurant Man pointed to a line outside in the warm car park simmering in the dark, at where the snow usually sat. It sounded relentless, but the real problem was not the snow but more the cold itself – “you can cope with the snow, but the cold. Sometimes it’s like 40 below and you have to go and go outside”. As a result, said WRM, “you know, the first day of winter here a lot of people leave”.
These people are mainly old, with a fondness for the area but no patience left for the harsh winters. They are known as “snow birders”. There is even an airline designed for them, flying from Minneapolis to sunny destinations down south. “We have a lot of old people here, in winter they just go down. They have like another house or something. And they go and stay there three or four months, and when the winter’s over, they come back”.
It soon becomes obvious that Watertown Restaurant Man is keeping the restaurant open just for Liz and Sarah. He was, interestingly, the only person in the Midwest not to ask them why they had come to a place like Watertown. A more typical exchange would go “so where are you from?”, “Australia”, then “so what are you doing here?” Possibly Watertown Restaurant Man still saw the foreignness of the place. Or, as more of an outsider, he understood the power America has to push and pull people. He didn’t think of it as benign. Watertown Restaurant Man climbed up into his huge truck and drove off down the huge flat street lined with signs like “choose life – your mother did”. Probably most of the year he has to climb through several feet of snow to get into the truck.
The next day Liz and Sarah awoke to the sounds of “Little House on the Prairie” reruns and the incessant bang of someone trying to knock their way into the hotel room. They checked out the “Redlin Art Centre” recommended by the people in Dell Rapids. It turns out to be a huge mansion but kind of looks like a fancier Interstate motel, filled with paintings by Terry Redlin.
The paintings follow the themes of Americana, nostalgia, hunting, and wildlife (of the hunted variety). Everything literally glows with unabashed nostalgia for some point in the collectively imagined past, somewhere between whenever Native Americans were ousted and before the advent of ‘urban’ problems. Perhaps the 19th century?
Terry Redlin has several times been voted America’s most popular artist. The centre is very well attended. For Australians, the experience of viewing all three levels of paintings was at first soothing but ultimately fatiguing in its unabashed and uncomplicated escapism – like spending too long at Disneyland.
Perhaps this would be less so if you had grown up with the pictures. On leaving, Sarah announces that “that was by far the most kitsch place I have ever been”.
Fargo, North Dakota
“Well not really hot, but like bar hot”
You ask “what is there to do in North Dakota?” And we answer: “What ISN’T there to do? The options are as diverse as the imagination. (North Dakota tourism website, http://www.ndtourism.com)
Liz and Sarah had the serendipitous travel fortune to meet some very friendly locals in “Rooter’s Bar”, in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.
(This was obviously the sort of town where the term “root” is used freely and innocently.) Someone had requested Meatloaf on the jukebox and Liz and Sarah couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like maybe the same song had started playing repeatedly. Sarah, wanting to put her own songs on, went to investigate.
It turned out that this was a game that two particular local guys played: The Meatloaf Jukebox Game. (We’ll call these locals the Fargo Dudes from here on because Liz and Sarah can only remember of the introductions that one was named something like Alex and one was named something like Dave.) The theory behind the Meatloaf Jukebox Game is that Meatloaf songs are so epically long that people tend to forget whether they’ve heard a part already. The idea is to wait and see if and when anyone will notice.
“Won’t do That”, for example, is about fifteen minutes long, so long that the jukebox even charges two song credits to play it. The Meatloaf Jukebox Game requires a stock of patience and jukebox credits. It’s not clear whether the ultimate aim is to meet people or just to mess with people’s heads, but in this particular case the end result, for the Fargo Dudes, is meeting Liz and Sarah in Rooters Bar.
As a sub cultural category, these Fargo Dudes have no real equivalent in Australia – admittedly, perhaps it is true that similar people do exist, but Liz and Sarah have never had cause to meet them. They are, Sarah reckons, “from another planet altogether”. The Fargo Dudes are both good looking and fit. They are educated – they both have college degrees and one once studied at the London School of Economics. And yet they are both war veterans, having served in Kosovo and Iraq. They are also serious stoners, smoking marijuana “for breakfast, even.” (Although, as is pointed out, it is actually kind of hard to serve in the US military overseas and not smoke a lot of marijuana.)
The combination to us as Australians, or perhaps just as Melbournians, seemed odd. Joining the military is a big deal – we personally know only one person who has done it, and even that was just the reserves. The Fargo Dudes seem to somehow fit the category of “hipster war veterans”. They are also proud of their liberal credentials and left of (American) centre politics, and have much critical comment on offer for the local religious and social conservatism. Yet they still say offhandedly American things about the perils of social welfare, and about how the cold “keeps the riff raff out.” They are obsessed with tennis and their only knowledge of “Mehl-bourne” concerns the Australian Open.
The Fargo Dudes also happen to live in a far-flung city that’s really the size of a small town, in a place that is completely frozen over for most of the year. The local job market consists of picking sugar beets, menial labour including “day labour”, signing up for the military (Liz and Sarah had passed by the recruiting station earlier), or moving somewhere else. And yet at the same time Fargo is an appealing, popular place with a gentrified downtown, with lots of middle class affluent hippy things like coffee shops and bicycles and lofts. The view out from Fargo to the west is immensely flat and has a strange glow to it. The sun stays up for hours over the plains. It feels very much like the edge of something, yet that something is still quite a long while away. So, all up, the place and the people in it don’t fit to any easy model.
Both Fargo Dudes are in their late 20s, at a guess, and are vaguely Germanic looking. They are very friendly and talkative, and say things like “mad” (as in “mad keen”) and “oh yaaaah” frequently. They don’t come across as sleazy, or ‘interested’ in the bar sense of the word, but they do want to buy all Liz and Sarah’s drinks – again, repeated refusals and offers of money are knocked back. They seem to be concerned with proving just how friendly people are in the Midwest, and in Fargo in particular:
“You’re in the Midwest. That’s just the hospitality around here, it’s the triple offer. We’re very friendly, we’re so generous it’s unbelievable.”
And even further:
“Enjoy your drink and stop making us feel awkward for buying it.”
One of the Fargo Dudes bears a particular resemblance to character ‘Stiffler’ from the American Pie movies. Apparently the actor in question (Sean William Scott) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Minnesota. In fact, everyone around this area looks pretty similar, and quite a lot like Stiffler. They are all sort of blonde, sort of tanned, and have big, square jaws. This is probably because they are all, if not actually related, then of a very similar background. Certainly everyone is white. The Fargo Dudes are actually technically from Minnesota. Moorhead, Minnesota, is just across the Red River that runs alongside Fargo and the state line, kind of like an Albury-Wodonga of the north. (You may remember the name Moorhead if you have watched The Big Lebowski (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Lebowski) – more on this below.)
Liz and Sarah only had two real reasons to go to Fargo. One was the Cohen Brothers’ film, Fargo. The other was a recent article in National Geographic entitled “The Emptied Prairie: North Dakota ghost towns speak of an irreversible decline.” This article showcased an epically bleak series of photos of abandoned houses and buildings. According to the article, everyone has been leaving these towns because the region is too cold and the living is hard (and yes, the North Dakota government did try to be renamed to just Dakota, so it didn’t sound as cold). One of the buildings featured in the photographs is a crumbled, slushy old school room, with the last lesson ever taught there still up on the blackboard. It says:
“Write the other Word for CRY, AFTER, BAD, ALWAYS, GOOD-BY, LOST, and DARK.”
(You can read the National Geographic article, by Charles Bowden, and see the photographs, by Eugene Richards, here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/ 01/emptied-north-dakota/bowden-text)
The pathos of this was considered by Liz and Sarah to be compelling reason enough to visit North Dakota.
Unfortunately, most of the film Fargo was neither filmed nor (except for a few scenes) set in the city of Fargo. Most of the film’s action in fact takes place in Brainerd, Minnesota, which is where the big statue of Paul Bunyan (the guy with the axe) is as well. The Cohen brothers figured “Brainerd” wouldn’t be as good a name for a film, and they also figured “Fargo” could have a possible double meaning.
As to the ghost towns from the National Geographic article, another unfortunate fact is that to get to the sorts of middle of nowhere places that become ghost towns, you necessarily have to be a long way from anything else and on the way to nowhere else in particular. These ghost towns are hundreds of miles away, even within North Dakota itself. Fargo is the most populous part of North Dakota, and to get to any of the ghost towns would have been more days of driving.
The Fargo Dudes have some comment on each of these reasons for visiting Fargo – the Fargo movie and the ghost town article. Firstly, they draw attention to another, more obscure, connection of the area to Cohen brother films. In The Big Lebowski, the character of Bunny Lebowski is from Moorhead, Minnesota. In the movie they show a photo of her in a cheerleader outfit, and according to the Fargo Dudes the uniform colours are correct. This seems to be a source of some pride in Moorhead. With regards the second reason, the National Geographic ghost towns, one of the Fargo Dudes said that there had been some local backlash against the article. The locals reckoned that the article misrepresented the degree of abandonment from the towns. They weren’t ghost towns – at least, like, twenty people still lived there.
Having listened to the last of Meatloaf and his lengthy ballads, Liz and Sarah mention another excessively long song, “American Pie”, and the Fargo Dudes asked if Liz and Sarah know Fargo’s connection to it. By this stage Liz and Sarah knew the Clear Lake, Iowa, connection but hadn’t cottoned on to the Fargo connection. On the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died, the trio were on their way to Fargo to play another concert. The airport, actually, was in Fargo but the concert was to be in Moorhead, Minnesota (which again, is directly across the Red River from Fargo). One of the Fargo Dude’s mothers had tickets for the concert, and had waited for the stars to arrive. Of course they never did arrive, which would have made for a strange, cold evening.
Liz and Sarah learn that in Fargo it’s so cold in winter that people have devices with which to start up their car’s heating from afar. The idea is they start the car twenty minutes or so before they have to leave somewhere, then they run really fast from one warm place to the other, through the face-freezingly cold dark air. You can also “plug” your car in, somehow. But Liz and Sarah couldn’t find any evidence of these power plugs so couldn’t determine if this story was true or not and maybe it was a Drop Bear kind of story.
In the downtown area the buildings are connected by a climate controlled ‘sky walk’ to save the trauma of having to go outside during office hours. Which in winter would be about –20°C (!) so the sky walk concept seemed fair enough. All of this was in contrast to the Fargo of July, which was balmy and warm and perfect for riding around (perhaps drunk, as were several locals) on a bicycle.
Smoking in bars had only very recently been banned in North Dakota. The locals weren’t sure how the new laws would impact on people’s habits in the winter. Whereas in Australia, people (at least, dedicated smokers) can stand outside or in the ‘beer garden’ to smoke, doing anything outside in winter isn’t an option in North Dakota. The Fargo Dudes’ best guess was that maybe dedicated smokers would take to smoking in their cars.
The Fargo Dudes said that when smoking in bars was first banned in Minnesota, a loophole had meant that smoking was still allowed when part of a “theatre performance.” The idea was presumably that if you were playing a hardened detective you could still light up a fag, if the part called for it, in aid of setting the scene. In the brief time before this loophole was closed, all the bars suddenly set up “improv theatre nights”, where a stage was set up to allow any volunteers to do some “improvisational theatre” pieces. That way everyone got to smoke and say it was part of a theatre performance. This strange loophole in the smoking laws had by now, sadly, been closed off.
One of the Fargo Dudes (we’ll call him Fargo Dude 1) has an economics degree. He once studied at London School of Economics but says that he spent most of the time in London drinking. He also found the personal space in London much too small for someone from the Dakotas. Fargo Dude 1 and Liz have several discussions wherein it becomes obvious that he has a pretty unbreakable opinion of the free market. An attempted discussion about Switzerland (for example) doesn’t get far before he says simply “but they don’t believe in the free market, do they.” Liz also commented that “there couldn’t be too many jobs around” (for economists, at least – Fargo is pretty small), and Fargo Dude 1 quickly points out that there are “always jobs” and that any beggars seen around Fargo are opportunists who leave town when winter arrives.
Fargo Dude 1 is employed, from memory, for a friend’s website (or something like that). By contrast the second Fargo Dude (we’ll call him…Fargo Dude 2) doesn’t usually work and generally relies on a $450 per week military pension. Fargo Dude 1, the free market proponent, pointedly tells Liz to ask Fargo Dude 2 “where he gets his money from.” He then listens on disapprovingly when Fargo Dude 2 explains that he gets $450 a week for being a disabled veteran. Fargo Dude 1 doesn’t consider it much to be proud of, but Fargo Dude 2 is unfussed. Liz thinks (but doesn’t say) that it sounds fair enough, if you discount the fact that he possibly had to do something immoral (admittedly, on someone else’s request) to qualify and that America is so lacking in any other type of social security.
There seem to be a range of other menial jobs in the area that the Fargo Dudes and their various brothers and acquaintances have worked at various times. They have something called “day labour”, where unemployed people, or anyone, can turn up for a day’s work paid cash in hand. And there is factory work available in some kind of chemical plant, for example, which one Guy’s brother only lasted a week at before he “quit because I missed the alarm and I knew I’d get fired anyway.” Picking sugar beets is another way to earn money. In season, you can get itinerant work where, until late into the night, you drive tractors around and chuck sugar beets into the back.
Perhaps because of the local graduate job market, both Fargo Dudes signed up for the military. They’re both veterans, although Fargo Dude 2 seems to be more obviously a veteran in that he mentions serving in both Kosovo and Iraq. He fondly recalls drinking coffee with the locals in Kosovo, but doesn’t say much about Iraq (and Liz and Sarah don’t really care to ask). During basic military training you get one phone call a week, and at one point when Fargo Dude 2 called his parents he just got an answering machine message saying they’d moved to Mexico. He laughs ruefully at the memory, which Fargo Dude 1 seems to mention to him regularly. His parents don’t sound callous, but they do seem to have a fairly relaxed attitude to life. They didn’t see that it would be worth troubling their son to let him know they had moved to Mexico. He would, they reasoned, have figured it out eventually.
On the subject of relaxed attitudes, the Fargo Dudes have a disarmingly relaxed attitude to the military and, by association, to war. To them it is not thought of, it is not politicised, it is not debated or given any weight. It’s just something you do. They talk about serving overseas in the same way you’d talk about having worked overseas with a temping agency – only remembering inconsequential things, like the coffee. You could just as easily picture them covered in baggy combat gear, again probably stoned and making jokes about Meatloaf, squinting good naturedly into a foreign sun and (less good naturedly) shooting at people.
They and Liz and Sarah stay at Rooter’s Bar for another hour or so, drinking various brands of beer from Minnesota. At some point “Rooters Bar” is left behind in favour of trying to find “Dempsey’s”, an imitation Irish bar somewhere else along the main drag. The Fargo Dudes have amassed by cell phone a few brothers and friends to meet up with there, including Fargo Dude 2’s brother who is several times referred to fondly as “the biggest hippy you’ll ever meet.” Fargo Dude 2 seems to have a lot of brothers, some of them half-brothers.
Between bars, the main drag of Fargo is dark and mainly deserted. There are empty tents and food carts (mainly sausages) everywhere, set up for a craft fair that begins the next day. “Dempsey’s” is eventually located and Liz and Sarah meet two of Fargo Dude 2’s brothers, one of whom looks even more like Sean William Scott, and the other of whom is the famous “hippy” brother. There is also a large, hairy man wearing a hat with string hanging from it. The bar is dark and crowded and everyone is sitting around a booth drinking shots and beers, bought to the table by a waitress (table service seems to be the norm in some American bars). In the background a guy with a booming radio voice reads out raffle ticket numbers over a loudspeaker.
At “Dempsey’s”, more shots and beers are consumed at the expense of the locals. Fargo Dude 2 has been cheerfully staring at Sarah with increasing regularity and purpose throughout the night. Eventually he is fondling her knee and grinning with his tanned, square, Sean William Scott jaw. Both parties are wearing beer goggles. Much of the conversation descends into bar- jabber as the brothers and friends remember drunk times past, and order more drinks.
“…but the funniest thing is the end of the night, the very last call, I got to witness my brother puke into a pint class.”
“I filled the whole cup and stopped. Just stopped.”
“Hey, last time I recall, he got his ass beat in like four times in one night. By me. That’s the last time we were out drinking, as I recall”.
“I’m sorry, we’re all good friends. We’re loud, we yell, we’re Americans. There’s nothing meant’n harm in it.”
Across the booth, one of Fargo Dude 2’s various brothers – Fargo Dude 3, or the “biggest hippy you’ll ever meet” – has a thick American accent that makes him always sound sarcastic and a bit like Pauly Shore. He also seems to be much more sober than anyone else and is fairly underwhelmed by the proceedings. Fargo Dude 3 mentions the effort of having “biked” (a verb: meaning, “rode his bike”) all the way from “the ridge” to come to the bar, and makes repeated inquiries as to where people will be going next because he’s concerned that everyone else is too drunk to have a sensible plan for staying drunk:
“It’s not that I’m deathly afraid of not having anything to drink, it’s just that I find it really irritating.”
Until very recently Fargo Dude 3 had long, dreadlocked hair. But alas, someone in a bar had spectacularly smashed a guitar (actually, not just any guitar – Fargo Dude 3’s own guitar) over his head in a fight. This had caused so much damage that Fargo Dude 3 had had to have his hair cut off. The guitar, too, was ruined. He didn’t seem too bitter about the experience but it’s possible he was sick of talking about it. He said that since the attack, local people had treated him vastly differently. Looking like a hippy had meant the decent local folk had been suspicious, scornful, even rude. All this had changed now that he inadvertently started looking just like them.
One of the Fargo Dudes boasts of the locals:
“Seriously, I’ve lived around the world, I came back here and you know why. The best people are here. They’re very friendly, they’re all good people. If I talk to any of these people in here, they’ll probably offer to buy me a drink.”
However, the experiences of Fargo Dude 3 would seem to on some level suggest that Fargo isn’t altogether a completely friendly place. Most people will buy you a drink, but there is also a risk (however small) that they might smash your guitar over your head in a bar so you have to cut your hair off, and later on be nice to you because you don’t look like a hippy. The Fargo Dudes are apparently untroubled by this possibility – unfriendly bars are where people knife or shoot you, not just those where you might get into a fight with a guitar. In any case, Liz and Sarah agree that everyone in Fargo has been very generous to them and yes, bought most of their drinks.
In addition to being veterans, both Fargo Dude 1 and Fargo Dude 2 (and all their friends, probably) are also stoners. This is not immediately obvious – they don’t necessarily look or sound the part, but at some point one asks Liz if she “smokes weed.” Liz says she is reluctant to say yes or no because she understands that some Americans (including the law) feel quite strongly about the matter.
FARGO DUDE: “So you don’t smoke weed?”
He sounds disappointed – offended, even.
FARGO DUDE: “Fuck you. You know, I smoke weed all day every day. I smoke when I get up, I smoke when I go to bed, I smoke all the time.”
LIZ (surprised): “Really? So, you wouldn’t think less of me that I smoke pot?”
FARGO DUDE: “No, I think much higher of you, because uh, I smoke marijuana every day. Every day.”
Given that the bar is beginning to show signs of closing, one Fargo Dude now proposes that the night (presumably like every other night in Fargo) should conclude by smoking marijuana:
“Seriously, like now, the whole thing is like the bar is closing, I’m gonna go home to bed, you’re gonna go back to Australia, but I’m gonna feel bad if I don’t give you guys a taste of American weed.”
A discussion begins about who will “coordinate” the “weed” and who has the pipe. Into which the Fargo Dude 2 brother with the Pauly Shore accent interrupts soberly –“let’s, ah, not end the evening by getting arrested, shall we.” Liz and Sarah ask what the odds of getting arrested and deported for smoking pot are.
FARGO DUDE: “Actually it’s kind of bullshit. In this city [Fargo, North Dakota], you get caught with a small amount of pot, you go to jail. Across the border [in Minnesota], the maximum fine is $80. They’re pretty religious here. A hundred years ago, North Dakota was a dry state, and Minnesota was a liquor state. North Dakota is still a religious state. There’s a ban on liquor stores on Sunday – it’s God’s day.”
God’s day does not sound like a popular concept for the Fargo Dudes. “Jay dated a Catholic once, she was a huge bitch.” Thus, Liz and Sarah seem to have located the only non-religious, drug smoking people in the entire state.
FARGO DUDE: “Oh yeah, you’re, uh, interacting with a criminal element here.”
Liz asks how religious the area is, and whether Fargo Dude 1 is religious. She notes all the pro-life billboards spotted on the Interstates – “choose life, your Mom did”, for example.
FARGO DUDE 1: “I would say that probably like 95% of those around here are active into it. I was like, a confirmed Lutheran back when I was 16. There are more Lutherans here than any other state.”
As a seemingly related aside, Fargo Dude 1 then mentions that:
“St Paul [Minnesota] has more lesbians than any other city in America. Not per capita, just the actual number of lesbians.”
But is Fargo Dude 1 himself religious? Not by the sounds of it. Liz mentions being atheist and Fargo Dude 1 picks up on this with far more interest than Liz thinks the idea warrants. But being atheist is probably a more personally differentiating, exciting thing in a country where pretty much everyone else runs a religious platform.
FARGO DUDE: “Why didn’t you tell me you were atheist a long time before? What’s sad is that most Americans are religious – how fucked up is that.”
OTHER FARGO DUDE: “That religion, it’s mad bullshit, no worries. No shit – seriously, you made it up, I don’t care if you’re the fucken Pope, you still made it up.”
LIZ: “Are you in the minority here?”
FARGO DUDE: “Yeah, but I got some good guys who’ll like roll along with me, you know. I mean, Dave, he’ll be like – when people fuck with me, ‘hey, I’m a disabled veteran, fuck you. The government gives me money, ‘cause you fucked me up. So I’ll say what I want.’”.
One Fargo Dude calls out gleefully to the other across the table. “Dave – cheers to your religious freedom.”
FARGO DUDE 2 [suspiciously]: “Are they religious bastards?”
FARGO DUDE 1: “They’re not religious bastards.”
FARGO DUDE 2: “The good thing about religious people, though, is you can yell at them all day. They’ll never throw a punch, ‘cause they’re religious.”
LIZ: “They’re powerful people though, aren’t they?”
DUDE: “Not in the northern states, no. In the southern states, yes, but that’s because the southern states have poor religion. I come back to education”.
With regards education, Liz mentions that the US has even had trouble getting evolution on the school science curriculum.
FARGO DUDE [defensively]: “But that was in Kansas. We don’t live in Kansas. It’s like different countries in Europe, but we put money in the collective pot. You differentiate between states and you start getting people pissed off. There’s a big difference – don’t call a North Dakotan a South Dakotan. They’ll be mad pissed”.
Fargo Dude is not actually from North Dakota, but from Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the river. “I’m a Minnesotan and mad proud of it. I think it’s a great state. Minnesota is the second most liberal state in the Union”. Fargo Dude seems to rank states in terms of how ‘liberal’ (liberal in the American sense, generally meaning more left wing) they are. He calls out across the table again. “Hey Dave – Hutch. I’m mad proud to be from Minnesota”.
FARGO DUDE 2: “California, they’re so liberal. I lived in California for a while and got a medical marijuana licence. I could go to the bar and like, buy marijuana with it. It’s the only state like it. California has one third of America’s GDP. The rest of America would say, you can’t do that any more, but California would say, piss off – you can’t stop me”.
At this point Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” starts playing. The bar is definitely closing – the guy who was previously calling out raffle ticket numbers over a loudspeaker is now urging everyone to leave. The Fargo Dudes reckon that “every American in this bar knows this song. Every American”. Fargo Dude 3, the sober brother, starts up again about what the plan is, and whether they should buy ‘off sales’.
FARGO DUDE 3: “Again, I’m drinking water here, that’s why I’m tryin to figure out what we’re doing, you know. I guess, what I’m getting out in the open here is, should we think about off sales. But otherwise, if you guys wanna cruise to your place and immediately pass out, I’ll just cruise on”.
Despite his efforts there is no real plan. Liz and Sarah have to get up in just a few hours and drive to Minneapolis-St Paul (“the cities”, four hours away) for a flight. So realistically they aren’t going anywhere but home to bed. But vague conversations about smoking and riding bicycles continue to whirl around. The Fargo Dudes have been to a baseball game earlier, on their bicycles. It seems like everyone else other than Liz and Sarah is intent on keeping drinking, or smoking, at an undetermined location in the Fargo- Moorhead area, to which they will get to on bicycles. At this point, preparing to leave, Liz and Sarah both go to the bathroom. In so doing they leave, ingeniously but totally unintentionally, the long forgotten tape recorder on the table.
This forgotten section of the tape, when listened back to a few weeks later, immediately reveals that all was not as it seemed in Fargo. Admittedly it was a long night and Liz and Sarah weren’t in the best position to remember it accurately, anyway, but as soon as they’re out of ear shot (the tape reveals) the Fargo Dudes and their hangers-on in the booth at Dempsey’s start talking about Liz and Sarah and how they think the night is going to pan out. This plan, it turns out, comes as a bit of a surprise to the hangers-on as well. In fact, nobody knows ‘the plan’ except for one person (Fargo Dude 2).
So, the two Fargo Dudes had been drinking together at the ball game, then gone to Rooter’s Bar and inadvertently met Liz and Sarah via the Meatloaf game. This presented the challenge of how to keep the hospitality rolling. Whereas Liz and Sarah were under the impression that the Fargo Dudes just happened to be meeting up with their friends at another bar, it seems the DUDEs had actually texted them all to amass further friends to keep drinking with. The posse had dutifully ridden their bikes to Dempsey’s, only to now find out that the goal was not general partying, but to facilitate Fargo Dudes 1 and 2 in getting laid.
FARGO DUDE 2 [crowing]: “So, guess whomayormaynotbegoingtoa hotel room with one of two girls?”
FARGO DUDE 3 [confused and annoyed]: “Going to where?”
FARGO DUDE 2: “Going to a hotel room with one of two girls!”
FARGO DUDE DUDE3 [slowly, more annoyed]: “So I may not be hanging out with you, after this, then huh?”
FARGO DUDE2 [Excited tone] “You may or may not, but no, it’s time for me to get laid in a hotel room by some really hot Au-ssie girls. Well, not really hot – like, bar hot”.
FARGO DUDE3: “Well, what about this idiot. What’s happening to James?”
[James is the brother that looks even more like Stiffler].
FARGO DUDE 2: “I don’t really know. All I know is that Al is trying to go back to the hotel room with a girl to get laid, and I want to help him”.
FARGO DUDE 1: “No, I’m really not”.
FARGO DUDE 2: “He lies!!”
FARGO DUDE 1: “Oh alright, I wanna get laid”.
FARGO DUDE 3: “And you’re gonna help him – that means you’re gonna go get laid too?”
FARGO DUDE2: “Well I’m playing wing man, right!?”
FARGO DUDE 1 [resigned]: “I’m just saying. Nobody’s gonna talk to them?”
FARGO DUDE 2: “Well, now you’re on the level!”
FARGO DUDE 2 [proud of the ingenuity of the plan of how he got everyone to come to the bar]: “We were like, me and Al, we’re all together at a ball game, we’re all drunk and we’re like, we’re like, who the fuck will come and hang out with us!! Ty will come!”
FARGO DUDE 3 [annoyed]: “But I biked all the way from the Ridge!”
FARGO DUDE 2 [soothingly]: “But Ty, you got Jimmy Jam, you got Alex…”
FARGO DUDE3: “So basically I have to walk home, and you guys are going to a hotel, and I’m gonna walk home”.
FARGO DUDE 1: “You know what, you come to the hotel, I’ll give you the double jerk-off and bullseye.”
This last line probably means something immeasurably disgusting, but isn’t discussed any further because Liz and Sarah return to the table. The plan is again discussed, but in less revolting terms. Everyone disperses into the Fargo, North Dakota night.
Although the Fargo Dudes walk a few blocks with Liz and Sarah and politely express a wish that they had had a good time in Fargo and isn’t it a pity that they hadn’t gotten to “smoke some American weed”, no- one goes to a hotel room with either one of two girls. The Fargo Dudes keep walking toward the Red River and to Moorhead. God only knows what their conversation turns to when they get out of earshot.
The two “Auh-ssies” in question sleep blearily in a hotel room looking far out over the American west. The view is not of anything in particular, just a horizon and some brown buildings. But it also manages to frame a vague sense of direction and scale, just the idea of The West – something so huge you’ve been driving through it for days, but still haven’t gotten to.
Liz and Sarah don’t figure out that they’re ‘bar hot’ until they listen back to the tape several weeks later.