The Kind of Stuff That Happens When You Leave New York (Part Two)
In case there was any question, let me tell you a secret:
Minnesota is definitely in the Midwest.
It's apparent not just from the lay of the land, which is flat, I mean flat, and green, except for the parts of it which are a toasty shade of golden brown, all of which you can see when you fly in. But it's also the nature of the people. For one thing, there's the deadpan sense of humor, where you can't tell if they're joking or if they're just funny and they don't entirely know it. Especially when they talk to each other about what's funny about Minnesotans.
"Well there's the fact that we always have to have a hot dish. That's what we call them, 'hot dishes.' It's that need to feed people."
"Oh, yah, I was wondering if you were going to make something for us."
"Well, we have some chips and salsa and some pizza we can heat up."
"And then there's the thing about Jell-o."
"Oh yah, different kinds of Jell-o for different occasions."
"Yah, green for funerals."
And did I mention the accent?
"Yah, when Fargo came out I kept sayin', 'Oh we do not talk like that!' But then I realized that I do say it, I say it, 'What a hoot!' I say it all the time!"
"Oh, yah. Or 'That was a hoot!'"
Then there's the part of Midwestern nature described to us as "Minnesota Nice."
"So, where you ladies from?"
"Wow, all the way out from New York! Isn't that a hoot?"
Yes, despite all we'd heard about being thought of as liberal East Coast devilspawn in the heartland, people always seemed excited to meet us. Granted, we had the glamour of film on our side, apparent from our wrinkled clothes, eyes hollowed from staring at the double-yellow line down the center of the interstate, and the midsize rental car we splurged on once we realized we'd need it to fit our eight pieces of luggage, including a camera, two huge cases of equipment -- cases that were packed and repacked, placing the maffer clamps in with the shampoo and the gaffers tape under pajamas, once we found that one could not be taken on the plane because it exceeded the 75-lb limit -- and a light shaped like a suitcase. This light, in particular, seemed to get elaborately searched and swabbed at the each of the airports (there were four) we visited in our eight states in five days extravaganza.
But even before we got to the purpose of our trip, people were friendly. They just were. Plus, you forget that America is a nation of movers and transplants, which was always driven home by the inevitable,
"New York? I've got a cousin in Poughkeepsie/Great Neck/White Plains. So what are you doing out here?"
A ten-second conversation would then become a fifteen-minute one, so we tried to save it for when the bill arrived at the restaurant, or during the shuttle bus ride, or pretty much any time other than when we were checking into a hotel at 2 am. Although at any other hour, the reception we got from Pat who works all-night at the front desk of the Fargo, North Dakota Super 8 -- which is also definitely in the Midwest -- would have been welcome.
"Where you girls coming from?"
"Wow, long drive, eh? You must be tired."
"And what're you doing here in Fargo?"
"Oh, we're just spending the night here on our way to Bismarck."
"What are you doing in Bismarck?"
"Working on a documentary."
"Oh, really, what about?"
We'd been driving since about 9, when we'd finished dinner back at The Jack Shack (no, we don't know where the name comes from) -- or rather I'd finished my fried chicken and Lauren, who you may or may not remember is vegan, left most of her fried mushrooms behind (the mushrooms popped easily out of their no-doubt-fried-indiscriminately-with-all-sorts-of-meat-products batter, but this, she concluded, was because they had been dipped in mayonnaise). Driving, that is, aside from the two times we'd been pulled over for speeding, causing Lauren to proclaim, "The Midwest sucks." We'd actually communicated with Pat en route a couple of times, once to ask if it was okay that we'd be arriving late -- "Oh, I'll be here all night" -- and the second time when we got lost en route.
"We're at the Kwik Shop and there is a Super 8 down the road --"
"Are you at the one on Main Ave?"
"Then you're in Moorhead. You're almost here. But you're still in Minnesota."
Little could we have anticipated from these conversations, delivered in flat Midwestern monotone, the extraordinarily friendly and pear-shaped individual with the boyish black toupee who would enthusiastically drag our luggage down the hallway with the moldy-smelling carpet to our room. Another thing that goes in the "the Midwest sucks" category: not all Super 8s are created equal. And we were just putting all of our batteries up to charge into the two outlets in the room that actually worked out of the six that were there when the phone rang.
"Hi, this is Pat at reception. Everything working out all right for you there?"
"Yes, everything's fine."
"Okay...I just wanted to call and make sure you girls were fine."
"Thanks. Thanks so much."
The highlight of our trip to North Dakota was not, in fact, the scenery -- a great disappointment to those of us who have visited South Dakota. North Dakota doesn't have the glorious vistas of the Badlands, the monumental absurdity of Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace, or even the tourism for the sake of tourism value of Wall Drug. What it has is no downtown. Believe me, we looked. To quote Wikipedia, "the downtown area is rather unique because the city's major shopping center, Kirkwood Mall, is located there instead of in a suburban setting." And it is home to a state capitol building that is essentially a nondescript, 19-story edifice that, at 241.75 ft, is the town skyscraper. And the residents know this.
"The old state capitol was nice," said one of the folks in our documentary, "but it burnt down in 1930 and then they built this one to be as Unitarian as possible." (We think she meant "utilitarian," but considering how many churches we filmed in Bismarck, possibly not).
But the highlight was Space Aliens, a chain of theme restaurants in North Dakota and Minnesota, advertised via billboards with floating green hollow-eyed heads, each of which (according to the website -- though tempted to hit all five, we only went to one) features a full room of videogames, the "Bar from Mars," and well-known extraterrestrial favorites like ribs and quesadillas, as well as three-eyed creatures staring down at you from a porthole above your table. And the folks who work there, at least at the Bismarck, North Dakota location, are Minnesota Nice.
"How much are those inflatable aliens?"
"Oh, you're supposed to win those with tickets. But here, just take one."
"What about the pencils?"
"Just take a couple of those too."
Mind you, Colorado is not the Midwest. For one thing, there are mountains. For another, there's Boulder. Only in the West will you find a city where you can get fined for creating too much light pollution. We stayed with friends of mine there -- friends who go out every day before work to take their dog for a little five-mile jog somewhere on the 130 miles of hiking trails just beyond their backyard. It was the first place on our trip we were hard-pressed not to want to pick up and move to, particularly once they showed us the garage organized specifically to facilitate all of their outdoor adventure activities, which made us feel like we were missing out even when we had no idea what they were talking about.
"This tub contains all of our camping food. This one has our snowboarding accessories. This one has the kiteboarding gear --"
"The what? Is that a sport?"
Colorado was also interesting because we spent September 11th there. It wasn't my first 9/11 outside of New York since 2001 -- I actually was in Montreal for 9/11/03, which, perhaps because I was too busy trying to barhop in French, didn't make me think a lot about my Americanness. But in Colorado (not Boulder, which is in an entirely different Colorado), it was all about How American Can We Be?, at least for the local radio station, which tried to make a sparsely-attended event out of it, complete with singing by bad local musicians, a lot of talk about "fighting for our freedom," and a display of military vehicles with tires bigger than three of me, which they let kids climb into and pretend to drive (and no, in case you were wondering based upon this and our previous encounter with a tank, our documentary is not on huge and scary military vehicles. But good guess). Unlike being in Canada, being in Colorado made me realize how a lot of the rest of the country thinks about 9/11 as a call to arms, whereas I think most of us who were here in New York that day probably got the closest we ever will to feeling what it's like to actually be under attack and were just happy to wake up the next day and find that we weren't, in fact, at war. But that's another blog. Perhaps the most sinister thing about the whole event was the fact that the local minister who led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance chose to omit the words "with liberty and justice for all." I wonder what that says about Americanness now.
Strangely enough, the other place we were tempted to move to (or at least I was, and Lauren claims this was because of the cute young blond men we interviewed, but that is NOT true), was Toledo, Ohio. We were both surprised by how much we liked it. Partly, it was that the center of town is laid out along the Maumee River, lining it with the refurbished remains of old warehouses and factories and including one somehow beautiful towering smokestack gesturing up at the sky. Not to mention that we found great vegan-friendly food there.
But most of all, Toledo might actually win the prize for the most friendly place we went. Although this could have been purely because it had the highest boredom quotient. Not that people seemed unhappily bored. On the contrary, they seemed very content to stand around shooting the shit with us, and probably anybody else who came across their path. Even one of our subjects whose wife was 8 months pregnant and having contractions just wanted to hang.
"I'm so sorry, it's just I have to take her to the hospital, you know. But darn, I was really looking forward to us going out and having a couple of beers."
Then there was Gladys, our bartendress at the Emerald City Lounge, located in the Days Inn around the corner from our hotel. The lounge had earned its name by virtue of its lime green color, which naturally drew us like moths who are exhausted from flying (and driving, but that sort of kills the analogy) but unable to resist singeing themselves against the light of kitsch.
"We don't get too many people out here from New York," Gladys told us. "Though we had a whole bunch of Filipino nurses here from New Jersey last week for a convention. It's funny, one of 'em, this guy, came in here and we were talking for a while, and he asked me, 'So where should I go out around here?' and I said, 'Well, you could go to this area, or this area, but you probably want to avoid this area here.' Then he looked at me and said, 'But where for, you know, guys like me. You know, gay.' And I said, 'Oh. All those areas that I just told you not to go to? That's where you should go.'…But I wondered, why was he asking me?"
We looked back at her AC/DC t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, her bleached-blond mullet and butch biker jewelry, and shrugged. "Dunno."
Probably because we were her only customers, Gladys was kind enough to answer all of our questions about the alcohol on the shelves, a rather unconventional stock. There were brands of gin, bourbon and scotch we had never seen, about fifteen kinds of Pucker and Schnapps, Goldschlager, Jagermeister (which I will never touch again thanks to some experiences on low-budget films out of town in my youth), and Tequila Rose.
"It looks like Pepto-Bismol, but it tastes real good," said Gladys, pouring us a shot. It was kind of like drinking perfume with a kick to it. We would probably have finished it had not the karaoke in the back gotten into full swing at that point, causing us to decide that it was time for bed.
The last night of our trip that confirmed that Michigan, too, is Minnesota Nice, or at least Ohio Bored n' Friendly. It also gave me my last encounter with the late night lonely crowd; specifically, those folks who work in the area of rental car return at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.
"I don't suppose the shuttle could take me all the way to my hotel instead of just back to the airport?" I asked as the guy at the desk -- who looked to be just barely legal -- closed out our rental.
"Oh, gee, you know, let me ask my manager." He returned looking genuinely sad. "I'm real sorry. He says we can't spare the driver." He leaned in conspiratorially. "But you could ask Papa Joe when he gets here. Come on, let's go watch some tv and wait for him."
We went and planted ourselves beside the other two pubescent night duty car rental guys, who slumped in the customer waiting chairs in front of a huge flat-screen.
"Ooh, 'The Hills Have Eyes Two,'" said Young Desk Guy, scrolling through the channel listings. "Did you see that?"
"No, I haven't."
"Well, you're lucky, that was nasty. Hmm, looks like we got news, news, news..."
"How about 'Sex & the City'?"
"Oh, we don't get that channel. You like that show? I never seen it. Is it kind of a chick show?"
"What else we got…What about 'Family Guy'? That's a funny show."
Papa Joe finally arrived. White-haired and slumped defeatedly over the wheel of his shuttle, he completely lived up to the image conjured by his name.
"Nope, can't take you to your hotel." He waved his walkie talkie. "I'd be outa range, they wouldn't be able to call me. Couldn't get the hotel shuttle to come pick you up from here, huh?"
"No, they said I had to go back to the airport."
"Shoulda slipped him a ten. That's the way things work," he said with a meaningful look, which I only realized later meant that for ten bucks I probably could have gotten him to drop me at my hotel.
I waited at the airport. As one might guess, the Super 8 shuttle was not prompt. But then I saw the shuttle for the much nicer hotel across the street from ours pull up. I climbed aboard behind two businessmen.
"Hi," I said to the young woman with big hair who sat behind the wheel. "I'm staying at the Super 8, could I take this shuttle?"
" I guess," she said warily. "But I gotta drop these guys off first."
Her apparent surliness changed the moment her real customers got off at their hotel. I was starting to get off too.
"No, no," she said, "I'll take you across. Honey, you don't want to cross that road at this hour."
"Oh yeah, people come barreling down that road late at night, nobody's watching where they're going, they don't think anyone's going to be crossing -- and it is NOT well lit. People have definitely gotten killed out there. I've been driving this route a long time, I can tell ya…"
Needless to say, she did.