So where were we? Oh yeah, taking a right at Saskatchewan and heading into North Dakota.
I’d only been there twice before, once on The Empire Builder train, heading for Seattle, and once when I was living in Minneapolis, working for the Star-Tribune. I drove to Fargo, 250 miles away, for a story which I can’t remember. But I do remember being excited that crossing into North Dakota meant that, finally, I’d visited all 50 states. That was 1980. So, yes, I’ve been weird like this for quite some time.
But I didn’t really see much of the place on either visit. The Fargo trip was an overnight Motel 6 kind of thing. And the Amtrak trip was through a snowstorm, with everything blurry and gray. I do remember seeing a farmhouse on the prairie west of Minot, nothing else visible for miles, and wondering why the hell anyone would live out there.
A Minnesota friend once told me traveling across North Dakota was like driving across a billiard table, the dullest trip he’d ever taken. And while it’s certainly not the most spectacular landscape in North America, I think he was being unfair. There is a gentle roll to the North Dakota hills, a certain majesty to the distances. That whole “amber waves of grain” thing is real. And sort of cool. I wasn’t bored at all.
Also, I had something to look forward to: The second annual Fargo Beer Festival was being held on the very night I happened to be in town. Serendipity is a beautiful thing.
As is Wood Chipper Ale, the first (and so far only) offering of the Fargo Beer Company, named after the most memorable scene in the best movie the Coen Brothers ever made. If you don’t know why this is possibly the greatest beer name in America then I don’t know what to tell ‘ya, for Pete’s sake. Is it darned tasty? You betcha!
You can’t get it anywhere outside of Fargo (although surely that will change). They don’t sell it in bottles or cans. You can only buy Wood Chipper Ale at the brewery or one of the half-dozen places in Fargo that have it on tap. Or, in what sounds like the best of all possible environments, the Fargo Beer Festival.
It cost $18 to get in, which didn’t seem unreasonable since that buys you unfettered access to 73 different craft beers from all around the country. Also there would be “Authentic German Cuisine” and live music. Who could say no to that?
Apparently, no one. When I arrived at the Fargo Civic Center (upcoming events include Roller Derby and Dakota Territory Gun Collector’s Show) there was a line halfway down the block. The Civic Center lawn was ringed with folding tables and full of Fargones (yeah, I made that up) in their fall finery. This included at least 3 people in Slayer t-shirts. Everyone was exceedingly polite, since North Dakota is practically Canada, but it was a mob, a gigantic thick-ankled beer-drinking mob. I fit right in.
If we’d been anywhere else – like, say, South Dakota – there’d have been fights. Instead of free-flowing rivers of beer, they served the assorted ales and lagers in little tiny sampling cups, the kind the dentist gives you to “swirl and then spit.” It was a travesty. We’d stand in line – really long lines – unable most of the time to see what tiny cup of beer we were in line for. 10 minutes later (okay maybe 5) you’d get your precious little spit cup of IPA and move along, generally to the back of the very next line. Sometimes they’d give you two cups at once. Did you ever see Red Dawn? If the Soviets had taken us over, this is what life be like: rationed beer.
But we persevered, the other Fargones and I, trudging from one line to the next, slowly making our way around the Civic Center perimeter. Some people kept their cups like little stackable trophies, little tiny leaning towers of reeking barley and hops. I did not. Because I am not a trained seal. Also, I needed to keep both hands free.
Finally – and you just know they did this on purpose – I made it to the Wood Chipper table and the longest line of all. It was dark by then, the lawn covered with tipped-over cup columns and cigarette butts. The “German cuisine,” it turned out was bratwurst and/or Swedish (Swedish?) meatballs. That was it. I had the bratwurst, because, dammit, somebody’s got to take a stand.
But here’s the thing. I kind of liked it there. The lines eventually thinned out and the Wood Chipper really was delicious. I’d get two cups, chug em and immediately get two more. Then I had bratwurst, talked to Fargones about local politics (there’s more Democrats than you might expect) and hung out by the band, who were horrible, but also adorably drunk.
I went to Minneapolis from there, one of my all-time favorite former hometowns. I worked for the Star-Tribune in 1980 and 1981, lived in a brownstone apartment near downtown (and right down the street from the Guthrie Theater and Walker Museum) and felt, for the first time, like I lived in an actual big city. I didn’t even mind the weather, mostly because the downtown area is connected by an ingenious network of tunnels and skywalks that allow you to get pretty much anywhere without ever going outside. Life in the suburbs, I’m sure, was difficult, dealing with snow-covered driveways and freeways and such. But living in the city was great.
I was nothing but trouble when I was there, still pretending to be pursuing a professional newspaper career but, deep down, realizing that I didn’t really want to work that hard or go to that many meetings. So, like a kid bored in grade school, I spent most of my time disrupting the class. I’m pretty sure this included making fart noises and then pointing at other reporters.
This is exactly the sort of reckless immaturity that led me to believe it would be a good idea to have fake surprise birthday for myself. It wasn’t my birthday and I was the one planning the party, but no one knew that. My college friend, Patbo, visiting from out of town, called the numbers of all my friends and co-workers – with me sitting right by him, coaching him on what to say –– and told them there would be a top secret surprise birthday at my apartment. People would hide behind the sofa, everyone would jump out and yell “Surprise” when I got home and, best of all, someone was going to hit me in the face with a pie. This, understandably, increased the affirmative responses.
What he didn’t tell them, was that I was going to hide a second pie in the desk right by the door. And then, while everyone was laughing their ass of at my pie-covered face, I would grab the pie and smack the person who’d hit me. And THAT would be the real surprise.
Except that Patbo, who has absolutely no ability to keep any kind of secret, was keeping a journal and, for some reason, allowed the designated pie-thrower – future Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Joel Bierig – to read it. Which is how he discovered that that he would be both the pie-er and the pie-ee. He was not amused. His exact words were: “What is this shit”
We needed to re-tool. More accomplices were required. So, in what turned out to be an unfortunate twist, a very sweet woman named Emmy – at the time dating a friend of mine – volunteered to be the pie thrower. She knew that I knew, which is the only reason she agreed to throw the pie. She did NOT know about the retaliatory pie. We probably should have warned her.
Here’s Patbo’s memory of what happened: “You walk in and Emmy hits you. She is so pleased with herself. They all are. (while we were calling them I was pumping up the pie hitting, giving them red meat. They were loving it and waiting for it.) So they are all so happy to see you get hit with that pie, which left it open for you to go to the desk drawer for the second pie.
“ Nobody noticed you, until, “wham!” you hit Emmy. Then there was complete silence except for me almost peeing myself with laughter and doubling over on the couch. You were pretty pleased with yourself at that point, as was I. But the rest of them were pissed off. Really pissed off..”
Yeah, that took an ugly turn. It’s one thing to see a sweet young woman hit the class clown with a pie. Not nearly so funny when he hits her back. Plus, that was the moment it dawned on everyone that they’d been set up, that I must have known about the pie all along and, what the hell, was it even my birthday?
Except that, unbeknownst to me, or to Emmy, there was . . . A Third Pie. Bierig had hidden it in another drawer and while I was laughing in triumph, he nailed me with it. Bigger, harder and splattier than the first two. I had no idea it was coming. The crowd – which included R.T. Rybak, then my co-worker and now the mayor of Minneapolis –– felt that pie justice had prevailed. And we all lived happily ever after. Except for Emmy, who later broke up with my friend. Left him for her personal trainer or something.
My point being that, generally speaking Minneapolis has nothing but fond memories for me. My last week there, after the lease had run out on my apartment, I lived in the employee parking lot of the Star-Tribune for two weeks. In a van. It’s like, foreshadowing, right? Future Mayor Rybak was also there for an actual surprise party on my last day in town. We had breakfast in the parking lot, with many mimosas, and, as I recall, a number of employees were sent home when supervisors determined that — at 9 a.m. — they were clearly drunk. Somewhere, there are pictures.
Now that I think about it, there was a LOT of foreshadowing in Minneapolis. A bunch of us –including at least one future Pulitzer prize winner (and yes Mayor Rybak. I’ve REALLY got to find those pictures) – used to take weekend train trips for pretty much no other purpose than drinking beer. We went to Duluth once and to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which has the distinction of having the most bars-per-person of any city in North America. We’d walk from joint to joint, leaving whenever someone got bored and announced that it was time to “suck those puppies down.” We started calling ourselves the Puppy Suckers. I know.
After I left Minneapolis this time around, I drove along the Mississippi River and couldn’t resist crossing over into LaCrosse. It hasn’t changed much. I ended up at Buzzard Billy’s Flying Carp Cafe, right across the street from TJ Cheddarhead’s. I’m pretty sure I had something with cheese. And beer. Possibly a Leinenkugel. I don’t remember. I do remember watching clusters of young people stumbling from pub to pub and thinking, man, that used to be me.
Oh, who am I kidding, it still is. I wonder if anyone wants to get hit with a pie.