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Forgive me. It’s late and I’ve had a whiskey, and I really shouldn’t. But.
Sunday I went up to Fargo for a funeral. It had been a while. Your sister texts you that your last aunt died, and you throw a bag in the car and head up the old road.
The fastest way to get to Fargo from Minneapolis is the interstate, a friction-free road. You can cruise at 80 – okay, well, 79, if you want to avoid the Smokeys – and slide through the farmland. You don’t see anything but crops and tall signs for gas stations and franchise burger joints. Faster is not better. Take the old road, Highway 10. Until the interstate was built, this was the only way to get from here to there. It winds through towns with names that span high and low – Royalton, then Motley. It skirts the perimeter of some towns, drives through the downtowns of others. A few years ago the highway department decided to do Staples a favor, and run a bypass on the south side, so trucks wouldn’t always be grumbling down the main drag. In compensation, the city got state money for local road improvement, and if you pull off 10 to drive through the downtown, you see nice planters and banners and new sidewalks. But the movie theater is closed, and the paint on the sign for Lefty’s Bar is faded and peeling. You wonder if people miss the trucks and traffic. It was a sign that you were connected to the world. The bypass is only two blocks to the south. But traffic is fast and no one stops.
I stop. It’s a ritual: get gas at Staples. I don’t need to get gas; a tank can take me from my Minneapolis front door to my sister’s house. But it’s a good spot to stop, stretch, hit the head – and if there’s anything I learned from being the son of a gas station owner, it’s that you’d best buy some gas if you’re going to use the restroom. It’s only fair.
The gas station has a fair-sized C-store (convenience store, in the parlance) with a Subway franchise. They redid their coffee station. It’s now brewed on-demand. The owner had to make a calculation: the on-demand system will probably break down now and then, but the old coffee urns had to be tended hourly. Someone had to make the coffee. Someone had to make sure the coffee hadn’t been sitting on the burner for six hours. The new machine was spiffy. It had an option for bold. Of course, I went with bold. Why wouldn’t you?
The clerk at the counter was pushing late 30s, or a fine early 40s. The tips of her hair were tinged with watermelon hues, and she had a nose ring. Cheerful as a June dawn. I told her the windshield wiper fluid on the second island was almost dry, and she appreciated the information and turned around and told the other guy at the register. Young kid, beefy, wearing the company smock. She told me to have a nice day now! and I wished her the same.
The next stop was Verndale, a tiny town with a park on the edge of the highway. There’s a faded LIONS CLUB plaque on the chain-link fence. A playground for the kids: a dad was wrangling two happy tots. A WWI memorial with the names of the local boys who went over there. A flagpole dedicated to a citizen who died in WW2. The flag was at half-mast. I sat in the shelter by a building that houses the town’s first fire wagon, smoked a cigar, had my coffee, thought of the last time I was here, and all the times before that. Sometimes a train comes through while I’m there, and the ground shakes. The effort of bringing the goods from the coast makes rings appear in your coffee go-cup.
Back on the road. Cruise control at 69, kiss the breaks when you enter a town, slow your roll. An old gas station, no pumps. Bar with a beer sign. Hair salon with a font from a 1990s Windows package. Lions, Elks, Rotary. State Champs, 2003. World’s Largest Turkey statue. Divided highway. 65 again; floor it.
Pulled in around five. Fargo was Fargo – bustling, prosperous. A new 20-story office tower and hotel sits on Broadway. A few blocks away, a new apartment complex rises, six floors. Downtown thrives while the outlying neighborhoods boom; West Fargo is still building. New houses, new shops, new restaurants. Amazon built an enormous facility in the industrial park. The area by the airport has huge new cargo buildings. Every gas station, fast-food joint, restaurant, and retail place has a sign begging for workers. My brother-in-law laments the difficulty of finding and retaining help at the store.
We went out to eat at a restaurant that hadn’t existed eight months before. Loud calamitous din, fantastic food. No one wore masks, aside from a few. I asked my sister and brother-in-law how the whole mask-and-COVID thing was going. It’s not a pressing concern. So it seemed to me – the only time I noticed a mask was the face of the young Starbucks employee handing me an Americano from the drive-through window.
It reminded me that the moment I left the Cities, I left the masked society behind. Everything felt like 2019.
The next morning I went to the boneyard to visit my forebears. I’d forgotten that they’d laid out another cemetery next to the church’s graveyard, a military cemetery. All the headstones were identical, like Normandy, or Snelling, or Arlington. There were too many already – but surely many of those were vets, of which Fargo has many. They laid it out to accommodate many.
On the way back to the Cities I thought of some writers who are perfectly empowered to discuss the fate and foibles of the Fargos of America, but would probably twitch in their seat if you drove them around, first out of fear that Red Indians would come whooping over the horizon, and then out of dismay that none of this comported with their preconceptions. There’s the classic movie theater, still open, all the marquee bulbs flashing. There’s where the symphony plays. There’s the museum. There’s the central library. There’s the coffee shop with the rainbow flag. There’s the 30s office building with Moderne lines; there’s the dense housing; there’s the bright new big school, lavishly funded. There’s the big newspaper building. There’s the University. Oh, look, there’s the other University. There’s the historic architecture. Here’s the river. Beyond all this, endless grain and toil.
But not in the old sense. My cousin gets Netflix in the cab of his tractor. The last time I saw him was at the VFW. It was a new outpost but had historical elements that kept up tradition. It was across the street from the funeral parlor where we’d both seen our fathers in the box. I learned a lot about the rural co-op he was in, and talked with his wife about family history. She’s the official historian, updates the genealogical sites about all the people who came here and carved straight lines in the dirt and grew things. It was a great night. I often feel like a lesser man because I knew all this, and I left.
But there’s failure, and then there’s failure, and then there’s utter, uncomprehending, arrogant, fatuous, savior-complex failure.