Chapter III: Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis, and Jewish Bikers

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
"Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with a peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses; or the soft, sweet accents of an angel's whisper in the bright, joyous dream of sleeping innocence."
--- James Proctor Knott, in the House of Representatives, 1871

One of the bridges soaring above the harbor in Duluth (Minnesota)

Wednesday, June 2

One of many grain elevators lining the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota You might have toured Venice in a gondola, trekked the Himalayas, and slept in the Louvre, but you haven't lived until you've been on a cruise around Duluth's harbor. Here is the magnificent industrial face of America that is so often hidden from Easterners. Duluth's industry is storing stuff that comes in by rail from the Heartland and loading it onto boats for shipment to the Great Lakes region, the East, and the World. Massive grain elevators and iron ore docks are numerous, but the city's pride is a new mountain of coal emptied by a $200 million German-built conveyor system A $200 million German-built conveyor system for loading coal onto boats in Duluth (Minnesota) harbor that won the Civil Engineering Award, previously given to the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Kirk, a good looking Scandinavian-American college kid, filled me in on life in his hometown.

"Lake Superior is 400 miles long. Even now the water isn't above 37 degrees. When the wind comes off that water, you get a wind-chill of -100 degrees. The economy is dead flat due to the collapse in iron ore mining. Once I finish my manufacturing management degree, I'm moving to Colorado."

Why Colorado?

"I lived there for one year in high school, and it beats Hell out of Duluth."

Town Babbitts are not giving up without a fight. They spent $20 million to build a container handling terminal; it was used once for a demonstration 10 years ago. They spent $15 million for a fine convention center; it is in Duluth. They turned a brewery on the lake into a Ghiradelli Square upscale shopping mall clone; it was empty.

You won't begrudge the Feds those gas tax dollars if you get back on an Interstate highway after a few days of hard travel on two-lanes. I-35S to Minneapolis makes for lovely driving, if a bit dull due to the lack of towns, hills, lakes, or color in the trees. The only thing that breaks up the monotony are the occasional casinos! That's right, the Indians are sovereign and, with partners from Las Vegas, operate huge casinos for Minnesotans. The result is Vegas without the high-rises and Mafia feel.

A view of downtown Minneapolis from the Walker Art Center, perhaps the US's most modern modern art museum

Downtown Minneapolis is so clean and genteel that the bus shelters are made of glass and feature piped-in classical music (but nothing disturbing like Mahler) The Twin Cities rise up like Oz out of the flat landscape, "divided by the Mississippi River and united by the belief that the inhabitants of the other side of the river are inferior."

Minneapolis went whole hog for mirrored-glass megaliths, which isn't so bad; Mies van der Rohe looks a lot better after staring at trees for 15 hours. Everything works here to an appalling degree. The bus shelters are beautiful glass gazebos with piped-in classical music (nice Mozart and Chopin; no angst-inducing Mahler here). Buses run on time. People would be shocked to pay a crushing tax burden and receive nothing in return.

This is an UnCity in many ways. A fundamental difference between village life and city life is that primary relationships are replaced with functional relationships. In the village you buy your food from Bob, whom you've known since childhood, who happens to be working in the supermarket. In the city you buy your food from a supermarket clerk whom you could see every day and never learn his name. Minneapolitans haven't understood this. When you walk into a store or a restaurant, people say hello to you, unlike in Boston, where they'd wait for you to approach them and attempt to transact business. Here you relate as people first, as consumer and vendor second.

Amy, Philip, Paula, at Aspects of Love in Minneapolis Moll Flanders would have had a delightful time here: natives are woefully unprepared for the sort of malevolent self-invention that is possible in cities. At a touring performance of Aspects of Love, I sat next to a local family. One of the daughters had lived her whole life in Minneapolis; she invited me to come visit the next day and go sailing. Her sister, though so clear of eye and smooth of skin that it would be difficult to believe that anything bad had ever happened to her, had been schooled in suspicion and human evil at Harvard Law School. She remembered an intangible obligation for the benefit of her naive sister and nixed the invitation.

Oh yes, even if you don't care for Andrew Lloyd-Webber, try to see Aspects of Love. It is more than your average love pentalateral with incest.

To the extent that anonymity and functional relationships are beginning to prevail here, it distresses people as much as it might have an 18th-century Londoner. I walked into a Vietnamese restaurant in artsy Uptown. The only other customers were Eric and Laurel, who looked a bit like movie actors. Eric had short blond hair over a trim but solid Midwestern build. Laurel had leggy delicate features and a sideways baseball cap over long blond hair. They cooked gourmet food for a bed-and-breakfast in a Wisconsin town an hour from Minneapolis. Although they looked quite happy with each others' company, Laurel immediately greeted me with a friendly "hello," and we started to chat about their life in a community of 175 versus their old life in the city.

Didn't they miss the potential for human contact in the city?

"I lived here for three years, and I think it is much harder to meet people in a city," noted Eric. "Everyone knows everyone else in our village, and people park with the keys in the ignition."

"It isn't as backward as you might think. We have intellectuals in our town who live semi-communally and home-school their children," Laurel added.

How was it working out?

"We were skeptical at first, thinking that kids needed to be socialized with each other, but the home-schooled children seem so much happier, better adjusted, and better educated than factory-schooled children."

I parted from Laurel and Eric with an invitation to drop in anytime they had a spare room.

A massive Snoopy balloon inside Mall of America (in Minneapolis)

Mall of America (in Minneapolis) is built on top of what used to be a baseball stadium I thought that the Canadians had us beat in mall culture, but that was before I drove 20 minutes south to the Mall of America, formerly a baseball stadium, where over 12,000 people work and 100,000 shoppers can roam in comfort. The central courtyard comfortably accommodates a Snoopy theme park with roller coaster, and stores have street addresses. It was a disappointment, however. Instead of 10 times as much variety, the mall just has 10 near-clones of each type of store. There are plenty of things that one can't buy in the mall--even Berlin's KaDeWe department store has a broader range of goods.

An updated version of Duchamp's famous bicycle wheel, at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) Minneapolis outhips New York with an updated Duchamp bicycle wheel in the Walker Art Center
The Berman Buckskin factory, downtown Minneapolis Continuing my research into Jewish settlement of the Midwest...

Friday, June 4

I breakfasted with Al, an attorney originally from Brookline, Massachusetts.

"I came out here to work for the attorney general for a summer and then decided to settle here. What shocked me about Minneapolis was that people had faith in the system. No assumptions were made about the kinds of people who were arrested. It wasn't just the prosecutor's office or the judicial system. People believe in the government school system here.

"Life here is working out for me. My main problem now is that I'm upset with myself. I spent a lot of my life pushing race-based affirmative action, and now I'm beginning to think it is a mistake. I don't think Clinton is making a good choice in nominating a civil rights attorney general."

Al was referring to a vigorous public debate of which I'd been blissfully unaware. My increasing habit of ignoring newspapers was catching up with me. After breakfast, I drove out to St. Paul's Cathedral, a reasonably faithful copy of Rome's St. Peter's. Four mosaics under the dome celebrate cardinal Midwestern virtues: Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and Prudence. Any Italian will tell you that one of the most important things about St. Peter's is that there are no paintings; it is decorated with more impressive stone carvings, sculptures, and mosaics. Yet somebody incongruously stuck a single oil painting on one of the cathedral walls here.

Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota A quick ride downhill to downtown St. Paul was enough to convince me that St. Paul is Minneapolis's plain sister. The few nice towers are separated by horribly ugly 1950s and '60s concrete monsters. Although St. Paul is the state capital, the taste mavens at the Federal Reserve Bank chose to locate their magnificent modern palace in downtown Minneapolis, upstream on the other side of the Mississippi, 15 minutes away by Interstate. About St. Paul, one might fairly say that there is no "there" there.

Heading northwest on I-94 listening to Minnesota Public Radio's noontime classical program, the rolling hills unfolded before me under patchy clouds and 65 degrees. I ate lunch in Sauk Centre, population 4000, with Wendy and Angie, two recent high school graduates. Solid German-American girls born and raised in this agricultural village, they hated having all of their secrets known and believed. They were ready to move away to college and cosmetology school, but not ready for anything as big and far away as the Twin Cities.

"Life here is really boring. School is boring and really easy. A lot of people drink and smoke dope."

"What about all those `DARE to keep kids off drugs' T-shirts everyone here seems to wear?" I asked.

"Well, probably more than half of our high school class has tried marijuana."

So they thought Sauk Centre was losing the War on Drugs?"

"I wouldn't say that. I bet we'll be the last generation of dope smokers."

The It is usually easy to forget America's Calvinist heritage, but Sauk Centre will shove it in your face. Calvinists take seriously the notion that ultimate judgment is reserved for God. We might be convinced that we are right, but there is always a trace of doubt. This kept anyone from being beheaded in the American Revolution (contrast that with the revolution in humanist France). On the other hand, sometimes showing both sides of the coin leads to bizarre results. In Germany, I'd sometimes asked why there weren't any Nazi museums and people said, "Don't be ridiculous; why would we promote something we should be ashamed of?" Folks in Sauk Centre just wouldn't understand this.

The Chamber of Commerce's Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, Sauk Centre, Minnesota Any town might be proud of a son who won the 1930 Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to do so. But what if he won that prize by writing Main Street, a book about how venal and narrow-minded the townspeople of "Gopher Prairie" are? Sinclair Lewis was born here in 1885 and left to go to Yale, travel the world, and settle in New York. His boyhood home is now on Sinclair Lewis Avenue. Main Street has been renamed "Original Main Street". There are banners all up and down this inspiration for Lewis proclaiming its status as such. Weirdest of the weird was visiting the Chamber of Commerce Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center.

"I thought Sinclair Lewis had particular scorn for the kinds of boosters who formed the Chamber of Commerce. How come they built this nice highway rest stop for their most vicious satirist?" I asked the woman running a biographical video.

"I don't know. I haven't read any of his books."

A motel in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, portrayed as Gopher Prairie in Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street

My AAA Triptik lavishly praises most of the country through which I'd roamed, but about western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, the only thing nice they could find to say was that the highway has "good alignment and grade" (i.e., it is ruler straight and pancake flat). It is true that eastern North Dakota is flat enough that radio stations could mount their antennae on the roof of an old Chevy. But there is real beauty in the open grasslands, numerous grass-filled ponds, and extensive sky.

Tonight was my first night camping. There is nothing like a full moon overhead, prairie grass underneath, 20 miles of separation from the nearest houses, and ... the sound of 2000 Harley-Davidsons. Yes, I was at a motorcycle rally where the free spirits of North Dakota convene, leather-clad and helmetless.

"You can park your cage over there," waved a young woman.

"What's a `cage'?" I asked.

Everyone broke into uproarious laughter and passed the joke through the local crowd. It turned out that any kind of car is a "cage"--thus did I augment my previous store of biker wisdom and lingo, which had been limited to the aphorism "Better your sister in a whorehouse than your brother on a Honda."

With assistance from the first passerby, I pitched my tent in the Caravan's headlights. It was after 11:00 PM when I strolled around the main portion of the rally, where people were getting tattoos and dancing to a live band. Free beer lubricated social intercourse.

"Are neo-Nazi groups as popular out here as the media would have us believe?" I started a conversation with a young woman.

"I've never seen any except on television," she replied while sipping a Coke. "Our lives are centered around children, church, movies, and riding our Harleys whenever we can. My husband works as a welder, I stay home with the kids, and we live in a community of 100. It's a very quiet existence."

Has she thought about moving?

"I've lived a lot of places, but North Dakota is the best. A few people say they are tired of it here and talk about leaving, but they never do. We don't have the kind of crime and craziness that you see in big cities. People stick together and have a real sense of community."

Determined to stir the pot, I pointed out that Bismarck, the state capital, has only 1/200th the population of Los Angeles or New York and therefore it wasn't surprising that there were fewer and less interesting crimes. My interlocutor wasn't offended, though. Despite their often formidable appearance, North Dakota bikers are a gentle group. Only once was I ever afraid of any of the rally participants.

He was a 6' 3", 240 lb. guy with a black beard and a beer gut poking out from under his black Harley T-shirt. At about 7:30 AM, he roughly shook a nearby camper awake and demanded, "Are you a Jew?" The sleeper said, "No," and the big guy moved to the next tent, asking the same question. By the time he got to me, I was concerned, but I nervously answered, "Yes." He said, "Great! We need a tenth for a minyan."

Motorcycle convention in North Dakota

Chapter IV: Yellowstone

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