In a North Dakota State of Mind
North Dakota Short Stories.
Until recently, five miles had been the closest that I’d ever come to being in North Dakota.
Five miles — as in 35,000 feet high.
And why would I ever go to North Dakota? Nothing against the fine people of that proud red-state voting, red-eat meating giant walk-in outdoor freeezer, but as far as I was concerned that territory might as well be called South Saskatchewan. Or Mongolia.
If there’s a lesson to be learned about how our perceptions often do (and should) change over time, it’s that exposure to something you know nothing about often makes you gain an appreciate for it. Except for Anthrax and FOX News, of course.
Fulfilling this pedestrian philosophical prophesy, days ago I penned the following narrative on what it’s like to stay in Downtown Fargo for a whole week. Read “FARGO” here.
What I didn’t reveal to you then are a few of the many things that surprised me about North Dakota. Did you know that:
1. During the height of the Cold War, if the state of North Dakota had been a independent nation it would have been the third-largest nuclear superpower in the world? That’s right, during the early 1980s, so many missile silos were hidden beneath the plains that only the (rest of the) USA and the former USSR possessed a more destructive collective nuclear arsenal.
2. North Dakota was the first and only state to ever elect a slate of political candidates with an openly Socialist agenda who ended up controlling the entire government. In 1916, the Nonpartisan League — which adopted virtually all the principles of the Socialist Party of America — won complete control of both state assemblies. It also won the governorship with 79 percent of the popular vote. It also elected a congressman. Somehow, the state managed to survive the is early flirtation with what would later be ”The New Deal.”
3. North Dakota is the only state in the country with a state-owned (i.e. “Socialist”) bank, which is the Bank of North Dakota. Formed more than 90 years ago, it remains not only completely solvent, but immensely profitable especially considering its size. While most huge banks elsewhere floundered and some folded, and still others took billion-dollar bailouts at the taxpayer expense, the government-owned bank in North Dakota has saved local farms, provided low-interest loans to citizens, and returned a profit to the state treasury every single year. Hmmm. Maybe there’s something to be learned here (Note: Look for a follow up article soon on the little-known success of the North Dakota State Bank).
And now, on to three North Dakota short stories from this past week:
Short Story #1 — “Where the Action Is (n’t)”.
Imagine being stuck in Fargo five straight days. And five nights. Trust me. It’s not as bad as it sounds.
But then, imagine being stuck at the Howard Johnson’s, located right in between a huge Presbyterian church and a Fargo Police station. This isn’t exactly the most rockin’ place on the planet. The most exciting thing going at this place on is the donut delivery at 6 am.
Well, no one told me all the action was down in the basement. Yes, I do mean action.
The day of my check out, I walked by a sign posted in the lobby. It read “Off-Track Betting.” Then, there was a large arrow pointing downstairs.
I don’t bet the horses much anymore. But no one bothered to tell me that 30 feet below the place where my head was resting every night there were betting windows taking action on tracks all over the country. As I decended the stairs, I started to feel like Nathan Detroit.
“I got the horse right here…..”
Well I sure as shit had to go get a first-hand look at the so-called “Red River Room” for myself.
Most Off-Track Betting parlors are full of action. Loser action. Broken down old men in soiled clothing begging their buddies for a couple of bucks to bet on the ponies. OTB parlors are about the saddest (or funniest — for the cynical) places around to watch human misery on full display.
To be perfectly clear, I entered the OTB parlor about noon, which was just as the major tracks on the East Coast were getting underway. Even though horse racing has about as bright a future as 8-track tapes making a comeback, I still expected to see a flock of gamblers hanging out.
Instead, this was the picture:
Holy shit! This place looked like the employee cafeteria at a bus station.
I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask the one and only ticket teller on the premisis when all the action started. “Where the party?” He barely looked up and explained that this was pretty much it.
Looking around, one older man sat alone with an open copy of The Daily Racing Form. Upon closer inspection, if you grabbed him by the ankles and turned him upside down, you might be able to shake out $20 from his pockets, and half that would be in coins.
The story gets worse.
I asked the teller a follow-up question.
“So, is this all of it?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“Is this the entire OTB facility?” I explained. “Might there be a larger adjacent room where all the gamblers hang out?”
“Of course,” the man replied. “We have another room. We use it for OVER-FLOW.” (emphasis mine).
Well, I sure as hell had to see this place. What would the OTB at Howard Johnson’s do if they have an emergency and suddenly run out of seats?
Fortunately, the Red River Room is totally prepared. See photo below of the overflow room:
Time to leave. I fly out later that same afternoon.
Short Story #2 — “When in Fargo, Act Like You’re From Fargo”
What flight would you expect leads the nation in alcohol consumption?
By this I mean — which scheduled route has the highest percentage of sales of alcoholic beverages per passenger than any other?
The answer might surprise you. In fact, I’ll let you think about it and answer at the end of the this story.
Flying from Fargo (North Dakota) back to Las Vegas was a real eye opener. I couldn’t help but notice a phenomenon that I’d never experienced on any other flight, and I’ve been in the air plenty of times.
The passenger sitting next to me was a nice woman, who as it turned out was from North Dakota. About 30 minutes into the flight, she ordered two beers from the flight attendant. Two beers. Just for her. Her husband was on his own.
We got to talking and she remarked that people in her part of the country love to drink and (most) can certainly handle their liquor. This wasn’t so much conversation piece as a matter of pride. Makes perfect sense. Cold winters. Gets darker early. Plenty of social activities in bars. Ethnic groups accustomed to drinking as part of the culture (Germans, Scandinavians, etc.). She slammed down her two beers and was eager to order two more the next time the cart came by:
This prompted me to conduct an informal survey.
Were the rest of the passengers on this packed Fargo flight — most undoubtedly from North Dakota (after all, who from Las Vegas goes to Fargo?) — were their drinking patterns all pretty much the same?
I had to find out.
What I’m about to write, you must take on faith. Trust me, there was no cherry picking of the photos you see below. I stood up and snapped a picture of each person around me — none of whom knew each other — and focused on what they ordered from the beverage cart.
Here’s the evidence of what I found. Look closely at the number of beverages:
This is called “a double.” And it’s obviously infectious.
Everybody on the plane apparently is terrified of being left high and dry. So, they order two at a time.
By its second pass down the aisle most of the cart was empty. All that was left was Merlot, and no one drinks fucking Merlot. Fortunately, I managed to join the crowd. Does this now make me an honorary citizen of Fargo?
Oh yes – the answer to the trivia question: Which regularly scheduled air route has the highest percentage of sales of alcoholic beverages per passenger than any other?
Answer: Seattle to Orlando
I know. I was surprised, as well.
Short Story #3 — “My Secret Fetish for White Tail”
About two-thirds into flight from North Dakota, I encountered an emergency situation. I suddenly ran out of things to read.
For me, reading is mandatory when flying. It’s just one of the things that I will always do — which is to take enough books, magazines, newspapers, or electronic devices to keep me fully occupied. I know this can be annoying at times. But if I’m ever taken hostage, I want to make sure I have at least two books on stand by.
Well, I didn’t plan this trip nearly as well.
Fortunately, a fellow passenger came to my rescue and was willing to help me out. Nice guy. Another North Dakotan.
I’d never heard of this magazine before, and it’s pretty amazing to me that there is an entire publication devoted to this subject. I am, of course, talking about “White Tail.”
Nothing against Black tail, or Brown tail, or Yellow tail, which can be equally as enticing. I just enjoy the fantasy of White tail.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite the tease I had hoped for. After guzzling four beers, the notion of spending the last 45-minutes salivating over pictures of fresh young white tail in the beauty of nature was so damn enticing.
All those gorgeous shapes. All that soft fur. Fresh warm tail.
I must admit the notion of discharging my concealed weapon did indeed appeal to me.
In summation, North Dakotans love to hunt. They’re proud of their Socialist government-owned bank, but vote Republican. They’re mostly Christian, but love their bars and drinking. I can deal with that. I can accept the bad with the good.
In fact, I can’t wait to return to North Dakota again. Especially since I’ve now found the perfect places to gamble, drink, and chase tail.
With special thanks to the “Poker Night in America” staff, including — Todd Anderson, Dave Quenette, Tony Mangnall, Matt McGregor, Jason Gronvold, Chris Hansen, Katie O’Keefe and the bartender at JL’s for their hospitality.