Minnesota's odd couples

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Minnesota excels at producing unlikely pairs. In the field of literaturethere is the dissimilar duo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis (Rivieraand prairie); in politics, Eugene McCarthy and Harold Stassen; in music, BobDylan and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The illustrators LeRoy Neimanand Charles Schulz are both Minnesotans, as are the sports heroes Greg LeMondand Bronko Nagurski.

Even the Twin Cities -- Minneapolis and St. Paul -- have unique identities,as distinct from each other as the two American icons to emerge from Minnesotathis century: Charles Lindbergh and Judy Garland. Currently the twocelebrities most associated with the state -- grandly continuing the traditionof dual personalities -- are Garrison Keillor and Jesse Ventura.

As odd couples go, this one seems classic. Keillor is a writer with anationally syndicated radio show, the latest in a long line of Midwesternhumorists that stretches from James Thurber and George Ade to Ambrose Bierceand Mark Twain. He is a complex man who has brought religion into the fiercelysecular world of popular culture while wryly trumpeting the cause of thechronically shy. Ventura is a Navy SEAL turned professional wrestler who lastNovember was elected governor.

Yet there are more things linking them than a shared home state. They arephysically imposing men, both standing well over 6 feet tall and speaking insonorous, signature voices. Both took noms de plume (or guerre) for careers inentertainment -- Garrison having been born Gary, and Jesse Ventura, Jim Janos.Similarly, both created a folksy persona -- the homespun raconteur, thebombastic brawler -- that played in theaters and arenas and over timeattracted a loyal following. Each adopted in the process a sartorialtrademark, the red socks peeking out from under Keillor's pants cuffs beingthe shy person's equivalent of a feather boa.

And neither is particularly fond of journalists.

They are also, now, locked together in a war of words. It began soon afterthe election, when Keillor wrote a mocking essay for Time magazine. Venturafollowed, shortly after his inauguration, by suggesting an end to statefunding for public radio. The new governor quickly became a weekly object ofridicule on "A Prairie Home Companion" -- a heretofore harmless collection ofmusic and skits -- and the subject of a Keillor book. Now in its sixth month,the feud has attracted the attention of Doonesbury and ruffled, at least fornon-Minnesotans, the placid surface of a state known for its numerous lakes.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are not the twins many think they are, connectedat the hip by a bridge (like Philadelphia and Camden). Cross the Mississippiin downtown Minneapolis and you arrive not in St. Paul but in Old Minneapolis.Our Lady of Lourdes Church rises on its hill behind Nye's Bar & PolonaiseRoom, which huddles just down the street from Kramarczuk Sausage Company &Deli. For St. Paul you should get on the freeway and, as if you were goingfrom Burbank to Pasadena, head southeast for half a dozen unexceptional miles.

The Capitol sits alone on a hill overlooking downtown, skirted by rollinggreen lawns and animated by a golden chariot at the base of its dome. It couldbe the seat of government for a medium-sized country. Inside, the echoingcorridors are hung with oil paintings of governors past: Floyd BjerstjerneOlson, Edward Thye, Luther W. Youngdahl, Harold Stassen. It is difficult tomake the proper chronological progression from these stern and provident facesto the silkenly shaven head now in office.

I made my way to that office one recent Wednesday morning for my 10 o'clockinterview. The governor was running late, a staff member told me; he firstneeded to address a group of representatives from various governmentaldepartments. I was more than welcome to watch.

I stood in the back, already feeling guilty for taking precious time out ofhis hectic schedule. (He had just arrived home the previous night from a tripto California.) He appeared through a side door, dressed in a browndouble-breasted suit, dark blue shirt and tie. I had not realized how tall heis. He moved a little stiffly, looking vaguely like a cross between Lurch andUncle Fester. In his brief remarks, he explained that his managerial style wasone of delegating. He spoke with his usual mild bluster, but seemed ill atease, as if he realized, underneath it all, how far out of his realm he reallywas.

He answered questions for a few minutes, and when there was a lull, and thesession seemed over, he asked, "Nobody wants to know about the Hollywoodtrip?" And everyone laughed, with the stunned relief that follows a joke at afuneral.

"I spent 5 or 10 minutes talking with Nicolas Cage," he said in that deepboreal drawl that sounds as if it should be emanating from an animatedcharacter. "Real nice guy. I went to Elton John's party. His party was insupport of AIDS, so I thought that was a good party to go to. I talked withNick Nolte. How many of you saw `Down and Out in Beverly Hills'? Remember thescene with the dog food? The dog food was real." I began to feel less guilty.

"I was a presenter at the Spirit Awards, for independent films. I got togive out the Truer Than Fiction award. I thought, `How real.' Because manypeople thought my election was truer than fiction. Though Garrison will do itafter the fact."

He was much less jovial 10 minutes later when he stared at me across anenormous desk in his corner office. (He had been quoted in Newsweek a fewmonths earlier saying he'd installed a special bumper on his SUV for runningover reporters.) Something about the bald head, the dark shirt, thedouble-breasted suit -- his impatient rocking back and forth in his chair --kindled unpleasant images from St. Paul's gangster past. I asked him where hewould take me in Minnesota if he had the time -- hoping for an armchair tourof former hangouts -- and got nothing but a Chamber of Commerce listing ofstandard highlights: Stillwater, on the St. Croix River; the lakes; theBoundary Waters; Duluth ("the San Francisco of the Midwest," he called it);the Mall of America ("It's like the 8th Wonder of the World.").

"But I don't want to say one place is better than another," he interjectedat one point. Two staff members were in the room with us.

"Like on Letterman," I said, remembering his statement that of the TwinCities he preferred Minneapolis because, for one thing, he always got lost inSt. Paul, the streets having been laid out by drunken Irishmen.

"That doesn't worry me!" he snapped. It was the conversational equivalentof a body slam.

Leaving, I drove up past the Italian-Renaissance hulk of the Cathedral ofSt. Paul, as noble on its mound as the Capitol, two lone sentinels -- in anelevated equilibrium of church and state -- watching protectively over thecity. Coming around the corner I found myself on Summit Avenue, St. Paul'spride, said to be the nation's longest stretch of inhabited Victorian houses.Though F. Scott Fitzgerald described it once as "a museum of architecturalfailures." I found his home at 599, a handsome, turreted, three-storybrownstone. While I was taking pictures, a neighbor stepped out onto hisstoop.

I mentioned that I'd just come from seeing his governor; the crack onLetterman came up. "I'm Irish myself," he said, then, turning on the heavybrogue, "and I've touched nary a drop since I was 12."

It was in this house that Fitzgerald, returning to St. Paul after hismilitary service, revised his first novel, "This Side of Paradise." Yearslater, in "The Crack-Up," he would write: "The test of a first-rateintelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the sametime, and still retain the ability to function."

I cruised the neighborhood. A block north ran Portland Avenue, whereKeillor now lives, and a block south stretched Grand, with its pretty shops,steamy coffeehouses, aromatic bakeries offering free samples of focaccia andpotato bread. Inside the Tavern on Grand hung a picture of Mikhail Gorbachev,one of the more illustrious of the restaurant's numerous walleyed customers.

The cozy streets supported the claims that St. Paul was more provincial,less dynamic than Minneapolis. There is something to be said for a lack ofdynamism. North on Snelling things turned grittier -- pockets of second-handclothing stores and ethnic restaurants -- and then, heading west onLarpenteur, I found myself in the middle of farmland. The School ofAgriculture, a sign informed me, of the University of Minnesota.

In the evening, back in Minneapolis, I walked to dinner without goingoutside. Descending in the hotel elevator, I cut through the parking garageand found the famous Skyway, which I followed imperviously over the traffic on7th Street, down a corridor of shops (most closed, though it was barely past 6o'clock), back out across Marquette Avenue before arriving,Alice-in-Wonderland-like, in the vast Crystal Court of the IDS Center. I tookthe down escalator -- was that Mary Richards on her way up? -- and found therestaurant Aquavit, its doors opened not to the street but to theclimate-controlled atrium. I was adrift in a world turned in on itself.

A branch of the New York restaurant, the place had a clean design andelegant lighting. My smorgasbord appetizer appeared in bite-sized morsels ofAsian artistry. The only thing that kept it from being fully trendy was thediscordant tone of server friendliness.

- - -

Anoka -- "Halloween Capital of the World" -- lies about 20 miles north ofMinneapolis, a small town turned suburb at the convergence of the Rum andMississippi Rivers.

Keillor's family lived across the Mississippi in Brooklyn Park (the city,coincidentally, where Jesse Ventura served as mayor). But when he writes ofhis hometown he means Anoka: Downing Jewelry, the Anoka Diary, the PumpkinBowl at Goodrich Field, in which every Halloween the Anoka Tornadoes wouldplay their final football game.

"I remember Anoka High School," Keillor wrote in Preview magazine in 1974,"as a long hallway, lined with brown lockers and brown ceramic tile, the hardfluorescent lights: the purgatory that prepares us for middle-class life. Thatwas in the Fifties.

"Back then the standards were exact and covered everything, down to theinflection in your voice and how you carried your books. Everything about mewas wrong: I had the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes (my cousin Roger's), thewrong parents, and it all came down to money. We didn't have enough money.

"Our family was Plymouth Brethren, and Lord, how I wanted to beEpiscopalian. Even Congregational."

Looked at in the context of high school, Ventura is the jock who nevercracked a book and got elected class president anyway. Keillor, turning thetables another 180 degrees, is the gawky nerd who's decided to pick on thebully.

The school still stands -- a flat-roofed, yellow-brick building -- but itis now the Fred Moore Middle School. (An eminently replaceable name.) Thegraceful Carnegie library where Keillor discovered The New Yorker magazine hasbeen replaced by a boxy Norwest Bank. The Swedetown area still exists, thoughthe locals' current gathering spot is Hardee's. The white pillared mansionwhose basement served as a gym for the junior high now houses the Anoka CountyHistorical Society.

The society was a godsend. In the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street therehad been nothing about the town's most famous son, though a signed and framedjersey from Warren Moon hung on the wall. Across the street at the AvantGarden coffeehouse, the young waitress had never heard of Garrison Keillor.She had a tattoo on her left forearm and an innocent voice. She was fromnorthern Minnesota, a fan of the governor.

"I like what he's trying to change."

"Such as?"

She thought for about 10 seconds. "Well, he doesn't want us to have to payfor those tabs you put on your license plate."

At the Kozy Korner Eatery -- home of the "Killebrew Float" -- the owner'sfather said he didn't care much for Keillor. "He's a bit too eccentric for me.I've got too much in my head to deal with eccentricities. But he fits the billwell. It's part of his vernacular."

I had stopped in Hans Bakery, just past the old high school, and admiredthe almond tea rings and wild rice breads. I'd taken a picture of the watertower above Goodrich Field. After lunch, I knocked on the door of theHistorical Society, where a former classmate of Keillor's, Jean Legg Smith,dug out for me the author's file.

Back at the Avant Garden, while I was talking with the waitress, the man atthe bar had grumbled that he'd also been at school with Keillor. But he hadnothing to say about him. It was as if any recollection of that time would betoo painful a proposition. I recited a line of Keillor's on high schoolreunions, something about how the people at them resemble survivors of ashipwreck, shaken but relieved that they made it through OK. And the two ofthem -- the faux-punk waitress who'd never heard of Keillor and themiddle-aged man who couldn't be bothered by him -- laughed in unison. And Ithought, here was the mark of an artist: someone who lives apart from theworld and, distilling experience through a skewed personal perspective, issomehow able to make it universal. The aloof eccentric had created humor thatcut across lines of generation and gender and produced pure, unaffiliatedlaughter.

- - -

Downtown St. Paul on a Saturday afternoon is a patient still staggeringfrom the effects of urban renewal. What life there is tends to cluster aroundthe escapees: the Union Depot, refurbished with restaurants and an exhibithall; the elegant old St. Paul Hotel, overlooking Rice Park and its statue ofFitzgerald; and, up at the corner of Wabasha and Exchange streets, the tidy,blue-awninged Fitzgerald Theater. (Though the families with young ones areheaded to the children's museum across the street.)

Inside the theater, at approximately 2:30 on a recent Saturday afternoon,Garrison Keillor walked on stage in white shirt and black dress trousers andtook his place at the center microphone. There was about him -- in theclothes, the physical presence, the stern, vaguely disapproving expression onhis face -- the unmistakable air of a Sunday preacher.

Sit in on a rehearsal, and then the show, and it does all begin to seemlike church (with one or two of the elements reversed). There is the communalmeal -- like the coffee and fellowship -- though this takes place before theservice, at 4:15, when guests and cast (with the exception of Keillor, whoeats alone in his dressing room) line up for home-cooked victuals from anangelic caterer. Members cordially introduce themselves to strangers. Thecongregation, when it files in, has the warm, benevolent, well-kempt look ofthe urban faithful.

Some sing along with the music, which often has a spiritual theme. And noone stirs during the sermon, a.k.a. "The News From Lake Wobegon." When it'sover, cast members' families come backstage, and children tumble in and out ofthe star's dressing room as if just released from Sunday school. In the midstof the commotion towers Keillor, holding his young daughter and looking forall the world like the leader of a prosperous and close-knit parish.

The only jarring notes in the whole affair are the puerile attacks on thegovernor. It is like hearing the priest tell his favorite dumb blond jokebefore the benediction.

- - -

The lobby of the St. Paul Hotel swished with the gowns of a fading weddingparty. I asked a young woman from Chicago what brought her to St. Paul.

"I was poured into treatment," she said.

"What?"

"Alcohol addiction. You know how they say this is the Land of 10,000 Lakes?It's also the Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers. This place is a mecca forrecovery."

She hadn't had a drink since '94, but was in no hurry to leave. "Theyrecommend that you stay in the area. And I like St. Paul. There are no Jaguarsor Chanel make-up here. It's about people."

Before going back to my hotel, I stopped at Nye's Bar & Polonaise Room. Ablond trouper tapped out old chestnuts on the piano, under a bad painting ofChopin, and in the side room young people jostled to the plodding rhythms ofRuth Adams and the World's Most Dangerous Polka Band.

On the third floor of Mall of America a caricature of the governor staredout at shoppers. It burst from a blow-up of the cover of the book -- "Me, byJimmy (Big Boy) Valente as told to Garrison Keillor" -- which filled thewindow of the Lake Wobegon USA store. I had seen the indoor roller coaster,the giant inflated Snoopy, the plaque marking the old home plate ofMetropolitan Stadium, even the lone red chair hanging high on the wall abovethe log ride and signifying the terminus of a historic Harmon Killebrew homerun. I had had a lunch in the food court of walleye and cheese curds. Butnothing surprised me more than the presence of a Lake Wobegon store. Yet twomore opposed ideas.

Inside were T-shirts, mugs, books, tapes. "We'd like to sell a lot morethings," the shop assistant said. "But Garrison torpedoes every new idea wehave. He doesn't get into the commercial end."

I passed on the book and bought a couple of the postcards. They showed asmall town Main Street, circa 1940, with the salutation at the top: "Greetingsfrom Lake Wobegon, Minn."

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For more information: Greater Minneapolis Convention and VisitorsAssociation, 888-676-6757; www.minneapolis.org. St. Paul Convention andVisitors Bureau, 800-627-6101; www.stpaulcvb.org.

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