Minnesota's odd couples

Minnesota excels at producing unlikely pairs. In the field of literature there is the dissimilar duo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis (Riviera and prairie); in politics, Eugene McCarthy and Harold Stassen; in music, Bob Dylan and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The illustrators LeRoy Neiman and Charles Schulz are both Minnesotans, as are the sports heroes Greg LeMond and 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 Minnesota this century: Charles Lindbergh and Judy Garland. Currently the two celebrities most associated with the state -- grandly continuing the tradition of dual personalities -- are Garrison Keillor and Jesse Ventura.

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

Yet there are more things linking them than a shared home state. They are physically imposing men, both standing well over 6 feet tall and speaking in sonorous, signature voices. Both took noms de plume (or guerre) for careers in entertainment -- Garrison having been born Gary, and Jesse Ventura, Jim Janos. Similarly, both created a folksy persona -- the homespun raconteur, the bombastic brawler -- that played in theaters and arenas and over time attracted a loyal following. Each adopted in the process a sartorial trademark, the red socks peeking out from under Keillor's pants cuffs being the 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 after the election, when Keillor wrote a mocking essay for Time magazine. Ventura followed, shortly after his inauguration, by suggesting an end to state funding for public radio. The new governor quickly became a weekly object of ridicule on "A Prairie Home Companion" -- a heretofore harmless collection of music 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 for non-Minnesotans, the placid surface of a state known for its numerous lakes.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are not the twins many think they are, connected at the hip by a bridge (like Philadelphia and Camden). Cross the Mississippi in 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 & Polonaise Room, 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 going from Burbank to Pasadena, head southeast for half a dozen unexceptional miles.

The Capitol sits alone on a hill overlooking downtown, skirted by rolling green lawns and animated by a golden chariot at the base of its dome. It could be the seat of government for a medium-sized country. Inside, the echoing corridors are hung with oil paintings of governors past: Floyd Bjerstjerne Olson, Edward Thye, Luther W. Youngdahl, Harold Stassen. It is difficult to make the proper chronological progression from these stern and provident faces to the silkenly shaven head now in office.

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

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

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

"I spent 5 or 10 minutes talking with Nicolas Cage," he said in that deep boreal drawl that sounds as if it should be emanating from an animated character. "Real nice guy. I went to Elton John's party. His party was in support of AIDS, so I thought that was a good party to go to. I talked with Nick Nolte. How many of you saw `Down and Out in Beverly Hills'? Remember the scene 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 to give out the Truer Than Fiction award. I thought, `How real.' Because many people thought my election was truer than fiction. Though Garrison will do it after the fact."

He was much less jovial 10 minutes later when he stared at me across an enormous desk in his corner office. (He had been quoted in Newsweek a few months earlier saying he'd installed a special bumper on his SUV for running over reporters.) Something about the bald head, the dark shirt, the double-breasted suit -- his impatient rocking back and forth in his chair -- kindled unpleasant images from St. Paul's gangster past. I asked him where he would take me in Minnesota if he had the time -- hoping for an armchair tour of former hangouts -- and got nothing but a Chamber of Commerce listing of standard highlights: Stillwater, on the St. Croix River; the lakes; the Boundary 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 interjected at one point. Two staff members were in the room with us.

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

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

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

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

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

I cruised the neighborhood. A block north ran Portland Avenue, where Keillor now lives, and a block south stretched Grand, with its pretty shops, steamy coffeehouses, aromatic bakeries offering free samples of focaccia and potato 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 of dynamism. North on Snelling things turned grittier -- pockets of second-hand clothing stores and ethnic restaurants -- and then, heading west on Larpenteur, I found myself in the middle of farmland. The School of Agriculture, a sign informed me, of the University of Minnesota.

In the evening, back in Minneapolis, I walked to dinner without going outside. Descending in the hotel elevator, I cut through the parking garage and found the famous Skyway, which I followed imperviously over the traffic on 7th Street, down a corridor of shops (most closed, though it was barely past 6 o'clock), back out across Marquette Avenue before arriving, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, in the vast Crystal Court of the IDS Center. I took the down escalator -- was that Mary Richards on her way up? -- and found the restaurant Aquavit, its doors opened not to the street but to the climate-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 and elegant lighting. My smorgasbord appetizer appeared in bite-sized morsels of Asian artistry. The only thing that kept it from being fully trendy was the discordant tone of server friendliness.

- - -

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

Keillor's family lived across the Mississippi in Brooklyn Park (the city, coincidentally, where Jesse Ventura served as mayor). But when he writes of his hometown he means Anoka: Downing Jewelry, the Anoka Diary, the Pumpkin Bowl at Goodrich Field, in which every Halloween the Anoka Tornadoes would play 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 hard fluorescent lights: the purgatory that prepares us for middle-class life. That was in the Fifties.

"Back then the standards were exact and covered everything, down to the inflection in your voice and how you carried your books. Everything about me was wrong: I had the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes (my cousin Roger's), the wrong 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 be Episcopalian. Even Congregational."

Looked at in the context of high school, Ventura is the jock who never cracked a book and got elected class president anyway. Keillor, turning the tables another 180 degrees, is the gawky nerd who's decided to pick on the bully.

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

The society was a godsend. In the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street there had been nothing about the town's most famous son, though a signed and framed jersey from Warren Moon hung on the wall. Across the street at the Avant Garden coffeehouse, the young waitress had never heard of Garrison Keillor. She had a tattoo on her left forearm and an innocent voice. She was from northern 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 pay for those tabs you put on your license plate."

At the Kozy Korner Eatery -- home of the "Killebrew Float" -- the owner's father 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 bill well. It's part of his vernacular."

I had stopped in Hans Bakery, just past the old high school, and admired the almond tea rings and wild rice breads. I'd taken a picture of the water tower above Goodrich Field. After lunch, I knocked on the door of the Historical 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 at the bar had grumbled that he'd also been at school with Keillor. But he had nothing to say about him. It was as if any recollection of that time would be too painful a proposition. I recited a line of Keillor's on high school reunions, something about how the people at them resemble survivors of a shipwreck, shaken but relieved that they made it through OK. And the two of them -- the faux-punk waitress who'd never heard of Keillor and the middle-aged man who couldn't be bothered by him -- laughed in unison. And I thought, here was the mark of an artist: someone who lives apart from the world and, distilling experience through a skewed personal perspective, is somehow able to make it universal. The aloof eccentric had created humor that cut across lines of generation and gender and produced pure, unaffiliated laughter.

- - -

Downtown St. Paul on a Saturday afternoon is a patient still staggering from the effects of urban renewal. What life there is tends to cluster around the escapees: the Union Depot, refurbished with restaurants and an exhibit hall; the elegant old St. Paul Hotel, overlooking Rice Park and its statue of Fitzgerald; and, up at the corner of Wabasha and Exchange streets, the tidy, blue-awninged Fitzgerald Theater. (Though the families with young ones are headed 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 and took his place at the center microphone. There was about him -- in the clothes, the physical presence, the stern, vaguely disapproving expression on his face -- the unmistakable air of a Sunday preacher.

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

Some sing along with the music, which often has a spiritual theme. And no one stirs during the sermon, a.k.a. "The News From Lake Wobegon." When it's over, cast members' families come backstage, and children tumble in and out of the star's dressing room as if just released from Sunday school. In the midst of the commotion towers Keillor, holding his young daughter and looking for all 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 the governor. It is like hearing the priest tell his favorite dumb blond joke before the benediction.

- - -

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

"I was poured into treatment," she said.


"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 for recovery."

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

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

On the third floor of Mall of America a caricature of the governor stared out at shoppers. It burst from a blow-up of the cover of the book -- "Me, by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente as told to Garrison Keillor" -- which filled the window of the Lake Wobegon USA store. I had seen the indoor roller coaster, the giant inflated Snoopy, the plaque marking the old home plate of Metropolitan Stadium, even the lone red chair hanging high on the wall above the log ride and signifying the terminus of a historic Harmon Killebrew home run. I had had a lunch in the food court of walleye and cheese curds. But nothing surprised me more than the presence of a Lake Wobegon store. Yet two more opposed ideas.

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

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


For more information: Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, 888-676-6757; St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-627-6101;