I’ve been remiss in reporting on this site, which attracts me again and again when work hits a slow patch and The Onion is folded neatly into its electronic recycle bin. Here we find the cultural collection of James Lileks, one of the few people I’ve ever found who can wax nostalgic about Fargo, North Dakota. Now a columnist for a big Minneapolis daily, his site chronicles the pop culture of the baby boom in a style that is sweetly nostalgic and hysterically funny. I discovered it from the back cover of his previously reviewed book, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, itself a noteworthy cultural artifact. It stands dramatic reading by drunken friends better than almost anything printed in years.
Well organized and easy to navigate, this site contains many notable collections of cultural detritus. I strongly recommend a start with “The Grooviest Hotel In Wisconsin.” (http://www.lileks.com/institute/motel/gob1.html) That would be the almost surreal Gobbler in Fort Atkinson. Yes, this is a real place. I’ve driven by it many times, but never went in, a decision I now deeply regret. The hotel is the apex of cool 1960s style, with pop art rooms dripping with shag carpet and furniture right from George and Jane Jetson’s bridal registry. By the ’70s, it was hopelessly tacky, and today it would out hipster anything standing on South Beach.
After visiting the Turkey, cruise over to the “Art of Art Frahm ” area. (http://www.lileks.com/institute/frahm/index.html) This little-known artist of the ’50s developed a distinctive, illustrative style that one can immediately recognize. But it’s his subject matter that is most interesting. He specialized in pictures of women loosing their underwear in public places, always while carrying a grocery bag with celery prominently protruding. It’s not exactly pi- up, but it’s one of those low-key male fantasies of a beautiful woman publicly embarrassed. It makes great wallpaper for your computer. Unless you’re married, in which case you can risk using it at work.
There’s hours of mindless browsing here, but let’s take a quick look at the Fargo section. (http://www.lileks.com/fargo/indexx.html) Reputable people assure me Fargo exists, but I’ve never been, and chances are you haven’t either. This will give you enough of the town’s flavor to fake it if you ever need to, and if that event ever arises in your life, please drop a note. Fargo came into being as a transport point for the grain grown by the displaced Finns and Norwegians lost out on the Great Plains, people who missed the mountains but didn’t mind the cold. It was a bit of a boomtown and someplace important back in the early 20th century, and now is sort of a backwash of American culture, either ignored or ridiculed on Public Broadcasting. But that doesn’t mean the city didn’t have pride back then and pride now, and it IS a living place with people and business and little fuzzy kittens. Lileks grabs the heart of the place, relating what it meant to grow up there with a series of then and now photos and local history. It’s the same nostalgia we all have for our childhood cities; it’s just that Fargo always gets an undeserved snigger.
There’s tons more — pictures of Elvis hugging Liberace, old hotel photos, cast-off corporate mascots, vignettes from old stock certificates that will make you go hubba-hubba, all minor bits of our culture that take on a certain significance when you see them stripped of their original context. This guy is one of the most sardonically funny writers around, and he has some of the best graphics going. Visit early and visit often.