Border Hopping

by Bill Tuomala



A few years back, I was sitting with my sister and our parents at a restaurant in Stillwater, Minnesota -- a town located on the St. Croix river. My seat faced an east-looking window and I spent most of the meal staring across the river towards the opposite bank. When my family eventually tried to involve me in the conversation, I just said, "Hey -- that's Wisconsin!" and then got blank looks. "Isn't it cosmic," I said, "that we could cross that river and be in another state?" More blank looks. They were nonplussed, but I was amazed that I was a stone's throw away from the land of inexpensive twelve packs and two a.m. bar closes. You'd think my parents, at least, would be proud that they raised a child who as an adult still cultivated an interest in geography. I assumed the act of requesting that after the meal we drive across the bridge and set foot in Wisconsin would be mocked, so I didn't make it.


Borders have always fascinated me. Sad to say, but I enjoy paging through my Rand McNally World Atlas, looking at all the straight and squiggly border lines. Maybe my interest stems from having spent my formative years residing on the outskirts of Grand Forks, North Dakota; a town located on the Minnesota border. From my bedroom window I could see a part of Minnesota -- a bank of land across the Red River of the North. Our neighborhood was also located on a border, it was a development located just south of Grand Forks' boundary. We didn't get our water or sewer services from the city; and local lore had it that the Thompson Fire Department (Thompson was a tiny town about five miles to the south) would be the ones coming if a fire started, not the Grand Forks firefighters. Or maybe parents just said this to further discourage kids from playing with matches. We were always desperate for kicks in our neighborhood as cable television wasn't offered there until I was well into high school.


Part of growing up in a border town involves learning the cultures of both sides of the border. Obviously, the differences between Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, weren't as dramatic as the differences between Cold War-era East and West Berlin. But in my day, North Dakota had some strange blue laws affecting Sunday commerce. For instance: liquor sales in restaurants weren't allowed, nor were any retail stores open. Convenience stores were open, as were grocery stores; but the grocery stores could only employ three people. But on Sundays you could always leave Grand Forks, cross the river into East Grand Forks, and buy your groceries at a fully-staffed Piggly Wiggly, purchase some hardware at the Coast to Coast, or enjoy wine with your meal at the River Bend Restaurant. I'm surprised there weren't traffic jams on the bridges.


Growing up, the differences between the two towns and states were huge in the two areas that counted most to red-blooded American teenagers: cars and alcohol. When I was in high school, the driving age in North Dakota was fourteen; in Minnesota, sixteen. Why the barely-pubescent age of fourteen in North Dakota? Farm equipment. I was always informed that because North Dakota is a predominantly rural state, the driving age was fourteen so that all those farm kids could drive grain trucks and pickup trucks and all those other vehicles used in farming. Me, I've never lived on a farm, but God bless those farm kids and their trucks. I was more than glad to be able to get my drivers license when I was fourteen. Unfortunately, I flunked my drivers test -- a story I won't be relating here (it involves being confused by the only one-way street in Grand Forks) -- and got my license on my second try a week or two after my fifteenth birthday.


During my youth, the drinking age was twenty-one in North Dakota and nineteen in Minnesota. So in North Dakota, we got seven years of driving experience (assuming you didn't drink while underage har har) before we could imbibe legally. In Minnesota, they allowed you the three years of ages sixteen-til-nineteen -- those tormented, confused, crucial ones -- to learn to drive before you were expected to be mature enough to "manage" your sobriety. Y'know: like handling those interesting algebra problems like where if you drink eight beers from 10:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m., it's really the equivalent of five-and-a-quarter beers.


Needless to say, once you turned nineteen in Grand Forks you were on your way across the bridge into East Grand Forks and its bars and liquor stores. And even once we turned twenty-one, we stayed in our college-crowd East-side bars because the ones back in Grand Forks were mostly ones working adults frequented, and those people scared us. The North Dakota bars weren't missing our business: many people headed to North Dakota bars to play legalized blackjack, an activity which was mysteriously left out of the state's tourism-promotion literature and TV commercials.


To totally make the cars 'n' booze equations fun for us border kids, the states differed on how late you could buy liquor. In North Dakota, liquor stores were open until one a.m., in Minnesota they closed at ten p.m. This led to interesting travel plans for my buddy Hammer and me once we turned twenty-one. Because we were in a rut and continued to frequent the East-side bars, we would stay across the border until literally the last possible minute, flying out the door of Whitey's in East Grand Forks at 12:55 p.m. and skedaddling across the river to buy beer at Bonzer's in downtown Grand Forks at 12:59 p.m. The offsale manager would yell at us that we had to be out of there immediately, and we would laugh while heading straight for the sliding-door cooler to grab our cold sixers of Schmidt Big Mouths.


It all seemed like some big caper, some scheme to beat The Man, all that traveling back and forth across the river. Now I live in Minneapolis, where the liquor stores close at eight p.m. on weeknights. How puritan. Meanwhile, North Dakota has attained normalcy. All stores are open and fully staffed on Sundays. Plus, they took their liberal offsale policies up a notch. You can now buy liquor seven days a week until one a.m., whereas in Minnesota if you're dry on a Sunday you have to go to Tom Thumb for overpriced three-two Old Milwaukee.


And of course, the legal drinking age is twenty-one nationwide; yet another step in turning our great country into one big homogenized strip mall. All states went to age twenty-one during the Reagan Era, when they were blackmailed by a federal government who had threatened to withhold highway funds. Which is why my numero uno case for Ronnie being such an overrated president is this: When the chips were truly down, he failed to keep Big Government off the backs of teenagers -- stripping them of their right to buy their sixers of Miller High Life.


Thankfully, kids these days don't seem to resent those of us who had it so good. When I was recently in my local watering hole boring the youngsters with stories about my wasted youth, I dropped mention that in my day I could cross a river and buy beer at age nineteen in Minnesota. "It was nineteen back then?" one asked. "Oh yeah," another said, "I've heard about that."







[Exiled on Main Street #39][Home]