Tevlin: Small-town reality is bleak when the streets empty of tourists

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 7:53 PM

It was dusk in the small tourist town where spring had come so early that no one had expected visitors and the only thing open was the bar. So that's where the two boys went, kicking their scooters down the empty street.

They had been out enjoying the fine day, two kids, maybe 9 or 10 years old, losing track of the time and the miles as the sun slipped lower in the sky.

They had to go to the bathroom. They were hungry. They needed to use the phone.

All the tourists who had come for the day were gone, except me. Someone in the back turned up the jukebox loud, so I couldn't hear what the older kid said when he made the call. But I saw his face as he put the phone on the bar.

For a few minutes, they sat there with their heads down, saying nothing. The beer sign in the window got brighter as night fell.

The bartender, who looked barely legal to drink, gave the kids some pop.

"Your mom coming to get you?" she asked.

He shook his head, no.

"Why not?"

The kid shrugged, then looked at his brother.

They lived in another town, so they better go, he said.

"That's 9 miles away, uphill," said the bartender. "It's too dark to see the trail."

She looked at the boys. "I'll try to find somebody to give you a ride," she said.

In the heart of summer, this town is filled with tourists. They ride bikes, eat at the bakeries and upscale cafes and shop for antiques. There is ice cream and popcorn and even a small theater. But like a lot of towns that cater to seasonal business, it virtually shuts down for half of the year.

I had planned to visit for a few days to take advantage of the glorious weather. The first day, I took long walks with the dog and rode alone on trails through the woods, which were already coming alive with buds and birds.

I spent part of my youth living in a small town, and so I keep idyllic memories of languid summers spent there. I had also been to this town, and loved it.

But with the crowds gone, this was a very different place. It reminded me, like the small town of my youth, that it could also be lonely and poor.

As I walked around this time, I noticed that just behind the brightly colored Victorian house were many others that were ramshackle, with bad roofs and plywood porches. There were junker cars and someone had put a beat-up lounge chair on the sidewalk with a sign that said "free." The supermarket where I bought local sausages last time was closed and boarded up. "Out of business" signs hung in some windows.

Just before I left home, I'd gotten a press release from Jobs Now on the economy of this region. It said there were 14,000 unemployed workers competing for 3,800 jobs here, more than half part-time. The median wage for those jobs was $10 per hour.

In the morning, I had bumped into two day-trippers from Minneapolis who were looking for lunch.

"It's a beautiful town," said one. "I sure hope it survives."

Earlier in the evening, I had stopped at another bar to see if it served food. (It didn't.) A man in his 20s quickly struck up a conversation. He was unemployed.

"Been drinking since 10 this morning," he began.

His buddy was yelling obscenities and racial epithets at a basketball game as the man told me that his wife had left him for another guy, and that he missed his kids.

"I'm still in love with her," he said.

The two boys with scooters sat at the bar and drank pop. The bartender looked at me and sighed. Earlier, she had caught a guy smoking pot in the bathroom. Because of budget issues, the town shares law enforcement with other towns, but officers are rarely around. Last night, she said, the bar stayed open until 3, because there is no one to stop them.

After a while, the phone rang. It was the brother of the two boys. The bartender gave him directions to town.

"So sad," she said. "He doesn't know how to get here because he's too young to drive."

You could hear the car coming a block away. The boys loaded their scooters into the back seat.

I planned to stay three nights but had already decided I would leave the next day.

The bartender watched as the three kids rumbled off into the darkness.

"It's been kind of a weird night," she said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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