I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, about as far north as you could go and still be in Wisconsin. Picture Lake Superior. See where it looks like a pointing finger? We were the very tip of that finger, where Wisconsin meets Minnesota. In fact, for all intents and purposes we were Minnesota. OK. That’s just a lie I tell to make myself feel better about being from Superior, Wisconsin.
I come from Superior, Wisconsin but I lie and say Duluth, Minnesota. On a map it’s not really a huge difference. Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota are commonly referred to as the Twin Ports, the largest inland port in the world, 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. They are in two separate states, split by Superior Bay and connected by two bridges, the High Bridge and the Bong Bridge. (High Bridge and Bong Bridge. Really? Yes, really.) The lines blur so distinctly that the term “Minnesconsin” was invented. There was reciprocity for taxes and university tuition but not on sports teams. The deduction lines on your paycheck were blurred but the Packer versus Viking distinction was not.
Now you may be wondering, if the two city/states are so conjoined why would you feel compelled to lie and say you are from Duluth?
The differences between Superior and Duluth are like the differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. While located on the same geographic plane they are distinctly different in wealth, scenery and population. Superior is flat. The only way to see Lake Superior is to drive directly to it and stand on the shore. Duluth is built on a hill and the lake view is inescapable and breathtaking. Superior’s waterfront is home to rusting grain elevators, ship yards and is infested with rats and seagulls. Duluth’s waterfront is home to long lake walks, charming hotels and is infested with tourists (mostly wealthy folks from Minneapolis/St. Paul). It’s like the San Francisco of the Midwest. Duluth girls lose their virginity to hot college guys from one of the many universities. Superior girls lose their virginity to Canadian businessmen in the bathroom of the Park Inn International Hotel (sure it was in Duluth but it’s still a bathroom and a Canadian businessman, eh). Duluth is a jewel on Lake Superior. Superior is what you have to drive through to get to Duluth.
Growing up in Superior meant always knowing that something better was just across the bridge. Just a small expanse of water away but it might as well have been an ocean. Before the Bong Bridge was built in 1985 there were only two ways to Duluth — one was the High Bridge and it had no pedestrian walkway, and the other, a rickety old wooden bridge that never felt safe. Public transportation was limited to the Duluth Transit Authority, a bus that ran limited hours. There were a few taxicabs but they were on a call basis, not something you could just flag down on the street. The frustration of being able to see the lights of Duluth but not walk there was a deadly temptation in the winter when the bay was frozen over. Every few years someone would attempt to walk across and fall through the ice. Their fate just speculations until the spring thaw in May, or in some years, June.
Yes, Duluth was so close yet so far to us Superior kids. Then one November day in 1983, my friends, Chris, Tim and I decided that we needed to go to Last Place On Earth.
I don’t remember how we knew about the store but somehow it beckoned to our eleven-year-old hearts like a rock-n-roll lighthouse. Sure, Superior’s pathetic Mariner Mall had a music store but it was small, well lit and was only good for posters of Samantha Fox in a bikini or Poison in too much make up. We needed a real music store. We needed Last Place On Earth. Last Place On Earth was a seedy head shop on Superior Street in Duluth. It was a small storefront that sold cassette tapes, vinyl albums, T-shirts, and posters. What made it unique to the mall store was its specialty items — tobacco smoking accessories (bongs, one hitters and pipes) adult toys (condoms, vibrators and nipple clamps) and weapons (knives and throwing stars). It was totally awesome and totally not an appropriate destination for three 6th graders. It was the last place on earth our parents would allow us to be.
So we gathered up our spare change and waited for the bus on Belknap Street, conveniently located in front of my house, but out of the view of the living room windows. It was cold and windy but the excitement of the day kept us warm until we boarded the bus.
It only took us twenty minutes to arrive at Last Place on Earth. We opened the heavy wooden door and were greeted by the sound of a bell and hit with the heavy smell of incense, a thick, foreign smoky smell. The walls were covered in T-shirts, almost all black, and all stapled to cardboard squares and numbered for easy purchase. There was a display case for the “tobacco” smoking accessories. Psychedelic pipes like something from “Alice in Wonderland,” brightly colored glass vases and intricate wooden boxes that held gold metal objects. We did not know what they were used for but they sure looked cool. The vibrators and dildos were also kept behind the glass. We didn’t know what they were for either but we knew enough to find them kind of disturbing. We moved on to the selection of cassette tapes, T-shirts and posters.
Sixth to ninth grade were my “rock chick” years. I loved metal, glam rock and hair bands. I would use my allowance money to walk to the Milk House, a gas station on the corner that sold music magazines along side pop and the cigarettes it sold to minors. I would tear the four-page centerfold posters and glossy color photos out of “Circus” and “Metal Edge” and scotch tape them to my bedroom wall. Much to my mothers horror I chose Motley Crue, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard and Quiet Riot. She hated Ozzy Osbourne the most. Maybe it was because I once listened to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” non-stop on a family trip to Minneapolis, rewinding my cassette Walkman over and over to hear it again and again, all while silently nodding, my torso pumping and thumping to the guitar and bass lines. Maybe it was because I threw a tantrum and wouldn’t speak to her for a week when she wouldn’t allow ten-year-old me to see Ozzy’s “Diary of a Madman” tour live at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. (Two shows after that date was the infamous “bites head off bat” show.) Maybe it was just because the thought of her ten-year-old daughter rocking out to a blood-soaked demon worshiper was just too much for her Midwestern mom heart to take.
As I looked through the poster selection in the heavy plastic display frames that made a loud “wack” sound when we flipped through them, my breath caught in my throat. While Ozzy was high on my list of loves there was still room for one more British band on my walls and in my heart — Duran Duran. I loved those pretty boys with their matching jumpsuits and perfectly styled hair. I considered myself a serious fan, a Duranie, but the only way to get photos of them was to purchase girlie teen magazines like “Tiger Beat” and “Teen,” something I had no interest in. So when the time came to make our purchases and commemorate our trip to the big city I chose a giant Duran Duran poster. It was five-feet long and three-feet high and would put my magazine pullouts with their creases and staple holes to shame. I clutched the perfectly wrapped tube in my hand like a scepter and we left the store.
We decided we still had time before we had to be home for supper so we walked back down Superior Street to the Holiday Center, a small shopping mall attached to the Holiday Inn. We walked around the Skywalk — a series of sky tunnels that allow Duluthians to travel downtown without braving the sub-zero temperatures that take over the Northland eight months of the year. We ate cheese-ball samples at the Hickory Farms store and stopped to play Pac Man at the arcade.
At 6:05 p.m. it was getting dark and we decided we better catch our bus ride back to the dreariness of Superior. We took the escalator down to the main entrance and checked to see what time the next bus was.
Tomorrow. The next bus was Monday morning. The last bus to Superior left at 6 p.m. Years of trying to get out of Superior and now all we wanted to do was go back. The Holiday Center was closing, forcing us out into the cold Minnesota night. None of us wanted to call our parents and a taxi was financially impossible. Our only hope was Tim’s older brother, Don, who was 16 and had a driver’s license. Maybe he would come to our rescue. Our first calls were unanswered and we continued walking down the street, getting as close to Superior as we could. By the time we reached Don and he agreed to come get us it was past 7 p.m. and we were all the way to Garfield Avenue and late enough that we had to call our parents and let them know where we were.
I remember sitting on the cold Garfield Avenue viaduct waiting for Don. The three of us huddled together against the wind, silent, watching the lights of Superior flicker, so close yet so far. The excitement of the day now eclipsed by the trouble waiting for us back home.
For me it was my mother yelling and a lecture about how we could have been kidnapped, murdered and left for dead under the bridge. She confiscated my Duran Duran poster and put it on the shelf in her closet.
I didn’t see it again until two months later when I hung a particularly bloody pullout of Ozzy up on my bedroom wall. While my mother didn’t believe in censorship she did believe in bargaining. So out came the Duran Duran poster from its spot in the closet in exchange for my crappy Ozzy pullout. My mother thought she had done a good thing, that those clean-cut British boys were definitely better idols. It would be another year or two before she would discover that my VHS tape of Duran Duran videos, the one I watched constantly, included the original video for “Girls on Film.” One of the first X-rated music videos, it featured semi-naked girls dancing in a boxing ring, sliding on whip-cream-covered poles, wrestling in mud and making out with each other. But by then it was too late to trade back.
It was just a few more years and I was old enough to have friends who could drive and whenever possible we spent our free time in Duluth. After graduation from Superior Senior High School I rejected the University of Wisconsin-Superior for what else, the University of Minnesota-Duluth. But I was twenty-one before I made the official move across the bridge to become a Duluth resident. Of course I was still driving across the Bong Bridge and the High Bridge on a regular basis for the one thing that Superior has over Duluth. Liquor.
Minnesota bars closed at 1 a.m. and to this day there is still no alcohol sold on Sundays. So most nights the drive was made (drunkenly) across the bridge at 12:30 a.m. — after the last call for Minnesota but just in time for a round or two in Superior. The scariest time to drive on the bridge was between the hours of 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. — we called it the Drunk Migration.
Now that I am forty I try to find the humor in my hometown and embrace my roots. When I was 12 the city launched a new ad campaign — “I’m a Superior Lover.” You have to love a city that makes sweatshirts that say, “I’m a Superior Lover” in kid’s sizes, right? Right?
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