“The Case for Bad Coffee,” by Keith Pandolfi

This morning, as I made my way to the kitchen for coffee, thumbing through my Facebook and yawning big, my friend Cindy Adams linked me to the essay, “The Case for Bad Coffee,” by Keith Pandolfi. This piece is a rich and sensual drift in nostalgia, steeped in story and grounded in real-time.

Pandolfi took me on a magic carpet ride. I’m wondering if the author and I shared a grandpa, and I was transported instantly to an auto shop waiting room at one of a dozen locations where that acrid cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup held such strong appeal. I’ll add one more image that I miss dearly. My dad, who was up in the morning long before the rest of us, sitting at the dining room table in his robe and slippers, smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee, and reading Zane Grey westerns. If I surprised him by waking up early, he’d wink at me and say, let me just finish this chapter.

You might wonder about this musing in a travelogue, but read Pandolfi’s essay and see where he transports you.

“The Case for Bad Coffee”



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I told them that roof would fall down!


These prophetic words from Marv came true sometime this summer. Marv, cousin to the second-generation Hutmachers, remembers visiting Aunt Veronica and Uncle Frank’s house when he was a kid. He would not step inside the building, sure that the dirt roof would tumble down and crush them all. He was so certain, that he never took a meal inside; his mom or aunt or cousins would bring his plate outside.

Well, it took 50 years, but Marv’s prediction came true.

The fallen-in roof, located in the original kitchen section of the Hutmacher Farmhouse.


A missing section of roof, as visible from the northeast corner of the house.


You can only imagine our dismay to find the Hutmacher house in this condition. Since 2005 and 2006, Preservation North Dakota and hundreds of volunteers and NDSU service learning students have contributed sweat equity to rebuild, restore, and preserve the Hutmacher Farmstead. A Save America’s Treasures grant helped to fund the project, as did individual donations of money and materials. The property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts the best and perhaps only extant collection of farm buildings built in the traditional ways brought to this country by the Germans from Russia.

The Hutmacher House, as it appeared in all its glory the last time we saw it in April.

It was a dreary, rainy day last Saturday as our volunteer crew drove onto the Hutmacher grounds. We’d received a call two days before, so we knew to dread what we might find, but we figured that the advance notice was better than driving up to the site unknowingly. The ugly scene confirmed our nightmarish imaginings.

Facing the newest kitchen area from the older, our vision transected by the failed ridgepole.


Sad view from the south side. The living room (original kitchen) window has popped out, rafters and ridgepole reach for the sky, while all the clay and sand roof has fallen to the ground.


The bedroom roof has tumbled in, even though before the storms, this was one of the best-roofed sections of the house.

While we can’t confirm the exact date and time of the damage, we know (and the sheriff’s deputy confirmed) that vandals were not involved. It was the weather that undid our labors. In a story picked up by the Associated Press, we learned that storms in early July “packed heavy rain and winds up to 80 mph, which damaged trees, houses, farm buildings, campers and power poles throughout the region… ‘It sounded like a north wind in the winter,’ rural Halliday resident Muffin McLoud told the Tribune. ‘It just howled…I’ve never heard anything like that in July.’”

For us, the worse damage came as three ridgepoles split and broke, two in the house—affecting a bedroom and the original kitchen—and one in the garage, which hasn’t fallen yet but surely will. The granary isn’t looking too good either, as it and the garage have developed a serious sway-back look to their once-gorgeous ridges.

Sample dangerous break. This cracked pole is in the garage, a purloin parallel to the ridgepole.

Our group of volunteers, joined by PND President Susan Quinnell and led by professors Tom Isern and Suzzanne Kelley, met in the granary while a cool wind and rain taunted us from outside, reminding us just how fragile a homestead on the plains can be. We discussed options and how we might proceed.

 Our decision?

What else could we do but pick up our shovels and rakes, flex our muscles, and dig in.

We worked all Saturday afternoon, watching the sky shift from gray to blue, a match to the shift in our spirits as we cleared away debris and even made a new discovery! Digging down to the wooden flooring, which we didn’t even know was beneath years of caked-on dirt all along, were telltale orange floorboards. We’d wondered why such a traditionally constructed building, with turquoise- and pink-painted walls, did not have typical orange flooring—but there it was, right beneath our feet all the time and invisible to us but for this otherwise calamitous event.


Orange wood flooring peeks through the swept-away dirt.

Interior wall with sample paint colors from over the years.

We returned on Sunday to see how much more clean-up we might accomplish, when unexpected guests arrived. Marv and his sister and various spouses and kids had gotten the bug to come out today and see the old place. What a joyful walk on the grounds it was to hear stories from this family, their recollections of having come out years ago to partake of Veronica’s chicken noodle soup and borscht, to walk the hills and help retrieve the cows at the end of day, to note the shady spot at the west end of the house where Uncle Frank and Alex would rest in the after-lunch shade, and to see Marv shake his head at the tumbled down roofs and walls and exclaim, “I told them that roof would fall down.”


 Yes, the roof fell down. We will build it up again.

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Date Night: Page, North Dakota

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It’s Saturday night in Page, and folks are lined up in the streets–because that’s how they park here–ready to take in a show.

No curbside parking here. Everyone lines up right down the middle of the street.


We’ve been planning all week to get back to Page, where we know that every Saturday night the Page Cafe is serving all-you-can-eat bbq ribs (just $10.95). And they mean it, too, although my first serving really was all I could eat. The cafe is open every day until 8pm, with a different dinner special every day–Sunday is Seafood Night–but only the Saturday special is all you can eat.

Page Cafe


Tom decided he needed a second serving of fall-off-the-bone meaty ribs. (And as I write, I’m kind of wishing I’d gone back for seconds, too!)


As we moved our forks from ribs to pecan pie and lemon cheesecake, I overheard the woman in the next booth ask a fellow if he was “doing the projection thing tonight?” He replied with a yes, and she said she was looking forward to it, but she “might miss that intermission in the middle.” Just about a month ago, the Page theater made the shift from reel-to-reel film to digital movie viewing. Not a small enterprise for a small town to undertake, but necessary as the film industry moved to digital distribution, final by the end of this year. See “Small-town movie theaters threatened by shift to digital cinema” for the gory details.

Page has an active Community Club, which results in the community cafe and the community theater, entities maintained by the community for the pleasure of the community and for wanderers like us.


Page Theater. Doors are open, popcorn’s popping, and the Community Club volunteers (and their kids) are ready for customers.


Gone are the days of old when a certificate like this, displayed in the Page Theater projection room, demonstrated that the holder had some pretty specific skills.

Motion Picture Machine Operator’s License, issued by The State Board of Electricians to Lloyd E. Kelly, 1941.


Now, empty reels are used for decoration.

Lobby seats at the Page Theater


And the projection room looks a lot different without reel-to-reel equipment.



But the view of the projection light from a theater seat still looks the same.



And the interior of the theater looks much as I expect it always has, although the seats are “new” (brought in from OMWICK Theater of Valley City).


View from the back of the Page Theater. To my right, there is also a “crying room,” or wait, isn’t that the “make-out room”? Altogether, the theater seats close to 200 people with plenty of legroom between the rows.


We watched Man of Steel—a modern take on Superman in this wonderful, old theater. The Page Theater shows movies Saturday and Sunday nights.

Tickets are a bargain ($6.50) and the concessions are a steal ($3 for popcorn and a bottle of soda), but the best part is meeting the Community Club folks (and their kids). The ticket booth was “manned” by a mom and her son, who later appeared behind the concession counter, learning to make change (which is fast becoming a lost art!) with his dad. Date Night in Page turned out to be a great deal, and we even received a “thanks for coming to Page!” farewell as we departed from the theater into the night for a pleasant ride home.

To get from Fargo to Page, head west on I-94 and take the Buffalo exit, which puts you onto Hwy 38. It’s just about 17 miles north from the exit to Page.

Here are some more pics from Page, taken by Tom Isern: Center for Heritage Renewal on flickr





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The Girl Next Door

Her hula-hoop went round and round as we unpacked our hire car. She’s about my height but slender, although her true form was hidden under a shapeless, sleeveless knee-length dress. The hoop bounced off her tummy, her back, her sides, giving hints to the size of her waist and every now and then accentuating a slight tummy. I guessed her age to be late thirties or more. Her hair is straight and tinted brownish-red, and her Asian face is covered in freckles. She deigned not a look our way, concentrating on keeping her hoop going full circle, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and her thoughts who knows where.

It wasn’t a regular hula hoop, being of larger-than-normal circumference from what the toy stores sell. It seems to be built of segments that can be added or removed. Each segment has two tiny, quarter-sized metal weights embedded. Our neighbor at the Desert Rose Inn was out for her exercise, standing in the parking spot reserved for her room.

Alice Springs is kind of a quiet town, and as we unloaded our suitcases and tucked clothes and toiletries into small cabinets and on the bathroom windowsill, we listened to the Central Australian crows and gulahs break the silence of the hotel parking lot. The neighbor in the apartments across the way hung her wet clothes over her second-floor railing to dry, a young woman passed by on her bicycle, her tires whirring, and the wife of our hotel proprietor walked by with a couple of spare light bulbs, calling now and then to an old German Shepherd with ancient hips that kept her company.

Desert Rose Inn, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia


Our neighbor had company, too. As it turns out, on a regular basis. The visits seem short—about half an hour, as indicated by at least one chap who rode up on a bicycle last night while I was sitting in the communal lounge. Their visit must have been pleasant, for he was grinning when he left, even as she sort of shoved him out the sliding door with a cheery farewell.

Prostitution is legal in Australia. The newspapers carry ads in the classified in numbers that speak to the availability. The ads are a bit cheesy, but always brief. “APPLE flower in bloom. Friendly, pretty face. Unforgettable g/f service. Anything you want. In/out.” Or, “COCO 100% Pretty young spirited gal on holiday. Dream body, more fun, no rush. CBD. In/out calls.” And “LIYA. 100% new overseas uni [university] student, very pretty, naughty & looking for fun, very friendly service.” Each ad names the temptress, describes her assets, and is followed by a phone number. I’m not sure of the coding, but I guess “in/out” refers to where the transaction takes place—in a hotel room or someplace designated by the buyer.

In a recent Sunday issue of Territorian, the Northern Territory newspaper, Natasha Bita penned an article called, “Skilled sex work visa call.” Bita informs us that “foreign prostitutes are demanding the right to work in Australia as ‘skilled workers’  on 457 visas.” Work visas, I think, are valid for two years, and include “skilled occupations” such as gardeners, cooks, fashion designers, entertainers, dancers, horse riding instructors, etc., to the tune of 624 different kinds of jobs. The Scarlet Alliance (I couldn’t discern their mission from the article) asserted to the Senate inquiry into the visa applications that “sex work is no less skilled than other occupations” on the skills shortage list. Some of the skills listed by the Alliance include “working with condoms and dams, negotiating prices and services, performing sexually transmitted infection checks, making risk assessments and establishing boundaries.” The Immigration Department holds firm in its decision not to allow the visas, noting that there is no degree or diploma awarded to confirm a skilled status. The Australia unions concur, on the grounds that some employers will “pay less and exploit people.”

Our girl next door is quiet and unobtrusive, although a curiosity. In between appointments, she wears a fluffy pink robe patterned with panda bears. She comes to the communal kitchen in this attire, talking to no one unless she’s carrying a cell phone, and then she returns to her room after warming up her supper. Sometimes her curtains—which for all of the apartments cover a full sliding-door & window arrangement about eight feet in length—are mostly closed. If she doesn’t have a client, then the curtain is opened to an angle, showcasing her profile as she reclines on her bed, a knee and thigh peeking from her panda robe, while she watches movies.

I only saw her smile once. She was talking on her phone, her face at the window glass although she wasn’t looking at anything in our parking lot. Was she talking to a girlfriend? A lover? Does she have a child? In that moment, she looked like a teen-aged girl next door.

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