Correction to This Article
A story on St. Paul, Minn., in the July 15 Travel section incorrectly reported the name of the Como Park Zoo.
Their Town: People We Like the Places They Love

A Companion On the Prairie

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2001

It was a quiet week in St. Paul.

At Mickey's Diner, the talk was about Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, how the FBI can no longer hide behind Janet Reno's pantsuit, and how a waitress's father sneezed so hard that capillaries in his nose burst.

The regulars arrived at their regular times and grabbed stools at the counter. Mary the waitress automatically brought them what they wanted. Or at least it was what they'd always wanted in the past. If this one time they wanted something different, say the pork chops instead of the one-eyed jack with hash, they probably wouldn't mention it for fear of upsetting Mary.

When an elderly lady mentioned a second time that she'd like a cup of tea and a fudge sundae, Mary said, "You want two cups of tea and two fudge sundaes?" No, just one. "But you've asked for them twice. Do you want two?" Her point made, Mary then asked the woman who had been at church that Friday morning.

Every city with some authenticity left has a soul. And this railroad car diner dragged to St. Peter Street in 1939 is St. Paul's soul.

The city's spirit is a couple of blocks north, at a century-old, graciously renovated burlesque house, the Fitzgerald Theatre. On Saturday nights when Garrison Keillor and his "Prairie Home Companion" radio show are in town, people pack the theater to relive the way America used to be, and how it still is in some places. Places not far from here.

Keillor grew up in a small town 20 miles away, in what is now a St. Paul suburb, collecting material for his famed Lake Wobegon stories. Back then, St. Paul to him was just a school field trip destination.

"We'd go to the state capitol and shake hands with the governor," he said while giving me a tour of his adopted city. "Back then the governor came out and greeted every child. He didn't have much else to do.

"We'd look at some dusty old tepees at the history society, and then go to the Tacoma Park zoo and wait for monkeys to masturbate. That's what St. Paul meant to me: a jowly guy shaking hands and monkeys masturbating. It was all pretty much the same thing."

Romantic Yearning

But this is home now for Keillor, who lives with his wife, classical musician Jenny Lind Nilsson, in one of the city's splendidly preserved old homes on a bluff overlooking downtown

Keillor is notoriously wary of reporters, but I talked him into playing tour guide by leaving a message that I wanted a look at St. Paul through the eyes of someone who loved it, that I wasn't a bad sort, and that I, too, was once a strict-fundamentalist child from a small town and could harmonize. He messaged back that he "couldn't turn down a well-churched harmonizing woman."

But his real soft spot, I suspect, is St. Paul, a Midwestern city of 280,000 people with largely working-class roots, people who have struggled to invent a new economy ever since the old one died.

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