Back in the Day(ton's)

Santa in the afternoon, the Silos at night: A trip down memory lane

When I was a kid, Disney didn't have to make up stories about dancing llamas with urban dialects. We had our Cinderella, our Peter Pan, our Pinocchio, and that was good enough. We didn't have the Internet, the robotic puppy, or dolls that do everything short of your math homework. And the Christmas display in Dayton's eighth-floor auditorium was little more than a cruddy diorama one was graciously dragged past in the event one made it from parking ramp to gift-wrap without breaking anything. But then, that was last millennium.

I find my way to this year's Harry Potter-themed display by following an elderly woman, a weary dad, and a disheveled youngster for whom Ritalin is obviously no match. As we mount successive escalators, Grandma feebly attempts to prevent the boy from surrendering baby teeth on the tile floors. "When Grandpa was in college," she drones, "he had a full-time job here at Christmas telling people, 'Watch your step!' as they got off the escalators." Whatever, Nana.

Reaching our destination, we are taken aback. I was warned of long lines, but the scene on this Saturday afternoon resembles one of those school filmstrips about Ellis Island. Men, women, and children shuffle slowly between yards of velvet rope, while veteran Dayton's employees sporting maroon smocks and clutching walkie-talkies bark out orders. "Move out of the way!" bellows one silver-haired harpy, shoving us aside to clear the way to the elevators for some shoppers.

After about 20 minutes, we reach a Disney World-style sign that estimates the remaining wait to be between 30 and 40 more minutes. Meanwhile, apple-cheeked teens fight the urge to make out in the presence of all these children, surreptitiously fondling one another when they think no one's watching. Childless thirtysomethings quietly but viciously critique the parenting strategies employed by their linemates, and the unfortunate genetic traits of their offspring. Some genius has placed a wagon selling soda and gingerbread men about 35 minutes into the queue. I approach the vendor, a scrawny adolescent in a ridiculously large toque who tells me in a frightened, cracking voice that he has just sold his last cookie. A young Dayton's employee stands bravely at the lad's side, protecting him from the sugar-starved mob.

Children are rapidly losing interest, insolently flinging themselves to the floor. Shouts of "Brittany, no!" and "Taylor, I'm warning you!" echo through the line. About a quarter of an hour beyond the cookie cart, a Dave Coulier clone alternately juggles and plays silly songs while accompanying himself on guitar, capturing the interest of almost no one save the pairs of young, spiral-permed office-temp types who mercilessly mock him. "Music trivia!" he announces desperately. "Guess who originally did this song and win a prize." "The Monkees," my pal Linda says absentmindedly, three notes into his noodling. Overhearing us, a lone woman behind us shouts out the answer, earning a Snickers bar, which she shamelessly scarfs.

Another 15 minutes, one coffee-and-gift cart, and two open-air diaper changes later, we are inside the actual Harry Potter shrine. An elaborate maze of storybook scenes on Guthrie-worthy sets, complete with piped-in music and the occasional hologram, the display is creative and entertaining. But after spending upward of an hour in line, anything short of an all-nude revue would be a something of a letdown. An obscenely blond and beautiful family ventures before us, the impeccably dressed older daughter filling in Mom, Dad, Grandma, and younger twin sisters on Harry trivia. "Do they have Christmas in Harry Potter?" asks sequin-sweatered Granny. Traffic jams occur frequently; it seems many of our townsfolk are awestruck at the sight of puppetry and simple mechanics.

The display empties into--what else?--a gift shop, where the line to see Santa forms to the right. A bored-looking female elf mechanically instructs each harried parent to put the kid on the fat man's lap, get out of the way, and purchase the photo package at the register. Hoping to snag a free candy cane, I take my turn, but what I get is a glittery Dayton's 2000 superball large enough to prevent accidental tracheal obstruction and obnoxious enough to commemorate the event perfectly.

 

WHILE I'M STILL in the mood to wax poetic about Back in the Day, I head to First Avenue and the Entry to join those who were alt-country when alt-country wasn't, well, alt-country. The crowd for Koerner, Ray, and Glover; Alejandro Escovedo; and the Silos appears untouched by time--I haven't seen Baja shirts or jackets embroidered with the Big Money Inc. logo since the Jayhawks played New Band Night. (I wonder how many of them were in line with me this afternoon at Dayton's.) Most are chatting politely, ignoring ex-Rank and Filer Escovedo's humorous anecdote about trying to duct-tape a drive train back onto a van after one too many Cape Cods. Everyone seems to know everyone else; folks greet one another politely as they move through the room sipping Grain Belts and whiskey-Cokes.

As the audience multiplies, the complexity of the bands' fan bases becomes better represented. I spot more than a few neatly dressed Alex Chilton types, cute stocking caps protecting receding hairlines from the inclement weather. Groups of denim-clad men crowd around tables, living it up loudly and maintaining a carefully cultivated good-ol'-Minnesota-boy image. The bands are sweetly indulgent, facilitating euphoric recall for those in attendance, and reminding us all that even in our high-tech world, a darn good song is good enough, darn it. Even though they may never be the most futuristic or cosmopolitan place on Earth, our Twin Cities will always be home--just the way we remember them.

 
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