Ice storms. Deadly wind chills. Rollover accidents by the hundreds. This year Old Man Winter has made Minnesotans his bitches. But while some of us are applying for a second mortgage in order to afford turning our thermostat above 45 degrees, passionate Twin Cities hobbyists have another strategy for escaping the slush and salt.
Attendees at the Carquest World of Wheels auto show in St. Paul's RiverCentre auditorium wait for no one. Despite the subzero temperature, gung-ho gearheads bypass the enclosed skyway that connects RiverCentre with its parking ramp, electing to leap snowbanks and race across busy Kellogg Avenue. Inside, where the three ticket lines seem to be standing still, the impatience is palpable. Four women with fanny packs chomp gum and pull at the crotches of their acid-washed jeans. A man in his early 20s, equipped with an immense camera, surveys the crowd's reaction to his girlfriend, a vision in black leather and pink angora. The hall is packed. Sweaty suburbanites shuffle past the Cobras, Chargers, and Coupe de Villes, nodding in time to the sounds of the Beach Boys on the PA. Small children enthusiastically show off their automotive knowledge in an attempt to win the affection of their burly, bearded fathers. "Oooh, a pretty yellow one!" exclaims one youngster, before hastily correcting herself. "El Camino, Daddy!"
State Fair fare, from mini-doughnuts to turkey jerky, enhances the mid-August fantasy, as does an ample supply of Bud Light, though it's barely past noon. One reveler who looks just old enough to legally pilot the surrounding street rods holds aloft two plastic stadium safety bottles and declares himself "the biggest ass kicker in attendance." Pausing to examine a midget racer, I encounter a scrawny fifth grader who's furtively petting a tricked-out motor scooter. "Sweeeeeeeeeeeet," he moans demonically, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Stationed behind a Harley display are the bodacious babes of the Texas Bikini Team. Although, sadly, they are not in uniform, a small mob surrounds the table, awaiting autographs. Two statuesque teammates wearing conservative blouses happily dole out signatures (with purchase of a Bikini Team package: various pricey combinations of calendars, posters, and T-shirts). The real autograph action surrounds the 93X booth, where World Wrestling Federation superstar Mick Foley is scheduled to appear. The Foley fan queue boasts at least 350 men, women, and children, many of whom have no apparent interest in automobiles. A wrinkled, gray-haired woman slumps against the wall, clutching three copies of Foley's autobiography. A teenager shows off a yard sign that reads, "Elect Foley for Congress," doubtless appropriated from the erstwhile campaign of state Sen. Leo Foley. "We've already been waiting over two hours," whines a sweatpants-clad man mid-line.
The hall is reaching capacity, and even the booths selling homemade candles and dirty bumper stickers are raking it in. Two chiropractic clinics offer free chair massages, anticipating new business after the spring thaw. A well-dressed young woman stomps behind her boyfriend, turning up her nose at the working-class crowd and concocting an original complaint every 30 seconds. "Tell me again," she barks, shoving the meek dragster aficionado. "Why is this stuff cool?"
BACK ACROSS THE river, the Home and Garden Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center allows our more refined neighbors a chance to forget the perils of gas-line freeze. A biker couple tests a cedar porch swing, smiling serenely as their boots graze the Astroturf. Aisles are clogged with strollers, the accouterment du jour of young couples strutting their domestic success. The very smug wear matching outfits to advertise the strength of their union. For that matter, nearly everyone sports at least one article of status clothing: Ralph Lauren sweater, New Balance sneakers, Tag Heuer watch. Hedonists pack the massage-chair booth, perusing the exhibitor maps and chatting on cell phones.
The perky woman in the information booth proves to be little more than decoration herself. "Take-a-left-go-to-row-8-turn-right-at-829-take-a-left-then-right...," she instructs at auctioneer velocity. Luckily, a pack of complimentary-yardstick-wielding Bob Vila wannabes lead the way to the show's biggest attraction: the concrete house.
The Cemstone company has fashioned a rope maze around its modern marvel, complete with a sign that warns, "40 Minute Wait From This Point." A grandfatherly fellow grumbles about the long wait between swigs of plastic-bottled Miller Genuine Draft. Most, however, maintain brave smiles, reorganizing plastic bags stuffed with freebie flooring samples and pamphlets on do-it-yourself gazebo construction. A stout man with an enormous belt buckle lets his female companion in on the secret drawbacks of concrete siding. "Look, it's porous!" he bellows, forcing her hand against the side of the display. "You get rain and snow seeping in there--ten years, looks like shit." Not satisfied by her response, he approaches a company rep and loudly reiterates his opinion.
Upon exiting the concrete house, many seek refreshment at the opposing water cooler displays. The Culligan man smiles broadly at the sight of several hyperactive tykes who are attacking the Glenwood Inglewood coolers with the ubiquitous yardsticks. Weary salespeople pass out pens, notepads, and magnets to the masses, desperately trying to lure customers from the red-carpeted aisle to their let's-talk-financing tables. Die-hard homeowners make brief pit stops outside the exhibition hall, crouching under escalators while changing diapers and slurping soft-serve ice cream. The truly spent attempt a swift escape, only to find themselves stuck in a coat-check line longer than the one for the concrete house.
Having been ensconced in the faux-temperate wonderland, it's hard to believe that the black ice and bitter winds are only a few yards away (seven, according to my new yardstick.) But with some artificial turf, a little imagination, and plenty of 3.2 beer, we can surround ourselves with warm sunshine and balmy breezes all year long.
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