The Ink Tank

The trusty, theoretically unopinionated American Heritage Dictionary defines opinion as: "A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof." Which works equally well as a high-falutin' description of bullshit. No doubt many City Pages readers would refer to the likes of Mike O'Neill, Steve Perry, and Terri Sutton as bullshit artists--some with scorn, others with admiration. But what these three (and most of the others who have written columns during the paper's first 20 years) have in common is a creative passion that quickened our minds and provoked debates both internal and external.

O'Neill's first-person rants, culled from his experience as a gadfly about town, were gleefully scabrous broadsides against the strictures of political correctness, conservative both in their preboomtown provincialism and their macho sense of entitlement (although many of his best columns, like his rumination on marriage and relationships, honestly acknowledged as much). A half-decade later, Sutton provided the antidote to the poison in O'Neill's pen. Also rigorously self-referential, Sutton didn't leave the sisterhood, or herself, unscathed, yet her feisty feminism continues to inform most everything she writes, resonating like a tuning fork as she challenges the overt and subtle gender assumptions that pervade the way we deal with each other.

During his tenure as editor, Steve Perry used his columns and editorials to set the tone he strove to instill throughout the paper: He questioned authority, something much easier said than done. A voracious reader, Perry marshaled a phalanx of facts--and a withering sarcasm--in polemics powered by an acute appreciation of the way political and economic systems operate. And where most alt weeklies toe a comfortably liberal line, he--to the consternation of many--reserved a special scorn for the duplicitous rhetoric of Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Sharon Sayles Belton. Once in a blue moon he'd even drop his guard and praise somebody (local civil rights matriarch Nellie Stone Johnson and AIDS writer Randy Shilts come to mind).

Last but not least, mention should be made of the writing of James Lileks, whose late-Eighties pieces for the paper were often purposefully harmless, deliberately apolitical, and hilarious. Like most good humor, they contained a nugget of truth--witness the first piece in this section, written some 11 years before Lileks started his present gig as a columnist for the Star Tribune.


For the Minneapolis Star and Tribune: We will continue to improve the Variety section until copy vanishes altogether. By July, the topic page will be nothing but the words Survey, Gardening, VCRs, etc., all in 96-point type. We will combine our advice columns into one feature for divorced, chemically dependent infants considering buying Nautilus equipment. Elsewhere, we will continue to ignore issues until we have an eight-part series on them; also, we will do an eight-part series on "Why No One Reads These Eight-Part Series."

James Lileks, January 8, 1986


Some things are as predictable as a roach in the ashtray of a Volkswagen bus. Hence the outcry of my article two weeks ago suggesting that foundations should curtail funding to the arts. The truth hurts, or as it is written in those religious tracts that are distributed by fundamentalists on the mall: "How Loud the Heathen Rage!"

I know more artists in Minnesota and Manhattan than most curators: The response from them was universally "Good boy, Mike," or "You didn't go far enough." These are dedicated artists who, like myself, will continue to create regardless of the money dispersed by Klingon foundation employees. Marks for free money have little to do with the art involved. The lucre is freely given to artists on the basis of their bedside manner or their ability to small talk with insufferable dilettantes.

Mike O'Neill, April 16, 1986


It happened on the West Bank a long time ago...years between 1969 and whenever the shooting stopped in the early Seventies....The upper-class hippies were way into the "New Left" and, if they were emancipated from Wayzata, the "Old Left." It was all the vogue to accuse each other of "elitism" during those days. Lots of People this and People that. People's Press and People's Pantry. The "che" in psychedelic stood for Che Guevara....Slogans like "Shoes to the Workers," "Smash the State," and "Rip the Ass of the Ruling Class" got way too much mileage until high school classmates got out of Vietnam and made the movement a little more practical. Free love was traded for basic tips on homemade demolitions.

What finally came down was, a lot of flower children who now work in advertising agencies learned some fine points in guerrilla warfare, and a lot of fairly harmless black labs named "Che" became social outcasts, pariahs when the revolutionaries got their first condo.

Mike O'Neill, August 13, 1986


When the invitation to my high school reunion came, I debated replying. You can't go home again, I thought. Especially when everyone there knows you failed gym....The reunion was held at the Doublewood Inn in Fargo, a motel that sounds like a high-fiber chewing gum....I was given a nametag. It read Jim Lileks. Jim. I realized there were three hundred people in the next room about to call me Jim. I hate Jim....  

I bumped into the kid who had beat me up in third grade--while he was on crutches, yet. He asked if I held a grudge; I said no, laughed, bought him a drink, then coldcocked him in the kidney. Well, it occurred to me to do it, anyway.

James Lileks, August 20, 1986


My marriage collapsed in the hedonistic, selfish Seventies. I had to abandon my family to do my own thing, but if I had to do it over I would have stayed married. Marriage may get boring but so do significant others, personal bests, and the endless activities that single people endure to combat their gnawing insecurity. There is something to be said for companionship, but more than that, the level of abuse that can be laid on a wife or husband is huge compared to a sweetheart who is a door slam away from freedom.

Mike O'Neill, February 4, 1987


Minneapolis is weary of [the Star and Tribune]. It covered fusion while the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Prince were searching for ink. It promoted every East Coast carpetbagger with a gross "Minneapple" development scheme. Between the Star and Tribune promoting yuppie culture and Mayor Don turning city hall into a golden parachute for every crony he ever met in Washington, it is getting so that you have to get south of Lake Street to meet anybody who is actually from Minneapolis.

Mike O'Neill, July 15, 1987


On January 21 the Minneapolis Public Health and Safety Committee met to consider an ordinance that would, in effect, close the last bath house in town....What did I want?

I didn't need--did I ever need--the orgy nights at the Continental, someone putting a popper in front of my nose, another fool facing a wall of flesh, smoking a cigarette, its lit tip in the darkness....

I wanted warmth.

The baths had given me more than the bars. I'd gotten two lovers and some companions for only a night, some to talk with, some to have sex with. I'd been able to befriend someone.

I couldn't stand up now, talk, tell these people who talked of "anonymous sex" and "multiple partners" that no sex is anonymous, that people whose name I'd not known I had known sometimes more intimately (I'm not talking about sex) than others with names.

Multiple partners? I'd seen "orgies," little group gropes. Big deal. I knew, the guys in them then, that at the end of a short time they'd be looking, all of them, for a single partner, to talk to, live with.

Leo Skir, February 10, 1988


If it's possible to have a passionate disinterest in something, I have it. I noticed this the other morning, when a serious man on the radio interrupted my breakfast with the following announcement: "WILL STEGER IS HALFWAY ACROSS GREENLAND!" Tell me that the Russians are halfway across Europe, or that the cantaloupes at Lunds are halfway ripe, but please don't tell me that some man I don't want to know is halfway to some place I don't want to visit.

Jon Tevlin, June 8, 1988


Coincidentally--or not--Bloomington was the archetypal Minnesota city of the decade. It was our answer to urban sprawl, a place where everybody lived on Dunkin' Donuts and read the Saturday version of the Sunday paper.

It's only fair that Bloomington is bidding the decade adieu by breaking ground on America's premier monument to the Eighties: The Mall of America. In building the Mall of America, our most-adored (or at least most-populated) non-city city will cram its two most prominent elements--commerce and jingoism--into a mere 2.6 million square feet of retail heaven. It is the perfect amenity with the perfect name for the century's most perfectly commercial decade.

Jon Tevlin, August 2, 1989


The trajectory of events [in 1989] is not so different from Plymouth Avenue in 1969. Young black radicals issue demands. The more established social-service organizations wait for the smoke to clear. The Indian community struggles not to be forgotten. A coalition forms. The police department reacts defensively. And the white political establishment maintains that systemic racism does not exist. There is still poverty.

William Preston Robertson, August 16, 1989


If there's a history lesson attached to the package of proposed anti-gang legislation recently issued by the attorney general's office, it's that you should never underestimate how low a Humphrey will stoop to pander to the worst political impulses of his day. Death has done a lot to rehabilitate the memory of Skipper's dad; lest we forget, though, he was the man who once called the Vietnam War "a great adventure," and who, at the height of the McCarthy era in 1950, sponsored a bill to establish domestic internment camps for radicals. The bill passed, seven camps were built; none were ever used, presumably to his chagrin.  

Skip's anti-gang legislation--purportedly the brainchild of assistant Norm Coleman, but issued under Humphrey's imprimatur nonetheless--is in the same spirit as the old man's better-dead-than-red bill.

Steve Perry, February 27, 1991


[Minneapolis City Council member Brian] Coyle's loss was first felt by the gay and lesbian community five days before his death, when more than 500 people crowded inside city hall in the wake of two gay men's murders. Only his illness kept him away. When several gay men were murdered in 1984, Coyle--then a freshman city council member--had waded straight into the fray, demanding a more diligent police investigation. This time six other city council members showed up, demonstrating that appearing at a lesbian and gay rally in Minneapolis is no longer risky politics; it's practically obligatory.

David Anger, August 28, 1991


So the process [of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings] was impolite. It was, God forbid, a real fight between people who really held different opinions, and said so. But if this is the low road, it's infinitely preferable to the high road politics usually travels--so high that peons hardly get to see it, much less set foot in it.

Monika Bauerlein, October 16, 1991


When I was alone with him again, I noticed his eyes had opened slightly. I stood up, thinking he had awakened. All of his energy seemed concentrated on taking a breath. I remembered sitting on his lap when I was tiny. While he took a nap in his chair, I rode up and down with his breaths. "It's so hard to breathe, isn't it," I said, stroking his arms and shoulders. "It must be scary." Suddenly, I knew he was dying. My hands trembled as I continued to stroke him. "It's all right," I told him over and over. I felt panic but I stayed, holding his warm hand. I couldn't believe he was giving me this. I couldn't believe he was letting me help him die. "Be peaceful, Dad," I said. "You can let go." His chest stopped laboring, and his breathing grew shallow. I told him I loved him, and then I heard myself asking him to watch over me. A nurse stepped into the room. "I think he died," I whispered. My dad took two more quick breaths. Another nurse checked his heart and nodded. I sat there awhile longer, not wanting to let go of his warm hand.

Ann Bauleke, September 9, 1992


Once the streets simmer back down to their everyday quotient of stifled rage, the reverberations from the Haaf killing will continue to make themselves felt in the halls of power. The events of the past ten days have cast the presumption of criminality around an entire community once again; while the police haven't produced any evidence that local gang leadership or the United for Peace gang coalition had any conspiratorial involvement in Haaf's killing, they've done an artful job of putting across that presumption with the help of uncritical media. In so doing, they've gone a long way toward legitimizing the most extreme voices in policing.

Steve Perry, October 7, 1992


"Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money," Ice Cube proclaimed in 1988; he caught flak, but if you read George Bush's lips you saw him mouthing the same line.

Steve Perry, January 13, 1993


There was a game we used to play with my father, called "the military." He'd yell like a Prussian drill sergeant and we'd snap to attention, drop, crawl, jump. We asked to play it a lot, and he rarely consented; it was years before I learned how much he hated that game, and anything that reminded him of soldiers, uniforms, and war. He was drafted in March of '45, when he turned 16; Hitler was throwing brigades of children and old men into the last offensive. The war ended on the day his unit was to leave boot camp. He made it home walking, showed up at his parents' door in a tattered uniform with the Nazi insignia torn out of the sleeves.

I don't think the Nazis will come back, in Germany or anywhere, but that fact offers no reassurance. Whatever the next atrocity is, it's taking place right under our noses; and it's not doing us the favor of looking familiar. It may not even be One Big Thing--just little, normal things that we can live with. Big horrors are usually made of lots of little ones.  

This is the other reason, I believe, why we prefer not to listen to history: Because in retrospect, we see right and wrong, and we see people choosing. And we're terrified that we may have to.

Monika Bauerlein, May 3, 1995


As far as I'm concerned, to say that Bill Clinton is not a bona fide enemy of sane politics and sane discourse is to ignore not only his record but the very spirit of Clintonism. No public figure in my lifetime has done more to disintegrate political language--to create a disjunction between rhetoric and deed. It transcends hypocrisy. The so-called neoliberalism of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council amounts to one essential stratagem in the end: co-opting liberal language in the service of policies that turn liberal values on their head. The defining insight of the Clintonites is not that liberal social values are passé, but that they remain perilously vital and therefore need defusing. Some tribute must be paid, and thus we get the utter disconnect that's evident between Clinton's vaguely humanistic rhetoric and his actions--regarding kids, welfare, the environment, you name it. Criticize Clinton's policies, and chances are you will find yourself saying things he has already said.

Steve Perry, November 6, 1996


In every picture past the age of three or so, her eyes seem bottomlessly empty. Her body knows what to do, but those eyes don't. They want to be mirrors; they know not and care not of what. In this they are still the eyes of a child, albeit one under duress, and it's their innocence that makes them terrible. It is a kind of terminal innocence that promises: I will learn nothing from experience. I will make no claims of my own upon the world. I will remain available to your gaze, whatever it contains, and bear no witness to what it might say about you.

Much has already been written about the sexualization of JonBenet Ramsey and all the other girls in the thousands of little-miss pageants across the country. We would do well not to ignore its obverse, which is the fetishizing of children's innocence--particularly that of girl children--as a means of sustaining the culture's perverse faith in its own unspoiled nature. The cult of innocence is the root of our claim to be a child-loving society, and one of the most salient measures of our child-loathing.

Steve Perry, January 29, 1997


Jawing about crime is the hallmark of the Sayles Belton administration. Not that it's all rhetoric. Under her watch the City has expanded police ranks to record levels; in her State of the City address she bragged of the additional $14.7 million a year being spent on law enforcement in the city. Of the inevitable corollaries, such as the quiet diminution of the city's community health care resources, she understandably said nothing. Say what you will of the mayor's soporific governance, her inattention to festering race troubles in her own police and fire departments, her office's sporadic attention to detail...she has done what she was elected to do: assuage white fear while flattering the self-regard of a town grown accustomed to believing it's more tolerant and forward-thinking than it really is.

Steve Perry, June 25, 1997


Part of my aversion to [A Prairie Home Companion] is that I have always found the show's blinding whiteness--in every sense of the word--a terrifying thing, and its popular ascendancy coincided exactly with my own ecstatic departure from a small Midwestern town and a childhood and adolescence that was more Woe than gone. In Keillor's celebrated voice I hear only exhaustion; he sounds tired of the whole hoodwinking project, tired of keeping his conga line of clumsy dancing skeletons in the closet.

Beneath the carefully constructed Wobegon façade, however, beats the true dark heart of a pathological sentimentalist; call it the John Wayne Gacy/David Lynch syndrome. In a 1995 New York magazine piece, Keillor admitted to writer James Kaplan that 1958 teen spree killer Charlie Starkweather had been a hero of his youth. "Do you ever experience uncontrollable rage?" he asked Kaplan, "And an urge to just drive and drive?" That was a wonderful and uncharacteristically unguarded moment, and it's precisely that sort of darkness--nostalgia's id--that has always been missing from the radio show.

It's possible, I think, to believe in something and not know how to live it," Keillor told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. Of course it is. And in Wobegon Boy he has finally shown us a more fantastic--and at the same time more realistic--portrayal of an entire little town grimly hamstrung by that unfortunate truth. Welcome home, Garrison. Welcome home.

Brad Zellar, December 17, 1997  


There is a certain poetic justice in seeing the president who made Family Values the central theme of his reelection campaign brought low by his own reckless philandering....Clinton is, after all, the man who shredded the social safety net for unwed mothers while lecturing them about "responsibility"; who signed the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act and boasted about it in his campaign commercials;...who opposes frank sex education and condoms in the schools, and the like.

Doug Ireland, January 28, 1998


I want to believe that all the 20th Century's fevered teen-idol dreams are, at their heart, acts of brave invention. This one, sing the sleepy girls, this prince is he who could wake us. Outside their dreams, he doesn't exist, so they slumber on. Still, each generation remembers the dream as they raise their sons. And the mother's dream pushes the daughter's dream further, and the daughter sleeps more lightly. The sons of our mothers' dreams walk now in the world. And so we nurture our long awakening, a prince at a time.

Terri Sutton, May 6, 1998

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