1991 TAFF Report: Pam Wells

Chapter 2 illustrated by Sue Mason

Published 1997 in Attitude 12 ed Michael Abbott, John Dallman & Pam Wells

2 • Minneapolis Memories

My TAFF trip did not have an auspicious start. A few days before I was due to leave, I tore a ligament in my back. I'd spent the last three days before my journey off work lying down on the floor, packing my suitcases very gingerly in between times. My doctor had prescribed me a large supply of heavy duty painkillers, which he inisisted I took morning and night, whether I felt like I needed them or not. I wasn't supposed to carry anything heavy for the next few days, so my parents came to the airport with me to deal with my luggage.

The American Airlines flight arrived in plenty of time, and we all dutifully trooped on -- with one exception. One of the passengers who'd checked in never boarded the plane, and so we had to wait while their luggage was removed from the hold. Then the baggage doors wouldn't close automatically, so the ground crew had to be called back to shut them from outside. And then we had to wait for another place in the queue with Air Traffic Control before we could depart. By the time we took off we were over an hour and a half late; I was worried about my back, since I was being squeezed into an airline seat for even longer, and I was also concerned that I might miss my connecting flight.

We arrived in Chicago O'Hare almost two hours late. My flight to Minneapolis was due to leave in less than an hour, and I was really starting to panic now. It hadn't occurred to me that it might be possible to get a later flight; I thought I'd be stranded in Chicago if I didn't get through in time. We had to go through customs and passport control with all our luggage, and there wasn't time for me to re-check my cases for the Minneapolis flight. I ran the entire length of O'Hare airport, making it to my connection with scant minutes to spare. The flight attendants on the Minneapolis-bound plane looked at my anxious, sweaty face in mild bemusement, but dealt with my copious luggage and showed me to my seat. For the first time since I boarded the plane at Heathrow, I could relax. Despite all the hassle and pressure, my luggage and I had got to where we were supposed to be. Geri Sullivan would be meeting me at the airport. I had a sackful of painkillers if I needed them. There was no need to worry now.

Touchdown in Minneapolis, and I'd been awake for more than 18 hours. My body clock told me it was bedtime, and I was looking forward to a good, long sleep. My luggage and I wandered towards the arrivals area. And I was stunned by the sight that greeted me.

Geri Sullivan was there, all right, but so were Simba Blood, Jennifer and Karen Cooper, Ken Fletcher, Jeff Schalles and Jim Young. They were holding balloons, flowers, and streamers, and placards that said 'TAFF' and 'WELCOME PAM' on them in large, friendly letters. I was gobsmacked; I hadn't expected quite that much of a welcome. Immediately my tiredness faded and my pleasure at being amongst new friends rose. This was one of the most intense examples of getting my 'second wind' that I've ever experienced.

Bemused and slightly shell-shocked, I followed Simba to her car, and we drove out to Geri and Jeff's place: the infamous and very beautiful Toad Hall. They were having a party for me, and many other local area fans showed up to say hi to the strange visiting English woman, including Don Bailey, Kay Drache, Dean Gahlon, Fred and Susan Levy Haskell, Jeanne Mealy and John Stanley, and Dave Romm.

I have a photo of the centrepiece of the party: an edible aquarium. Geri had made this culinary masterpiece with greenish-blue jello and assorted gummi-fish, with the fish suspended in the jello as if swimming through water, in a large candy jar. It was truly strange, and I loved it to pieces. In fairness, I have to say it was better to look at than to taste; those pesky fishes were not so much chewy as downright sticky. After you'd eaten one, your teeth felt like they were wearing sweaters. Musta been a chemical reaction with the jello, or something. Hell, I'm no scientist...

Speaking of sweaters, that was the party where I found out that the American term for what we call a 'jumper' is a 'sweater'. In fact, 'sweater' is a generic term which encompasses pullovers, jumpers and cardigans. As far as I could tell, the term 'jumper' in American means what us Brits would call a 'pinafore dress'. But I am by no means certain that this is a universal usage there. Another word difference I discovered at that party was that, in the US, a 'shag' is a type of haircut. Two countries separated by a common language, indeed...

My first impressions of America were that it was familiar but different. The detached wooden houses reminded me strongly of Anne of Green Gables, though I know that's Canadian. I was charmed by the loud noise of the cicadas, audible constantly after dark in Minneapolis; that was definitely alien, yet somehow quite comforting. I was struck by the different electrical plugs and switches, most notably the way you turn light-switches up for on and down for off, the other way around from what I'm used to. I'd expected the traffic to move on the opposite side of the road, but I never got used to getting in the passenger seat on the right hand side of the car. (On my second trip to the States, I had no problem with that, but I didn't manage it once, unaided, during the whole of my TAFF trip.)

I took to my bed before midnight, while the party was still in full swing, which is unusual for me, but I could at least legitimately blame the jet-lag. I laid my head down in the first of many very comfortable guest rooms that I would encounter on my trip.

My body-clock, still on British time, woke me at around 6 a.m. local time, and as I looked around the room, I felt the awe of being halfway around the world all over again. I got up, threw a jacket on over my nightie, and stood out on the porch, just looking around and surveying the landscape at the back of Toad Hall. There was a faint rumble of traffic, but no sound of cicadas. I saw a squirrel climb the roof of a house opposite. The houses were not in straight rows like in Britain, but they were vaguely dotted about -- obviously all in a line, but not as regimented as over here. The air was good, fresh, clean, morning air. I felt so happy to be here, and spent a few moments drinking in the atmosphere around me. Then I went back to bed and resumed my sleep until a more decent hour.

I awoke again at around noonish to the aroma of Jeff Schalles' blueberry pancakes, which made a wonderful breakfast. Then Geri and I went out for a drive; we went shopping in St Paul, and then to look at the Minnehaha Falls -- which were lovely, although they weren't a patch on the impressively dramatic waterfalls I'd seen in Iceland a few years earlier. While we were walking around, a complete stranger said 'Hi' to us for no apparent reason. I was startled; people just don't do that sort of thing in London.

That evening, we went with some local fans to the Sculpture Garden, which I was very taken with. I took a few photos, but it was dusk while we were there and so they didn't come out very clearly. My favourite sculpture was of a large red cherry on a long metal spoon. From there, we went on for ice creams at Sebastian Joe's, which the local fans were inordinately proud of, but which I thought were nice, but nothing special. (Mental note: must take as many Minneapolis fans as possible to Marine Ices in Camden Town.) Then, back at Toad Hall, Geri and I sat up talking until way past midnight, about personal stuff, suicide, relationships, compulsiveness, etc. We discovered that we were both compulsive perfectionists, and bonded accordingly.

The next day, on a beautifully sunny, scorchingly hot afternoon, we drove in Jeff's Chevy to some original prairie land near their house, where we went for a walk. It was a glorious sight; unspoiled landscape, and beautiful views over a lake (which apparently had a beach for nude sunbathing, though I don't remember seeing any examples). You could almost believe you were in the middle of nowhere, but for the faint skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis in the distance.

That evening, we had a women's night out at a local Chinese restaurant; 'we' being Terry Garey, Karen Johnson, Karen Schaffer, Geri and me. The food and the conversation were truly excellent. I really enjoy small dinner parties with convivial company; it's much easier to get to know people in a group where there's only one conversation happening at a time, and everyone gets to participate.

After we left the restaurant, Geri suggested that we went shopping. I thought she was joking; it was 10:30 at night! But we spent a delightful hour or so at Byerley's grocery store, where I bought Oreo cookies and other strange American food delights. It was fun going up and down the vegetable aisle, pointing at things and saying what they were called. Geri said 'eggplant', which I countered with 'aubergine'; she said 'zucchini' and I replied 'courgette'; but when I responded with 'swede' to her 'rutabaga', she looked at me in horror. 'You can't be serious; that's just so rude,' she told me. The service in Byerley's was impeccable; a gorgeous male assistant carried our purchases out to the car and loaded them into the boot -- er, trunk -- -for us.

I spent much of the next day in the company of Joyce Scrivner. We had lunch together and then drove around Minneapolis and St Paul, where I bought some wonderful earrings which are nuns (I kid you not). I paddled in the Mississippi -- or, rather, I dipped a toe in the water. Then we went back to Joyce's condo, where we fanned our ac by stuffing some envelopes for Chicon.

That evening, Simba Blood came to collect me; I would be spending the second part of my Minneapolis stay with her and Mark Sperhauk. We met up with Ericka Johnson and went shopping in a local shopping mall, where I discovered the delights of American lingerie in large sizes, and wished it could be this way at home too. Then we went on to a local bar and drank what Simba called 'hard cider' (which was actually draft Woodpecker). An Irish band was playing bad Irish music, and I thought 'I came all the way over from England, for this?'

The next morning, Mark, Ericka and I had breakfast at the Seward cafe, an alternative-style hippy-commune-type place, which sold good, wholesome whole food. I really liked the atmosphere there. Then Ericka and I went shopping, and I discovered the Lane Bryant chain of stores. This is the US equivalent of Evans, but with cheaper and better quality clothing, and more choice. America was turning out to be a shopping mecca for this larger-than-average-sized British woman.

That afternoon, Simba and Mark took me to the Minnesota State Fair, where we met up with their friends Amy and Brian. That was a truly awesome experience. First of all, the fairground site was enormous, far larger than anything I've ever seen over here. There was a vast section of huge farm machinery; I took a snapshot of Amy sitting in one of the wheels of a particularly large tractor, just to remind myself of the sheer scale of that stuff. It made me feel completely overawed. Then there were all the different state competitions, from best jam to best home-grown vegetables to best dressmaking to best artwork, just like a church fête might have over here, but on a far larger scale. I liked the homeliness of this part of the fair, compared with the professionalism of the farm machinery side of things.

Then there was what Simba and the others kept referring to as the 'Midway', which is, I gather, the equivalent of what we'd call a fairground in the UK. Yes, there was an entire fairground in the middle of the Minnesota State Fair, and I enjoyed it to pieces. Especially the bumper boats, which I rode on and got myself soaked through. I hadn't seen bumper boats before, and I was totally enchanted by the concept. Dodgems on water: that's cool by me.

And everywhere you went throughout the fair, people were selling food. Not just food, but food on sticks. It was a sort of joke, that whatever you ate would come on a stick. And every year, apparently, there's something new on a stick. This year it was walleye on a stick. I had no idea what a walleye was; I was enormously relieved to discover that it was a type of fish. I didn't try it, but I did eat many other stick-bound comestibles, most of which were corn dogs, for which I developed a great fondness. (A corn dog is like a hot dog, but covered in corn batter. Yum!) I remember noticing that the food was all much less greasy than you'd get at a fairground in Britain.

We spent many hours at the Minnesota State Fair. We walked vast distances. We ate masses of junk food. And we still didn't see it all. I'd really love to go back again, one day.

And then, all too soon, it was Friday 23rd August 1991, my last day in Minneapolis. I got up at 7:30 so that we could make an early start. Simba, Peter Larsen and I drove the 200-odd miles to Madison, which would be my next port of call. The road trip was a much more interesting way of getting there than an internal flight would have been; even travelling on Interstate roads, you get more of a feel of the country you're passing through. I spent some time talking about piercings and body modifications with Peter. We stopped en route at a cafe called the Norske Nook for lunch. The place is famous for what Simba called 'tall pies'; when I spotted the selection in their display cabinet, I could only concur with her description. But after a very stodgy main course of slices of beef in gravy on white bread (traditional bland American food), I couldn't face a tall pie of any description. To this day, I wonder what the delicious-looking lemon meringue pie would have tasted like.

The journey ended at about 4 p.m.