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News From America

Here You Know Pretty Much Everybody

Our series continues with more random phone calls around small-town USA to find out what’s really going on. This time our editor only makes his calls at night, to see what happens when America goes dark.

Jeff Brouws, Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000. From Approaching Nowhere: Photographs. Courtesy the artist and Craig Kull Gallery.

Lately it gets dark around 7 o’clock in Webster, SD, a town with a population of 2,000 that’s known mostly for the fishing in its surrounding glacial lakes. That leaves a good four hours before Jamie Campbell, assistant manager of Casey’s General Store, can close up, walk home, and tuck her children into bed. In the meantime, Jamie sets herself to one of the store’s essential nighttime tasks: making taco pizzas. 

“You never heard of a taco pizza?” she says, sounding intrigued. “Where are you calling from?”

When I say Ann Arbor, Mich., she murmurs agreeably, as though she figured as much.

It’s about 9 p.m., an hour when talking to me isn’t much trouble, Jamie says, since business is so slow. “It’s just a lot of regulars during the night shift. You get to know people. Like, there’s a cop named Jake who always comes in and always buys Basic Light 100s? That kind of thing.”

Jamie is 25 years old. She was born in Webster but raised mostly in Fargo, where her family lived until they’d finally had enough. The city, she says, got to be too exciting. “I remember there was a rapist running around Fargo at the time, and that was partly it,” she tells me. “It’s not like here, where you know pretty much everybody and I can walk home at night without a second thought.”

Casey’s General Store is on Main Street. It has a big wooden sign with an eave and an old western font. There’s a water tower behind that looks like an enormous daddy-long-legs spider. Casey’s is one a few thriving businesses in the surrounding area. “Well, we’re definitely one of the only places open this late,” Jamie confirms. “Especially if you want pizza.”

The nearest Domino’s Pizza is in the nearby city of Watertown, about an hour away. Taco pizza is not on the menu.

“I’m wondering if there’s much industry in Webster?” I say. “What do people generally do for work there? Are they farmers, mostly?”

She thinks on this for a while. “No, I’d have to say we’re pretty evenly dispersed between like the fast foods that we got, the grocery store, the general stores, and like all the hard labor type jobs. 

“Ah.”

“Hey, is this going to take much longer? We need to use the EBT machine, and this is tying up the line.”

 

Every second Thursday in Fremont, Ohio, the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order devoted to providing charitable services, conducts its monthly meeting in an old brick building at the corner of Park Avenue and Napoleon Street. 

“Yeah, we just finished up,” Grand Knight Larry Koppelman, 69, tells me. It’s around 9:30 p.m. I can hear a lot of talking going on in the background, such that Larry has to strain a bit to hear me. “What was that? What are we doing now? Well, not much but sitting around, I’d say. Some of the guys are playing Euchre, some are sitting around just shooting the breeze.”

“Euchre. What’s that?”

Larry seems to skip a breath, as though he was about to scoff but caught himself. “Well, it’s a card game. They’re playing cards. You never heard of Euchre?”

A retired machine repair man who’s lived in Fremont his whole life (outside the time he was in the service), Larry’s been a member of the Knights of Columbus for approximately five years. “I never had time to help out much while I was working, so the first thing I did when I retired was join up,” he says. “Helping out with the church. That was my main goal.”

“Any big topics of discussion at tonight’s meeting?”

“Oh, not really. Just voting on different charities, trying to decide whether to send them money or not,” Larry tells me. “Our funds are getting a little bit low on account of a lot of knights are getting older. After you’ve been in it for 25 years, you no longer have to pay dues. So it’s getting harder, the older we get.”

Larry is friendly in a stoic, disinterested way, with a kind of husky patience that reminds me of an emergency room doctor. He tends to pause before sentences, as one might before lifting something heavy. “Nope. Not much else happening, Matt, aside from the Euchre game,” he says, sounding as if he’s about to say goodbye. “Lots of talk about politics, of course...”

“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “The vice presidential debate is on right now. Are the Knights planning on tuning into it at all?”

Larry pauses again, barely smothering a sigh. “No, I think we’ll stick with the Euchre,” he says. “Anything else?”

 

Where the Wyatt Earp Inn is, off Highway 75 in eastern Kansas, there isn’t any city or town––but if there was one, the only full-time resident would be a 32-year-old woman named Lynda Collins, whose job is to never leave. Lynda’s the on-site manager of the Wyatt Earp, and has spent the better part of the last year and a half of her life within its walls, mostly by herself.

“We are literally in the middle of nowhere,” Lynda tells me around 10 p.m. “The nearest grocery store is 17 miles away. This is Kansas, so it’s a lot of wheat fields around. It gets very dark.”

“This isn’t the lighthouse,” the woman says. “This number is for making reservations to stay in the lighthouse keeper’s house. Gosh, there hasn’t been a full-time lighthouse keeper since the seventies. They’re all automated now.”

Lynda sleeps in one of the Inn’s rooms, amid its theme of southwestern furniture and paintings of cowboys. If a guest arrives late at night, no matter the time, she gets up to check them in. “It’s a pain, but I’m used to it,” she says. “My last check-in was a quarter to one last night. A lot of the time it’s someone who just got tired driving. But the lady last night hit a raccoon on the highway and her car stopped working, so she didn’t have a choice.”

“Wow. So you’re on call 24 hours a day?”

“Yeah, well,” she says. “The bigger problem right now is the buffalo outside.”

“Wait, what? There’s a buffalo outside?”

She explains that outside, on the lawn of the Inn, there’s a statue of a buffalo, and people tend to climb on it after dark. “The thing is on a pedestal like five feet in the air,” Lynda says, “so they end up being like 12 feet up when they’re sitting on top of it? If they fall down they’re gonna crack their heads open. So I have to chase them off.”

“Teenagers?”

She laughs. “No, these are adults. But often pretty drunk, as you might guess.”

“How do you work a job like that?” I ask. “Seems like you’d have to be pretty durable as a person.”

“Durable! I guess that’s one word for it,” Lynda says, laughing again. “Gosh, you make me sound like a Hefty garbage bag or a tire or something.”

 

The Race Point Lighthouse in Provincetown, Mass., has been lit every night for the past 197 years. Made of whitewashed rubble stone, and with one of the earliest revolving lights on Cape Cod, it has a charmingly modest stature––a tower that doesn’t seem to tower so much as poke itself out of the beach, squat and stubby as an amputated limb. 

It’s about 11 p.m. when I call the lighthouse’s listed number. The voice of an elderly woman surprises me by answering, simply, “Hello?” She sounds a little confused.

“Hi! Sorry to call so late. I was hoping to get in touch with the lighthouse keeper at Race Point?”

This prompts a giggle. “This isn’t the lighthouse,” the woman says. “This number is for making reservations to stay in the lighthouse keeper’s house. Gosh, there hasn’t been a full-time lighthouse keeper since the seventies. They’re all automated now.”

This is Nicky N., a retired critical-care nurse who lives with her husband in the nearby town of North Truro. She’s usually asleep at this hour, she says, but tonight she had some emails to send out. “Some reservation confirmations,” she says.

When I ask Nicky how old she is, she gets giggling again. “Oh, now you’re getting personal,” she says. “Old enough to know better, how’s that?”

Any interesting guests at Race Point lately?

“Oh, we get ‘em from all over. People from France, some from Denmark. We have a couple who are coming down from Michigan on Friday. They were doing a tour of the eastern seaboard, starting in Boston, then doing the Plymouth colony. White mountains in New Hampshire. Then coming here.”

Born and raised on the coast of Maine, Nicky says she has a special relationship to lighthouses, as does her husband, who was a lobster fisherman for 30 years. “Oh, yes. They’re wonderful,” she says. “They have a kind of mystical appearance to them. My husband will tell you: When you’re out on a boat at night, you become very dependent on looking at the lights. Of course when it’s foggy you need to have radar and all that kind of stuff. But you depend on these lighthouses and you learn to recognize that some are white, some are blue, some are green, some are red, and they have a certain sequence to them. You learn to know them when you’re out there on the ocean.”

“You must hear the foghorn, too? Can you hear the foghorn from where you are?”

“No, we’ve shut off the horn,” she says, yawning.

“Is that sad?”

“Not when it’s time to go to sleep, it isn’t.”

biopic

TMN editor Matt Ray Robison is a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor. More by Matt Ray Robison