Michael Sklar's carrot cake takes the cake

When I worked at the Budgeteer News in the mid-1990s, this was my second-favorite photo from the archives. It came fully supplied with the caption, just like the Connie Stevens one did. I'm not sure if it was ever used in the paper, or what the deal is with it, but these days the Internet tells me Michael Sklar is an actor who appeared in a handful of movies and an episode of Laugh In.


Last Transistor Column

I’ve been a newspaper columnist in Duluth for over 15 years, but for most of those years my work has been in the Transistor, which isn’t really a newspaper. (I prefer Slim Goodbuzz’s description of the Tranny as “a tacky little pamphlet” — a phrase he boosted from a Frank Zappa song.)

The rags I wrote for in the beginning consisted of a weekly shopper then known as the Budgeteer Press, a sloppy every-other-week disaster of a publication then known as the Northland Reader, and a weird monthly scandal sheet called the Ripsaw that was quickly transformed into a solid alternative weekly before becoming a magazine and slowly meeting its demise.

Throughout my work in the aforementioned publications I never wrote one of those “Duluth” columns — you know, where the author waxes poetic about Lake Superior, the beauty of the urban wilderness and the charm of living in a big small town. Instead I’ve tried my best to be a weirdo, and I think I’ve succeeded.

When I started this column in 1997, Duluth didn’t generally embrace its weirdoes, which is probably what encouraged me to become one. Now Duluth relishes its weirdoes, so it seems my work here is done.

In recent years I’ve become the number-one bigmouth on the local blog Perfect Duluth Day. I still cut a rant at “the man” every now and then, but by and large I just kiss the Zenith City’s ass. I’m absolutely amazed at how many ways the place has changed for the better. It seems like every day there is some awesome thing happening that I’m missing because I’m engaged in some other awesome thing.

The best I can do to bitch is to point out that the hideous neon blue light around the Holiday Stationstore sign on I-35 in the West End is a public nuisance far greater than the synthetic potheads hanging around outside the Last Place on Earth. Everything else around here is going great by my view, which makes for boring columns.

So it’s time to announce the retirement of “The Next Level.” This is my final piece. I still have plenty of creative energy, but it just doesn’t work in a 450-word box inside a tacky little pamphlet anymore. It’s time for me to knock this off.

I wish to close with a tip of the hat to Transistor Publisher Adam Guggemos, a colleague of mine from the Ripsaw days who admirably soldiers forward, maintaining an ongoing platform for art, music and swearing. I’m proud to have been a part of it and grateful for the opportunity to not write about the lake.

Paul Lundgren is no longer a newspaper columnist, but still strives to be a nice man. You can keep up with his weirdo past and future projects on paullundgren.com.


Big Money

One of my fondest memories of 1997 was the afternoon I went for a cruise along the North Shore of Lake Superior with Ray Szmanda in a rented convertible. People of the Midwest know Ray for his role as “Menards Guy,” a husky, white-haired spokesman with a booming voice who appears in television commercials encouraging everyone to “save big money” at the popular home-repair chain store.

I thought it would be funny to nickname him “Big Money,” and he didn’t seem to mind me calling him that all day long as the wind ripped through our hair along Highway 61. Taking deep swigs of Strawberry Crush from a 2-liter bottle, Big Money jubilantly offered suggestion after suggestion for things we should do along the way.

“Let’s pick up George Kessler and dress him like Gilligan! He can be my little buddy!”

“Let’s get tattoos! Big tattoos! Cover our whole backs!”

Everything he said ended with an exclamation point!

We had barely left Duluth when we saw Kate Pierson of the B-52s hitchhiking with a “Betty’s Pies or bust” sign. I hit the brakes hard and Big Money chocked on his soda. Kate confidently strode up to the car. “You are a chocolate lover if I ever saw one,” she said while pointing an accusatory finger in my direction. “And you,” she continued, turning her attention to my puffy companion, “are nothin’ but pumpkin.”

I figured I could play this game, too, so I quickly and matter-of-factly said “apple” without so much as looking her in the eye. “Definitely apple for you.”

Big Money buried his face in his shirt, wiping soda pop from his chin, then shook his head. “No no no no no!” he shouted at me, then turned to Kate. “Sorry ma’am! The boy wouldn’t know a blueberry girl if she had indigo flesh and bell-shaped flowers popping out of her blouse!”

Kate shrugged her shoulders and dove into the back seat. Her eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror, and she coldly and sarcastically said, “I expect that much from chocolate.”

Back on the road, Big Money and Kate talked about show business, gardening and their favorite book, A Long Fatal Love Chase.Unable to relate to the conversation, I focused on the scenery. Sunlight was glistening on the lake, the fall colors were brilliant and the Volkswagen van that turned into the Betty’s Pies parking lot in front of us had bumper stickers that were perfectly predictable.

That’s when we met Connie, who worked at the Two Harbors Pizza Hut. She offered to take us canoeing and told us long stories of strange nights at the Earthwood Inn Motel & Bar, which she kept referring to as the “Earthworm.” We talked about going there, but decided instead to drive to Thunder Bay, where I managed to wrestle the top down on the car so we could get some sleep in the parking lot of a 24-hour doughnut shop.

I can’t remember large parts of the trip, but in retrospect I would rank this day as the 24th-best of my life.  

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His book “The Spowl Ribbon” is available on paullundgren.com.


Murder House

I first became aware of the Murder House in 2006. While walking down Fremont Street I noticed a large sign made from a 4-by-8-foot piece of plywood. It was just up from the curb on the lawn of a deteriorating house that was mostly hidden behind a thick wall of various shrubs and bushes.

The sign was filled with writing, neatly hand-printed by way of thick black-and-blue markers. At the top in black were definitions of the words “paranoia,” “conspiracy,” “extortion” and “coerce.” The bottom half used the color blue, with black returning occasionally to emphasize words and phrases like “fraud” and “Duluth Police Department.” It was clearly the rantings of someone whose mind was slipping.

“I have been coerced and abused still wearing a mark on myself 1 year and six months later plus,” the sign read. “My neighbor spies on me, I have been threatened with death to give up information on perpetual motion or be jailed for a most indefinite time.  Code breaking 9-11-2001 I was told to shut up! What a free country.”

Another sign next to it complained about the “Sump Pump Issue.” A third sign, on the roof, featured a series of triangles, circles and numbers. I stood there and read it all, shook my head and went back about my business.

A few years later I decided to walk down the dead end on the avenue in front of the house. From the other side I could see painted in white on the rooftop shingles a series of solid circles and rectangles, the word “murder” and the dates “3-23-97” and “7-12-2008.”

That’s when it became the “Murder House” to me. When I brought it up to neighbors, I heard all sorts of stories about the paranoid schizophrenic who lived there. A literal murder never took place, but one theory was that the guy felt his rights had been murdered. Someone else told me the schizo’s mother and dog died on those dates, and the paranoid delusion was that they were poisoned.

Eventually, I heard the house had been condemned, and soon after I noticed it had been demolished.

It was only after the house came down that I got to see the man I was already referring to as “Murder House Guy.” I didn’t know if he was homeless or living with a cousin in the neighborhood or what, but I began seeing this scraggly looking character riding his bicycle around with bags full of stuff strapped behind the seat and on the handlebars. I don’t remember who first informed me that Scraggly Bike Guy and Murder House Guy were one of the same.

I began to notice Murder House Guy having long conversations with different people, and as time went on I started spotting him two or three times a week. I made a point to avoid him, not because I thought he was particularly dangerous, but because I knew how often we crossed paths and I didn’t want to have to engage in long conversations with him on a regular basis.

Finally, last month I was walking to the waterfront trail, turned a corner by some bushes, and there he was about 10 feet away from me. I thought it would be rude to not acknowledge him, so I nodded a hello in his direction. Murder House Guy immediately scowled and responded by saying, “Fuck you.” I took it in stride, chuckled, and kept walking. He mocked my chuckle and repeated his warm greeting, “Fuck you.”

Well, that’s it, I thought. I’m on his radar now. He knows who I am and he clearly doesn’t like me. Or maybe that’s just how he says howdy. Either way, I’m not inconspicuous anymore. He probably thinks I’m a government agent conducting close surveillance of him.

That night I set up a trap in my front yard in order to catch a skunk that had set up camp under my front porch. The next morning I had my target securely confined in the makeshift plastic tube I had borrowed from my neighbor, which allowed me to safely blockade my porch with the knowledge that I wasn’t trapping the skunk inside. Of course, I then had the chore of relocating the little critter.

I opened the trap about a mile from my home near a creek at a local park, but the skunk just sat inside and wouldn’t come out. I waited and waited, sitting about 40 feet away inside my conversion van. Eventually, as fait would have it, Murder House Guy came riding his bike up the street.

There he was, the guy whose first words to me just one day prior were a disdainful “fuck you,” slowly and curiously approaching a strange plastic cylinder that contained a no-doubt upset skunk. And there I was, unobserved in my vehicle, watching the scene unfold.

To summarize the situation: If I tried to warn Murder House Guy about the skunk I’d be reintroducing myself into his life and welcoming more verbal abuse. If I let him get sprayed, he’d be sure to notice me and perceive that I set him up, justifying a vendetta. It seemed lose-lose.

I made a snap decision to step out of my van and let him know what was happening. He didn’t seem to recognize me from the day before and responded inquisitively about the situation. I told him all about trapping the skunk and my lack of success so far in releasing it.

“You’re doing it wrong,” he said with a smile. “You’re supposed to dump the skunk out of the trap over the crick so it drowns.”  

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His book “The Spowl Ribbon” is available on paullundgren.com.


Connie Stevens enjoyed smoking pot

When I worked at the Budgeteer News in the mid-1990s, this was my favorite photo from the archives. It came fully supplied with the caption. I'm not sure if it was ever used in the paper.



Having been married for a full two months, I have compiled several observations on the topic. Chief among them is that marriage requires commitment. For example, I’ve made the commitments to become fatter, hairier and drunker than ever before. Hey, it’s not like I have to impress anyone now.

There are two responses I get when people find out I got married. Dingbats who live in a fantasy land start gushing with congratulations. Grownups who live in reality roll their eyes and insert an expletive into the question, “Why would you do that?”

The answer is basically this: I have been in a committed relationship for seven years, and after a certain amount of time the word “girlfriend,” starts to sound silly. The woman I intend to spend the rest of my life with should have a title that ranks her higher than someone I played kissy face with in junior high school.

So now I have a wife, and that title also happens to be useful to me as a humorist. “Take my girlfriend … please,” just didn’t have a ring to it.

My bride and I found the experience of getting married to be fantastic, but I would not recommend it to anyone else. If you are looking to get married, here are two reasons I think you shouldn’t:

1) You are not as in love as I am. You are desperate and insecure. Someone came along who seems to tolerate you, a few friends and family members have started teasing you that you should get married and you are pathetic enough to start considering it. Get your damn head screwed on straight.

2) Although getting married can be fun, planning a wedding and reception is like planning a space mission. It’s either going to be expensive or a disaster, and it’s likely to be both. If you choose to spend a lot of money you are a sucker, but if you don’t you are in for a lot of headaches. The situation is totally lose-lose.

Try to assign a dollar value to how much fun you can possibly have in a single day. You lose if you spend more than that amount on your wedding. But spending money is the only way to make things happen without dealing with them yourself. Sure, you can get your friends to cook a potluck for you, for example, but that means making your friends do work for you when they already hate you for making them sit through your stupid wedding.

Why don’t you skip having a meal? That would make everything easier, right? Well, you can’t really haul people to a ceremony and then either make them wait around or tell them to go find dinner on their own while you get 6,000 pictures taken before meeting them at the reception. And you have to eat before you spend several hours yelling over loud music and soothing your throat with wine.

I know you have all sorts of objections to the points I’ve made and still think you can have an inexpensive, fun, easy-to-plan wedding and reception. Trust me, you are wrong.

Even if you want to have a quick Justice-of-the-Peace wedding, skip dinner and simply have a straight-up party of a reception, there’s something you need to think about. You should never put all the people you know together in one room.

Allowing friends, family and work colleagues to mingle is a serious mistake. Each of the people in those groups knows approximately one-third of the humiliating episodes of your life and the range of personality flaws you reveal in select company. If you put all of them in a room together you will be completely stripped of whatever false sense of dignity you might have. Proceed with caution. 

Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His book, “The Spowl Ribbon,” is available online at paullundgren.com.