A Girl, an Engine Block Heater, and the South Forks Plaza | NNoTW February 4, 2021

Based on the number of times I’ve been asked with a straight face, “Did you have [insert common item found readily in a first-world country] when you were growing up?” I have to assume that most non-Midwesterners picture North Dakota as one big medieval village.  In actuality, as we all know, if I described Grand Forks it would sound like just about any other suburb in America: two competing megaplex theaters, multiple pet daycares, a stack of ethnic restaurants, and a wide variety of big box stores.  I’m not trying to put in a bid for the Olympics, I’m just trying to say that we aren’t exactly trading maple syrup for cobbled shoes.

There is one thing, though, that sets us apart from the balmy coasts: the engine block heater.

I drove around Massachusetts for two years in my little red North Dakota-bought Honda Civic with an engine block plug-in sticking out of the hood.  In those two years, I heard the question, “Do you have an electric car?” probably thirty times.  And I would always answer, “Yes, I do,” because no one ever had a follow-up question to that response, but EVERYONE had a comment when I would explain that in some places in the world it gets cold enough that we need to plug in our cars to keep them from freezing.

I don’t know if engine quality has improved or we’re so much on the move as a society that our cars don’t have a chance to cool off anymore, but it does seem like engine block heaters aren’t as prolific today as they were in my formative years.  When I was growing up, if you had a place to park a car, you also had a place to plug in an engine block heater.

I worked for the Shirt Shoppe in the South Forks Plaza (now called the Grand Cities Mall) when I was 16 years old.  South Forks Plaza was the mall equivalent of taking a bunch of random people on the street and plunking a western-themed storefront around each one.  It boasted an eclectic mix of businesses – a sit-in smoke shop, a dollar movie theater, Radio Shack, a shoe cobbler, a barber, a cheese store, and K-Mart, to name a few – ringed around an expansive center court.

The Shirt Shoppe was down one of the entrance wings that jutted off of this center court.  While the Shirt Shoppe fronted as a small seller of humorous and custom-made t-shirts, it’s real business took place in the attached warehouse accessed through a small door beside the cash register.  In that warehouse, a lone woman named Sue* existed in a world of screenprinting fumes and cigarette smoke.  Sue was one of those ageless people who could either be 24 or 4,000 years old.  She would emerge once or twice a week in order to hand someone a box of mass-produced logo golf shirts and have me make her an off-copyright sports tee.  That was the extent of our entire relationship, and I was both terrified and obsessed with her.

The parking lot outside of the Shirt Shoppe doors offered a row of electrical outlets down the center lane.  My car at the time was an ’88 Ford Tempo, which needed constant engine warmth to remain functional.  As such, I took the job in part because of the availability of those parking lot outlets.

It was just Sue and me on a frigid Saturday morning in February.  It was pretty quiet in the Shoppe, and so I went out on my break to get my sweet Janet Jackson tape from the car deck to play in the store’s boombox.  I had just pocketed the cassette when I realized I couldn’t hear the familiar (and definitely safe) hum of electrical currents coming from my plug-in.  The normally-hot (also definitely safe) cord was cold to the touch.

I experienced momentary panic that I would be stuck at work forever – or at least until someone gave me a boost, which in 16-year-old girl years was a lifetime – when I remembered that the mall was an indoor enclosed space also powered by electricity.  Any North Dakota girl worth her melting salt carried around an extension cord in her trunk in those days, and so I plugged one of my super-long orange cords into the Tempo and hauled the other end into the building.

The Shirt Shoppe was right inside the door and had all sorts of outlets, and I was about to insert the extension cord into one of them when Sue materialized from her warehouse like Darth Vader when he boarded Princess Leia’s ship.

“Whatcha doing?” She asked, an unlit cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

A normal person would have explained the situation.  Instead, I was suddenly concerned that Sue had caught me pilfering electricity from our employer and would either tell my boss – or worse, not like me.

“I dunno, nothin’,” I said, tossing the extension cord out into the hall.

Sue shrugged, grabbed a box of staples from under the counter, and went back from whence she came.

I was stuck.  I still needed to plug in my car, but I couldn’t rightly use the Shirt Shoppe’s outlets now.  Suddenly, a light came on.  There was a horsey ride in the center court; clearly there was at least one outlet out there.

I went back out to my car and got two more giant extensions (I was constantly losing, replacing, and then regaining lost cords) so as to fashion the motherlode of all cords.  I strolled through the mall, casually dragging the end of the extension behind me.  There was an empty outlet just around the corner, and so I plugged it in and hauled my butt back to work.

True to North Dakota form, no one questioned or removed the giant extension cord.  My car started up on the first try, and I didn’t see Sue again the rest of the workday.  The parking lot electrical bank was fixed the next time I returned.

I ultimately had to quit the Shirt Shoppe because I was spending my entire paycheck on my own custom t-shirts, and neither my wallet nor my closet could handle it.  When I turned in my notice, Sue shook my hand.  A photo of one of my extension cords is above.

This week’s news has not one, not two, but three stories about cats.  Read on.


Minot’s Toby and Emma Phillips used their last $50 to purchase pet food in order to start Blessed Pets, a food pantry just for four-legged friends in need. (Minot Daily News)

Erin Nieland and Jessica Fabian are gathering up Valentine’s Day cards for a local two-year-old boy battling brain cancer. (KFYR TV)

A little Crystal girl named Kassidee and her kitten, Sage, saved her family from a devastating house fire. (New York Post) (Grand Dorks Herald)

Bismarck’s The Capital Gallery is showcasing 14 regional artists in their latest Americana exhibition, “Into the West.” (Minot Daily News)

If Minot’s Violet the Siamese kitty wins American’s Favorite Pet, her owner is going to donate the prize money to rescue shelter Hairball Haven. (Minot Daily News)

Grand Forks Kids looking for academic assistance or just a place to hang now have the Mentor Center. (Grand Forks Herald)

Hooray, it’s Country Neighbors time!  (Bowman Extra)

(Like Amanda Silverman Kosior and/or North Dakota Nice?  Check out last week’s tale about Bingo.)

*I changed Sue’s name.  At least, I think I did.  It was a long time ago and I was very distracted by boys and t-shirts back then.  Sue was the first name that came to mind when I needed a fake name, which makes me a little concerned right now as I type this that it was her actual name.

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