Wild Wild Williston: Part III

My hometown of Williston, ND, is definitely in its own little bubble. The entire state of North Dakota pretty much is, but Williston and other boom towns are a breed of their own.

I haven’t lived in Williston for an extended period of time since the summer of 2009. A lot was changing even then in the steadily growing oil town, but it wasn’t even close to approaching the radical changes it’s undergone in the years since then. Changes that have gained national attention, happening right in my “boring” backyard. (If you haven’t checked out Part I and Part II, there’s some more information about Williston there.)

Williston High School's gymnasium, the Phil Jackson Field House (Williston is his hometown, too). Brings back memories of high school dances, basketball games, and graduation.

As a senior in high school in 2008, after working my way up the “corporate” ladder for the past three years at the local Subway restaurant, I was finally making $10.25 an hour as a supervisor slinging sandwiches. (Yay alliteration!) When I tell my friends this, even friends from North Dakota, they’re usually pretty amazed I got that kind of pay working at a Subway restaurant. (And, I’ll admit, I miss it a lot.)

But things are even vastly different since then. My 16 year-old brother just got his first job this summer working on an asphalt crew. The team consists mostly of females, because all the older guys who would normally be working construction are working on the oil rigs. His starting wage is $15 an hour. I’ve never made that much in my life, and I’m jealous. When I first went into sandwich slavery, I was making a mere $5.50 an hour, and happy with it.

But why do manual labor for 16 hours a day under the hot sun for $15 an hour when you could work in a fast food restaurant for the same wages?

This ad was in Williston's local classified newspaper, "The Shopper," the last week in May.

And the $10.25 an hour at Subway that I’d worked through blood, sweat, and tears for? Yeah.

Ouch.

But that’s what employers need to do to entice help in Williston — A place where there are tons of jobs, tons of people, no place to put them all, and very little for them to do recreationally.  After all, if you or your significant other could be making more than people with college degrees, especially in this economy, why wouldn’t you?

Exactly. Which is why a lot of people from all across the country are doing that.

But finding employees is only half the battle for non-oilfield employers in Williston. Keeping good employees is a big problem, too. People leave jobs in a heartbeat with no warning in favor of better opportunities … or sometimes just in favor of sitting at home. All the restaurants and stores are so busy there, keeping up with the demand gets to be a lot for anyone. (It was even crazy when I worked at Subway before the peak of the oil boom — Our restaurant was considered a “high-volume” store among other Subways nationwide.) For this reason, some employers are taking steps to nip that situation in the bud:

This ad was in last week's issue of "The Shopper." The good part is kind of small in this screenshot, but it says, "Do not apply if you're always sick, late, untrustworthy, can't work weekends, lazy, not dependable, or you complain about everything!"

Housing in Williston, when available, is priced in relation to the competitive wages. I think it’s kind of a chicken and egg situation, but whether the housing prices are in response to the amount people are getting paid, or the amount people getting paid is compensating for the rise in housing prices, they’re definitely both high. Like, you could rent an apartment in New York City for the price of apartments in Williston.


Granted, a lot of apartments in town are certainly much more affordable, they’re definitely more expensive than they used to be, and more difficult to come by.

I was glad to see, though, that while I was perusing The Shopper, some things haven’t changed.

Well, I guess I don’t know if I can say “glad.” The camouflage tux was always something my dates threatened me with during prom season.

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The Grocery Store

In a little over a week, my boyfriend and his roommates will be moving out of their first house. While it’s an exciting experience to move on and upgrade a little, their house was really the first house of all their close friends who frequented it, too. It almost took on a personality of its own. For my final paper in my nonfiction class last semester, I wrote a research paper about his house. To pay it its last little tribute, I thought it might be worth posting an excerpt here. It was a long paper, so more might follow, if there’s any interest.

—–

From the sidewalk, it looks like the kind of place you’d shoo your kids past while Trick or Treating. After weaving through the cars in its “parking lot” to get to the front door and noting the peeling paint from its once-white window panes, any passersby would assume it’s either been abandoned or is inhabited by a crack dealer.

No one would expect it to be a bachelor pad, let alone the site of countless locally-legendary house parties. And maybe that’s the reason they’ve never had the police called, even when nearly 75 people are crammed inside on a Friday night. That, and the fact that although the wind whistles through its poorly-insulated brick, sound never seems to escape from the confines of its walls. It appears to be the last place anyone looking for a good time would feel safe, and yet, this shabby little house has provided a sanctuary for socialization and has created countless friendships, relationships, and memories.

It’s a speakeasy of sorts: it provides a safe place to do unsafe things, and unless you know someone who lives there, you don’t hear about its weekend festivities. Even when the party’s raging, you’ll never find more than five to ten strangers. Besides, people never stay strangers long there.

Ok, it's not quite this ... grainy.

My boyfriend, Chris, and his three roommates moved to the house about a year ago. Recently, I was cuddled into the nook of the dusty blue leather couch in the living room, watching TV with Chris and his dog. I peered over his shoulder at the laptop resting on the arm of the couch to find he was scanning Craigslist’s rental property classifieds. I felt a pang of sadness. Even though it’s never a comfortable temperature and the electricity bill climbs to over $400 in the winter, this strange little place has cultivated a community of close-knit friends. What would happen if they moved?

I remember when the guys first told me about the house.

“You’ve gotta come check out the Grocery Store,” said Alex, Chris’s longtime friend and roommate. “We just signed the lease and put the deposit down.”

They were chattering so excitedly about rooming arrangements and how to furnish the house that I couldn’t raise any of my many objections.

Frustrated after getting noise complaints from even having the TV on too loud in their last apartment, the guys were looking for someplace where they could entertain. Moving into a place called the Grocery Store didn’t sound like a solution to me.

Nevertheless, I agreed to take a look.

“You’re probably going to think we’re crazy when you see the outside,” Chris warned on our drive to the Grocery Store, trying to keep me from immediately hating the place. “Give it a chance – It completely redeems itself once you go inside.”

In the residential neighborhood, the warmth of the first breath of summer brought children outside to ride their bicycles and play with the dogs that were being walked by several neighbors. Joggers’ ponytails leapt wildly down the sidewalks. I was so enamored by the homey neighborhood that, when we turned into a corner lot, I didn’t immediately realize we’d arrived at our destination. From the passenger seat of Chris’s pickup, my subtle smile faded as I stared through the windshield at the house in front of me.

The Grocery Store

“You’re kidding, right?” I pleaded, shooting Chris a glance.

He laughed, as if he was expecting this.

That made one of us. I opened the car door and looked across what appeared to be a parking lot. Despite the lot’s attempts to smother the lawn where the front yard should have been, mossy-looking foliage sprouted through the many cracks in the pavement.  Weeds choked out the grass in the sliver of lawn on the side of the house, barely visible behind Alex’s car in the snapshot. I followed the brown grass to the backyard where I found a scraggly, stunted plum tree feebly clinging to life. Circling back to the building’s front, I noticed an antiquated yard light protruding antennae-like from the roof, which you can find at the top right corner of the snapshot. Wood splinters bristled angrily from the window panes.

I found Chris holding the front door open for me at my right.

“Just come inside,” was his reaction to my unpleasantly surprised face.

As I entered, I felt myself react like the shocked homeowner on a home remodeling show taking in the surprise renovations. The majority of the one-level house’s floor plan was an open expanse. The large main room shown above would later be shaped by furnishings, providing space for a bar, living room, dining room, and kitchen. I felt like I was atop a high-rise loft apartment in a big city. Something about the house drew me in; I moved naturally through it.

The surprising interior

“Wow,” my voice echoed in the unfurnished space. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

Chris and Alex grinned at each other.

“But what’s the story behind the whole ‘Grocery Store’ thing?” I asked, inspecting the too-good-to-be-true interior for any flaws.

“It used to be a grocery store in the 1950s,” Alex started. “I want to sleep in the frozen food section!”

Actually, Grand Forks County Property Records explain that the Grocery Store was constructed in 1948. Exactly how long it served as a neighborhood grocery store is a mystery. But the building had another more well-known function before it became the guys’ home and a party destination.

“It used to be Amazing Grains, too,” Chris added.

Amazing Grains is a natural food market and co-op in Grand Forks that provides organic produce periodically to paying members. The store serves a very select group, since the organic food trend isn’t exactly widespread in the area. In 2000, the co-op had around 250 members, as the stated in an interview between then-University of North Dakota student Curtis Stofferahn and Amazing Grains’s manager, Betsy Perkins. As reported by the local newspaper, the Grand Forks Herald, Amazing Grains made the Grocery Store its home from its inception over 35 years ago, until December 31, 1999. Perkins told the Herald she decided to make the move to a high-traffic area downtown in early 2000 because, tucked into a residential neighborhood, they felt they were in an “invisible location” at the Grocery Store.

Amazing Grains's current downtown location

Even so, when the Grocery Store served as Amazing Grains, it found itself the shelter to a following eerily similar to the group of friends it houses today. Before Amazing Grains’s move downtown, unless you knew someone who knew about the store, you probably wouldn’t have known where it was or what it provided. But the close knit group of members, small staff, and volunteers gave life to the building, putting on events like their annual Co-op Cookoff, which was established in the early nineties, according to the Herald.

“So … how did it turn into this?” I echoed in the empty room, wondering how many times the question had been asked in that same spot.

That’s about half of the Grocery Store story. Part II may follow.

Wild Wild Williston: Part II

It’s obvious the once-forgotten town of Williston, a dusty little placed nestled in North Dakota’s back pocket, is undergoing some major changes spurred from the oil boom. Finding housing to accommodate the influx of residents is at an unprecedented high. But that’s not the only thing changing.

Williston's slogan, referring to the Bakken Oil Formation that was discovered in the region. This can be seen emblazoned on bumper stickers, hats, and other apparel.

Williston’s like most other small towns in North Dakota. Everyone knows your business before you even do. Comparatively, Williston is considered a “city” in North Dakota, with a population of around 13,000 before the oil boom. (Williston’s not expected to stop growing anytime soon, as space for another 4,500 people in man camps is being planned.) Still, somehow everyone either knows everyone or knows of everyone through the grapevine. You know that whole six degrees of separation thing? Williston natives probably have about one or two degrees of separation from one another, at a generous estimate.

Obviously this is a little dated, but you get the concept.

Still, Williston’s always seemed a little behind the curve. Up until a few years ago, the few radio stations that didn’t play country almost exclusively played music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Because of this, I know every word to songs like “Diamond Girl” by Seals and Crofts and “Missin’ You” by John Waite. (Most non-country stations have since shifted to Rock or Top 40 formats.) For these reasons, in the few years since I moved away, I’m happy to see the Williston Herald, the local newspaper, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau get online — even on Facebook.

Like!

More and more social media sites are being put into place to get people familiar with the city, since many who come from around the nation had no idea Williston even existed until they heard about the job availability. WillistonWire is an e-Newsletter that compiles all Williston-related news from surrounding news outlets. One of my friends has recently created a forum for Willistonites called Williston Basin Forum to gather and weigh in on issues that affect them.

Facebook pages surrounding Williston have been popping up for a while. They never seem to pick up much speed, but one in particular caught my eye. Called Williston Rumor Mill, it definitely perpetuates the online component of the city’s physical rumor mill that churns daily. Some people take it really seriously, while others post outlandish joking rumors. Regardless, it’s updated often by users and has 912 fans (and counting). Taking a look at the page, it’s pretty much the Facebook version of my high school experience. And I think that’s what makes it so interesting.

Hm, never noticed that on my last trip to Williston.

While I’m sure social media has been a great way for people new to the area to make connections, it’s definitely got a creepy factor. Growing up, Williston was never really a haven for creeps. From the time we were about eight until we got our drivers’ licenses, my best friends and I would ride our bikes throughout town all day, going to stores and restaurants without having to worry about traffic, let alone creepers.

But today, girls my age who still live in town often say how many inappropriate comments they get from guys of all ages, even just going to Wal-Mart (the only major store in town). Even six hours away, I periodically get Facebook messages from guys moving to the Williston area for oil work, sometimes asking for me to be their “friend” and “show them around,” and sometimes just saying things like, “Yo hun I’m moving to Williston! What’s yo number so I can get atchu?!” Creepers.

"Do the creep!"

The times, they are a-changing in Williston and surrounding areas, and it’s interesting to hear about its evolution from friends and family and see the transformation myself when I make my seldom visits.

What do you think about the changes happening in Williston, whether you’re from there or not? What have your experiences been?