Walk around downtown Bemidji after dark and count the number of businesses that are open. You probably won't need more than one hand.

Start at the edge of downtown nearest the Paul and Babe statues and walk on the sidewalk past Toasty Beaver's. To your right you'll see Classic Hard Times Saloon. The sidewalk in front of Hard Times Saloon will be blocked by a cluster of five or six smokers. A visit to Hard Times on a Saturday night will reinforce the fact that the bar caters to a more alternative crowd of folks who are familiar with indie bands from Fargo. Inside Hard Times, there may be more than one white guy with dread locks.

The bar you just passed, Toasty Beaver's, you were able to stroll by unabated. This is because there is no one inside, as the bar's clientele spent all of their money Friday and Saturday night, sucking down sugary shots and cheap beer. The other reason is that their patrons don't smoke. These are football players and girls who drink a sugar-free red bull and call it dinner. Meanwhile, the bearded fellows over at Hard Times just finished their third Jameson on the rocks and are ready for a cigarette.

Take a right at the end of that block, and you'll see a corner lot -- a prime location -- uninhabited. Wells Fargo closed that branch a year ago and it remains vacant. Looking at a city's downtown is the best way to gauge what's going on in a city as a whole. Downtown is the heart of a city -- its cultural and business center. This empty building is like a big dark cavity in that center.

Light shines through the window of a shop on the left-hand side of the street on the next block. A business doing business after dark? That is no mirage, my friend. It's a candy store whose owners believe in 12 hours of operation per day -- a concept that hasn't caught on with the neighbors.

A couple of blocks further along, past a couple more bars and a dozen or so other businesses (all closed) is Corner Laundry. Over at Corner Laundry, two machines may be spinning while a woman with a long black pony tail does a crossword puzzle. She's the only beating heart on the whole block, unless you count the employee who probably fell asleep in the back room.

Along the way, you'll pass by alleys and catch a two second glimpse into the bowels of downtown Bemidji. They're the types of alleys in gangster movies, where the pavement is always wet with some sort of liquid and something is dripping water from overhead. All they're missing are the gangsters, or any people at all for that matter. And they could use some steam coming from the sewers.
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