When Sherry left town, it was with the idea that things would be different. Williston, North Dakota offered jobs and hope. She soon got a cellphone and said she’s working in construction.
Depending on which Sherry you believe, Williston has either provided stability, work and a partner — or become a new setting for a continuing alcohol-fueled, troubled existence.
Williston is known as Boomtown, U.S.A. — there’s a sign bragging as much off 2nd Avenue East, just inside what was a city with a population of 14,000 at the time of the 2010 census. The discovery of oil under nutrient-rich land farmed for the last 150 years has brought thousands of workers here, by some reports doubling the population. But the wealth they seek seems to be cancelled out for many by a high cost of living and the price of pleasure often required to maintain sanity in a place so brutal. Williston is in a part of the country usually considered the middle of nowhere. It is a cold and barren prairie. In winter, temperatures hover below freezing, with wind chills falling to -30 degrees and worse. Early European settlers came here either because it reminded them of their Scandinavian homeland or because it’s a place so desolate they were sure no one would bother them. Before the oil boom, people didn’t move to Williston — they moved away from it. Even today, there are only two things to do in Williston: work and drink. For many of the workers, Williston is a place of hope until you get there.
I was hoping to find my friend Sherry, a homeless woman from the tiny town of Ponemah, Minnesota on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. My first stop was Whispers, the “original” Williston strip club, a friend and native of the town told me. Just next door is Heartbreakers, the recently opened strip club. Both are just a block from the train station that welcomes many to town. I thought someone around here may have seen Sherry when she arrived. No dice.
“Women have no business coming here. You can disappear in this town real quick,” the bartender at Whispers told me. “The reality is this country hasn’t seen anything like this since the gold rush.”
The Wild West, the gold rush and the lawless, pioneering past of the United States are popular themes in Williston and beyond in North Dakota and Montana, where the oil boom is in full swing. For anyone with the slightest interest in the concept of the American Dream, this is the place to be. It’s fascinating, depressing, hopeful and appalling all at the same time. It is America on a serious scale: macho but vulnerable, growing but falling apart, booming while pretending a bust isn’t possible.
Hopping on a train and making a break for one of the most bleak environments this country has to offer was a brave decision for Sherry. In texts and the occasional phone call, she had told me that she’s making it here, but Williston can be a dangerous place for a woman. They’re hard to find here, maybe more so than reliable and affordable housing. Websites warn those going to Williston and other towns in the Bakken Oil Patch for work to plan ahead. You can expect to sleep in your car, but don’t do so in the winter, they warn. That’s when the cold will kill you. But the workers still come, with housing or without. The warnings go unheeded.
Women still come, too, and plenty has been written about the dangers of life on the stripper’s stage and for the fairer sex in general in Williston. The women I saw that night at Whispers didn’t look like they were from Williston. They had implants, haircuts and clothes that reeked of low-end Vegas.
My relationship with Sherry is complicated. Like many, poverty prompted Sherry’s decision to hop the westward train. I met her on a Bemidji, Minnesota sidewalk in mid-July, when I was carrying around a camera and a notepad, toying with an idea of profiling the homeless there. Sherry was drunk, but I believed her when she said she wanted me to write the story.
Over the next few months we got to know each other in bits and pieces, basically whenever I could find her. Most of our interactions came late at night, either in a bar or in front of one. I watched her get busted by the cops for drinking in public, saw her face turn from irreverently buzzed to fearful when she took a seat in the back of the squad car. I listened to her as she yelled at me about how the cops scared her, how she hated the drunk college kids who walked by without noticing her and her friends, but was simultaneously glad they didn’t pay attention. I let her stay at my place after she told me about the night two men tried to rape her at the church that gives shelter to the homeless.
As the small town of Bemidji began reacting to my series of stories on homelessness there, some of the subjects I’d been writing about found themselves being recognized more. One of them was Sherry. But my hope of getting people to pay more attention to the plight of the homeless backfired: On the day the final story ran, Sherry’s friend — another subject of the series — was struck by a car and killed. The police said no foul play was involved in Andy Reed’s death, but the timing of the incident and the lack of specifics provided by the police have only added questions for both Sherry and myself. Andy’s unexpected passing devastated Sherry. A few days prior to his death, she and I had a long talk about the effect the series had on her. She said she’d been called a “snitch” by other homeless for telling part of her story. I felt responsible.
The last I had actually heard from Sherry before arriving in Williston was a brief voicemail in which she said she was stranded in Grand Forks at the train station. She didn’t leave a phone number, but a few days later a Facebook post followed: On November 2, she posted that she’d made it to Williston with $20 in her pocket and a man —“Chicago” — waiting for her in town. No further updates.
Williston is a six hour drive from my home in Grand Forks, across the flatlands of North Dakota and through the most flyover worthy of flyover country. The landscape begins to change west of Minot, the nearest “big city” to Williston. Hills begin to appear, but there are still no trees. The enormity of this country is rarely more apparent than out here. Semis on side roads off U.S. Highway 2 — the northern east/west route across North Dakota — look like toys. The land is so flat that the small hill leading into Williston makes it seem like you’re coming in for landing on a jet. Final approach is past the natural gas flares blowing fire from pipes and toward a grid of orange street lights and hotels being raised on the north edge of town.
Alize was clearly a prostitute. She was playing pool by herself in DKs Lounge. Not many women in Williston venture out alone, and as we shot a game, a man approached her and was shooed away. Alize was talking sweetly to me, probably thinking I was her next John. My suspicion was confirmed when she dropped the oldest line from the oldest gig: “You looking for a good time tonight?”
After seeing a few photos, Alize said Sherry looked familiar. I didn’t believe her, didn’t want to believe her, but she called a man who said he’d been with Sherry a few days before. I got Alize’s number and left DKs.
Cory Collings, a detective with the Williston Police Department, listened patiently as I told him about my search for Sherry. I told him she’d come here looking for work — not a surprise to Collings, a Williston native — and I told him about Alize.
“We’ve heard rumors that (prostitutes) come from Vegas because they make more here than they do there,” Collings said.
There’s lots of rumors, but not many numbers. The amount of workers in Williston is unknown. The amount of people who go there to find work and fail is unknown. The amount of people who are homeless on the streets is unknown.
While Collins wouldn’t say how many prostitutes he thinks are actively working in Williston, the massive market for their services can’t be denied.
“Guys here have it rough,” the bartender at Whispers said. “I mean there is nothing.”
After I returned to Grand Forks the next night, Alize called me to say she’d found Sherry, who phoned a short time later. Our conversation was brief, but in the weeks since, we’ve been texting. I have hope that her partner Chicago isn’t controlling every aspect of her life, despite an awkward conversation with him that convinced me mostly that he was painting the prettiest possible picture of their situation. Sherry still isn’t getting paid, she told me, for whatever construction work she’s doing, and I have a feeling she’s using me as a trump card for whenever she and Chicago get into an argument — which, immediately following my trip to Williston, seemed like every day. I’d get a call from Sherry, and she’d ask me to come get her. Then Chicago would call to say everything was fine.
“She’s just drunk. You know how it is.”
Chicago reminds me of every cokehead I’ve ever known. He speaks quickly and with false confidence. Everything is always going good in his world: Work is being done, money is coming in and winter isn’t as cold as he expected.
Sherry stopped being anyone's little girl or beloved best friend a long time ago. Now all of her friends are in just as desperate situations as her. I get the impression her family doesn't have the means or the willingness to help her. She’s on her own now, for the most part. And even if she doesn’t always appreciate the reporter-subject aspect of our relationship, I know I’m one of a small number of people in the position to be able to help her. I might be the only person willing and able to drive across the state to get her if anything goes seriously wrong. But when it comes to Chicago, I might also be unintentionally making her life more complicated by being her friend.
I now have a name and a number should Sherry go missing again. But the words of the bartender at Whispers keep coming back to me:
“You can disappear in this town real quick.”
Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which he can now say is a hell of a lot better than Williston. Follow him on Twitter: @JustinGlawe
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