In downtown St. Cloud, I asked the bookstore owner where I could get a decent meal within walking distance, and he directed me to the White Horse, a bar with a full menu two blocks away.
“Are you still serving food?”
“You betcha,” the Minnesotan barman replied. “Sitting outside?”
It was a nice, sunny day for Minnesota, but I am from Texas, and I wanted to thumb through my new bookstore buys, which embarrassingly included Lonely Planet’s guide to becoming a travel writer. I ordered the cubano he recommended over another sandwich he deemed “a bit too spicy,” (again, I’m from Texas, but you betcha) and pointed to a bar table in a dark corner. “I’ll be over here.”
He shrugged. “I’ll chase ya.”
Don’t make me chase you
Even doves have pride
I saw my first billboard for Paisley Park shortly after leaving St. Cloud, an image of the shoe exhibit inviting me to “Stand in awe.” I squealed, snapped a photo, and drove on, stopping once to pee and buy a Purple Thunder Mountain Dew, available exclusively at 7-11. I would see the same billboard again an hour down Interstate 94, backdropped against the Minneapolis skyline. I nearly broke my neck driving past the Spoonbridge sculpture park as I turned off for Birchbark Books & Native Arts, my only stop before Prince Land.
Prince’s Minneapolis, which I know only from Purple Rain, is the setting of the Prince planet in Ready Player Two, the sequel to Ernie Cline’s blockbuster novel and subsequent Spielberg movie. I loved Ready Player One, reading the novel and going to the theatre twice each, so I never understood the grumblings of real geeks (“I’m not going to watch my childhood bastardized on screen,” one nerdboy said) until Ready Player Two. It was here, on an impeccably researched but passionless Prince planet, that Cline revealed to me why his brand of fanboy fiction infuriates true heads. [Spoiler alert:] To beat the Prince planet, a player must…fight Prince.
To reiterate, the final boss of the Prince planet is seven iterations of The Purple One himself, whom players must defeat in combat. This is, for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Prince, absurd. There is no planet in the multiverse, fictional or otherwise, on which one would have to fight Prince. It is completely plausible that you would have to fuck Prince, but never fight him. A situation where one has to seduce The Purple One in order to ascend from his planet is intriguing, even titillating; a battle royale is simply disrespectful. Prince was a lover, not a fighter.
All seven and we’ll watch them fall
They stand in the way of love and we will smoke them all
I had determined in Omaha that, since I was this close to Minneapolis, it was time for me to visit Paisley Park. I thought I might go on a Sunday, “like church!” I mused; alas, tickets were sold out, so I bought the next available date: Tuesday. And I knew where I needed to stay Monday night.
The Beautiful Ones, Prince’s sumptuous 2019 memoir, was meant to be a very different book, but his death pre-empted a lot of the planned work. Still, it is a gorgeous object, full of photos and handwritten pages of notes printed on heavy German paper. Biographer Dan Piepenbring deftly handled the change in assignment, writing in the prologue (and an excerpted article I first read here, with slight changes) about his hiring and vetting as Prince’s official collaborator: in his proposal, he wrote that Prince’s music made him feel like he was breaking the law, a statement that The Purple One quickly corrected, for funk is about nothing if not structure and rules.
This shift in emphasis toward the process of writing instead of the final polished product Prince had planned is echoed in the archives locked inside Paisly Park, recordings the estate promises to dribble out according to Prince’s very specific and well-documented wishes regarding music ownership. We read about the work of biography, the chosen writer documenting his meeting Prince for the first time. He ruminates on the wait at the Country Inn & Suites in Chanhassen, an unofficial Paisley Park waystation seven minutes away, where Prince would rent a suite for visitors to wait in until he was ready to bring them to Paisley.
Amazingly, I remembered the name of the hotel, along with the claim that Prince could have purchased the hotel four times over with the amount of money he spent there.
I chuckled when I arrived at the Country Inn & Suites, which was actively having its roof replaced. Normally, listening to men with nail guns stomp and clamber all over the roof of my $200+ king suite would be an unwelcome development, one that certainly should have been mentioned on the website or post-reservation email or even printed letter upon arrival, like the one apologizing for the Wichita baseball stadium’s fireworks.
But my dad had owned a roofing company, making similar bids all over the country and inadvertently instilling my love of travel. We once visited him at a jobsite in South Dakota, my first visit to that state and the reason I did not need to make the obligatory swing by Mount Rushmore on this trip—that, and I had also recently seen the image of the original Six Grandfathers mountain face, and what to my childish eyes seemed awe-inspiring now seemed, at best, Looney Toonish. The roofers crawling all over Mount Chanhassen seemed like omens I was in the right place, so I said a little prayer for Dad and went inside.
Bolstered further by the Prince shrine I found near the lobby, I ducked in to poke my head around the fitness center—indoor pool and the requisite cardio machines, but no free weights or scale, which was probably for the best, given my recent diet of poutine and pub grub. Once checked in to the second floor (not a sound from the roof, though ground-level machinery was noisy), I opened the curtains of my room and squealed at the purple Prince mural on the backside of the local cinema. When I stepped out to the smokers’ area downstairs to snap an unobstructed photo, I observed more evidence of the roofers—half a watermelon rind and a plastic bag of soda bottles, the remnants of lunch left on a patio chair.
In my single-minded rush to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, I decided to forego the hike I had promised myself I would take. For one thing, in a Twin Cities metropolis of 800+ lakes, it really is difficult to tell which one is Minnetonka without constantly consulting a map. This iconic mistake, made by Apollonia in a Purple Rain scene apparently seared into the brain of every straight male on the planet, is understandable: In 1984, none of us walked around with GPS systems in our pockets. Still, the water she purifies herself in is actually a river in Henderson, Minnesota, 30+ miles from Lake Minnetonka, so maybe Apollonia should have been paying better attention while riding on the back of The Kid’s bike. She looks good on celluloid, though, which was the whole point.
I put her on the back of my bike
And we went riding down by old man Johnson’s farm
The Minnetonka Regional Park supposedly had a nice hiking trail, but when I drove to check out the swimming area first, I found kids frolicking in little more than a puddle—decidedly, not Minnetonka. I kept driving, dazzled by the water all around me, repeatedly consulting my navigational screen and wondering how both sides of the road could still be Minnetonka. Too late it occurred to me that paddleboarding would be the perfect way to purify myself in any body of water; alas, I had jettisoned my own SUP back in Texas after the car rental company got a little uneasy with the way it was strapped to the roof of their car. As the sun was on its descent, all the watercraft rental places were closing, but I drove toward the highest-rated one with a location near the promisingly named Surfside Beach, where I found a roped-off swimming area and a historical plaque to boot.
After changing into my strapless swimsuit in the car, I snapped a few soggy-haired selfies of my decolletage submerged in the mystical Minnetonka, but the results were nothing approximating Apollonia. I once asked myself, while reading in Prince’s biography about his sexually voracious early years, “Would I fuck Prince?” The better question, I soon realized, was “Would Prince have wanted to fuck me?” As omnisexual as he was, I wasn’t exactly his type. The closest I may have gotten was the lyric from “Little Red Corvette” that still thrills me, but I’m not even sure I would rank: Prince saw a lot of ass.
Girl, you’ve got an ass like I’ve never seen
And the ride, I said the ride is so smooth, you must be a limousine
Regardless, I said a splashy prayer to Prince to purify my sexual hang-ups, then drove back to the hotel, the windows of my Little Red Rental rolled down as I circumnavigated Lake Minnetonka in the fading sunlight. I rinsed off in the hotel shower and went for a solo patio dinner and ice cream, telling myself I would hit the hotel fitness center in the morning.
Time got away from me, and in my best efforts to look good for Prince and pack up the Little Red Rental, I failed to stop by the fitness center the next morning. “No matter,” I thought. “Prince doesn’t care if I work out.” I did manage to swing by the inclusive hotel breakfast twice—an early reconnaissance mission to snag the rare items that inevitably run out (in Chanhassen, string cheese) and again to grab something basic for the road (the last tub of yogurt, peach flavored), both times tanking up on coffee. I wore rings on half my fingers, one of which still had a price tag from the upscale secondhand store in St. Cloud (alas, they had no raspberry beret; I feel it is a missed opportunity for every thrift store not to stock up on these). I knew I would be fidgety without my phone, notoriously verboten at Paisley, so I left the price-tag string knotted on the ring: it was purple after all. I wore my lucky, purple-inclusive peacock dress and, of course, purple panties.
She wore a raspberry beret
The kind you find in a secondhand store
Another detail I remember from The Beautiful Ones introduction makes my heart swell. When the writer is finally picked up from the Country Inn & Suites and arrives at Paisley, he sees Prince standing alone outside, “ready to introduce himself.” That humble moment of politeness, Prince waiting to introduce himself to his guest, always stuck with me. He seemed so sweet, not at all the trickster of Minnetonka.
The theme song for my visit to Paisley was a surprise, though pleasant: “I Feel for You.” I’m not sure where I decided this; in the car on the way there or in the lobby of Paisley Park, looking up at the starlit sky painted on the recessed ceiling lined with piano keys. This reception room was used as a holding area for those of us on the tour, our phones already locked into personal pouches that would prevent us from prodding too much around Prince’s “creative sanctuary.” Still, I had already snapped copious photos of the love symbol out front and the delightful purple fire hydrant just outside the chainlink fence, though I failed to get the love symbol branded on to the city’s electrical transformer near the gatehouse.
“Everyone on the tour before us was purple from head to toe,” the woman next to me said. “Even their hair, some of them.”
“Yeah, that had to have been the VIP tour,” I responded, thumbing the purple string on my ring. I had asked her about the phone number she provided upon entry; it started with a 512. It turned out, she had lived in my college town for 17 years and kept the area code, rapidly becoming a hot commodity in a new Austin full of 737s.
“We get a lot of Texans here,” the Paisley Park tour guide, Tyler, told me later over the sounds of the live doves cooing in their cage on the second floor above us. I did not follow up on why this might be, but if some state-centric publication wants to pay me to find out, I will gladly undertake that research.
Inside Studio A, Tyler showed us the drum pedals and the synthesizer that were Prince’s weapons of choice; they are most clearly heard in the intro to “When Doves Cry.” Tyler also told us how Prince often played basketball in Studio C, which is currently occupied by a photography display. “He was known to play in heels,” she nodded, alluding to the Dave Chappelle sketch, as well as the Beautiful Collection of 300+ pairs of Prince’s shoes on display elsewhere in the building. I overheard a question about his workout habits and leaned in just in time to hear Tyler say: “Oh yeah, he was ripped.”
In the Beautiful Collection room, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Carrie Bradshaw’s closet, I observed the friction damage and broken heels, listening to one of his favorite shoe designers talk about vegan materials. Prince had started his career in four-inch heels and gradually worked his way down to three-inchers, but he always preferred the bootie, a style also favored by my late mentor, who gave me 54 pairs of her own shoes when she retired. I said a prayer for her in front of the shoes, and, when Tyler asked the last person out to shut the door, I made sure that person was me. I ripped off the purple string and dropped it on the carpet as an easily vacuumed offering and a thank you to Prince.
Tyler unlocked our phones for the soundstage, where clips of Prince’s greatest performances played on the screen surrounded by several of his cars and motorcycles. The tattooed couple from Tennessee started dancing together, possibly to “I Feel for You,” but I can’t really remember because what happened next was even more moving. During the Super Bowl performance of “Purple Rain” in the purple rain, the stage lighting inside Paisley Park swept over our faces, and I found myself crying. “Can I play this guitar?” he asked as we all sang along, 15+ years after he originally commanded it. Then the tour was over, the purple velvet rope moved aside, and we were left to wander around the NPG club for as long as we wanted. We now had access to our phones, a coffee bar, restrooms, purple sofas, and the giftshop.
As badly as I wanted the Snickers latte special, named after Prince’s favorite snack, it was entirely too sweet, and there was only one barista on duty. She didn’t have drip coffee brewed, but upon ordering the quickest Americano I could to pair with my locally made turtle cheesecake (Cheese Cake Funk, a Black-owned business and another favorite of Prince), I was delighted to find the individual tubs of Coffee Mate creamers included a flavored option: Snickers. I sat with my coffee and snapped photos for as long as I could—that is, until the next tour group finished their tour.
The giftshop was a disappointment in that I would have gladly paid up to $50 for an officially merchandised Starfish & Coffee mug like I had seen in the Prince shrine back in the hotel (and countless places online; the point is not availability but that the money go where he intended). Also, the two tote bags I liked were from past exhibits I had not personally visited, which felt like a poser purchase until I was overwhelmed with such non-buyer remorse back in Texas that I went on the Paisley Park website, where they are sadly not available for purchase. The only Beautiful Collection swag was a poster, which I neither liked nor needed, but I got some love symbol zipper pulls, just like the ones on most of Prince’s booties.
I also surreptitiously flipped through a copy of The Beautiful Ones off the stack in the back of the giftshop. My own copy, purchased from an independent bookseller on the day of publication, is packed away in storage. Though I had no intention to buy, I did want to reread the passage about the hotel, and this would be my only chance for a while. My eye scanned the page, including this sentence: “One of Prince’s aides told me he’d lived there for so many years that he’d broken the recumbent bicycle in the hotel’s fitness center.”
I could not believe I had forgotten this detail. I did not stop to ask why Prince was living in the “unremarkable chain hotel”; I assumed there were some renovations happening at Paisley Park. Maybe the roof was being repaired. Regardless, I made it back to the hotel five minutes before noon, just enough time to use my still-active key card to get into the fitness center and plant my ass on the bike.
It turned out, Prince did care if I worked out, and I did a solid minute of recumbent bicycling in my peacock dress and gold flipflops, giggling and snapping photos. I would be back in Texas 18 hours later, having driven straight through six states and continuing to listen to Prince at full volume through two of them. I arrived in time to get a few hours of sleep, then return the Little Red Rental to its rightful owners.
Only a few days later, looking at my photos of Paisley Park, did I notice the pronouns. He’d lived in the hotel, he’d broken the bike… I had assumed the “he” in question was Prince, but upon careful reading while not standing in a giftshop swaying my hips to the music, I saw that Prince’s aide was the antecedent to the pronoun in question. This is literally stuff I teach at the college level, clear pronoun antecedents, but since the Paisley Park employee mentioned in the preceding paragraph is a she (“Sometimes you gotta femme it up”) and, well, the love symbol is a mixture of male and female, a little Prince pronoun confusion is perfectly understandable.
I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand
It was the wrong Minnetonka. Prince had not stayed in the hotel or broken the recumbent bike; that was just my wishful thinking and perhaps guilt that I had not availed of this particular hotel’s fitness center. But in leading me to the wrong Minnetonka, Prince had successfully gotten me on the bike. And we went riding.