“At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint,” writes Laura Gottesdiener in an article titled ‘I Worked in a Strip Club in a North Dakota Fracking Boomtown.’
In her account, which first appeared on TomDispatch.com, she recalls her time in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch, the people she met and the stories they told her. “I hadn’t driven nearly 2,000 miles from Brooklyn to work as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. (That only happened after I ran out of money.),” writes Gottesdiener.
She ventured off with a purpose, though. Being a freelance journalist, she was going to report on the domestic oil boom and how it was reshaping North Dakota’s once sleepy rural communities, as well as the shift of global power and the global climate. While she wanted to report on infrequently discussed topics such as farmland pollution and the increasing population of military veterans working for oil and gas, she also was eager to experience what it’s like “just to be” and to live amidst the frenetic activity.
Upon arriving six-years after the boom began, she was greeted by the beast of industry and its fiery breath of natural gas flares, the choking exhaust of big rigs and the occasional explosion caused by lightning striking wastewater tanks. And of course, there was also the dis-shelved Walmart, rents higher than downtown New York City, a plethora of meth, crack, liquor, and “far, far too many men.”
On her first night in town, she tells of finding a place to stay with a local bartender and his friend. Over dinner, Gottesdiener heard the stories about Williston that don’t make the nightly news. The bartender told her of the time a man threatened to kill him, though, when the police showed up, they let the man go with the reasoning, “Well, he’s driving a company truck…”
She listened to recounted rumors of underground fighting matches taking place in secret rooms with padded walls and doors where the winners could win up to $60,000, home poker games with $1,000 buy-ins, and of the debunked speculation about a weapons and explosives stockpile behind a liquor store. As the rumors and tales abounded, she realized how challenging reporting on the oil patch would be, but also how many of the stories, despite their apparent insanity, would reveal themselves to be true.
Sometimes the truths were quaint, such as an icehouse being rented to newcomers in the winter for $5 per night. Other times, the truths were menacing, like private security contractors, or paid mercenaries, armed with assault rifles guarding 30,000 pounds of industrial explosives in the heart of the Badlands.
Despite whether or not the stories she heard were legitimate, she found her new acquaintances’ kindness, and the generosity of others, to be exceptional. Gottesdiener writes, “Perhaps the deep social ties and steadfast humility of pre-boom North Dakota continued to permeate oilfield culture, as one lifelong resident optimistically suggested.” However, she noted that this generosity was also sometimes a guise for an ulterior motive, particularly when she was promised “no-participation-required journalistic access” to the area’s sex trade.
The experience for many of the men living in Williston, though, was overwhelmingly composed of “feelings of loneliness and alienation.” Residents and oil field workers alike agreed “there are only two things to do there: work and drink.” She writes, “It’s hard to know whether Williston … is a window into the nation’s future – or a last gasp from its past,” adding that a staggering majority of the workers have referred to the area as “the Wild West.” One side of the horizon shows the promise of a new frontier as America reaches for energy independence, the opposite reveals a harrowing loneliness.
“A sense of rootlessness gripped me as the weeks stretched on,” Gottesdiener wrote. “Sometimes what I was learning left me feeling dizzy … But most of the time I just felt numb.” The majority of the thousands of men that descended upon Williston carried with them the remnants of other lives evident in their accents, photographs of children in their wallets, and memories of failed marriages. “You can almost see the lost-ness, the desperation in their faces,” one hotel manager told her. Many of the men had come out of necessity, though few had come with the intent of making a new life.
“Certainly, the sharply divergent opinions of what to make of the oil boom catch something of the country’s increasing polarization over what the coming years ought to hold,” she said. Although the oil field carried with it the promise of work for anyone willing, and riches there for the taking, it also bears the weight of being the “incarnation of the worst American traditions: unbridled greed, resource plunder, and violent machismo.”
As the threat of climate change and global warming become more steadfast in the hive-mind of public perception, she found herself surprised that many of the oil field workers she spoke with had genuine concerns about how the surge of unconventional oil and gas development is negatively impacting the planet. But, despite these concerns, Gottesdiener found the majority agreed with sentiments such as, “I, one man alone… I can’t do [any]thing about it. So I’ll just get rich and I’ll move away, find my acreage back in Iowa or Nebraska or Kansas or whatever, and live my life accordingly.”
And so it goes, the need to live life accordingly, one way or another. “I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll just stay in North Dakota for a while,” she said, speaking into a friend’s answering machine. She wrote that she was making good money at Whispers, had made a few friends she was certain weren’t pimps, and had become accustomed to living out of her car. “I had, it seemed, become part of oil country – and it was becoming part of me.”
Before her memories of the East Coast could completely fade, however, she took her leave “past orange flares licking the black night, past the tangled-metal refineries of Indiana and Ohio, past fracking-well pumps pecking at the fields of Pennsylvania, burning gasoline the whole way, the memory of Williston never quite receding.” To read Laura Gottesdiener’s full account of her time in the North Dakota oil patch, click here.