Aside from the gas station and a packed corner diner that has a sign up insisting it’s closed, the only business open on a Sunday in Spring Grove, Minnesota is a combination antique store and laundromat called LJ’s Ye Old Wash and Play House. Situated in a long, skinny two-story brick building, it’s the first business on the left that you’ll see if you come from the west on 44, the road Spring Grove is built around.
The brown building holds up ramshackle signs, some are hand-written and some are hand-made, expressing some feature or service of the tiny store.
From the ceiling, taking up every square inch, are hanging 2,700-plus dolls of all sizes that have been donated, purchased, acquired, and procured for the shop owner’s — Lucky’s — collection.
Lucky is thin with a slight limp, but still spry for a 70-something. The center of the main room is taken up by rows of washers and dryers. The walls feature tiny, locked curio cases displaying anything from lighters and binoculars to VHS tapes and knives for sale. Nothing here is new, everything is at least 20 years old and a lot of the larger items — a wagon wheel, a rusty garden tool — were made when things we now call antiques were new.
In this is charming haunt, Robert O’Brien is doing his laundry with his girlfriend. He’s 5-foot-7 with the ‘dad bod.’ Blonde with raggedy tattoos that were probably etched into his skin during his 14-year prison stint for attempted murder. He’s been out for three years. His most prominent ink is the faded tear drop under his right eye; the attempted murder was successful, according to O’Brien, the guy he tried to kill died later on — a technicality to those with teardrop tattoos, apparently. That means he couldn’t vote, but he’s happy Trump won.
Houston County, where Spring Grove is located, voted for Obama in 2012 (51%), but for Trump in 2016 (53%), so the county flipped from blue to red. The average weekly wage in Houston County is $585, almost 50% less than the national average, $974.
“I’m glad we got Trump. He needs to help us out here. There’s a better life and some of us want that,” O’Brien said.
He feels like poor people are ignored, no matter which politician wins. Donald Trump’s talk of creating jobs and fixing healthcare is what got O’Brien’s attention. He has three kids and wants to not have to worry about paying for checkups and braces.
Donald Trump won Houston County (and the election) by playing on the hopes of poor, white workers like O’Brien. He got their attention with his bold, abrasive speech, and earned their votes by speaking his mind and claiming to want the best for them, and, even better, according to O’Brien, “He’s not a politician.”
O’Brien works at Northern Engraving, making car parts.
“It’s for Cadillacs? Or some expensive fucking car,” he said. “Pays good.”
O’Brien lived in seven different states before he was 18, when he went to prison. From Louisiana as a child, he’s lived in Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and finally, Minnesota. As a child, he didn’t understand why they moved so much, but he says, once he was in his teens he realized why.
“My dad wasn’t a good guy.”
No matter where O’Brien lived, he could always find other kids to play with. From a young age, he was always following around the older boys, seeking their approval. At age 12, he started hanging out with some older kids that were part of a club called Growth and Development. After following them around for a while, they let him join, but he had to start stealing and committing other petty crimes. By the time he was 14, he was a full member of the Chicago-based gang called Gangster Disciples that has chapters in cities all across the United States. He could always easily find other GD family members after every move, he said.
Looking back on the time, O’Brien remembers a time when another rival gang in St. Louis, Missouri killed a younger boy that was shadowing the GDs — just as O’Brien had shadowed the older boys when he was too young to join. The other gang members smashed the boy’s head with a brick and threw his body into the Mississippi River.
“That was senseless. The kid was just hanging with us. Not even affiliated,” O’Brien said.
Donald Trump’s brash statements about race, deportations, and treating women poorly didn’t catch O’Brien’s fancy, but he had to look past that and stake his hopes on Trump’s economic promises.
“All of the racism, the hate, it doesn’t lead anywhere good – I didn’t like that,” he said.
O’Brien is staking a lot on Donald Trump, who has already drawn back on some of his more ridiculous statements, like repealing Obamacare and building a wall, but O’Brien feels like, even if the system is improved to include more people, poor people, it’ll all be for the best.
“We’re ignored. Sometimes we have no choice but to gangbang and sell drugs. There’s a better way and we want it,” he said.
O’Brien is a felon and can eventually vote again in Minnesota, but he’s still on probation – he got out of prison three years ago – so remains ineligible until probation is up in 2018. He has to go through the re-registration process and then he can vote again.
Donald Trump managed to win without O’Brien’s vote, but won because of the millions of votes from people of similar backgrounds and economic situations as Robert O’Brien from Spring Grove, Minnesota.
“We poor people are looked at like low-lives, maybe he’s [Trump] looking at us different,” said O’Brien. “We’re just trying to survive.”