Tourism can mean big money, and you never know what unlikely place may become a tourist attraction. Consider the Minneapolis airport. It was widely reported last week that tourists are flocking to the men's room there to see the john where U.S. Sen. Larry "Wide Stance" Craig did the Tap Dance of Shame. A few people employed at the airport are already collecting "collateral profit" from the scandal. Royal Zino, proprietor of a shoeshine stand located next to the men's room, said his business is booming because of Craig's would-be rendezvous; and a one-hour photo place in the airport reports a surge in business from all the people who've taken pictures inside and outside Craig's chosen "Love Stall."
The surprise here is that Minneapolis hasn't done more to profit from its temporary notoriety. Maybe the city's traditional Lutheran reserve is holding it back, but I'm sorry -- with all that new tourism money floating around, airport management needs to step up to the plate. Where's their entrepreneurial spirit? All it takes is some creativity and the willingness to sink to reality-TV levels of crassness. Imagine how much dough the airport would be rolling in if they opened a gift shop outside the bathroom door and sold miniature-toilet key chains, or shot glasses and koozies bearing the image of a commode and a "Larry Craig" logo. And how about geegaws like wind-up shoes that tap out a message, or a little box labeled "Water Closet" that opens to reveal a Craig look-alike figurine.
Some people might think it's distasteful to make a profit from Craig's tortuous sex life, and of course they're right. But so what? This is America, for God's sake -- since when are our scandals supposed to be strictly nonprofit? If you don't believe me, just ask O.J.
I think North Carolina, and Charlotte specifically, could learn a lesson from Minneapolis' experience, and here it is: Scandal pays. The state's always short of money, but brimming with scandals. Raleigh needs to connect those dots. What better way to start than with the fine folks at Blackwater USA, a company of mercenaries and hired guns -- oops, I mean a "security firm" -- based in Currituck County, North Carolina? On Sept. 16, according to many witnesses, Blackwater employees in Baghdad who were guarding a U.S. diplomatic convoy went berserk when a car unexpectedly pulled in front of them. Several Blackwater gunmen started shooting anything that moved and ended up killing between 11 and 20 civilians. It's an outrage and a tragedy, true, but it's also an opportunity for North Carolina to rake in some bucks.
I can see the day, soon, when Blackwater knickknacks will be sold at lottery ticket locations around the state. I foresee thousands of Carolinians stepping up to the counter to ask for "a couple of blackjack scratch-offs and three Powerball tickets, please," and, eyeing the new trinkets on display, adding, "And I'll take two of those little Blackwater machine guns with the sparks coming out of the barrel -- my kids'll love 'em!" If Blackwater stays in the news, which seems likely now that they're also accused of illegally smuggling arms into Iraq, North Carolina could even cash in on its history of producing "soft drinks" by launching a new "Blackwater Bombshell" soda.
And that's just the beginning. Charlotte has been the site of plenty of scandals, and if any city's going to find a new way to make a buck, it's got to be our money-crazed burg.
Where to begin? Well, we have our own little bathroom-based scandal, too, thanks to homegrown political crook Jim Black. The former state House Speaker, now enjoying his time in stir, took payoffs from innumerable favor seekers. But none of those bribes got as much publicity as the $3,000 handed to him in December 2005 by a chiropractor in the restroom of the Capital Grille downtown. The city Visitors Bureau should approach the restaurant and strong-arm, um, convince the management to offer patrons various Jim Black items, with a hefty percentage of profits going to the city's coffers. May I suggest a tasteful collection of little toilet paper rolls, each one wrapped and decorated with likenesses of Jim Black and three fanned-out $1000 bills? They could even include the restaurant's logo, or perhaps the phrase "In the Black." What better Christmas gift for the news hound on your list?
The Visitors Bureau has many more local scandals to work with, too. Charlotte, after all, as we've written here before, is a veritable hotbed of sin and infamy. OK, "hotbed" might be a stretch; "lukewarm cot" may be closer to the truth, but our city has had its share of the dark side of life. At one time or another, we've been home to renegade bisexual TV evangelists and their weeping wives, murderous motorcycle gangs, serial-killing fast food workers, fascist censors, killer cops, debauched sports team owners, violent labor disputes, spectators killed at the speedway, high society murders, racist bombings, and homicidal football players. We've seen it all and then some. You can't tell me that someone in this entrepreneurial mecca can't make money from all that.
What kind of mementos of local scandals -- including any I've left out -- do you think would sell? Tell me, at the e-mail address below, and we'll publish your best ideas.