By Kenneth Justice
Last night I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin on my Drinking in the Culture Tour and the downtown here was buzzing with activity.
I’ve never been to Madison before and as I drove across the bridge toward downtown the skyline view of the capitol building lit up against the night sky was pretty spectacular. For a city that gets practically no national attention or spotlight; I was really surprised at how picturesque and packed with people the downtown square happens to be.
It was nine thirty when I found a parking spot and the first thing I noticed was that the entire downtown is centered around the Capitol Building; a huge multi-block square descending in waves, like ripples formed by a pebble hitting the ocean. The city is incredibly clean; I couldn’t believe how white and spotless the sidewalks and main streets were despite being situated in a part of the country that just suffered one of the coldest winter’s in the history of the Mid West.
The second thing I noticed was the amount of homeless people sleeping on and under park benches all throughout the square. It was a strange scene; such a beautifully tended area with mainly old men and waste length beards sound asleep and it wasn’t even 10 pm. Thousands of college kids and 30-something couples passed by the homeless as though they didn’t even see them or realize they existed.
I wasn’t sure what to think when I realized that more than half of the college kids stumbling by me were totally drunk and we weren’t anywhere close to midnight; do Wisconsin kids simply start drinking earlier in the day or can they not hold their liquor? I never did find out; when you’re a strange visitor to a new town the best plan of attack is to side step the drunk people and stay out of trouble.
Every coffee shop in the downtown square was closed so I wandered into a massive hotel and asked the female bartender where a safe restaurant/bar for an out of towner would be to hang out and get something to eat; she instantly smiled and pointed out the window, “That’s you’re place right their honey, it’s a dive bar but it’s lots of different people and you won’t feel out of place at all” she said
If you can picture this in your head; downtown Madison is full of beautiful white marble buildings and well-kept manicured lawns; but as I stepped inside this dive bar & grill I felt like I was stepping into a weird 1970’s restaurant in the middle-of-nowhere Kentucky. Ugly wood paneling was miss-hung all over the place, tile floor that hadn’t been replaced in thirty years was barely recognizable on the floor.
As I sat down in the middle of the bar I was relieved to see the bartender smile at me warmly, “hello honey” she said, “you look like you’re hungry”
How she could tell I was hungry I have no clue; the place was packed but I thanked her and asked for a plate of fries and beer.
“This is my first time in Wisconsin” I said to her loudly (the noise in the place difficult to raise my voice over)
When I explained to her that I currently live in Detroit and that I was born in Chicago the skinny looking guy next to me overheard and that set into motion the rest of my evening,
“Chicago! Give me five man! Born and raised. I’ve been here for two years but any dude born in Chicago is my friend” he said
“Jim” is an ex-hockey player whose body has seen better years. At thirty-two years old all of his fingers look like they’ve been through a war and he has massive scars on his shoulder from surgery to repair a chipped bone spur.
From 10:30 at night till the bar closed at two in the morning Jim didn’t leave my side. He’d been living in Madison for two years and seemed to know nearly every single person that kept walking in the place. All night he would bring people over to our place at the bar and introduce me, when they’d hear that I’m a blogger on tour writing about the people I was meeting their eyes would light up and I’d get an earful of a story that they were dying to tell me. Sadly, I forgot to bring my pen and notebook into the bar with me so whenever people weren’t looking I quickly jot notes into my phone so I could remember the stories people kept telling me.
I tried to leave all night; even though I really appreciated hanging out with Jim, I kept wondering where in the world I was going to stay; when I show up to each city I never make reservations as I’ve been trying to let each weekend trip become as naturally organic and unrehearsed as possible. But each time I’d say that It was time for me to leave, Jim would throw his arms around my shoulder and beg me to stay.
Thankfully, as the clock got closer to closing time Jim told me I was welcome to crash on the sofa in his living room. Only a four block walk from the central square; apparently Madison is an extremely safe city because when I woke up at 6:45 in order to get to coffee to write this my car was still parked safe and sound.
Back in his apartment Jim entertained me with stories of his childhood growing up in Chicago, a step-dad that broke his nose at 10 years old “in order to teach me a lesson”, all while jamming on a couple different guitars he owned.
As I lay on the sofa trying to fall asleep……I couldn’t help but think how strange it is to live in a culture which I complain about being so disconnected from each other; yet to have met someone just a few hours before who so warmly opened up his apartment to me.
“ya know, usually I try to bring a girl back on Friday night” he said, “But I really enjoyed the conversation with you this evening and I wanted to help you out, I could tell you didn’t have anywhere to go…and what the hell; you got Chicago blood in you”
In just over an hour I’ll be at Michelangelo’s Coffee House……I have no clue what is next on this journey. For now, I’m still sipping green tea here at Starbucks, a nagging sore throat doesn’t want to leave me. But I suppose sitting at a bar till closing time didn’t help things.
Categories: Culture & Society