Apparently bars like bloggers…REALLY???

The Capitol Building in Madison Wisconsin

The Capitol Building in Madison Wisconsin

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

62 replies

  1. “do Wisconsin kids simply start drinking earlier in the day or can they not hold their liquor?” – This made me guffaw, thanks. And your first night in Wisconsin sounds like you fell down a rabbit hole. It sounds like everything and nothing was going on all at once.

    • Lol Kira, after last night I wonder if I should email people with people who want to to hear all of the stuff that I’m leaving out of the article! A LOT happened last night…. what a strange city I’m in right now…..

      More articles will be posted this week about my eventful first night in Madison….. but I’m guessing a lot is going to get left on the cutting room floor 😉

    • Fair enough, friend.

  2. I really enjoyed that one. Makes me kind of wish I were a man so I could do what you’re doing. 🙂

    • Rebecca….. yea, if I were a woman….I would NOT have gone in there by myself! lol I’m not a big drinker so I’ve always been comfortable hanging out in a bar, I can have a couple beers and I’m good. In six hours conversion last night people sat with me and talked about Christopher Hitchens, atheism, god, drug rehab, traveling, dating…. the list was literally endless.

    • Wow. I’m a little bit jealous.:)

  3. Been following your tour and I don’t know how I missed it that you are from the Detroit area, as am I. That was a cool little tidbit. I transplanted to WI in the mid 90s. You will find- pathetically- people drink waaaay to much here. But WI is well-known for very friendly people. Glad you experienced it. I frequent Milwaukee not Madison. Enjoy your stay! Who knows what tonight will bring??

  4. Is there a French Press coffee maker image as your background image? It shows up briefly when I load your blog on iPad.

    The people in towns and cities like Madison and smaller take a certain pride-of-ownership in their place that is hard to see in the big cities. Locals know a lot more of the people who come and go. They are regulars in the bars and shops. It’s their home. They want you to feel welcome and safe in it.

    That is the main reason I choose to live in a medium sized college town. It is a friendly place where everybody knows your name…well sort of. They will if you hang out long enough.

    • Its a silver-carafe, its a photo of my table when I was at Café Intermezzo in Atlanta 🙂

      And you description is right on Jim; everyone in that bar last night new each other and I think that’s why they were all so welcoming and all came down to sit with me throughout the night,.

  5. Oh my gosh!! You really did this, Kenneth? You slept on his couch last night? All I can think about is my brother’s friends from back home and how easily this could have been one of them you were talking to. Each one totally trustworthy, yet drunk. This story was written so vividly. I felt like I was watching a movie. Jim needed a friend like you last night. This is an amazing story and a true testimony of your faith in people. I loved it.

  6. Kenneth, I really enjoy your posts. You are, in my opinion, a very capable travel writer. I hope when you arrive in England people will do the same and offer you a bed.

  7. I hope the weekend turns into a roaring success when you hit the cafes and meet your readers and fellow bloggers.

  8. When are you coming to Canada? I know a place that serves great coffee!

  9. What a decent young man Jim turned out to be. Granted, you might have wanted some peace and quiet, but that is not really your blog tour is about! What fascinating interchanges you are having.

  10. When I moved here I too, found the drinking to be a bit much. For whatever reason Wisconsin views drinking as a sport. They claim it is the vast German heritage as Wisconsin is mostly German but it’s the 21st Century for crying out loud. UW Madison is known for its population of binge drinking students, it’s is also known for those who don’t. The Tavern League has a lot to do with the drinking culture as it, as most things, is rooted in money and politics. There’s more to the drinking conundrum here, like you can drive drunk get pulled over a million times and never spend a day in jail…crazy outdated laws. If it were up to me, 3rd time a year in jail but I don’t make the laws. Despite the drinking culture Wisconsin is truly a beautiful state, I love it here. Have a great time while you stay and come back for Summerfest. 🙂

    • I was really surprised at how beautiful Madison is Elizabeth. I had no idea. I’ve never heard anything about it siting along the water and being so picturesque

    • Well…those I know call Madison, “The People’s Republic”. take from it what you will. lol

  11. What a night; a nice collection of stories, every weekend gets more interesting . Beginning of a Revulation 😀 sleeping in strangers’s couch; hanging out at the bar till 2am like a fallen star ? A lot of passion, courage and the hardest being Simple.
    Take care your self 😊

  12. “…and what the hell; you got Chicago blood in you” You wrote about people moving away from family and not setting any roots in the ground in one of your blogs….I think. This guy is a good example of how we tend to claim a territory for ourselves to help us with our identity. Even though I haven’t lived in Mississippi in almost twenty years, I still consider it my “hometown” and it is how we believe we can learn a lot about a person simply by knowing where they grew up. It doesn’t work. But I am glad that your Chicago blood got you a place to stay last night. Be trusting, but keep your guard up. The next time the person may want to actually see your blood. Just kidding…sort of.


  13. Love this so very much. I miss living in the Midwest simply because of the openness and friendliness.

  14. Welcome to Wisconsin! (I live just over an hour away.) The culture in Madison is a mixed bag. Enjoy your time there.

  15. Homelessness is a real issue

  16. You do so make my day that much brighter. A natural born storyteller on the road and reporting. This is Kenneth Justice, live and amazing …. Loved his post!!

  17. Hi Ken, I enjoyed your visit to Madison. It sounds like where I live. Perhaps, all cities sound the same at a certain time of night. I’ve heard that every woman looks good after midnight. I hope I’m not stepping on any feminist toes.

    Not surprised to hear about the homeless. “Thousands of college kids and 30-something couples passed by the homeless as though they didn’t even see them or realize they existed.” It breaks my heart. ~ Dennis

    • Yea, its kinda sad seeing them sleeping under park benches….i’m not sure if there are shelters in the area, none of the homeless people I talked to really wanted to talk about shelters.

  18. Ah, you’ve discovered that alcohol is a lubricant for the good as well as the bad.

  19. I hope this tour is going to turn into a book – including all the spires you don’t have room for on the blog. Surely a best seller!

  20. As for all the homeless people, my guess is that they’re there because they’re not hassled in Madison.

  21. I was struck by your need to ask for a ‘safe’ bar or restaurant and the lady sent you to a rough bar and it ended up having the nicest, most hospitable bunch. I didn’t think there were bars which were unsafe? I am naive again.. In Ireland, there are nice bars, dingy bars, but not places we would describe as dangerous. Here the problems occur after hours, when all the bars have closed and the crowds spill onto the streets. I appreciate you are doing something that only a man can do. If a woman were to walk into a bar and try to converse with the locals, it wouldn’t go according to plan. Still, It must take some nerve to walk into a strange place and strike up conversations with strangers. It makes great reading.

  22. [f9.rofl] in case the emoticon didn’t work…rofl

    And the adventure continues…

  23. Even as a male, I still think you’re game accepting a stranger’s couch for the night. I cannot imagine doing that in my city (even if I was a male).

    I do often strike up conversations with strangers during the daytime though. Carrying a decent sized DSLR seems to make for great conversation starters.

    Maybe I’m older and wiser (because I did far worse when 19-20). I like to say I think people are inherently good in their hearts and it’s only life experiences that induce negative emotions and fiery tempers.

    …….and the demon Alcohol! We have a big problem with alcohol infused violence among the youth in our cities in Australia.

    My friends and I all drank heavily and partied the night away 40 years ago, but I don’t remember there being much violence. Is it the media that focuses on violent news stories? Or is it the video games young people play? Whatever it is, I still think parental behaviour and influence could improve the situation.

    • Vicki, I could be wrong, but I think its a lot safer to travel and meet people then we realize; I suspect the image that the media gives us is a bit slanted in the violence category.

  24. I’m all for going organic but oh my goodness, I could not go to a strange town without having a reservation! Lol, okay, maybe if I was armed with a long list of motels! I’m so sorry you are still less than 100% and hope that by the tile you are reading this you are better! Can’t wait to hear the rest, sounds like it’s been a trip 🙂

  25. Excellent descriptive piece.

  26. Ah Madison, Wisconsin… When I studied abroad, there Was a group of girls from that college who were there at the same time. They quickly became notorious for their drunken exploits around town. It was actually annoying because the first question anyone would ask after learning I was from America was, “are you from Wisconsin?”

    But… you are in a college town… you just described Iowa City on a Friday night. It’s good to know they’re all the same, I guess.

    • Yea, your probably right; college towns all across America probably look and feel the same. It is funny though that people thought you were from Wisconsin!

    • Only because I was from America and they knew there were some crazy Americans from Wisconsin there. What’s funny is when I said “No, I’m from Iowa.” I wish you could have seen their faces. They were all confused. “You’re from where? I have a cousin in Virginia… is that close?”

      The best I ever got was saying “You know where Chicago is? I’m from the state west of the state Chicago is in.”

  27. As a resident of Milwaukee, I can tell you that Madison is known as a party town. 🙂

  28. You know Kenneth, I grew up in Detroit and lived there until ’08. I find myself wondering whereabouts you make your demesnes.

  29. Just catching up on your posts. Yes, I think people in this state are born with a mixture of beer and cheese in their blood. Sounds like you had a great introduction to this strange country called Madison Wisconsin.

%d bloggers like this: