Midwest Trilogy, Part II: Wisconsin

Go here for Part I.

Less than an hour on the United Limo bus from O’Hare, we cross the state line. A rustic wooden sign, WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU in the shape of said state only hints at an array of tidbits on the other side: Mars Cheese Castle (with its ginormous concrete mouse), restaurants promising “Bohemian Specialties” and a couple of adult video stores. Escape To Wisconsin for Dairy and Porn!

I arrive at Mitchell Airport just after 3:00. Ewa shows up in a red Grand Am and a white T-shirt. Her hair, like Dana’s, is the longest it has been since high school, rendering her slightly less tomboyish than usual. We hug and have so much to say to each other we barely know where to begin. Within seconds, however, she excitedly asks, “So, no pressure, but do you wanna drive out to Ann Arbor to see Teresa on Thursday?” Teresa is a mutual friend from high school that was also Ewa’s college roommate for two years. I wasn’t expecting to go to Michigan, but she really wants to see Teresa one more time before she moves to Poland to begin medical school next month. Ewa’s originally from there, having immigrated to the states with her family when she was seven.

Midway to her parents’ townhouse in the suburbs, I disclose that I have a fresh pack of clove cigarettes in my bag. “Well, Chris, why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” she blurts out. We immediately tear into them and take the long way home so that her father won’t smell anything on her. We drive down Old Route 41, itself shadowed by the adjacent expressway, past ancient motels sparsely dotting the strip with names like “El Rancho” (which Ewa dubs “El Roadshow” because it’s never busy except at lunchtime when customers apparently congregate for a downlow quickie) and the “Knotty Pine” (which I’ve always called the “Naughty Pine” for the same reason.)

After we drop my stuff off at the house, we take a walk along the new bike trail across Drexel Avenue. The late-afternoon August sun dominates the sky. We break out the cloves and I ask about her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend; I get an expurgated version as she’s already sent me an epic letter with all the details (I’ll see it when I return to Boston.) In turn, she asks me about my sexuality. I’d come out to her the previous year via another epic letter. I am her first openly gay close friend, so she has a lot of questions. She’s curious at how I know what I like, since at that point I’m still a virgin. “What do you think of Harrison Ford?!,” she asks, herself a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones; she’s watched The Fugitive at least a dozen times. It’s hard to explain (I’ve never really thought about Ford, to be honest), but I don’t feel insulted, more relieved to be able to talk so freely with someone about this.

We head back towards civilization and reach Ewa’s house just in time for her father’s arrival. A physician, his thick accent and considerable girth always intimidated me in the past; now, it’s time to have dinner with him and Ewa’s comparably petite mother. We eat in the dining room, amidst upright cabinets displaying Polish plates, butter dishes and assorted knickknacks. On the menu: individual meatloaves, plain boiled potatoes sans any hint of seasoning and green beans one can accompany with a pour of bacon grease. Roughly similar to the kinds of meals I was served growing up, and yet not (potatoes of every variety were always doused in butter and bacon grease was usually poured directly from the pan into an empty can to congeal before its disposal.)  I load up on beans (and just a few drops of the grease.) Her dad questions my post-grad school plans and offers some wine. I do as best I can to convince him I know what I’m doing with my life; I decline the wine—before dinner, Ewa warns me never to accept alcohol from her father or encourage him to drink because he tends to gets drunk, and besides, he’s on call tonight!

After dinner, I crave that hometown delicacy, Frozen Custard, so we swing by Kopp’s on 76th Street for a scoop. Then, we take a rather impromptu trip to my old neighborhood on the South Side. I haven’t been back home in over a year, but my anticipation diffuses as we drive down my street—it feels overly familiar, but tired rather than inviting since my parents no longer live there. We swing through the alley in back; our neighbors have replaced their junky old swing with a slightly newer, but still second-hand (and fairly junky) one; everything else is pretty much the same.

I awaken the next day around 11:00, racing up two flights of carpeted stairs from the basement and poking my head into Ewa’s bedroom. She’s still asleep under her cow-print blanket, arms at her sides like a mummy, her little grey cat, Taro, curled up on her pillow. Her father sits in a front of a computer screen in the next room, looking for a good deal on a used computer Ewa could take with her to Poland. His back to the door, he doesn’t notice me. I return to the basement, sprawl across the sofa bed and stare at a wood-and-brick paneled wall, pictures of Ewa’s older brother (now living in California) and his many framed accomplishments staring back at me.

In time, I walk back upstairs to find Ewa sitting in the living room, a bowl of Sugar Smacks in her lap, a mug of Turkish-style coffee at her side. We go downtown in order for Ewa to visit the Citizenship Office to get her status straightened out before going back to Poland. Once there, we empty our pockets before passing a security check—a novelty in the days before 9/11 made this mandatory for air travel. At the other end of a spacious marbled hallway, the Citizenship Office is so packed, Ewa has to take a number. She picks 10; they’re on 69, somehow. As we sit on an oak bench, I pour through copies of local alternative weekly paper The Shepherd Express and The Onion, which one can only read online in Boston.

Thirty-odd minutes later, I need some air, so I go for a walk. Compared to Boston at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, Milwaukee’s almost a ghost town. I head west on Wisconsin Avenue towards the Milwaukee River, past Wok N Roll (a Chinese takeout place, obviously) and Grebe’s Bakery. I wonder into Walgreen’s, craving chocolate. A bum stands outside the store, selling something indiscriminate—candy, perhaps, or crack. Upon exiting Walgreen’s, I slip my Butterfinger into my jeans pocket and avoid eye contact with the street-salesperson (who is now talking to an immense, bearded man.)

I take the Riverwalk, passing under multiple skywalks until reaching Wells Street. From there, I revisit all the institutions I grew up with: The Pabst Theatre, City Hall (forever immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley), Marcus Center For The Arts, Cathedral Square. As with my old neighborhood, everything feels overly familiar, not thrilling like I’d expected or hoped. I think back to a few years before, when I’d walk all the way from Marquette University to the Lower East Side, rummaging in one used record or bookstore after the next, blissfully bored but satiated. In Boston, I can more or less do the same thing there, so the idea of tracing this route again no longer has the same appeal.

When I return to the Citizenship Office, the front door’s locked. It had closed at 2:30, but Ewa was presumably still inside. She emerges fifteen minutes later, her status closer to being sorted out but not entirely (to her chagrin.) Ready for lunch, we drive over to The Gyros Stand in Bay View, which still has the best gyros I’ve ever consumed. I order the titular treat, along with super-thick-cut seasoned home fries and a bright green lemon-lime slushy that comes, as always, in a short, fat plastic cup.

We take our food over to South Shore Park, eating at a picnic bench overlooking Lake Michigan and the beach. Ewa only finishes half of her gigantic gyro, so she throws a piece of meat towards a seagull nearby. Seconds after this gesture, a swarm of twenty or so additional gulls materialize; they all caw and screech whenever Ewa throws them another piece of gyro meat. We take delight in this display of hunger and greed amongst the gulls, although I question whether they might start attacking us, having now developed a taste for flesh. Fortunately, as soon as Ewa runs out of meat and pita bread, the gulls quickly disperse.

By the following evening, we’re both chronically bored—contrary to what some Milwaukeeans might claim, you can only consume so much frozen custard or smoke so many cloves while driving through the outer suburbs or spend so many hours slugging down cheap coffee and frozen French fries at a George Webb’s (a local greasy spoon chain frequented by slacker college students and the elderly.) This is how I generally felt two years ago when I decided to move to Boston, hungry for disruption and change. Fortunately, Ewa and I were heading to Ann Arbor the next day.

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