The Milwaukee neighborhood I’m originally from is roughly three miles from Lake Michigan.
Growing up, it was easy to take the Lake for granted–it was just always there, providing the city’s Easternmost boundary. Like any ocean, it was impenetrable, for you couldn’t possibly see across it to the other side.
Alternately a backdrop for picnics, walks, beach days, fireworks displays, arts festivals, afternoon cruises, fishing and swimming, the Lake stretched on for miles–even within Milwaukee County, there were parts I never visited until my early 20s in the mid-90s, like Atwater Park in Shorewood.
As a Marquette University undergrad, I often walked down from campus to the Lake, usually reaching it via this long-gone pedestrian bridge that crossed over Lincoln Memorial Drive pre-Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Once at the Lake, I’d walk North along the footpath, occasionally stopping to sit on a bench and take in the birdsong, the often cool breeze and the not-unpleasant smells of the shore.
The footpath stretched on to Veterans Park, a large swath of green space that was usually empty except for special occasions and festivals like Maritime Days every Labor Day weekend.
My last night in town before moving to Boston in 1997, a friend and I went for an evening stroll through South Shore Park in Bay View, providing one more time to take in the Downtown skyline as seen across the Lake and industrial Jones Island.
Although my parents moved to Iowa the following year, we’d all meet up in our hometown from time to time. Here’s a snapshot taken from roughly the same vantage point at South Shore Park nearly six years later.
On this particular visit (July 2003), we attended Festa Italiana at Maier Festival Park; above are the white jagged rocks along Lakeshore State Park Inlet.
For more unadorned views of the Lake, travel North past Downtown over to Bradford Beach, which above appears suspiciously empty for a mid-Summer afternoon (perhaps it was unseasonably chilly, or “cooler by the Lake” as the expression goes.)
The most convenient way to experience the Lake (if only by sight and maybe smell) is to cruise along Lincoln Memorial Drive–my favorite Milwaukee road (and probably most others as well.)
Returning for a visit in August 2006, I was excited to see a new and improved Oak Leaf Trail Footbridge connecting the end of Brady Street to McKinley Park over Lincoln Memorial Drive.
The rocks along this part of the shore brought back so many memories, including that time a decade before I had snuck down there with a few friends one late Summer night.
The rocky shore seems less mysterious in daylight, although one can still feel like they’re standing at an edge of the world as they feed or just watch the mass of gulls circling around.
I concluded that same trip with a walk along the shore of Grant Park in South Milwaukee.
Because it’s further away from Downtown, the Lake along Grant Park tends to be less patronized than other coastal parks and beaches–it’s often an ideal spot for serenity, meditation and quiet.
Again, the Lake just seems to go on forever. No tides coming in or out like you’d see at an ocean, just waves lapping against the shore, usually gently depending on which way the wind blows.
For over two decades, I’ve lived close enough to the Atlantic Ocean to be able to visit it whenever I wish; I’d like to think growing up so close to Lake Michigan conditioned me for that–the need for proximity to a large, seemingly endless body of water. I only make it back to Milwaukee every few years or so; no visit is complete without spending some time close to the Lake.
One of my favorite childhood Christmas activities was the annual ride Bob and Barb (my parents) and I took to view lights and other outdoor decorations on Milwaukee’s tony East Side. After Christmas Day dinner, we’d get in the car and head across town to Lake Drive to see all of its coastal mansions done up in displays spanning from the chaste and tasteful (a single spotlight, a mighty fir dressed in a single red bow) to those so gloriously ostentatious that the electricity bill for one night would’ve likely exceeded what my parents paid to keep our entire house illuminated the entire year. All the while, EZ 104 (actually WEZW-FM 103.7) would soundtrack our sojourn, piping nonstop holiday songs from “The Little Drummer Boy” to “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” into our Mercury Monarch.
The ride enabled us to get out of our South Side bungalow and escape into a prettier and certainly more upscale world, if only for an hour. Truthfully, however, we didn’t have to travel all that far to partake in the electric beauty of the season. Heck, we could even experience it from our very own living room via the gorgeous, gigantic white metallic star lit with fat multicolored bulbs our neighbor across the street exhibited every year. Whereas most homes up and down the block strung up their holiday light displays the day after Thanksgiving, this elderly woman who lived alone would wait to decorate until about a week before December 25. One night, the star would suddenly, magically appear; I looked forward to its materialization every year.
Naturally, we did our part to make our own home look festive. Our tree, usually covered in simple white lights would sit in the living room, smack dab in the center of the four windows that faced our street. The windows themselves were decked out in crisscrossing strings of multi-colored lights. Scores of blue lights would dot the three roomy bushes below the front porch, while a wreath sporting older, fatter colored bulbs was always hung on the front door. Next to it, we often replaced the porch light’s white fluorescent bulb with a red or green one, just to be extra festive.
Our display was relatively average, anodyne, even, compared to other homes in the neighborhood. Here and there, one would spot the usual assortment of illuminated, life-sized angels, reindeer, snowmen, Nativity sets and Santa Clauses, both in sturdy concrete and inflated, plastic and more malleable forms. People lucky enough to sport giant conifers in their front yards would cover them with endless strings of lights. Occasionally, a homeowner would go above and beyond to present something unique, like the square, squat one-story home a few blocks away that, without fail, always put up a rather impressive giant neon martini glass (complete with green olive!) on top of their roof—it really stood out among all the other two-story structures surrounding it.
The neighborhood holiday decoration I most fondly recall, however, sat two-and-a-half blocks up our street. In front of a brick house with a terraced roof was a plastic snowman head placed over a lamppost. Painted to include a brimmed hat, red earmuffs, a big red nose and matching patterned scarf, it completely covered the lamp, while the white post was wrapped diagonally with a red ribbon and topped off with a shiny red bow. Simple, cheap and utterly basic, it nonetheless achieved legendary status in my family when I was ten or twelve and Bob first said, “Hey look, it’s Chris-on-a-Stick” once as we passed it.
Every subsequent December, whenever we’d drive by the house, the presence of Chris-on-a-Stick was something he rarely failed to acknowledge. For the first few years, this teasing made me furious which of course only encouraged him to do it more. As I entered High School and put the initial indignities of puberty behind me, I came to accept and embrace the nickname. I even grew to anticipate having a reason to drive past Chris-on-a-Stick, to revel in the joke, comprehending how silly and yet sublime it was to see what had become my namesake—a ridiculous Frosty-the-Snowman-head-on-a-post that would only appear one month out of the year.
When I was 17, I detected a subtle change in Chris-on-a-Stick—he looked a little less faded and possibly a tad jollier. After driving by a few times, I began to think something was awry; upon closer inspection, I discovered I was right—there was a new snowman head on the lamp this year. To the layperson or casual onlooker, it was almost indiscernibly similar, but those aforementioned changes, along with the fact that the plastic head was now two-faced, with an identical visage on its opposite side pitched at the house, confirmed that it was indeed a replacement. “That’s not the real Chris-on-a-Stick”, I’d scoff, adding yet another layer to this seasonal plastic mythology.
That year, Bob and Barb somehow convinced me to pose for a picture standing next to Chris-on-a-Stick (I can imagine its owners’ bewilderment if they were home), even if it wasn’t the real one. Decades on, I’m so thankful they did, if only because I have photographic evidence that it really existed. As for my dad, I got my revenge the following year when, one block over, I noticed a fat plastic snowman placed in someone’s front yard on the ground right in front of a towering flagpole.
“Hey look, it’s Bob-on-a-Pole”, I casually announced as we drove past it one night. Barb burst out laughing and Bob enjoyed the joke as well, knowing that it’s good to both give and receive, not only during the holiday season but throughout the year.
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.
Freshman year at Marquette University, I commuted from home (having grown up less than a twenty-minute drive away.) Quickly becoming fed up with that, Sophomore year, I lived in a dorm; Junior year was spent in a residence hall (more like a glorified dorm for four with two bedrooms and a common space.) As for Senior year, I made the coveted but not at all uncommon transition from on-campus to off, having secured (along with three friends from the residence hall) a unit in Renee Row, a modern apartment complex where I’d have my own bedroom, an outdoor deck, and plenty of space for all the curious belongings of four male undergrads (in our case, a neon Zima sign which hung on the wall above the TV; you can’t make this shit up, it was the mid-90s.)
Since our lease at Renee Row began in June, I would also be spending the summer before Senior year in my first apartment—a welcome change from the previous summer, when I had to move back home after nine months of dorm livin’. However, I couldn’t afford to take any additional credits outside the fall and spring semesters, so I had to work. I was already a desk receptionist at another residence hall (this one exclusively housing graduate and non-traditional students), but that was only 10-15 hours a week. Too lazy to have found an internship of any kind, much less one remotely related to my Journalism major (a field I was losing more interest in with each semester), I needed a second job to fill the time, and more crucially, make my rent. I figured another University job was the way to go and hoped to secure a position with the Grounds Crew. During the warmer months of the year, I’d spotted them out in the sun, mowing grass or planting flowers. Planting flowers! I could do that! It’d be an improvement over the crappy, entry-level retail and food service jobs that comprised my work experience to date.
Like the Jewish Theory and Practice course that always filled up instantaneously because it met a required Theology elective (and was also rumored to be a fun, blow-off class at a Jesuit school, of all places), that summer’s Grounds Crew was complete by the time I thought to inquire about it. Fortunately, the General Maintenance department was still looking for seasonal help. With five other students and ten adults, I spent the next three months walking from dorm to dorm, and within each dorm, from room to room fixing desks, bureaus, bunk beds and other cheap, Formica-heavy furnishings. It was almost like an informal assembly line—checking every screw in every handle of every desk to ensure it was sufficiently tightened, doing the same for each bed frame, testing all curtain rods so that they opened and closed properly, etc.
Compared to another summer of dealing with customers and stocking shelves, this appeared to be a pretty sweet gig. My uniform consisted of worn jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and a mint green t-shirt with the words “Marquette University Summer Crew” in purple print on it. This was boring, mundane work for sure. We often got everything done ahead of time, then ambled around the building pretending to look busy but not really doing much of anything. Occasionally, a few of us found a room, closed the door and played card games for an hour or two. I could handle Go Fish or Crazy Eights but could never master the adults’ favorite game, Sheepshead—once becoming so frustrated with it that I simply threw my cards up in the air and walked out of the room.
Such petty emotional injuries paled in comparison to the physical ones. I suffered two accidents that summer. The first involved a long, narrow window spring getting stuck in my near shoulder-length hair as I attempted to tighten it; luckily, it just took out a follicular clump and I had enough extra hair at the time to mostly cover it up. The second injury was more serious: a mere ten days after the window spring incident, the metal bottom of a window screen crashed into my chin as I fumbled to extract it from its frame (a laborious process that required squeezing little doodads in opposite directions to both extract and secure the screen in place.) After I was led over to both the campus infirmary and the HR department (to secure a Worker’s Comp form), I was driven to a nearby hospital (coincidentally, the one I was born in!) and received a few stitches, which I had taken out two weeks later. It was more bloody than painful, and they weren’t even the most stitches I’d ever received (that would’ve been after my forehead collided with a folding table a teacher’s aide carried on a stairwell the first day of Fifth Grade.)
Mishaps aside, as with most jobs, the sheer monotony festered into something toxic in no time at all. One day blurred into the next as my co-workers and I wandered through those immense, uniform buildings, massive living spaces entirely devoid of life for one-quarter of the year. This surrealness carried over to my leisure time: here I was, trudging through all ends of campus every day, (temporarily) no longer a student. Unlike two of my roommates, both enrolled in summer classes (the third was all the way back home in Oregon and would join us in the fall), I was at school exclusively to work, and it felt off.
One day, about six weeks into this routine, I was walking back to Renee Row in the early evening, the sun still blazing, the air deeply humid (I wasn’t regretting not getting an outdoor job at that point.) With the old Jesuit Residence coming up to the sidewalk at my right, I spotted a throng of people to my left, filing out of the library across Wisconsin Avenue. Like a thundering mob or perhaps a heard of cattle, they ran in my direction, twenty or thirty of them, all my age or younger, possibly teens present for some sort of conference or summer program.
Not only did they come directly at me, they didn’t seem to register that I was an object in their path. They smiled and laughed while also seeming vacant and oblivious. Approaching from both my left and straight ahead, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught. I slid up against the brick wall of the Jesuit Residence, my hands grasping it as one tall boy of about seventeen or eighteen crashed right into me, his eyes lifeless and glazed as if I didn’t exist. My two left knuckles bled a bit from the force of this collision as they scraped against the brick. And just like that, it was over—the boy and his mob moved on, as if an uncommonly violent breeze just passed through.
I wasn’t physically hurt (as with the stitches, I had suffered worse scrapes), but the incident left me utterly bewildered. How to explain this out-of-nowhere teen mob in such a euphoric state, decimating anything (namely, me) in its path? Had I just turned invisible, all of a sudden? Slightly dizzy and also exhausted by the heat, I made my way past the Alumni Memorial Union, over to Wells Street, around the Campus Town Apartments and up another block before arriving safe and sound at Renee Row. I heated up a frozen dinner, popped open a wine cooler and gradually put the surreal incident behind me as another day of tightening screws and card games awaited.
I call in sick the next day; I often do with this job. It’s never a big deal, it just means I won’t get paid for the day. At $5.50/hour, my funds won’t deplete that much, and I still have a few shifts of desk receptionist work to fall back on every week. I feel a bit guilty about forgoing employment for idleness every once in a while; looking back, I’m thankful I exercised that rare freedom a 21-year-old with a low stakes job retains.
One Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, I blow off work and spend the afternoon hanging out with my mom (whom often has Fridays off from her retail job.) We drive out to Southridge Mall, eat lunch at the food court and then go over to Half Price Books where I pick up a handful of used vinyl records from the dollar bin. By that summer, I’ve amassed a minor collection of the stuff, ranging from such staples as the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and peak early ’70s Elton John to somewhat forgotten ‘80s works from the likes of Yaz, Missing Persons and New Order. That day, I purchase Everything But The Girl’s 1986 LP Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a title that would soon prove prophetic.
That evening, my friend Jen calls, wanting to go out. I’ve just spent the previous day with her—the entirety of it, in fact, attending Summerfest and the Violent Femmes concert. After all that, I’m kind of tired of hanging out with her, dealing with her mood swings and her intensity, but she’s still my friend. Besides, I have nothing better to do than sit around with my roommates and watch a cable-TV documentary about the History of the Bikini. I’m still some distance from coming out, but confident that I have no interest in this particular subject.
Within an hour, Jen picks me up. We are to meet Diana, another friend from high school at Sunset Blvd., a newly opened coffeehouse on the East Side. We ramble along the misty streets, windows rolled down all the way because the A/C’s broken. We listen to Jen’s Stabbing Westward CD. Like a lesser Nine Inch Nails, the music’s all minor key arpeggios and industrial dead-beats. Track three, their big alternative radio hit, keeps skipping. Jen pounds the steering wheel with her right fist in time to its insistent stomp. She’s mostly lost in the music, at one point even flooring her burgundy Toyota Camry and running a red light at a deserted intersection. The mist is so light Jen rarely has to use the wipers, though still concrete enough to feel as my right hand dangles outside the passenger seat window.
I could go for a hot fudge sundae with double the fudge and triple the whipped topping, but The Chocolate Factory closed at 10, it’s now almost 11, and we have to pick up Diana. Jen wears a pink XXXL Budweiser shirt and a denim blouse, while I’m in my black Snoopy World War I Flying Ace tee and olive cargo shorts. The mist prevails but the temps have dropped a few degrees since we left my place. Jen goes on about her three-month-old pet rabbit which she acquired at a rural roadside stand that was giving the damn things away for free.
We walk into Sunset Blvd. It looks thrown together with kitschy 1950s-style tables, walls done up in bright green paint and exposed brick and amateur artwork. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love echoes through the brightly lit café. I order a Lime Italian Soda, Jen gets a Chocolate Malt. Diana sits in the right corner with ten other girls and guys on chairs and a couch arranged in a sloppy circle surrounding a table littered with Friends-style oversized coffee mugs and cobalt blue highball glasses. A cloud of sweet clove cigarette smoke wafts above them; within a few years, the place will close, unable to survive a citywide indoor café smoking ban.
Diana’s group is deep into Vampires, a D-and-D style role-playing game, with cards spread out everywhere. Most of them consult strategy-filled notebooks and scan as “Goth”, decked out primarily in black and dark red clothing, Manic Panic’d hair and a panoply of Doc Martens, chain mail jewelry and unusual piercings. So intense is their discussion that Diana doesn’t even register our arrival at first. Waiting for our drinks, we walk over to them. Upon our presence, Diana, tiny with her long brown hair put into a ponytail, suddenly jumps up, hugs us and yells, “Hey guys! I missed you so much!!!,” interrupting the pudgy bespectacled guy with the jet black hair going on and on about how Lollapalooza in its sixth year had lost its sting.
Allowing our friend to finish the game, Jen and I grab the only vacant table and proceed to play five games of Connect Four. By the third one, I’m getting tired of dropping red checkers into plastic slots, but Jen remains oblivious to this. I think her meds are taking hold; she seems preoccupied, her face lost in some faraway state of “Jen-dom”. As we finish our fifth game, the gathering of Vampires begins to disintegrate. When closing time arrives at Midnight, Jen and I head out with Diana and fellow Vampire player Alice, whom she knows from Dance Camp. Alice has the requisite blood-red lipstick with matching hair, but also a breezy, floral-print blouse, cutoff jeans and a giddy, almost wide-eyed demeanor. Up and down Murray Avenue, the streetlamps glisten with moisture from the mist and everyone wonders what to do next. No one’s ready to go home or walk two blocks over to Ma Fischer’s, a diner that’s the only place guaranteed to be open this late apart from bars that all card (I’m the only one of legal drinking age in our quartet.)
We leave the café and drive a few blocks to Lake Park, where we park illegally on the street. The park and the adjacent golf course closed hours ago, but everyone goes there after dark anyway. I take in a clearing sky peeking out through the cityscape and the suddenly sweet summer air. We stroll past Bartolotta’s Bistro, down the ravine, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and over to Lake Michigan. We arrive at the beach’s northern end where the sand’s overtaken by rocks.
Jen and I are a bit paranoid—no one’s allowed here this late at night and we keep looking over our shoulders for cops; however, Diana and Alice do not seem to share our concern. The four of us wander onto the rocks, which extend North along the shore for what seems like miles. We aren’t entirely alone, hearing other voices in the dark and the occasional car zipping along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The vastness and stillness of the Great Lake ahead of us and the increasingly starry sky holds our attention.
We sit on those rocks for at least an hour. In time, we impulsively begin singing Tori Amos songs, mostly from Little Earthquakes: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter” and “China”; Diana admits she once thought the latter was corny, but now, she likes it. Actually, what we were doing was pretty corny in itself, the four of us warbling, “Why do we / cru-ci-fy ourselves /ev-er-ry day” under the stars, waves gently crashing against the rocks, Lake Michigan before us devoid of any perceptible boats or ships. Still, for one hour, my frustration with my job, with Jen, with feeling like I was in a continual state of limbo just dissipates. Such things suddenly feel petty and unimportant. Although I have another six weeks of working in the dorms ahead of me (including the two injuries I mentioned above), this night somewhat cleanses my soul. It reminds me what magic (or perhaps a better word would be beauty) one can discover when one’s not even seeking it.
Our family had no cabinets in our kitchen. The room where we ate breakfast and lunch (but usually not dinner; we had a dining room for that) did have a perfectly round wooden table with four chairs, a white upright refrigerator with the freezer on top, a 1970s harvest gold four-burner gas stove (it stuck around well into the ‘90s) and an old-fashioned exposed white sink with a short, rectangular radiator underneath. Eventually, we’d also acquire a wooden cart with wheels upon which our first, relatively massive microwave sat.
Mom decorated the cabinet-less walls with various copper and metal molds; apart from those for making curiously bland Bundt cakes, we rarely if ever used them (one was in the shape of a fat fish.) A row of painted ducks later joined the molds during a stenciling phase Mom went through in the late ‘80s which nearly extended to my bedroom: “Chris, I could draw something more masculine like bicycles on your walls,” she offered before I put my foot down and respectfully declined her services.
We didn’t need cabinets in our kitchen for we had them in our narrow, walk-in pantry off to the right of the sink. They sat along one of the longer walls, down to the floor beneath deep built-in shelves. The opposite wall was bare; between them at the end of the room, a skinny window overlooked the backyard, our garage and the alley. When visiting the homes of friends or relatives or watching TV sitcoms such as Who’s The Boss? or The Golden Girls, I couldn’t help but notice how seemingly everyone else had kitchen cabinets instead of a walk-in pantry.
These days, I often think about that pantry fondly. Despite its window facing east, I remember it as a predominantly dark space chockablock with hidden treasures. Upon entering it was a long, vertical cabinet spanning from the lowest shelf to the ceiling: it housed spices and baking supplies, but also decorations such as a rainbow assortment of sprinkles and sugars used exclusively for Christmas Cookies. On another shelf sat a variety of condiments, some of them ubiquitous like the Open Pit BBQ sauce that accompanied nearly every meat and vegetable my dad cooked on our red circular Weber charcoal grill; others were more obscure like the A-1 Steak Sauce whose ingredients listed in miniscule print forever intrigued me (it had raisins in it!) A higher, barely reachable shelf held items I don’t remember my parents ever touching, like the dusty bottle of Blackberry Brandy that was apparently purchased for (or given to us as a gift from) an elderly relative.
Our pantry, however, was more than a repository for dry goods, flatware, pots and pans and daisy-patterned china; it was a singular space, as much of an individual room to us as any other in the house. As a toddler, it was an ideal place to play Hide and Seek; as a pre-teen, when both my parents were at work and I had the house to myself, I reclaimed the room as one of exploration, browsing deep into the less-used cabinets to see just what I could find (often boring items such as a rusting muffin pan or a forgotten box of Saltines.) The pantry even had its own myths and legends, such as the time (often recounted by my mother) that a portly adult friend of my folks supposedly wedged his bulbous frame on the shelf above the bottom cabinets, scarfing down Hostess Ding Dongs during a party I’d been far too young to remember myself.
When I was ten, I stood in that pantry one September evening, searching for a metal ice cream scooper in the utensil drawer beneath the window. My fingers brushed over an apple corer, assorted teaspoons, a steak knife with a dulled blade. The distracted clinking of flatware filled the air. Glancing up at the window, adorned with a bejeweled hanging ornament (framed by popsicle sticks!) I’d made in Second Grade, I spotted an unusual, almost inviting glow beyond our garage in the dark of night flanked only by a fluorescent white alley light. Within seconds, I could make out flames. Was that our garage… on FIRE??!!
Before I could even think to call out to my parents, a figure whizzed by so rapidly across the alley, I initially couldn’t discern whether it was human, animal or even of this earth. I then caught a flash of nylon jacket, a skinny frame and thinning hair. It screamed “FIRE! FIRE!” as it ran left to right, not doing anything constructive except making the entire block aware of the developing inferno yards ahead of me. Somewhere between confused and delusional, I plainly thought, “This isn’t real; our garage is NOT on fire.”
I was half-right, for it was the garage directly across from ours in the alley that was ablaze. By that time, my mother noticed it too: “OHMYGOD!,” she shouted, running up to me in the back of the pantry. Putting her hand on my shoulder and gazing out the window, she saw what was actually going on. We were then silent, almost awestruck—we could feel the force of the blaze from there, if not the warmth.
A crowd began to form, mostly in ours and the neighbors’ backyards. Mom walked away from the pantry, calm as I’ve ever seen her, not worried about our proximity to the fire. She returned with my denim jacket and her pink windbreaker, leaving Dad in the living room on his tan corduroy La-Z-Boy recliner, obliviously snoring away as St. Elsewhere blared from our 19-inch Zenith.
We stepped out onto our back porch; not one of the twenty or so assembled onlookers noticed us at first. Not everyone was as intently focused on the blaze as we were in the pantry: an trio of old men held longneck bottles of Miller’s Best in their calloused hands, while a quartet of kids ran through ours and the adjoining yards, deep into a game of tag, their mothers barking at them not to get too close to the fire. The blaze didn’t frighten me, exactly, but its sheer force reminded me of what destruction was possible. Still, its cackling insistence almost had a soothing effect.
There’s nothing like a fire to bring a neighborhood and its inhabitants together (no block parties for us, thank you.) A year or two before, there was a small one at the house on the corner of the next block; my parents and I heard the sirens and walked over, becoming part the considerable mob lined up and down our street. Now, it was our turn to partially “host” the Gathering. People eventually came up to us and said hello. Millie, an older woman who lived two doors down, engaged in a bit of neighborhood gossip with Mom of the kind that didn’t require any special occasion—the fire raged on across the alley almost as if it was an everyday occurrence, although it most definitely was not.
It felt like hours standing there on the back porch, although the fire truck arrived and completely doused the blaze within minutes. The neighbor’s garage was a lost cause, a smoldering hunk of concrete and debris. It belonged to an elderly woman living alone, which seemed to account for at least one-third of the residents on our block. I can’t remember the exact cause of the fire—something to do with leakage of gas or some other chemical, perhaps. Anyway, the only damage to our own garage were black marks across its wooden door, which would be replaced with an off-white and rather ugly (but more durable) aluminum one. Our neighbor across the alley, meanwhile, would have an entirely new garage built within weeks.
I’d often think of that fire whenever I stood in our pantry, looking out that window. Nothing so exciting ever happened in that alley again, apart from the pig roast (!) our upstairs neighbors had next to the garage over a decade later as part of their backyard wedding reception that I refused to have anything to do with. In all the apartments I shared with roommates in my twenties and thirties, two actually had walk-in pantries, but they just weren’t the same—they held no intrigue, no crevices where hidden treasures lurked perhaps because I was an adult and therefore directly responsible for all the items I kept in them. The closest thing to a discovery I ever made in these later pantries was a forgotten banana placed on a high shelf. When I next spotted it after a couple of months, it had not only turned entirely black, but had somehow shrunken to the size of a large jalapeno pepper—a far less profound pantry experience for sure.
An April Friday, my Sophomore year at Marquette: I had no classes that day and I’d opted to spend a long weekend at home twenty minutes away instead of on campus in my dorm room. My mom had evening plans to attend a going-away party for a co-worker. She was even getting a ride from someone, so I had her car all to myself. She was a bit fanatical over that white four-door Pontiac Grand Am. I never had much of a curfew as a teen unless I borrowed her car.
Coincidentally, I also had a party to attend that evening; it was being thrown by my English Lit professor, a thirtysomething redhead who once began a lecture by saying to us, somewhat sheepishly, “Would you guys feel at all cheated out of your tuition if we didn’t have class today?” She lived across town in the tony suburb of Shorewood, and my original intent was to stop by. I’d know some people there, including a girl I’d recently, rather unsuccessfully tried to date (I was still a few years away from coming out)—not an emboldening reason for me to attend.
An evening before me with a car in my possession and absolutely nothing better to do, I left our South Side bungalow a little after 6:00 and got on the freeway in the direction of Shorewood. When I reached Downtown, however, I impulsively turned onto the West exit ramp. As I left Milwaukee County, I felt a little rush. When I passed the yellow barn with the giant smiley face painted on it at the Highway 83 exit, it suddenly was possible that I could keep going and going, another sixty or so miles all the way to Madison. I could make it there and back without Mom ever finding out. I often spent afternoons and evenings driving all over Milwaukee, putting mileage on the Grand Am but usually remembering to fill up the tank. I had more than enough cash on me for gas and food.
Crossing over from Waukesha to Jefferson County, I started picking up Madison radio stations (much to my chagrin, Mom would never splurge to install a tape deck or a CD player in her car.) I found a channel that only played hits of the 1970s, something of a novelty in the mid-90s. Passing through the flat terrain typical of Southeastern Wisconsin, all cornfields and the very occasional leafy tree, the sweet disco groove of Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel (Part 1)” filled the vehicle and I was positively giddy—I was drivin’ all the way to Madison by myself!
I arrived in in less than an hour and a half. After passing through a succession of strip malls, chain restaurants and freeway exits with unfamiliar names (“Fish Hatchery Road” always stood out—did it, in fact, lead to the titular destination?), I left the interstate and headed directly towards the sprawling UW-Madison Campus. I found a parking spot a few blocks away from Sellery Hall, a typical 1960s-built ten story cinder-block accented dorm; this was where two of my high school friends now lived.
I walked up to Sellery’s lobby and rang Ewa’s buzzer, but she wasn’t in. I left a message and tried ringing Sam; he wasn’t in either. Where were my friends? Didn’t they appreciate me driving all the way up there, unannounced, just to see them?
I thought of another high school classmate I knew, Aimee (who happened to be Sam’s ex-girlfriend); she lived in the all-girls dorm Chadbourne (which Sam crudely dubbed “Chastity Chad”.) Luckily, she answered her phone. A petite, blonde Biology major, Aimee was ecstatic to see me although I’m sure she sensed she wasn’t the first person I tried contacting, given how close I was with her ex. We sat and chatted in her cramped room, complete with loft beds and plastic milk crates full of boxes of Cheerios and store-brand pasta. Using Aimee’s land line, I left additional voicemail messages for Ewa and Sam.
After 15 minutes, we had to get outside. It was unseasonably warm for April and not yet dark. With a comfortable breeze in the air, we walked a few blocks to State Street, a mile-long stretch of restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores, and the occasional apartment complex. It was closed off to vehicular traffic apart from city buses and led towards Madison’s epicenter, the mighty, imposing State Capitol building.
We stopped at Steep and Brew for some herbal tea and caught up on how we were each doing in school. At the time, unhappy at Marquette, I was considering transferring to Madison, but did not disclose this information to Aimee. In retrospect, I probably should have uprooted the comfortable life I was used to in my hometown, though if I did, I might not have had the gumption to move out to Boston for grad school two years later, which was the best choice I ended up making—to leave Wisconsin and escape my comfort zone for something entirely new, to truly be on my own.
As things stood at the time, I was afraid of change, of even moving less than one hundred miles away. An hour-and-a-half joyride was all I could handle.
Aimee and I finished our tea and we walked toward the student union, where the setting sun rippled over Lake Mendota. We stood for a minute on the vast patio dotted by ‘70s-vintage yellow and orange canvased umbrellas and lights. I found a pay phone and tried Ewa again; this time, success! She was purposely waiting for me to call back. “Chris – WHERE ARE YOU???,” she yelled.
Within ten minutes, Ewa joined Aimee and I on the student union patio. As we hugged hello, I noticed her brown hair had grown out a bit since the last time I saw her (at a They Might Be Giants concert in Madison five weeks before), but she still wore her standard outfit of jeans, flannel shirt and dark green Chuck Taylor hi-tops. I’d known her for nearly five years; we’d met in a theology class Sophomore year at our Catholic high school. On the first day, we were required to introduce ourselves by listing some of our hobbies. Before the beginning of the next class, she came up to me and said, “So, you play guitar? That’s cool, I’ve been wanting to learn.” We were pals from then on; our friendship just developed naturally, never requiring any effort—we just had an instant rapport, one that felt like it had always been there.
The three of us strolled down State Street as the sky gradually changed from orange pink to dark blue. We browsed in a used CD store, briefly looked over the previously worn wares at Ragstock, and picked up some takeout at one of the numerous cheap Chinese joints littered up and down the thoroughfare. Aimee, having eaten at the dining hall earlier, said she had to go back to her dorm to study; we hugged goodbye and Ewa and I continued walking towards Sellery carrying bags of takeout cartons brimming with Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Lo Mein, Spring Rolls and White Rice. Ewa’s roommate had gone home for the weekend, so we had plenty of room to spread out our cheap, mostly fried bounty.
I tried calling Sam again and got his voicemail. It was a recording of Barry Williams as Greg Brady, excitedly talking about The Brady Kids, the band he and his siblings were part of and how excited they were to record their brand-new album. Sam’s own voice was nowhere to be heard on the message, which is how he preferred it. Even today, he eschews social media—my only contact with him in the past two decades has been through our Spotify accounts, which should tell you how much we’ve actually kept in touch since I moved to Boston.
As was our tradition, Ewa brought out a package of clove cigarettes, and we smoked a few. I then called home and left a voicemail for Mom, notifying her that I was “staying at the party late.” We listened to Rubber Soul three times in a row and chatted about our classes, our jobs, what new music each of us was listening to. She mentioned her upcoming summer trip to Poland (where she and her family emigrated from to the States when she was a young child), while I told her my plan to get a summer job on campus as a residence hall desk receptionist.
I felt more at ease sitting and chatting with Ewa in her room at Sellery than at home or even in my Marquette dorm, where I spent very little time. I had a packed schedule that semester, with most of my days and nights hunkered down in the library or the photography lab, and I went home most weekends to work a part-time retail job in the suburbs. I didn’t have a roommate, and I didn’t make much of an effort to hang out with the other guys on my floor. I’d moved on campus that year because I hated commuting from home, which during my Freshman year had the effect of college feeling like a supersized version of high school.
Living on campus didn’t magically solve all of my problems like I hoped it would. I’d later realize that the problem was me and my unwillingness to reveal much of myself to other people. I was deep in the closet and not yet ready to deal with or admit to myself whom I actually, honestly was. Hanging out with an old friend in Madison didn’t exactly bring me any closer to working through this issue, but it made me feel temporarily good, uplifted by spending time with someone I knew well.
11:00 PM turned into Midnight, and the next time I looked at my dark tan leather-banded Fossil watch, it was almost 1:00 AM. I’d given up on the possibility of Sam calling me back; later, I’d find out he was at his girlfriend Beth’s dorm room the entire evening. When I next glanced at my watch, it was nearly 2:00 AM. I knew what I had to do—get the car back home before sunrise and get some sleep before I had to go to work. Dragging my feet from the floor, I said my goodbyes to Ewa and headed out of Sellery over to where I parked the car. Thankfully, it was still there—no tickets or attempted break-ins. I pulled out of the UW-Madison campus and headed for the highway.
Driving on I-94 in the middle of the night, there were few other cars. Everything seemed much darker than usual, although it was probably no different than if I’d been driving at Midnight like I should have. I was completely sober (I was not a drinker yet) but miserably tired. I had the volume on the radio turned up loud to keep me awake.
Halfway home, I stopped at a Mobil to fill up the tank. Back on the expressway, I could sense my eyelids getting heavier by the minute. I switched from New Rock 102.1 to Classic Rock Station WKLH and cranked up the volume further. “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” came on and I began singing along. I wasn’t the world’s biggest Billy Joel fan; at my auto parts store job (yes, really), someone put a copy of the entire Piano Man album into one of the display auto cassette players and we listened to it on an endless loop—it was a perpetual hell of people putting bread in jars and microphones that smelled like beers, but still preferable to the country/western station one manager liked.
I still believe Billy Joel saved my life that night—singing along to his punchy, sarcastic, faux-rockabilly/faux new-wave number one hit from the Glass Houses album kept me awake and sharpened my focus. “HOT FUNK, COOL PUNK, EEE-VEN IF IT’S OLD JUNK!,” I shouted along, keeping my eyes as wide open as I could, never daring to take them off the road. The song ended with its jazzy final chord, and orange sodium lamps began dotting the expressway again. I was nearly in Milwaukee County and almost home.
I pulled into our alley around 3:45 AM, drove up to our garage, put the car in park, got out and turned my key in the garage door, slowly lifting it up and trying not to make too much noise (we didn’t have an automatic opener.) I eased the car inside, got out and pulled down the garage door as gently as I could. I opened the back door to my parent’s house in a similar manner, nearly walking on my tiptoes as I stumbled into my bedroom, took off my shoes and jeans and plopped into my childhood bed. As usual, I could faintly make out my dad’s snoring from the other bedroom. As far as I knew, I’d managed not to awaken either him or Mom.
I never told my parents about my joyride, and they never asked. Given what a goody-two-shoes I was all through high school, I felt a slight thrill at having gotten away with something forbidden, unexpected, a little gutsy. In a way, I was a step closer to being an adult, to making my own decisions and facing the consequences (I sure was tired at work that next day.) I’m not saying a joyride never hurt anybody, but for me, it pointed the way towards a road I desperately needed to take.
When I was young, I loved browsing through the elaborate, backroom display of colorfully glowing, completely trimmed artificial Christmas trees at Stein’s Garden Center and Gifts. However, to actually bring one of those imposters into our home was entirely out of the question—we required the vigorous smell of pine wafting through the air, a splintery trunk dabbed with sticky sap and a ring of fallen, brown needles gradually accumulating all over the vintage Lionel train set I’d inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene. A real tree was as essential a Kriofske Holiday Tradition as iced and decorated sugar cookies in dozens of shapes, strings of multicolored lights criss-crossing the front windows looking out on 12th Street, or even presents from Santa on Christmas morning.
During the first or second week of December, usually on a early weekend afternoon, my parents and I would drive to a nursery or garden center—not local chain Stein’s, but usually somewhere out in the boonies to look for and bring home the Perfect Christmas Tree. Often these places would crank up the charm to justify their lofty prices. You’d walk in the front door and be gobsmacked with the smell of cinnamon and spice and the sound of carols and hymns; within seconds, you’d spot a dispenser of free hot cider to sip out of tiny styrofoam cups. I recall one place even had a real life nativity out back: a wooden enclosure housing a donkey, a foal and perhaps a Saint Bernard or a Golden Lab one could pet, pose and take photos with on a bed of hay.
Eventually, my father had it all figured out: the best tree to get was a Fraser Fir. It appeared full and robust, but its chief attribute was its most practical: firm but not too stiff, it had branches practically tailor-made for hanging ornaments onto them. Every year after our first Fraser Fir, we settled for nothing less. It cost more than the average balsam or spruce you could pick up at one of those parking lot tree emporiums that seemed to pop up all over town every November, but such durability and dependability was worth the extra scratch.
If my mom ever suggested, “Bob, maybe we should spend less on The Tree this time?”, my father would only have to remind her of the Christmas when I was in third grade. I have many fond memories of this year: I still sincerely believed in Santa, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aired on ABC for the first time and A Christmas Story had premiered in theaters (to a generally muted response, but after that first viewing, my parents and I thought it was the Best (and funniest) Christmas Movie Ever.)
Still, not everything that year was as magical as fresh fallen snow or piping hot mugs of cocoa teeming with mini-marshmallows. For one thing, we’d waited a little longer than usual to pick up The Tree. Christmas was less than two weeks away and rather than make the trek out to one of our preferred places, my parents opted for a nursery closer to home. It was altogether fine for tree-shopping, cider and carols intact (but no living nativity); their selection might’ve been sparser than usual, but I can’t entirely blame that for what we picked out; I can only assume my parents wanted to get a tree right there, right then and not spend a fortune on it.
Nothing about The Tree we purchased looked especially askew in the nursery’s outdoor lot; it was only after we brought it into our home that we noticed something was off. Sure, it was slightly crooked, but my dad could easily fix that by sawing a little off the top or bottom. Only in the artificial light of our living room (extensively rearranged, by the way, so we could make space for it) did we notice The Tree seemed a little… barren. Not a pathetic “Charlie Brown Tree” by any means, but certainly something less hardy than we were used to.
“Maybe that’s just the bad side,” my mom suggested. “Let’s turn it around.”
If anything, the other side was even worse, with wide gapping spaces fully noticeable throughout the towering, triangle-shaped conifer before us. Undeterred, my dad turned it back around again and with my mom’s assistance, began stringing the lights—an annual ritual I knew to stay away from. As they wrapped each subsequent string around The Tree, my parents’ frustration with each other would mount and seethe until one of them would verbally explode at the other; from there, the arguing would persist until the last string was strung.
Hundreds of multicolored lights improved the tree somewhat but any sense of satisfaction dissipated upon the hanging of the ornaments, for this is where we discovered this tree’s fatal flaw: with such weak and flouncy branches, the heavier ornaments just slid right off. You’d put one of the wooden Three Wise Men or a miniature picture frame enclosing one of my baby photos on a branch and could practically hear the descending slide whistle sound as it immediately fell off and onto the floor.
We exhausted the ornaments small and light enough to remain hung in no time at all. Even with these and all the lights, the tree seemed only slightly less barren than when it was unadorned. Fortunately, my mom knew more than one way to decorate or fill out a tree, having crafted a majority of our ornaments herself. The answer that year was GARLANDS. Not strings of popcorn, as she had tried the year before, her fingers left pricked and raw by the laborious process of threading one piece after another with a needle and a string; no, something simpler and more colorful.
Armed with abundant rectangles of shiny paper probably purchased from LeeWards, she strung together one looped garland after another, always alternating green and red, green and red ad infinitum. So easy to make, she even recruited me to help out. We wrapped them round and round the tree and made so many we even had a few leftover. We proceeded to put them up all over the house: along the front windows, over the archway separating the living room from the entryway, around the latter’s sole stained-glass window. Practically everywhere one looked, red and green chains accented the interior of our South Side Milwaukee bungalow.
So much red and green, it brought to mind colors from the Mexican flag—at least it did for my father. When he first saw all the garlands that had materialized, he couldn’t help but start singing the chorus of the ubiquitous Jose Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad”. It became a running joke up through and long past Christmas Day: years later, whenever the song appeared on the radio, in a TV commercial or in a store, we still associated it with those plentiful, chintzy-but-admittedly-festive green and red chains.
The Tree might’ve been that year’s definitive Christmas memory if not for what happened on the holiday itself. Rather than getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins, the three of us elected to spend that Christmas Day with only my Grandma Clara. Rather than cook a big meal, my parents decided we would eat at their favorite restaurant, Jake’s, a steakhouse across town they had frequented since before I was born. With its elegant but homey atmosphere, baked potatoes accompanied by a Lazy Susan brimming with chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, scrumptious piles of onion strings (not rings – you could order a “Hill” or a “Mountain” of ’em) and divine Shirley Temples (we always called them Kiddie Cocktails), Jake’s was one of my favorite restaurants as well.
The previous Christmas, the temperature in Wisconsin somehow reached an abnormal 65 degrees; this year’s frigid, windy, well-below-zero weather was clearly payback for that rare, good fortune. The four of us piled into the ol’ Mercury Monarch, wrapped in layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and earmuffs and around 5:30 arrived at an unexpectedly empty, darkened Jake’s. Somehow, my dad had not thought to make reservations, or even call to see if the restaurant was in fact going to be open on the biggest holiday of the year.
As we sat in the car, dumbfounded, we had to think of a plan B: if Jake’s was closed today, what fine dining establishment might actually be open? Unlike Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, Chinese food was not an option for us as my dad refused to eat Asian cuisine of any kind after serving in the Army in South Korea in the late ’60s and having gone through an apparently traumatic kimchee mishap.
Mentally running through a list of reputable places likely to be serving Christmas dinner to the public, my parents came up with the Hoffman House, a restaurant inside the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge up on Highway 100. We’d had Sunday brunch there before, and it was surely open for business today, being inside a hotel and all. In about twenty minutes, we arrived to a packed parking lot, which should’ve tipped us off to the harsh reality that, without a reservation, there was up to a two-hour wait for a table for four.
We all got back into the car and onto the nearby expressway, driving to the other Best Western with a Hoffman House, this one five miles away in Brookfield; sadly, the wait there was no shorter.
Cold, hungry and getting desperate, we returned to the expressway in the opposite direction towards home. On the radio, EZ 104 played the umpteenth version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we’d heard that year, its numerous mentions of “a partridge in a pear tree” and “five golden rings” (onion strings!) not doing much to curb our appetites. Nearing the airport, we swung by Country Gardens, a picturesque little supper club on the off-chance that they might be open, but no dice. Having exhausted a short list of desirable options, including a home-cooked meal (far too late for that), it was time to be sensible and succumb to whatever was available and close.
With resignation but also a hint of relief, my father pulled into Denny’s parking lot.
My dad tends to revisit the same four or five restaurants again and again (a proclivity I increasingly recognize in myself as I age.) For awhile, Denny’s was one of them, the place we usually dined at after church on Sunday morning (and plenty of Saturday mornings as well.) Earlier that year, en route to said restaurant in the backseat of our car, I once complained, “Argh, we always go to Denny’s for breakfast; Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, DENNY’S!!!” Back then, my parents soundly ignored my rant; now, we were having our Christmas Dinner there. Given how hungry we all were, I knew to keep my mouth shut.
I no longer recall exactly what I ate at Denny’s that Christmas. I imagine my dad, sensing the utter disappointment in my face, told me to order whatever I wanted on the menu, so I probably had the Fried Shrimp (as fancy as the restaurant chain got.) I’m sure someone at the table ordered a Turkey Dinner and perhaps slices of Pumpkin Pie with whipped topping for dessert. The four of us sat in our circular, olive-vinyl seated booth overlooking Mitchell Field, the icy wind howling outside as yet another version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (this one instrumental!) played overhead, occasionally interrupted by the resounding Ding! of a sign dotted with lit-up numbers, notifying waitstaff whenever an order was ready.
We didn’t dare try to eat out on Christmas Day again until my parents visited me in Boston decades later (and you can bet we made reservations well in advance.) We still reminisce over the year we had a crummy tree and dinner at Denny’s and yet—like all the Christmases of my youth, we were together and in the end, we didn’t go hungry. This particular Christmas was far from perfect, but in retrospect, it was still pretty great.
Save a few coveted sips of my dad’s beer and the occasional glass of wine doled out on Thanksgiving or Christmas, I did not consume much alcohol as a teenager. I didn’t exactly hang out with a drinking crowd at school; in fact, I sincerely believed getting drunk led to nothing but getting sick. At 17, I witnessed one whole side of my extended family get plastered at a relative’s 50th birthday party held at a local tavern. I was fascinated and more than a little amused by this mass-inebriation—at one point, my much older cousin Denise (she babysat me often in my youth) stood before me next to the bar, sloshed and repeatedly uttering, “I love you Christopher” in a zonked but still empathetic voice—but I had little desire to participate in it.
Still, my first act of alcohol transgression occurred not long thereafter. One afternoon, out of immense frustration at my parents for some injustice I can no longer recall, I stormed down to our basement where we kept an old fridge almost exclusively packed with beverages. Beyond twelve ounce cans of caffeine-free Diet Pepsi and assorted fruity flavors of Jolly Good and Graf’s soda (both regional generic brands) sat tall amber glass bottles of my dad’s beloved Michelob. I reached for one before realizing I had nothing nearby to open it with. I then spotted two lonely aluminum cans of Miller Lite sitting at the back of the shelf, which my parents must have purchased for guests (or perhaps a guest had brought them to us.) I hastily grabbed one, locked myself in an adjacent junk room, sat down amongst mildewy cardboard boxes packed with elementary school homework and art projects and, yearning to rebel and defy, began to chug.
As I mentioned, it wasn’t my first taste of the stuff, but I could sense my face twisting into shock at the relative sourness of so much beer at once. I kept swallowing it down, convincing myself it tasted great! I was practically an adult, after all! Of course, it was actually pathetic—I couldn’t even finish the whole can. I didn’t know where to dispose of it: my mom was too close by, just up the stairs, in the kitchen on the other side of the hallway door. My dad, meanwhile, was out mowing the lawn, so I couldn’t walk right past him back to the alley to drop the can into the big blue recycling bin near the garage. Besides, where would I dump the remaining brew I could not bear to finish?
I ended up just leaving it in the junk room, hidden behind the dust-coated, lower partitioned shelf of a round wooden table that once sat in our living room. Neither of my parents ever frequented the aptly-named junk room, which primarily housed my childhood detritus. This plan worked—later that week, when no one else was home, I poured the now-warm liquid left in the can down the kitchen sink, crushed the can by stomping on it and discarded it in that recycling bin, strategically placing it underneath an empty container of Grape Hi-C. I had pushed the desire to clandestinely drink a beer entirely out of my system (at least until I was legally old enough to do so.)
Six months before turning 21, I got no-holds-barred, shitfaced drunk for the first time. I had come back from a late summer road trip from Milwaukee to Minneapolis with two friends, John and Joe. We had driven up there to visit Sara, another high school friend who was attending the University of Minnesota. It had been a somewhat contentious few days, getting caught in a violent rainstorm on the way up, having difficulty finding Sara’s apartment (mixing up the city’s numbered streets and avenues) and just generally getting sick of each other’s company after having spent so much time together in close quarters.
The trip’s best part was when Sara got into a fight with her boyfriend, giving the three of us, along with Sara’s laid-back, Beatles-loving roommate Dea (we quickly bonded over a mutual affection for Abbey Road) an excuse to get out of their shoebox apartment. None of us were of legal drinking age or possessed fake IDs, so we walked over to Joe’s tan Nissan, parked blocks away in a public lot and drank equal parts Captain Morgan’s Rum and Coca-Cola out of a Thermos. After roughly the equivalent of two cocktails, we all felt much, much better. Collectively sucking the Thermos dry, we stayed up late into the night, stumbling all over the massive and seemingly never ending U of M campus.
In the light of day, visiting the Mall of America and slumming around student ghetto Dinkytown didn’t carry the same otherworldly appeal, so the three of us headed back to Milwaukee a little early. Upon our arrival that night, John proposed we stay over at his house, as his parents and younger sister were all out of town and we’d have the place to ourselves. Furthermore, he claimed we could partake of *all* the alcohol in the house, as his parents had supposedly “stopped drinking” and certainly weren’t going to ever touch all this leftover booze. Why, it’d just go to waste! Obviously, it sounded too good to be true but as a naive young adult, I thought, “Well, if John says it’s okay to drink his parent’s stash, then it must be all right!” It’s also likely the rarity of FREE BOOZE clouded my judgement a bit.
We kicked off the evening sipping Captain’s and Cokes while watching Pump Up The Volume, the first of three videos we had rented from the neighborhood Blockbuster. After running out of rum, we switched to Jack Daniels for a bit before downing shots of a sickeningly sweet, strawberry-flavored malt beverage called Tequila Rose. Popping Killing Zoe into the VCR, I could barely follow along with this grim, violent thriller, but it didn’t matter because the three of us were so pleasantly bombed. We’d take frequent breaks from the movie, standing around the kitchen table, John incessantly pouring the thick, pink, mucus-like liquid into three shot glasses. We’d raise them up and toast to ourselves, to our friendship, and to liquor itself!
Killing Zoe having ended, John brought out a half-chilled champagne bottle he had secretly stuck in the back of the fridge earlier. We were about to pop the cork right there in the kitchen until Joe raised his hand and, in a brief moment of clarity, suggested we’d better do it outside in the backyard so that it wouldn’t hit anything important (including ourselves.) We happily shambled outside and, with a faded yellow dishtowel in hand, John aimed the bottle towards the neighbor’s yard. On the count of a three, a large POP! and our drunken cheers filled the 2:00 AM air, the cork flying off over a chain-linked fence into oblivion, never to be seen again.
We began our third movie, the surreal, hyperactive comic book adaptation Tank Girl, which was entirely fitting ’cause by then, we were all pretty tanked. The three of us sat next to each other on the living room floor, Lori Petty and a pre-fame Naomi Watts in front of us, an overstuffed couch at our backs, and passed the champagne bottle back and forth rather than pouring it into glasses. We came up with a game we thought to be ingenuous: each time a character in the movie drank something, we’d each have to take a swig out of the bottle ourselves. After four or five swigs a piece, this rapidly devolved into “Each time any character does anything, we all have to take a drink.” I don’t remember if we finished the bottle, but I do believe that all three of us passed out before the closing credits.
The next morning, we all had severe hangovers, but amazingly, no one had gotten physically sick. John never mentioned if he ever got into trouble for raiding his parents’ liquor cabinet, and I never thought to ask him about it. However, later that day, still considerably hungover, my mom and I were in the car on the way to the supermarket when we passed a ginormous billboard for Tequila Rose, of all things. “What’s wrong with you?,” mom asked as I audibly groaned at sight of the ad. I couldn’t tell if she knew what I had been up to the night before; I just glumly replied, “Nothing; I have a headache.”
That I was able to feel so (temporarily) good without puking my brains out held a certain appeal; also, I could easily handle a headache. Throughout my remaining college years, I drank like this only a handful of times. I never really set out to get bombed; it’d usually happen whenever booze was available, like the house party my roommates had the weekend before the start of senior year—they insisted on purchasing a keg of Busch Light, and since I was paying for 25% of it, I figured why not partake. It was putrid stuff, only a fraction better than Milwaukee’s Best (aka “The Beast”) but as with most alcohol (particularly the cheapest stuff), it really wasn’t all that bad after the sixth or seventh plastic cup of it.
This sort of thing would happen maybe twice a year, and I was proud of being fully able to hold my booze. I kept this (no matter how dubious) streak going until after I moved to Boston for grad school. My first year there on the last weekend in March, temperatures suddenly spiked into the low ’80s—surreal for sure, made even more so since apparently there had been a freak April Fool’s Day blizzard the year before. One of my classmates threw a party at her place, a sprawling complex near Brookline Village. Until that point, Winter had stubbornly lingered as it tends to do in New England. I’d spent far too much time holed up in either my Allston bedroom or BU’s Mugar Library and I was ready to let off some steam, wanting to embrace this sudden good fortune of Summer-like weather without a care of any potential consequences.
My fatal flaw was not necessarily in how much I drank, but in what I all consumed. In the song “Tubthumping” an unlikely hit that previous fall by the Anarchist Britpop collective Chumbawumba, there’s a part where a chipper male vocalist tauntingly half sings/half raps,
“He drinks a Whiskey drink, he drinks a Vodka drink
He drinks a Lager drink, he drinks a Cider drink!”
This is more or less what I did that night, perhaps substituting rum for the whiskey. Also, you know that old saying, “Liquor before beer, never fear; beer before liquor, never sicker”? Well, at that point, tragically, I had not. I may have begun with a Woodchuck hard cider as we all hung out in the courtyard, taking advantage of the comfortable temperatures. After some neighbors complained about the noise, we moved inside where I may have moved on to my beloved Captain’s and Coke, or maybe a Cape Codder (vodka with cranberry juice to you non New-Englanders) or even a glass of cheap red wine.
I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but somewhere deep into the night, in the middle of a crowded living room surrounded by fellow partygoers, I suddenly began vomiting all over myself onto the floor, hopefully not onto other people (although the odds were likely not in my favor.) Some shadowy figures quickly guided me into the bathroom, where for what felt like hours, I continued unceremoniously emitting everything I had consumed over the past few hours into the toilet, occasionally pausing to rest my head against the cool, white ceramic tank.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a film production student’s big black minivan, holding a large black trash bag in front of me, giving the driver directions on how to get back to my apartment. Pulling up to my place, I thanked him profusely and stumbled into the building, waking up my roommate Miles (who used the living room as his bedroom, turning a two-bedroom unit into three) and flopping down on my mattress, which, further disorienting me, was right on my bedroom’s floor—I had disassembled my bed frame earlier in the week to make room for some classmates to come over and watch a movie. I passed out almost instantly, my gas permeable hard contact lenses still in my eyes.
I woke up the next afternoon with a hangover worse than the one at John’s house three years before. My left contact was still in my eye; the right one had fallen out and seemingly vanished into thin air. I eventually pulled myself together and in the still unseasonably warm weather, rode my bike down to the Esplanade. I sat on a bench overlooking the Charles River for an hour or so, feeling disheveled and ashamed. Turns out, my actions from the night before did have consequences, and I’d have to face them. I’d later call up the party’s host, leaving a message on her answering machine, sheepishly apologizing for puking all over her apartment. That Monday at school, when I passed a classmate in the hall who had also attended the party, he immediately shunned his face from mine rather than return my friendly greeting, as if he could no longer associate with me, the Drunken, Vomiting Pariah in public.
However, I’d come to learn that what I did wasn’t so unusual or especially shameful. Within a few days, the shunning classmate returned my hello again as if nothing ever happened. I’d see others get shitfaced drunk in public all the time and chuckle to myself but also understand this is simply a Thing That Happens—obviously not good if it happens all the time, mind you, but I no longer needed to fear it: I literally partied ’til I puked, and I had survived. Of course, that wasn’t my last time ever getting shitfaced drunk; admittedly, it wasn’t even the last time I ever puked in public. Still, these days, like most responsible, non-alcoholic adults, I prefer the drowsy buzz of a well-crafted cocktail or two over drinking just to get drunk. Although I wince a little whenever I think back to that time I was the life (and death) of a party, I’m mostly thankful I had that experience. It was a foolish act, for sure, but also strangely liberating, all at once throwing caution to the wind, even if I ended up also being gloriously three sheets to it.
The summer I turned sixteen, my parents informed me I was to get a part-time job. No longer could I spend all my days watching three-hour blocks of I Love Lucy reruns or setting off on rambling, endless bike rides all over town. Time had come for me to make a living, or at least earn some spending money beyond a weekly chore allowance (and the very occasional babysitting gig.)
Luckily, I had plenty of entry-level employment options within walking distance from home. I could stock shelves at Sav-U supermarket or Payless Shoes Source, bus tables at B&B Lounge, expose myself to a variety of chemicals at Wolf’s Dry Cleaners—there was even a fish market I could work at, although it emitted an odor one could smell from up to a block away.
Such potential first jobs barely crossed my mind, however, for I was fortunate enough to live close to both a frozen custard stand (for the unfamiliar, frozen custard is richer, fattier ice cream freakishly more popular in Milwaukee than most other cities) and a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. The former, named General Custard’s (“Food Good Enough to Make a Stand For!”) was a block closer, but also a burger joint. Not wanting to return home reeking of grilled onions and meat every night, I gravitated towards the Baskin-Robbins, which had been in its long, narrow storefront location since before I was born. In addition to loving the stuff (oh how I would anticipate what each Flavor of the Month would be when I was a tyke!), scooping ice cream was also something I knew I could probably do, even with my total lack of experience.
The last week of May, I walked the two-and-a-half blocks over there to ask if they were hiring. Stan, the ancient, white-haired man behind the counter whom I’d later find out had owned and operated the franchise for over 25 years, handed me an application. I could have filled it out at one of the three tables (all of them encrusted with traces of sugar, butter and cone) to the right of the gleaming display freezers stacked with nearly forty different three-gallon ice cream tubs; instead, I took it home, completed it very carefully and brought it back the next day. Stan was still there, tallying up the afternoon’s sales, printing an almost comically long receipt from the cash register. He browsed over the application, and asked when I’d like to work my first shift. I told him I’d be out of school next week. “Come in Wednesday at 3:00 PM,” he responded in a guttural smoker’s rasp I’d soon know very well.
I had done it! I was going to scoop ice cream and furthermore, make money doing so! How cool was that? Apart from my folks, I told no one else of my summer plans; I didn’t want to jinx my good fortune. Of course, being a newbie to the workforce, I had no clue what to expect, but I didn’t care—I found a job right near my house, and I suspected I’d be able to eat a lot of free ice cream there too.
That following Wednesday, I made sure I arrived at the shop minutes before 3:00. As I opened the door, Stan looked up from behind the counter and regarded me as if I was merely another customer, asking, “Whadda you want?”
Caught off guard, I hesitated, “Uhh, it’s me. Chris… your new employee?”
“Ach! Come on back,” he grumbled. I followed him behind the counter and into a rear room partially concealed from the public via two swinging half-doors not dissimilar from those separating the kitchen and dining room in my Aunt Judy’s suburban ranch home, only these were painted the color of Pepto Bismo. Beyond them sat shelves haphazardly stacked with all the crap Stan never threw away: piles of old promotional banners, faded flavor labels, assorted paper and plastic goods like napkins and straws and a somewhat tarnished array of ice cream cake decorations, from frostings and sprinkles to a rainbow of sugars. Along one wall sat a couple of upright and top-opening white freezers populated with brand-new ice cream tubs waiting to take the place of those sitting in the display cases out front after their depletion.
Stan handed me a polo shirt the same color as the swinging doors and an outsized thick plastic binder that was the Baskin-Robbins employee handbook. He ordered me to put the shirt on, sit down at the desk next to the cake decorations and read the book. He then returned to the front of the store to wait on customers, tally up sales and whatever else it was he did all day. I dutifully sat there, scanning the handbook cover-to-cover, learning everything one could possibly know about scooping ice cream and exhibiting good customer service.
At least thirty minutes passed before Stan came back through the swinging doors and bellowed, “What, are you sleeping?” He gestured me to follow him out front, where he showed me how to use the ice cream scooper, craft such delicacies as a fudge brownie sundae or a banana split, run the cash register and use a waffle iron and a spherical wooden tool that formed the freshly made waffles into cones.
Within an hour, one of my co-workers arrived, also named Chris and also Stan’s grandson. Two years older than me, this other Chris had worked there for some time; as Stan left to go home for dinner (he also lived in the neighborhood), his grandson would continue my training. The other Chris was fun because he was a smartass and a co-conspirator. That first evening, when it came time to get ready for closing, he showed me the bathroom in the back where I’d prepare the mop to clean the store’s tiled floors. Next to a rusting sink and a mirror desperately in need of a streak of Windex was a slightly cracked sign from the Milwaukee Health Department: in funky, early ‘70s-style lettering, it said “Wash Your Hands,” the words actually rendered within the shape of a hand. Directly underneath it, a plastic shelf held a yellowed, dusty bar of soap.
“You know, the soap’s older than that sign,” the other Chris remarked. I nearly believed him.
In those hours when it was just us two Chris’s at work, we had a blast—especially in the colder months as up to an hour would often pass by without a single customer. We’d hang out in the back room, rummaging through piles of old stuff such as a poster for “Monte Carlo Stripe” (a flavor inspired by the long-forgotten 1977 flick Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo), making note of such peculiar stock as a cardboard box of Maple Nut topping stamped with a then-six-year-old expiration date. Whenever the front door opened, the other Chris would suddenly snap to attention and proclaim, “INCOMING!” (a M*A*S*H reference), our cue to emerge from the back room and actually do some work.
I certainly enjoyed working with him far more than my other co-workers, two guys both my age. Frank, who wasn’t much for conversation, had started working there only weeks earlier but never failed to lord this sort of dubiously-won authority over me. When not telling me what to do, he sat next to the rear counter, doodling in a well-worn spiral notebook. Joe, on the other hand, might’ve been less friendly than the other Chris, but I appreciated his droll demeanor. A regular customer who lived three doors down would come in at least once a week and always order the same thing: two scoops of chocolate chip topped with hot fudge. During one of his visits, Joe said to me, quietly and pointedly, “I’ll take care of Monty Clift over there.” At the time, I had no idea who that was; in retrospect, Joe’s assessment of this handsome, if somewhat creepy guy was spot-on.
Joe could be a co-conspirator as well. Once, we were in the store alone together when an obscenely large, hairy, yellow-brownish rat emerged from under the rear counter. I quickly ran into the back and grabbed a broom, but before I could return to the front, we suddenly had customers (INCOMING!) whom thankfully did not see the rat behind the display cases. Joe quickly put his hands up in a “NO! NO!” sort-of-way at me to prevent the customers from witnessing me running out with a broom in hand (was I planning on sweeping the rat away?) Luckily, the vermin soon disappeared back under the counter and we never saw it again.
I can only imagine what one of our customers would’ve done upon seeing a rodent in the store, for many of them were nuttier than the massive plastic container of macadamias we had for a special Hawaiian-themed sundae. Baskin-Robbins was where I learned the actual cardinal rule of working in retail or food service: contrary to popular belief, the customer is hardly ever right, but it’s polite and often expected to let them think they are. The mother and daughter who sample a dozen different flavors and then leave without buying anything? The middle-aged man who asks for a scoop of “Blue Chocolate Chip” (meaning our most popular flavor Mint Chocolate Chip, of course) two minutes before closing on a Saturday night, the floors all mopped and chairs upside down on the table tops? The wispy young couple whom, upon inquiring how long we’ll have Bubblegum ice cream and, after being told just for the next two months, whining, “For the wholeyear???” All of ‘em wrong to various degrees, but not yelled at, turned away or (openly) made fun of by me and my fellow scoopers.
A few customers made this exceedingly difficult. I’m thinking of the clueless woman who asked me, “Is this your first day?” as I stood there, the only employee at the store, my right hand bleeding profusely from a mishap with our nefarious cake-cutter as I could not help but betray my impatience with her ninety-nine questions about the display freezer full of prepackaged ice cream quarts and pints. Even better was the lady to whom I accidentally served a scoop of Fudge Brownie when she had asked for Chocolate Almond (they looked almost identical.) Whereas you or I would likely just say, ‘Hey idiot, this is the wrong flavor,” she took a seat at a table, ate her ice cream cone and spat out all of the brownie pieces into a napkin. She then left this napkin full of masticated food bits on top of the counter right under my nose and said, “I don’t remember these being in Chocolate Almond,” and left. I believe I was literally speechless for the first time in my young life.
I suspect Stan had seen it all. I didn’t know much about his past, although the other Chris once disclosed he had worked as an ambulance driver (!) before he bought the franchise. Stan was a constant presence, opening and closing the store every day and night, usually handing off the reins to his young male scoopers for hours in between. His equally ancient wife Adeline would occasionally come in to help decorate ice cream cakes. She was quiet but nice enough, her most distinguishing feature being her two-toned hair (as my mother described it), probably due to a messy dye job. Although he was a crotchety old fart, Stan knew what he was doing as a manager—he would have had to, given that he’d been running this franchise and presumably turning a profit for nearly three decades.
Still, Stan had his own share of quirks. Every night, he’d prepare a sink full of soapy water to prep rags for wiping down all the counters and tables. The water was always SCALDING HOT, as I discovered the first time I stuck my hand in it. In time, I’d come to prep it exactly that way, with the other Chris once reaching in for a rag and exclaiming, “Hey, that’s STAN hot!” He also loved contemporary country music (he was of the age where you’d expect him to be more into big-band oldies or polkas) and regularly used such dated colloquialisms as “darn-tootin’” and “cotton-pickin’”.
Stan once even ended up on the 5:00 news: that first Christmas Eve I worked there, I was home in my bedroom when my mom called out, “Hey Chris, your boss is on TV!” Running over to the living room, I learned from our television that some guy had taken a massive cement truck for a joyride and ended up crashing into Stan’s garage, mere blocks away from my own house. Adeline showed up at the store days later, a few yellowed bruises on her face. “I guess you heard we had a dramatic holiday this year!” she remarked with folksy understatement of the sort one often encounters in the Upper Midwest.
As the lowest on the store’s totem pole, I must have worked those first ten or fifteen Saturday nights in a row before I finally asked Stan if I could have the next one off. He gave it to me, but he also occasionally gave me a rough time. More than once, he pulled me aside and said, “Y’know, I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why doesn’t that young man of yours ever smile?’”, insinuating I was the sullenest of his four teenaged scoopers. The accusation always maddened me because I suspected it was the dour Frank they were talking about, but I wasn’t comfortable shifting the blame over to him, which would be akin to tattling. It bugged me, but I learned to put it aside. Initially, the job’s benefits far outweighed any of these frustrations: free ice cream, for sure, but also a lot of autonomy—particularly on winter weeknights, when I’d be the only person at the store. I’d sit in the back, do my homework, and occasionally watch a 13” black-and-white TV while my mom would swing by with TV dinners and fast-food takeout, since my usual shift would go from 4:00 to 10:00 PM, not allowing me to leave for a meal break.
However, little things began gnawing away at me. The other Chris left for a stint in the Army (INCOMING!) and Stan never replaced him, resulting in more work for all, but also additional shifts spent in close quarters with no one to talk to but Frank. I remained the new guy more than eighteen months after I started; I was also getting paid less than minimum wage, which I was too green and meek to do anything about. When I once asked the other Chris how come we were paid so low, he said, “Oh, that’s because the job is agricultural,” some hot garbage I could never confirm or deny given this was the age before Wikipedia (or the Internet, even.)
As the next summer came and went and I entered my senior year of high school, I grew to loathe those six-hour weeknight shifts, the measly pay, the same three co-workers in different permutations, the waffle cone maker that never failed to burn my fingers, the endless parade of customers asking to taste this flavor and that flavor on the little pink sampling spoons we had in abundance. I had particular contempt for the plastic cutout of a giant, grinning anthropomorphic pink spoon hanging over the doorway to the back of the store—Baskin-Robbins’ half-baked idea of an unnamed cartoon mascot (Spoony? Scoopy?) I’d look up at it and think, “What are you so happy about?” and picture it accidentally falling off the wall, hitting Frank in the head.
The final straw came in January. One otherwise unremarkable evening when I was in the back searching for a new tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge, I heard a sudden THUMP. Looking out, I saw that Stan had accidentally dropped an opened, full tub of Cookies N’ Cream face down on the floor behind the counter. He proceeded to pick it up and place it back in the display case without so much as wiping any residue from the exposed surface. Once again, I was speechless. When he wasn’t looking, I examined the tub for hints of dirt or crumbs or other floor particles but couldn’t detect any (of course, Cookies N’ Cream can conceivably mask such stuff.)
That night, I decided I’d give Stan my two-week notice. I didn’t want to work there anymore and the Cookies N’ Cream fiasco was only part of it. I had four months left of high school and was just beginning to open myself up to the world. Over the past year, I’d discovered how much fun it was to hang out with friends and have a social life instead of watching TV every night. The idea of spending most of my evenings and weekends sequestered in a half-dead ice cream parlor for four bucks an hour was none too appealing; I estimated I wouldn’t be giving up much in terms of spending money. I’d worked my first real job, but it was time to move on and enjoy my newfound social life—I could always look for another job come summer.
When I told Stan of my plans, he didn’t say anything, just a near-quiet harrumph as he continued refilling the hot fudge dispenser. My last day ended up being the last day of January with just Stan and myself at the store. We had no tearful goodbyes or any goodbyes at all, period—after mopping the floor and wiping down the counters and tables, I hung up my pink polo shirt for the last time, and walked out into the chilly air, taking the five-minute route back home I had walked hundreds of times over the past two years.
Exactly two weeks later, whizzing past the store with a buddy on our way to the movies (see, I was socializing!), he remarked, “Hey, this morning in church, they said that the ice cream guy died.” Upon hearing this, I’d like to think I turned as bright white as the painted exterior of my mother’s Grand Am that I was driving.
“WHAT?!”, I responded, “You mean STAN?!!”
“Yeah, you know… the ice cream guy!,” he replied, not knowing I’d worked for the man until very recently. Somehow I managed to maintain control of the car, not pulling off to the side of the road as we headed to the Skyway Cinema to see Groundhog Day. The next morning, I phoned St. Helen’s rectory and the secretary confirmed that Stan’s funeral was scheduled for noon that day. I didn’t ask about the cause of death and never found out, too embarrassed to call up the store, much less inquire in person. I assumed it was something like a heart attack or a stroke—the man was in his late ’70s, after all. Even though I rationally knew I didn’t cause Stan’s death by quitting, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly guilty at the unfortunate timing.
I happened to have off from school that day, President’s Day. My mom and I talked about attending the funeral but I decided I’d rather not have to face Stan’s family or my ex-co-workers. She said to me, “Can you imagine if that big pink spoon hanging over the doorway had shown up at church? He’d probably wave and say, ‘Bye, Stan! I’ll miss ya!’” I could always count on her to lighten the mood.
Stan’s family kept the franchise running for a few more years; it was a pizzeria after that for some time. It currently houses a tortilleria, or tortilla factory, reflecting the steady influx of Latinx people over the past two decades into this formerly overwhelmingly white neighborhood. That summer after finishing high school, I worked the first of a series of entry-level retail jobs that paid marginally better than Stan did, but I never liked any of them as much. I now know I left Baskin-Robbins a little hastily—I could’ve easily stuck it out for another six or seven months before beginning college (I commuted downtown to Marquette University that first year, so I could’ve stayed even longer.) Still, I acquired my first taste of what it was like to have a job. As with that infamous mother-and-daughter duo who tried a dozen different flavors without buying a single thing, I just had to sample other jobs and find out what type of work I was and wasn’t suited for; in the latter category, that was my next job, a first (and to date, last) foray into real food service, bussing tables at a chain buffet joint.
Stan was far from the best boss I ever had, but with decades of work experience behind me now, I can at least appreciate what the ice cream man accomplished. Yes, his franchise was part of a massive international chain, but by the time I arrived there, Stan’s constant, long-term presence had turned it into something more like a neighborhood institution. On those rare occasions when I get a scoop at a Baskin-Robbins (there aren’t too many in New England, where I now live), I always tip my pink plastic spoon to him.
So much to say about this montage of local and national advertising that ran on then-independent Milwaukee TV station WVTV (despite what the heading says, it was never an ABC affiliate, although it’s presently the CW) on May 5, 1979. I was too young (age 4) to remember seeing this firsthand, although a couple of these lingered long into the ’80s.
0:56 – TACOTACOTACO BELL! (also, “The Fresh Food Place”, eh?)
1:06 – It’s like every single key pressed on this primitive calculator emits a stab of agonizing pain.
2:27 – Whoa, lady! Bar soap scintillating enough to induce cartwheels.
2:47 – TAKEALOOKAT THOSE GINORMOUS CANS. Sorry, but Jolly Good just wasn’t as great a local generic soda as Graf’s.
3:43 – It’s not so much the claymation Jimmy Durante (who wasn’t even dead yet – did he approve this abomination?) but the demented grin Larry Balistreri makes as he picks up the little figurine that translates into Nightmare Fuel.
5:29 – First Wisconsin Bank presents: A Cornucopia of Authentic Wisconsin (sorry, “Wes-cahn-sin”) Accents!
7:38 – I swear True Value commercials looked and sounded exactly like this well into the ’90s.
8:55 – “Laz-o-curve Thrusters” (Thank you, Star Wars.)
9:38 – Woolworths (celebrating its centennial) and Mickey Mantle! Both will be dead in less than 20 years!
10:49 – Nice to know Don Ameche (he’s from Kenosha, don’t ya know) would go on to win an Oscar for Cocoon years after appearing in these sorts of ads.
13:12 – The Ernie von Schledorn jingle! I’ve been scouring YouTube for this for years. Loses points for not including Ernie’s spoken coda, “Who do you know vants to buy a car?”
16:31 – It’s Bon Iver’s dad! (“Ah… milk!”)
18:02 (and 21:08) – I’m old enough to faintly remember when Marc’s Big Boys looked like this (heck, I’m old enough to remember Marc’s Big Boy.) Also, there’s something positively Christopher Guest-like about these interviews.
19:03 – Let’s go back when commercials could reasonably look like they cost twenty bucks to produce (“Brother John’s, next to Gene’s…”)
20:38 – Mel Frickin’ Schlesinger (and his annoying little bird)! In my mind, I auto-associated the word “Schlesinger” with cars well into my twenties.