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.
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.