June 1, 2008

The Virtues of Wisconsin


I think the first clue that things were changing was the fact that the pre-recorded safety instructions on the commuter plane were given in Spanish as well as English.

            I don’t get back to Wisconsin nearly often enough. I think that’s something we could all say, at least in a metaphorical sense. A recent four-day visit back home showed me why.

            Two primary reasons, actually. First, in this age of dysfunction, where it seems every parent is neglectful or abusive and every child is a hateful, drug-addicted disappointment, my family is wonderful. We all get along, we enjoy each other’s company, we laugh a lot. It’s just good to see them all, especially as we get older.

            Second, returning to Wisconsin allows me to get back in touch with what’s really happening in American Culture. And by that I mean the things you don’t hear about on the entertainment shows, and would never encounter in New York or Los Angeles. In short, I’m allowed to see once again how ninety percent of the country perceives the world. If you want to understand American politics, or the immigration debate, or the confounding popularity of certain television shows, you need to get away from the coasts and spent some time in Wisconsin.

            As my parents drove me around town, I was, as always, struck by the major changes. My old bowling alley is gone. All the movie theaters I haunted when I was a kid are gone. There are new hospitals, new box stores, entire neighborhoods built up on what used to be wide, empty fields. It’s reminiscent of New York that way. But unlike New York, I was also struck by all the things that were still there after so many decades. The Majestic Tile store, Happy Joe’s pizza parlor (where everybody had their birthday parties), Truttman Hardware, the old McDonald’s with the single arch out front. The barber shop up the hill from my folks house—the one which had been there as long as I could remember—was still there, utterly unchanged. But at the same time, much of downtown, where I wasted so many formative years, was being razed to make room for fancy hotels and condos. Port Plaza Mall (where I used to work in a B. Dalton’s) is going to be torn down, and my grade school is now a CVS. Stores which twenty years ago, had signs in Vietnamese now have signs in Spanish.

            During my four days home, I went to see my niece play in a high school soccer game (I never went to a single sporting event while I was in high school), we stopped by a Piggly-Wiggly, went through a car wash, and visited Lambeau Field. I hadn’t been out to Lambeau since I was 16 or so. A few years back the whole place was renovated, so what was once a shadowed and dingy gray cement edifice reeking of stale beer and piss was now a sparkly, cavernous upscale shopping mall with a football stadium attached. It was sad, in a way, but at least the big money efforts to rename Lambeau after some corporation were shot down. My folks seem to like the new place, so I guess that’s what matters.

            I went to a Dairy Queen with my friend Pat. I’ve known Pat since I was four, though it wasn’t until I was thirteen or fourteen that I realized he was retarded. He’s gained some weight and lost some hair, but he’s still the Pat I remember from when I was four.

            Funny thing about Pat is that these days he only talks to me through my dad, referring to me in the third person even when I’m sitting two feet away (“When is Jimmy going back to Brooklyn?”). (He also remains one of three people in the world allowed to call me “Jimmy.”) And his general response to most any question about his activities is, “Well I’m not chasing girls, that’s for sure!”

            The Dairy Queen wasn’t nearly as dingy as it used to be, either. It was bright and shiny and modern and clean, which I also found a little sad.

            At the car wash, my dad introduced me to Sam the Shoeshine man—a squat little retarded fellow in a sporty cap who’s been shining shoes at that car wash for over 30 years. Sam also collects foreign coins, so every time he visits the car wash, my dad brings him a few.

            While we were there, Sam told my dad that the group home where he’d been living all these years was about to be shut down and turned into a luxury hotel, much like what’s happening to Bellevue’s psych wing here. And, like here, nobody seems to have given much thought to what exactly will become of the current residents.

            A few other random observations:

            —Despite all the building and tearing down, there still isn’t a building in town taller than ten stories.

            —As I always feared would happen, the prices have finally gone up at Bay Beach, the local low-key (and low-rent) amusement park. Tickets for the rides now cost a quarter instead of a dime.

            —For all the horror stories we hear about what an evil corporation it is, people love, love, love the Wal-Mart.

            —While there, I only saw one jogger and three cell phones.

            —There are so few pedestrians in town that if you happen to pass one while out walking, you have no choice but to say hello.

            —More and more around town, regular intersections with stop signs are being replaced with European style roundabouts. People seem to like them, but they scare the hell out of me.

            —The only local daily paper left has stopped running its once glorious crime blotter, out of fear that it might constitute an invasion of privacy. While on the one hand sure, I was relieved to learn there was still a place in the country where privacy was taken seriously, getting rid of the blotter sets a dangerous precedent for those of us who find most of our entertainment there. It’s also worrisome from a journalistic point of view. Most important of all, the crime blotter is a fundamentally American literary form—I’d hate to see it disappear to protect some drunk driver or accused petty thief.

            —Illegal immigration and gay marriage make people very angry.

            —Most of the people I talked to despise Hillary Clinton with a passion, don’t care for John McCain’s war policy, and don’t trust Barack Obama so far as they could throw him. I was shocked, in fact, to hear how many people were so fed up with the choices they didn’t plan to vote this year. That was a first.

            For all the cosmetic changes I saw around town, they couldn’t outweigh those things which had remained constant. Green Bay was still the Green Bay I remembered. It was comforting in a strange way. My old grade school was now a drug store, but the prison was still there. Dairy Queen remains a popular teen (and retard) hangout. And by god, flip through the radio dial and you won’t be able find any songs recorded after 1987. That’s something I know I’ll always be able to count on in that town. That and cheese curds.


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