August 1, 2010

And the Hippies Were Boiled in Their Tanks


The phone rang the other day. I wandered into the kitchen, took a seat, and waited for whoever it was to reveal him or herself through the machine.

            “Jim!” a familiar voice barked. “If you’re there, pick up the goddamn phone.”

            I picked up the goddamn phone. “Grinch,” I said.

            “You won’t believe where I am right now.”

            Now, with Grinch, guessing was useless. He could be anywhere—jail, Tahiti, a madhouse, the most exclusive restaurant in Rome, or standing outside my front door. Or he might just be sitting at home in Chicago. There’s no saying.


            “I . . . ” he announced with hushed shame, “am in Madison, Wisconsin.”

            For reasons beyond both his control and his understanding, Grinch had found himself back in that loathsome burg where we first met a quarter-century ago—the same place that ran us out of town about two years later. This time he was there with his family.

            “Ewww,” I said.

            “’Eww’ is right. I’m down by the capitol, at some fucking . . . open air market.”

            “Jesus,” I whispered in horror.

            “Jim—it’s all still here. Nothing has changed. It’s all exactly the same. The same bakery, the same stupid hat store. Right down to the fucking tie-dyes and the fat, hairy hippie chicks.”

            Even as I yelped in disgust, I can’t say as I was much surprised. There’s something weird and immutable about Madison. I’d last been there in 1998, while on a Bataan Death March of a book tour, and I was shocked then at how little things had changed. The buildings were the same, the people were the same—even the stores along the University’s main commercial drag were the same. Same bike shop, same coffee houses, even the place I used to work was still there. Christ, new stores move into the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, St. Marks Place in New York, and South Street in Philadelphia—but not State Street in Madison. No, somehow and for some insidious reason, the march of time has come to a screeching halt. It’s almost like one of those less interesting Twilight Zone episodes.

            “If you went into the Rathskeller right now,” I told him, “I bet one of those same three songs would be playing on the jukebox.”

            From the unchanging description—the New Age shops, the Birkenstocks, the vegetarian cafes, and the inescapable stench of oblivious hippie failure—I would mark the cessation of time in Madison somewhere around 1970, coinciding with the bombing of the University’s Army Math Research Center.

            (It’s interesting to note that Grinch’s recent visit just happened to coincide with the death of Dwight Armstrong, one of the co-conspirators in the fatal bombing.)

            I’m not sure why that event should freeze Madison in time—though it was one of the four events between 1969 and 1970 (together with Altamont, the Manson murders, and Kent State) that marked the beginning of the end of everything the sixties represented. Madison was a big fish in the sixties thanks to the size and militancy of the protest scene there, and they weren’t about to let that status slip away. Even when Grinch and I were there in the eighties, the big local joke went something like this:


            Q. How many Madisonians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

            A. Four. One to screw it in, and three to tell him how they did it in the sixties.


            Yes, well. It was never a big town for jokes.

It isn’t just that the town is full of aging Earth Mothers who never left or bathed. Every fall, tens of thousands of fresh-faced, cornfed eighteen and nineteen year-olds show up and are quickly transmogrified somehow into little smelly hippie wannabes. Perhaps it’s the inescapable historical indoctrination that leaves so many feeling obligated to keep the spirit alive and those patchouli oil vendors in business.

            Well, the indoctrination didn’t quite take hold with Grinch and me. It came close, maybe—we met at a student protest against something or another—but it wasn’t long before we took a look at everything around us, saw the hypocrisy and the utter humorlessness, heard all the tired slogans one too many times, and uttered a hearty “Fuck this.” We weren’t about peace and love, and wouldn’t pretend we were. We didn’t give a rat’s ass about Nicaragua or the state’s investments in South Africa. We were apocalyptic, and saw it as our civic duty to nudge the world (or at least our own small part of it) that much closer to the precipice.

So for the next two years, we waged our own little war against the city and its residents. We used vandalism, theft, arson, noise, and most important of all, semantic interference. There was no real purpose or philosophy behind any of this—we just wanted to fuck with things, and keep ourselves entertained as we did so.

            We made the papers, we made the television news, we were condemned in Time magazine, and none of it had the slightest lasting effect. Once they got rid of us, they cleaned things up and everything returned to as it had been, and apparently always will be.

            Here’s the ironic thing. As much as I hated everything about that town and what it tried to represent, as much as I was driven through every day by the rage exploding in my skull, I have developed a hesitant fondness for the time capsule that is Madison. Honestly, I can’t say for sure how I would’ve felt had Grinch told me it had become another sterile strip mall full of chain stores, just like everyplace else.

Call it nostalgia if you will, but we followed every sick, violent, and obnoxious impulse that came into our heads (“Hey—what say we go smoke cigars in the bakery?”)—and nobody stopped us. There were occasional run-ins with police, frat boys, Moonies, but nothing that ever once gave us pause. That whole town was our amusement park, and we had a couple of all-day passes. We were never bored.

            There was something both comforting and horrifying in the knowledge that what had been such a formative place for me had not changed one whit in twenty-five years. It also led to a brief and stupid impulsive flash—namely that Grinch and I should go back there sometime soon and trash the joint again. Who’d stop us? A bunch of stupid little kids in tie-dyes?

Then I remembered what kind of shape I was in, and dropped it.


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