December 4, 2011

The Trees are 30 Years Taller


As my dad drove me around Green Bay he pointed out the things I would recognize, like the library, the museum, the hospitals, and Bosse’s newsstand.

            “See?” he said. “It hasn’t changed at all since you left.”

            I have to admit that I was surprised to see that Bosse’s was still there, selling actual newspapers and magazines and cigars. I was also surprised and a little confused to see that a miniature replica of the 9/11 memorial had been installed in the parking lot outside the museum. The microbrewery across the street from the museum was new on me, too. Green Bay never struck me as a microbrew kind of town.

            We’d driven downtown to see if they’d started tearing down the mall yet. After he retired from the Air Force, my dad became the head of security and maintenance at the Port Plaza Mall, a massive structure that dominated downtown Green Bay for twenty years. After he retired from that job, the economy started to tank, the stores started to close, and eventually the entire mall was shut down and gutted. Now it was slated for demolition (along with the hotel that had been built across the street) in order to extend a road. Nobody was really sure when it was supposed to happen.

            It occurred to me as he drove that apart from the few things he’d pointed out, very little of what I remembered of my old hometown remained. The department store where my mom used to work is presently being turned into a parking lot. The stretch of little shops that used to be downtown—Pete’s Candy store, a diner straight out of Hopper called Dehn’s, Spooky’s novelty shop, a hunting supply store, and a store that catered to the Dungeons & Dragons crowd—had been replaced with sports bars and a fur coat store. The area was now dominated by faceless office buildings. Head over to the west side of town and you’ll find the paint store, the camera store, the car wash and the strip clubs replaced with a bunch of Mexican restaurants and grocery stores with signs in Korean and Vietnamese. At present an influx of Somalis is underway for reasons nobody can quite figure out. I was hard pressed to pick out much of anyone or any place I could still recognize. Even Hansen’s Dairy, the cheese and ice cream store, had closed down. In Wisconsin, yet!

            When we got back to our own neighborhood, time reversed for me. There, very little has changed. The houses are all the same, and a lot of our old neighbors are still living where they always have (except the ones who’ve died, of course). In fact I’m shocked at how little things have changed.

            The drive-through bank is still there down the street, though instead of pneumatic tubes and tellers on intercoms it’s just a row of drive-through ATMs. But if you go inside, they’ll still give you a Dum-Dum sucker. Lenny’s Barber Shop has moved to the west side (thank God), but Brian’s Barber Shop is still there where it’s always been at the top of the hill. I’ve never once seen anyone go in there, but still they’ve managed to stay open for nearly fifty years. My old school has been replaced by a drug store and the playground across the street is now home to a bank and a condo development, but that all happened a long time ago. The Lutheran church across the street from our old house is now one of those non-denominational “we don’t really believe in anything” churches, but it looks the same, and the field next door where the pee-wee football teams played in the summer and where I used to ride my minibike is still there, still wide open, though the trees are about thirty years taller.

            Locals bars and parks still offer fish boils and booyah on special occasions, and you can still find polka shows on Sunday morning television.

            I was amazed, actually, at how much open space was left. Downtown was claustrophobic with buildings of increasing height, but out by our house there are still fields that stretch uninterrupted down to the river where kids still fish for bullheads.

            Most all the movie theaters are gone, though, including the Vic—Green Bay’s last palace—and the Starlite, a drive-in smack dab in the middle of town. Green Bay only has one daily newspaper left, and it’s getting mighty slim. And in typical fashion, thanks to the Wal-Mart, most of the neighborhood grocery stores have vanished.

            So yeah, my recent trip home, as usual, was a blend of cheap bittersweet nostalgia and the Shock of the New. Green Bay was always one of those towns that wasn’t supposed to change, ever. And a lot of things haven’t. I was there for the opening day of deer season, which is pretty much a state holiday. Two-thirds of the local TV newscasts were devoted to interviews with hunters and stories about shooting big bucks. “Send us your buck stories and photos!” the newscasters would say. After so long on the East Coast it seemed strange and alien, but I had to remember (and did so pretty quickly) that it was commonplace when I was a kid. So much so that it was generally accepted that well over half the students in school would take two weeks off in mid-November to go hunting. It’s a region where deer hunting is second only—ONLY—to the Packers in level of importance -- deer hunting tops family, church, work, school, everything. Except the Packers.

            And if the Packers ever stop being the be-all and end-all of life in Green Bay, I may well have to stop calling myself a Wisconsinite, because at that point Wisconsin would cease to exist.

            I flew out to see my folks, my sister, and my nieces a week before Thanksgiving in hopes of dodging the holiday travel madness. Since I was close enough, my parents suggested that we’d just do the whole Thanksgiving thing while I was there. This was fine by me. It would be on that Sunday, they decided, so everyone would be free.

            There was one problem. The Packers were playing Tampa Bay at noon. This called for some adjustments.

            The turkey and ham were both cooked and carved the day before. Since the game started at noon, we would start eating at 11:30 on the nose so we could get as much as possible out of the way before kickoff. Everyone wore their Sunday best—my sister and nieces were wearing Packer jerseys, my dad was in his Packers windbreaker and autographed Packers cap, and I was in my Packers sweatshirt.

            Everything went according to plan except that we’d forgotten about the pre-game show, which started at eleven. It was a simple enough problem to solve, though. My mom just turned on the TV in the kitchen and pointed it into the dining room where we were eating. Everything was just fine. After the kickoff, all conversation ended unless it was directly related to the action on the screen, and we were only allowed to duck into the kitchen for seconds during timeouts or commercial breaks.

            When we were finished eating, we cleared off the table and everyone rushed downstairs by the big TV and the fridge well-stocked with Milwaukee’s Best.

            It was a sloppy game, there was a lot of grousing and yelling at the screen, but in the end the Pack won. It was a good Thanksgiving, and I learned that even if downtown was unrecognizable, even if Spooky’s and the Vic were long gone, Green Bay was still Green Bay, and some things were still sacred.


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