March 1, 2015

Visit Beautiful Slab City, Wisconsin


I’ve had a bit of Wisconsin on the brain lately. Part of it probably has to do with the new book coming out in a couple of weeks. Listening to a whole bunch of Sigmund Snopek III records only adds to the mess. He’s based in Milwaukee, and though his style over the years has ranged from prog rock to pop to polka to classical to the merely oddball, a number of his songs are decidedly Sconni-centric. I do love Sigmund Snopek, especially his late eighties album WisconsInsane (an album I’d been trying to track down on disc for twenty years now, until I eventually broke down and just wrote to Snopek himself). But that’s beside the point.

            Despite having spent more than half my life in Brooklyn at this point, I’ve still found myself thinking and writing about Wisconsin more and more in recent years. See, as the beaten and bloodied cliché would have it, it was only after leaving Wisconsin that I was able to see with clear eyes just how fucking weird it all is. Or was, anyway, back in the early seventies. Not Florida weird, or Jersey weird, or even Long Island weird, but weird in its own morbid sorta way, and a way you simply take for granted when you’re living there.

            There are big things of course. Wisconsin gave us Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Necrophilia, last I checked, was still legal in Wisconsin. Oh, it comes up for debate every few years in the state legislature, but for some reason they never get around to criminalizing it. More interesting to me, though, are the smaller, quieter things that only seem a little off-kilter when you pause to think about them for a second or two. Beginning in the seventh grade, for instance, gun safety was regularly offered throughout the school system, so it was not at all uncommon back then to see thirteen and fourteen-year-olds strolling down the school hallways carrying shotguns. Driving north through central Wisconsin (something I did on a regular basis with my folks back then for one reason or another), you begin to notice that nearly every business you pass, from stores, restaurants and bars to government buildings, medical offices, and taxidermists, has some kind of huge animal statue out front. So as you snake north along the two-lane blacktop, you find yourself passing giant chickens, giant cows, giant deer, giant fish of assorted species, giant badgers, whatever you like. Later this got me to wondering if that may help explain why so many low-budget filmmakers who’ve come out of Wisconsin established their careers by making giant monster movies. But that’s just idle speculation.

            As you drive up that same route, you also find yourself passing through countless inconsequential towns, towns known generally among the locals as “three bars and a church” towns. But there was one we passed through dozens of times that always caught my eye, maybe because it pushed that idea to an extreme.

            There are a few places around the country called Slab City, the most famous being an abandoned shopping development in Northern California that now looks like a Roman ruin consisting of some half-finished buildings and enormous flat slabs of concrete. Werner Herzog filmed part of his Wild Blue Yonder there, and it’s inspired a picture book or two. But for my money, there’s no topping Wisconsin’s own Slab City, about a mile south of Bonduell there, over on the old Highway Twenty-nine.

            I don’t know what Slab City is like these days, but in the early seventies my eight-year-old self remembers it this way. As we curled north through the hills and the thickening woods, we’d come around a corner and pass a little green highway sign that read “Slab City: Unincorporated.” Then there it was in all its glory, there on the right side of the road.

            Slab City, see, consisted of only two things. There were no houses that I recall. No grocery stores or gas stations, no post office or police station, and no churches at all. No, Slab City consisted of an ancient and overgrown cemetery, all the tombstones tilted and gray, the decades and the weeds obscuring the engraved names. And directly adjacent to the cemetery was a bar called The Morgue. I can still see that black tarpaper awning and the drippy, spooky white lettering. That was it. That was Slab City. It was there and gone in an instant as the car kept rolling inexorably onward toward Shawano. Slab City was like a blink of a recurring dream there in the middle of the thick woods. Whenever we drove through there when I was a kid, I remember thinking how much I wanted to move to Slab City when I got older. In retrospect though, I guess there’s really only one way to do that.

            Forty years down the pike, I would have assumed that Slab City would have vanished by now, swallowed by the trees, buried for centuries only to be uncovered by some baffled archaeologists long after we’re all dead, but I was mistaken, and I’m glad I was. Not only does Slab City still exist—it seems to be thriving. In fact there may still be hope for that childhood dream of moving there. According to what I’ve been able to determine, there are now three houses in Slab City. Still no grocery store or post office or gas station, but there are people living there. Someone even just opened up a scuba diving shop. I always thought it was a little strange that Wisconsin would be home to so many scuba diving shops. Or maybe I don’t find that strange at all.

            Best of all, though, The Morgue is still open for business, giving Slab City the highest bar per capita ratio in the whole goddamn country.

            So they’ve got The Morgue, a cemetery, and a scuba diving store. What the hell else could I ask for?


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