The Bridge by Kurt Chandler I’m sitting with a friend under the porch of his house. We’re both 4 years old and digging in the dirt with sticks, trying to unearth a root. We’re convinced it’s one of the horns of the devil. I hear my mother calling me home for dinner from three doors down. […]
by Kurt Chandler
I’m sitting with a friend under the porch of his house. We’re both 4 years old and digging in the dirt with sticks, trying to unearth a root. We’re convinced it’s one of the horns of the devil. I hear my mother calling me home for dinner from three doors down. But I keep digging, hoping to uncover, what, Satan himself?
The memory is powerful if fuzzy, more like a passing dream.
I lived on Milwaukee’s North Side for the first few years of my life, I’m sure of that. Our home was a rented upper flat on 22nd Street between Wright and Meinecke. I’ve seen the photos of my old home, and can remember my mother talking about the butcher shop down the street where she’d buy ground beef and T-bone steaks, and about the lady next door who never left her house until an ambulance took her away for good.
Our house had tar siding made to look like brickwork, a popular design back then in working-class neighborhoods. Living downstairs was a German girl named Waltraute. She was older than me and could have been my first love, I don’t know. I can’t remember her face, only her name, hard and unmelodious compared to those of my mother’s Italian cousins – Angeline, Rosie, Maria – yet exotic, nonetheless.
Each school day I walked two blocks to kindergarten. I had a classmate, a black boy, who wore a sailor suit like mine, white piping on navy blue, with a square collar that hung down our backs. After school, we’d stop at a candy store that sold wax teeth and candy cigarettes for pennies.
Through a child’s eyes, life was sunny and whimsical. A milkman delivered glass bottles of whole milk to our door. A ragman rolled his cart down our block, calling out – “Raaags!” – seeking old clothes and bed sheets from the housewives. Once, a portrait photographer led a Shetland pony down the street, dressing my friends and me in a cowboy hat and chaps and posing us in the saddle for Sunday pictures. Yes, 22nd Street was always humming, safe and trouble free, as I remember it.
I guess my parents saw it differently. Midway through my kindergarten year in 1958, I was plucked from the city sidewalks and dropped into the empty fields of New Berlin.
It might as well have been Mars.
I can still feel the desolation, standing waist deep in snow in the backyard, wrapped like a mummy in wool and fleece, with everything around me so flat and pale.
There were no sidewalks or candy shops or neighborhood schools, just a smattering of ranch homes on newly graded lots along newly paved roads named for explorers like Magellan, La Salle and Balboa. A pair of wood-and-stone signs illuminated by flood lights marked the entrance to the subdivision, Hales Heights Estates, enticing city deserters with country-club aspirations.
Life was quieter, but more insular. In the evenings, my mother would sit at the kitchen table and talk on the telephone with her old friends from the city, smoking cigarettes and twirling the curlycue cord in her fingers, while my father drank longneck bottles of Schlitz alone in front of the Admiral TV. On weekends, he worked until sunset to turn the backyard into our own private park, spreading bags and bags of grass seed and planting a stand of trees no taller than me.
I went from city kid to country bumpkin in no time, teaming up with a bunch of buzz-haired boys who were exactly my age. We conquered the limited limits of Hales Heights Estates, from the cattail flats of Mud Lake to Hollywood Hill, our romanticized title for the highest geographical point around. At the top, we were sure we could see
We nailed wooden planks to the crotch of a tree so we could hide in the canopy from our parents. We mowed the weeds on a vacant corner lot and created a baseball diamond. A friend once sailed a kite so high that when it returned to earth it dripped with rain. And one autumn evening, as my father burned leaves in the yard, the sky suddenly filled with dragon flies, thousands of them gliding east to west with the wind, like an apocalyptic parable.
Life seemed idyllic until I grew older. All through school, there wasn’t a single kid of color. As images of civil rights marches and urban riots flooded the television, I began to see New Berlin as artificial, incomplete. As soon as I got my drivers license, I fled suburbia for the city as often as I could. By the time I was 18, I left New Berlin for good. The view from the top of Hollywood Hill could only stretch so far…
Not long ago, I retraced those early steps. It wasn’t hard to find my kindergarten school, now Phillis Wheatley Elementary, over 100 years old and still standing grand on 20th Street. But the candy store is now a storefront church. There’s a vacant lot where my friend’s porch should be, and gone are the butcher shop and the ragman and the Shetland pony Sundays. The neighborhood today is one of the most impoverished in town. Houses are gutted and their windows boarded up. Newspapers blow across streets that now seem so much narrower.
I drive away feeling lost, illegitimate somehow.
It’s a half-hour to New Berlin. Strip malls now clog the landscape and Hales Heights Estates is built out, a house on every half-acre.
I park across the street from my old house, but can’t find the nerve to knock on the front door. So I sit in my car, like a burglar planning his next job, and look for clues that this was once home.
The evergreens my father planted are gone. My mother’s prized flowerbeds have been replaced by decorative gravel. The lawn has gone to seed and the screen door is missing, its rusted hinges dangling from the jamb. Above the doorway, an outside light burns in the middle of the day.
My father would blow a gasket.
A car pulls into the driveway next door, and an elderly man gets out. I recognize him, my old neighbor, immediately. “What the heck, why not?” I tell myself, and I pull in behind his Buick.
He invites me inside. His wife smiles and seats me in an armchair, and for nearly an hour, I swap stories with Mr. and Mrs. Kasprzak about the old days. We talk about how my backyard flooded and froze one year, giving the neighborhood kids an ice rink all winter long. We talk about the young mothers hanging snow-white bed sheets on their clotheslines every Saturday morning, and a teenager across the street who was paralyzed in a car crash.
In my mind’s eye, I can suddenly see the wooden foot bridge my father built. He worked on it for a month, hammering it together in the garage, sawing and sanding the boards to perfection. When it was finished, he painted it white. And, on a Sunday morning, while the neighbors were at church, he hoisted it into the back of his truck and positioned it over the creek that separated the two yards. A small offering, a connection between neighbors, a link in a chain
The bridge rotted away long ago, and no one hangs bed sheets out to dry anymore. Both of my childhood homes are just houses, mere shells stripped of their meaning by the passage of time. But the stories I share with my former neighbors conspire to tell a truth – that a sense of place can’t be found in any street or structure, that a person’s roots come from the stories we tell, from the evanescent depths of our most powerful memories.
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor with Milwaukee Magazine.
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by Julie Sensat Waldren
“Do you think we’ll ever get out of here?”
My friend had scratched the question in blue ballpoint in her ratty notebook. We wrote these letters to each other during history lectures, chemistry lab and Spanish class, and on the bus to and from Rufus King High School. We filled up entire notebooks until they were frayed and worn out, until the spiral wire slid down and caught our sweaters with its tentacles. We slipped our writings to each other in the hallways as the steam heat hissed out of the radiators, and we trudged up and down gray stone stairs, warped and concave from decades of student stampedes. During homeroom, we refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and rolled our eyes when the principal burst through the loudspeaker telling students “we’ve got to be the best.” School looked like a prison to us, its art deco tower and symmetrical stone walls looming forebodingly from the front courtyard.
And beyond that prison, the city was just as confining. With its skimpy one-building skyline and staid culture, Milwaukee seemed backward and boring compared to the witty world on MTV. When we discovered grunge music, the droning guitar and raspy, off-key vocals seemed to speak truths that the mainstream adult culture was afraid to say. I feel stupid, and contagious, here we are now, entertain us… The lyrics of Kurt Cobain and the music of Nirvana seemed to speak to us personally. We wore flannel shirts and Doc Martins; we threw ourselves into art and photography, poetry and mix tapes. We longed to feel something real, and we elevated Cobain to hero status for refusing to be trapped, for pushing the limits, for not making any sense yet making all the sense in the world.
Milwaukee seemed a micro-dot in this cosmos. When Wayne’s Worldhit the movie theaters, we were floored when Alice Cooper launched into an exposition about Milwaukee. (“It’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que,’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land,’” he said, deadpan.) We felt special. Then the moment passed.
What spoke to us more were movies like Pump up the Volumeand Heathers, in which Christian Slater resisted authority with a sarcastic drawl and dark-haired alternative girls were sexy and crazy at the same time. We recited lines from these movies until they became inside jokes. We took long walks along the lakefront, past Bradford Beach and up Water Tower hill. “Nothing ever happens here,” we thought, not like Seattle, with its edgy, alternative music scene, or Chicago, where the downtown was big enough to swallow you up into sheer anonymity and possibility. Milwaukee was just a sleepy, rust-belt has-been, with nothing but yeast-smelling freeways and alewife-smelling beaches where you couldn’t even go in the water, it was so cold.
At school, we watched the cool kids walk the halls as if they owned them, the guys all rumpled as if they’d just rolled out of bed, yelling about the upcoming weekend party as they drove by in their parents’ Volvo station wagons. They never talked to us. We called them clones, and felt boxed in by the smallness of high school. We half-envied the rebel girls at the bus stop on 18th and Capitol as they sucked on cigarettes and talked about shoplifting. I’m not like them, but I can pretend… I think I’m dumb, I think I’m dumb, I think I’m dumb…
On the last weekend of summer, we stayed up all night to watch the sun rise over the lake. In the predawn below the Lake Park pavilion, we sat at the water’s edge and waited as the sky lightened, hoping to somehow hold onto summer and yet break out of our so-confined lives. Then the sun rose like a circle, a yellow anticlimax. “Of course,” we thought to ourselves. “Nothing is spectacular in this city.”
The next year, we went to the Nirvana concert at the Mecca Arena. It was dirty and dark like the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, and the angry rhythms engulfed the room. I swayed against the people around me, bumping
shoulders and picking up speed, and soon I was moving not of my own accord but as part of a sweaty, pulsating creature made of countless arms, legs and torsos, and the music was screaming all the frustrations I felt about being young and stuck in a place and time that seemed so limiting.
By the time I left town, Kurt Cobain was dead, and grunge was following in his footsteps. I moved on to the wider world, to college in New York City, an apartment in Brooklyn, teaching English in Mexico, and didn’t look back. But then an odd reversal started to happen, a backward magnetic pull.
At 27, I got married and moved to northern California, with visions of glitter and beauty and warmth. Instead, the mountainous terrain and eight-lane freeway traffic felt overwhelming, desert pollens swam into my allergy-sensitive eyes and, adding to the surreal feeling of it all, Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted into office. The people I met there kept saying “You’re from Ohio, right?” as if everything east of Iowa was the same.
On a trip home for Christmas, I looked out the airplane window at Milwaukee’s Downtown, and I had never been so happy to see the city, with that skyline I’d once hated, and the lake, expansive and glistening. I was so homesick it made my heart ache. I longed for the manageable, comforting landscape of Wisconsin, the familiar jumbled intersection at Farwell and North.
During that visit, I bought a Milwaukee calendar so I could look at pictures of the city on my wall when I got back to California, where the architecture was all Spanish ranch-style, with long, fat vertical blinds and outdoor swimming pools.
We moved back to Wisconsin the following year. My youth on the East Side flooded back in waves of nostalgia. The Fourth of July parade, where I would decorate my bike with patriotic streamers and eat ice cream with a tiny wooden spoon. Beans & Barley burritos, warm and simple in their aluminum foil. The rough bark and fleshy green leaves of the mulberry tree in my yard whose berries tasted sour and stained my fingers purple. Returning to the house I grew up in, and finding in a corner of the bedroom that my kid sister had etched the words “XMAS, COME SOON!” into the hardwood floor.
I felt a renewed love for the city’s gritty foundries, factories and warehouses, now being gutted and reinvented for new uses; the cool green parks scattered throughout its neighborhoods; the grand, historic East Side houses with broad porches and brick alleys that shimmered in the rain.
And that lakefront. I recently took a walk to that spot where, 15 years ago, I watched the sun rise with my high school friends. Of course, it was just as silly to look to a heroin-addicted rocker for inspiration as it was to think if we caught the lake at the perfect angle, deep truths would be revealed.
But today, the lake stretches out before me like a watery homeland, rolling and pulsing with possibility.
Julie Sensat Waldren is a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine.
• • •
by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl
Two officers from the Milwaukee Police Department brought me home. I had been caught red-handed. Well, red-, yellow-, white- and purple-handed. The evidence, 100 tulips plucked from the neighbor’s garden, lay in my arms.
I had no idea I’d committed a crime. My grandmother was so generous with her flowers; it never occurred to me someone else might object. But there I was on a doorstep in the 2500 block of North 49th Street, awaiting my punishment. Because I hadn’t started school yet, I escaped with a stern warning.
Today, the police have no time for 5-year-old flower thieves. Big crimes have crowded out the small. In March, not far from the scene of my “crime” of 50 years ago, a man filling his gas tank in midafternoon was shot and killed by a 16-year-old who wanted his wallet.
My family history and the Uptown neighborhood are intertwined like a trumpet vine on a chain-link fence. Moving west from the flat over the drugstore they owned at Ninth and Center, my grandparents, Ralph and Margaret Van de Kamp, bought the duplex, a 1920s Milwaukee bungalow, in 1947. For most of the 1950s, my family lived upstairs.
No other house in the neighborhood had a side drive leading up from the street. They had garages on the back alley, but our driveway became a safe haven for kids just testing their wings. There, my brother and I built teetering chair and blanket tents. We filled our red wagon with minced marigolds – “chop suey” doll food inspired by the LaJoy’s restaurant a few blocks away. Wearing Roy Rogers and Annie Oakley holsters, we galloped across the pockmarked pavement, firing cap guns at invisible enemies before collapsing exhausted into our inflatable wadding pool.
When we wore out our parents, we played with Grandma and Grandpa. When Mom took our baby sister to the doctor, Grandpa baby-sat. One day, he dozed off in his rocker, and we sprinkled a baby-powder trail through the flat and all over Grandpa. Then we filled the bathtub with cold water only – so we wouldn’t get burned – and climbed in with our shoes on. Downstairs, Grandma heard the water pouring through her dining room ceiling. When she saw us, blue and shivering, and Grandpa powder-coated and snoring, she laughed more than she scolded.
In the fall of 1957, my dad’s job took us to Sheboygan. Three more job transfers followed, along with three more siblings, but in the summer of 1967, we moved back temporarily. Like immigrants, we pushed the number of occupants in my grandparents’ 1,100-square-foot lower duplex to 11.
With six kids crammed on cots and couches in the living and dining room, we drifted to sleep with the adults in the kitchen debating whether the extension of Highway 41 north would level the neighborhood – if fear and firebombs didn’t do it first. It was the summer of the 1967 riot and of early curfews for kids like me. Walking two blocks to the Uptown Theater became a matinee-only event.
By fall, our new home in Sheboygan was built, but in my heart, I remained an Uptown girl, grounded there, more than anywhere. Perhaps it was because we moved so often – I went to eight schools in five states. Or maybe it was the things I learned on 49th Street. There, kneeling beside me, her hands working the soil, my grandmother taught me to love gardening and value hard work. My mother read me fairytales, but Grandma read me newspapers – with differing editorial views – so I could see how that colored the truth. And when I became a journalist, I kept my maiden name, her last name, in my byline because she was my biggest fan.
In the 1980s, I brought my own children to visit. By then, renters outnumbered homeowners in the neighborhood. Grandpa was confined to a wheelchair. The motion lights on the driveway were shot out; someone broke into the garage. Iron rods went up over the basement windows. We suggested a move, but Grandma and Grandpa said this was their home. I weeded the old flower bed.
By 1986, Grandpa was gone. In 1989, we had to move Grandma, at age 90, her memory fading, into a nursing home. When I visited her there, an aide complained she was leaving the building to look for her newspapers.
The people who bought Grandma’s house sold it to Robert and Judy Seidl in 1999. The next day, Judy saw a man carrying a gun on her driveway. She was relieved, she says, when she learned he was only an undercover cop on a drug raid next door.
The neighborhood has gotten better. Increased police patrols have helped, she says. The old Uptown Theater, where I saw Lawrence of Arabiaand Inside Daisy Clover,made way for a high-tech police communications center. Still, going back is difficult. There are no empty liquor bottles or pieces of crumpled trash littering the street in my memories; no broken-down homes with “For Rent” signs out front.
Yet the Seidls’ yard was tidy and filled with sprouting tulips in spring. And the driveway where I had so many adventures is still there. Today, neighborhood kids bike and skateboard down it. “They just love this driveway,” Judy Seidl says. And because of that, she adds, “they really look out for this house.”
When the kids, ages 2 to 12, spotted a man breaking into the garage, Seidl says, they told him to go away or they’d call the police. He left. And the kids went back to riding down the driveway.
I saw them later, navigating the dangerous descent, turning their wheels sharply at the sidewalk to keep from sailing into the street. Just the way my brother and I did with our wagon, that spring of the tulips, before I understood there are two sides to every story, and that a neighborhood can be both safe and scary, as solid as concrete and as ever-changing as a garden.
Mary Van de Kamp Nohl is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine.
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My Father’s City
by Caroline Goyette
Horace had the car, a ’57 Chevy. They’d pile in to hit Gilles Frozen Custard, the place to be on a summer night or after a football game. High school kids moved in tight circles across the packed parking lot, lounged in or on their cars, AM radio stations like WOKY laying a sweet, staticky backdrop. When fights erupted, they were broken up quickly, the troublemakers sent slinking to the curb. Penny loafers, four-gored skirts and madras shirts abounded. The air was thick with English Leather and grease from the grill; the concrete a sea of crushed malt cups.
I wasn’t there. But I grew up on the stories.
Nearly 387 miles to the south, in Louisville, Ky., my father regaled my sisters and me with tales of his hometown. In Milwaukee, the summers were lake-breezy and blue-skied – no obscene heat-indexes, no soupy River Valley humidity. We heard about afternoons at Atwater Beach, splashing past the breakers into chilly Lake Michigan. About sneaking underage into a James Brown show at The Attic with his best friends, Horace and Byrnes. About two-a-day football practices under the 35th Street Viaduct, sucking hops-scented air on the windsprints.
The winters were different, too. Where we grew up, schools closed for a paltry dusting of snow, but in Milwaukee, the white stuff piled up in frozen mounds along the curbs until spring. Snowball fights ran rampant; there was sledding at Jacobus Park. My father remembers walking his dog at night, the cold click of Casey’s paws, the snow sifting across the sidewalk in glittery waves.
Story after story, all intriguing if for no other reason than that they seemed to mean so much to my father. What they had to do with me was less clear.
When I visited Milwaukee for the first time in 1993, Gilles was no longer an open-air place. My father shunned the “new” indoor dining area and we ate our custard in the car. The parking lot looked small and unremarkable compared to the flood-lit panorama I’d imagined.
Milwaukee was the last of several stops on a Midwestern college trip – we’d hit South Bend, Chicago, Evanston, Madison. My father’s choice was pretty clear. “Isn’t this terrific,” he kept saying, after the walking tour of Marquette’s campus (disjointed with orange-mesh construction fences and Wisconsin Avenue traffic); in the bookstore (dank and hot and crammed with students); at Angelo’s (over a pizza swimming in grease).
The oldest daughter, I bristled at the hint of parental pressure; made a show of patting the oil off my pizza.
“I don’t see what’s so great about it,” I said.
It wasn’t quite true. I liked the accents, their sharp contrast to the languorous drawls of my hometown. I liked the hard, urban quality of campus, the river running right through Downtown. I loved everything about Lake Michigan: how Wisconsin Avenue and Wells Street bottomed out in blue, how seagulls soared through the city, how there were actual beaches in a Northern state.
And even though present reality didn’t quite match the images he’d painted, something of the mystique my dad created for Milwaukee held fast.
My freshman year at Marquette, we started talking on the phone. My dad kept college hours – he was regularly up working at one, two, three in the morning. He pulled all-nighters with about the same frequency I did. I dragged the phone cord in the hallway so we wouldn’t wake my roommate. I told him about my classes, what I was reading. He sent clippings – Jonathan Yardley, columnists from the Louisville papers, book reviews – and pestered me to read them. He also sent Milwaukee-related stories: Three Brothers in Gourmet; Marquette in The Wall Street Journal. It was a strange sensation, being in town but still being told about it from the outside.
I always called him in crisis. He listened to my problems in what must have been hideously boring detail, but I never considered reciprocating.
When my sister Katie followed me to Marquette, my father insisted we share an apartment at the Ardmore, the 16th and Wisconsin Avenue building where he had lived in college. Helping us unpack, he set up our twin beds side by side, as though we were 6-year-olds again, sharing a room. As though if he arranged the dollhouse perfectly, nothing bad would happen.
Why the hell didn’t we rearrange them? We laugh now about our two semesters spent sleeping inches away from each other. We don’t know. But we didn’t.
In grad school, I started dating a guy who, a few years later, I would marry. I didn’t talk to my dad on the phone as much. He would call late at night, but I wouldn’t be there.
When he comes to Milwaukee, my dad wants to go to all the old places. Kopp’s, Gilles, Suburpia, Balistreri’s, Barbiere’s, Karl Ratzsch’s. We drive past Marquette University High School and his old house on Revere Avenue in the Washington Highlands. There are the leaded glass windows from family photos; the rounded entryway where my dad would take a breath before slipping in, late for curfew. The pitched roof needs repair now. A rusted basketball hoop stands forlornly in the backyard.
With a few exceptions, my dad’s not too interested in trying the new Milwaukee places. There’s not enough time.
He has said it more times than I can count – swiveling an armchair to gaze down Wisconsin Avenue from our college apartment; spinning down Lincoln Memorial Drive with the windows down. I would move back here in a heartbeat. On the phone, in a nostalgic mood, he’ll sometimes tell me what he would do right now if he were in Milwaukee. A crisp fall weekend: Throw on some good music and make a pot of chili. A laid-back Friday night: Go to a game, then out for pizza and beer. He doesn’t say it, but I feel his disappointment when we don’t do these things.
Milwaukee keeps changing, and so do we. Katie’s married now. My sisters are scattered around the country. And my dad has lived in Louisville for 33 years, far longer than the time he spent here.
When his old Milwaukee friends Horace and Byrnes died – a couple years apart, both in their early 50s – it shook my father to the core. It’s a part of the story he doesn’t like to tell. When you know the ending, it’s hard to see the early scenes in the same way.
I began my time in this city living out my father’s story, but it has slowly become my own tale. Built on his, it takes its own twists and unexpected turns. And yet they’re inextricably linked. We made the drive together many times during my college years, 387 miles from Louisville to Milwaukee. Past the folksy “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign, the acres of flat farmland, the I-94 viaduct would suddenly lift us into the sky, above buildings and billboards, a signal we were closing in on our destination. We looked ahead, two gazes, waiting to see what was on the other side.
Caroline Goyette is an assistant editor for Milwaukee Magazine.
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