It’s easy to exaggeratethe Milwaukee lifestyle, particularly if you’re Victoria Fabiano, a one-time Milwaukee booster who moved to Florida and then had this to say in April of 1987: “Milwaukee men, rich and poor, dress so sloppy and dirty – a combination ’60s hippie and lumberjack – with worn-out jeans and flannel shirts to all occasions.”
The working-class town where everyone ate string cheese and Ma Baensch’s herring, cheered for the Packers and played Sheepshead, has been celebrated – and kidded – many times in these pages. Susan Lampert Smith wrote about one family (January 1998) that always played the card game while eating Limburger cheese, “and every deck (of cards) in the house smelled like it.”
But it’s striking to see how many of our stories dealt with social trends: inner-city problems, dysfunctional families and, an issue that barely resonated in 1983 – gay rights. What emerges in our pages is not one, but many lifestyles, little slices of bigger stories that still resonate.
On the 1980s Hipster Scene: In “Life at the Norman” (December 1987), writer Jim Romenesko profiled tenants of an apartment building at 634 W. Wisconsin Ave.: “One punk-rock band used to pour molasses down the floor cracks to feed the bugs, while other thrill-seekers have heaved old television sets off the fifth-floor stairwell just to see the results…Several young men … captured the largest cockroach they could find and put him on display. … ‘We spray-painted him silver and hung him from our chandelier,’ ” said a tenant.
Three years later, the Norman went up in flames, killing four residents.
“What I was able to save was one cat; her name was Mad Dog,” Susan B. Melin told Romenesko in April 1991. “Everyone in my family is dead and I lost all my photos and memorabilia. … basically I lost my entire personal history.”
On Stay-at-Home Moms: In the December 1986 cover story “Coming Home,” former Miss America and TV personality Terry Meeuwsen gave up her high-profile job to be a full-time mother. “Being superwoman was my life before,” she said. “Family comes above everything.” Twenty years later, TV anchor Joyce Garbaciak followed suit, telling writer Natalie Dorman (March 2006), “I was chasing my tail and not getting anywhere.”
On Sexual Mores: “The Milwaukee Madam,” Diana House described her clients to Romenesko. “Highbrow people – 40 to 50, I would guess, that are holding strong positions in the community, either as a company president or who are well-known in social circles … political circles … law firms.” (May 1990).
In a story on where couples have been caught in the act in public, one Brewers fan told writer Kurt Chandler, “I saw a couple doing it at Miller Park in the upper deck.” (June 2006)
On Inner-city Life: “There are so many issues,” lamented resident Tim Sledge, a Marquette graduate, in an August 1991 story on the neighborhood around First Street and Auer Avenue. “People’s self-esteem, poverty issues, social problems. It’s like where do you begin?”
Mary Van de Kamp Nohl offered a poignant look at the cycle of teen pregnancy for one inner-city family (April 1988) and a harrowing tale of the baby born four months early to a cocaine-addicted mother (July 1993) who had 13 kids by age 28. “I guess I’ve had too many [babies],” said the mother. “Maybe I am greedy. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up too fast.”
Van de Kamp Nohl’s December 1999 story, “Not on Our Block,” chronicled the women of the Cold Spring Park neighborhood, who used their brand of urban activism to drive out the gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes.
Meanwhile, gentrification had begun to reshape some older parts of the city. “Common Ground,” a January 1991 feature on Brewers Hill, described the different styles of black and white residents who worshipped together at St. Marcus Church. “I thought I was in a Vincent Price movie,” said one black parishioner. … While Mark Jeske [a white pastor] preaches, no one calls out ‘Amen!’ or says ‘Tell it!’ ” Jeske is still the pastor there today.
On Milwaukee as a Film Town: March 1989’s “Making Major League” took a behind-the-scenes look at “the movie that made Milwaukee… Cleveland.” Why a movie about the Indians in Brewers Land? “Money talks and bullshit walks,” answered a production assistant. “Cleveland is a heavy-duty union town and we didn’t want to make a union picture.” In a review three months later, writer Perry Lamek panned the movie, but Major Leaguebecame an enduring sports film, and Bob Uecker’s role as the besotted broadcaster created a line beloved and often quoted by baseball fans: “Juuuussst a bit outside.”
On the Gay Community: Of five brothers in Christopher Fons’ family, two were gay, including Fons. “I’m the black sheep in a family of black sheep,” he told Romenesko in a January 1994 profile. An AIDS activist, Fons’ fight took a personal turn when he was diagnosed with HIV. (He died a year later.)
“Here and Queer – Deal With It,” a March 2000 story written by Kurt Chandler, spotlighted Milwaukee’s gay and lesbian community. “The day still hasn’t come when we can walk down the street holding hands,” said Bob Schmidt, owner of one of the city’s first gay bars. “We’d get stoned.”
And Democratic state Rep. Tim Carpenter came out as gay in an August 2001 story by Chandler. For years, Carpenter had kept his secret, even after his Republican colleague Mike Huebsch, now the Assembly speaker, called him “that queer from the 9th” district in an e-mail. “I’m German-Polish, 6 foot 2 and gay,” he told the magazine. “To use just one part of me against me is a mistake.” Carpenter was elected state senator in 2002.
Chandler also told the story of two gay dads raising triplets on a Germantown farm (October 2006). “I wonder if the kids will ever question our marriage, since the country they live in doesn’t recognize it,” said Patrick Brown, one of the fathers.
“There’s really two Milwaukees,” said gay activist Patrick Flaherty in an August 2007 story, noting that same-sex couples are more welcome in some parts of town – the East Side, North Shore, Third Ward, Bay View, Washington Heights and the “gay ghetto” of Walker’s Point – and persecuted in others.
On the Spa Scene: “I had a seaweed wrap,” reported one customer in a November 2000 story, “Havens of Bliss.” “I felt like a mummy, it was so claustrophobic. Then I had an exfoliate, and it felt like a tiger was scratching me all over.”
That was nothing compared to writer Rick Horowitz’s “Adventures in Guyhood” (July 2007), where he got his back waxed. Why? “Because it was on the list of suggested ‘guy activities’ the editors of this magazine gave me, and because the editors never dreamed I would actually take their suggestions literally, and because I never dreamed that these particular editors are wanted in 13 states and four Canadian provinces for writer abuse.”
On Family Life: Van de Kamp Nohl’s investigation (October 1998) of the state’s Child Protective Services revealed a system on the verge of collapse. “When police rescued a child and called Child Protective Services for a safe haven, ‘We’d get a recording telling us to call ourselves,’ ” said Police Capt. Victor Venus.
Writer Carolyn Kott Washburne’s “Honor Thy Father and Mother” (January 2003) painted a heartbreaking, first-hand portrait of aging parents. “[My sister] Susan and I gave Mom a G-tube feeding, helped her into her pajamas and tucked her into bed. As the door closed behind us, Susan sobbed, ‘She has become our child.’ ”
And in July 2006, Van de Kamp Nohl reported on the remarkable surge in the number of grandparents who now have the job of raising their kids’ kids. “ ‘Nana, tell me why I live with you,’ ” asked one of Karen Ellenbecker’s grandchildren. “And I’d say, ‘I need to keep you safe, and you weren’t safe.’ ”