Little things, like fast-food walleye and malamutes at barstools, make Milwaukee distinct from New York, writes a guy who’s ping-ponged between the two cities.
Larry Meiller is the quintessential Wisconsinite. When I listen to the public radio host moderate discussions on garden pests or, say, thorny ornithological questions like the difference between the sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s hawk, I’m always struck by his warmheartedness and his unabashed folksiness. In fact, I sometimes wish he was my uncle. My real uncle, Frank, is from Queens and knows nothing about aphids or leafhoppers or a good recipe for pickling northern pike.
I am from Milwaukee, and I am not. My parents moved to one of its suburbs from our apartment in Manhattan when I was 6 years old and still pronouncing the letter ‘R’ sort of like Elmer Fudd does, which some Midwesterners mistook for an East Coast accent. Ironically, it was my mother, a Whitefish Bay native, who pined for the kineticism, the theater, and the restaurants of New York. My father, born and raised in Queens, felt most at home at his wife’s family cabin on a lake in the North Woods.
I was too young myself to pine for New York when I arrived in Milwaukee. I don’t remember much from those early years, but, young as I was, I did notice certain differences between the two cities. I was hamstrung, for example, by the fact that I never learned to ride a bike in New York. My father carried me or I walked and, to this day, I look mildly drunk when I’m on two wheels. (This proved to be particularly troublesome during my honeymoon on Mackinac Island.) So, I walked here, too, although the distances between friends’ houses were no longer measured in blocks.
But I adjusted to Milwaukee just fine, and I accepted living here until I graduated from high school. Then, like everyone else in my class, I wanted to leave.
I applied to schools on the East Coast and, ultimately, returned to New York. By that point my sensibilities were thoroughly scrambled. It took me a while to readjust to seeing people singing to themselves on the street, or on the subway, and to the self-centeredness of many New Yorkers.
At my alma mater, a fellow student once fainted, then soiled herself, outside the library after giving blood. I waited next to her for paramedics to arrive, shaking her shoulder to keep her awake – an act that, still groggy, she couldn’t quite reconcile with our cutthroat student body in the most cutthroat of cities. It must have been those intervening years in Milwaukee that caused reflexive generosity.
I never thought I would return to Milwaukee, but the tipping point occurred when my wife was pregnant with twins and our two Labrador retrievers didn’t have a backyard of their own in New York. Had we stayed, our days would have been occupied almost entirely by cleaning up bodily functions not our own. How would I get any work done?
Being back in Milwaukee – my wife and I live in a sleepy suburb – has proved as disorienting as returning to New York but in very different ways. I did a double-take when I saw walleye advertised on a sign outside a local fast food restaurant – really? I guess it’s better than a butter burger. And I was just as surprised when the server at the drive-thru of another fast food restaurant offered a vanilla soft serve in a tiny sugar cone to each of my dogs after handing the larger version to my 34-weeks-pregnant wife. There’s so much Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
On Fat Tuesday a few months ago, jambalaya simmered in a crock pot and halved doughnuts, symbolizing King Cakes, sat atop a pool table in the back room of the Gopher One tavern in Port Washington. The handful of locals there that night didn’t recognize my childhood friend and me, but we were instructed to help ourselves to the spread anyway and, if we consented to hug one of the women there, free beads. (We hugged a woman wearing a camouflage hunting jacket.) Before much time had passed, I was discussing parenthood with the entire bar. If I’m driving, I allow myself one drink, so as I was leaving after my sole whiskey, a fellow at the opposite end of the bar promised me a free shot once my children were born. Such things aren’t nearly as common in New York City. If you wander into the wrong bar in some outer borough, touchy middle-aged women might be the least of your worries.
On our second visit to the Gopher One, we were greeted by a 130-pound Alaskan malamute, roaming freely. While the humans imbibed, the malamute thrust its outsized head between bar stools to receive affection. I never wound up paying for my drink that night, even though my children were still in utero. A kind soul, again at the very opposite end of the bar, bought a round for everyone in the place, which the bartender signified by handing out worn cardboard tokens.
These novelties attest to Milwaukee’s provincialism. For as long as I can remember, there have been concerted efforts to make Milwaukee more cosmopolitan. This should stop. If Chicago wasn’t so close, Milwaukee may be little more than some far-flung outpost.
But that’s okay. Milwaukee should embrace its midsized place in the country. This will never be Chicago. Or Minneapolis. Or even St. Louis. Milwaukee can feel like Toledo, Ohio, with major league sports, which is fine! If someone includes Milwaukee in a magazine article about the best places to live, it means that the writer is trying to be unexpected – from a desk in Manhattan. Not much has really changed here, which watching the local news merely confirmed. There’s Carole Meekins! And Tim Van Vooren! And John Malan, except what happened to his hair?!
I am from Milwaukee, and I am not – as are my children. My wife and I plan to settle our family in the Pacific Northwest, where we also lived, in the near future. Our twins, Maddie Patricia Rose and Micah Eben, might remember little of their early years in Milwaukee, like I remember little of mine in New York, but I hope that each grows into the type of person who, one day, offers a celebratory drink to a complete stranger on the verge of something monumental, like parenthood.