I’ve been living in the city going on nine years now, in a building overlooking Lake Michigan with a good man and two cats, in a vibrant urban neighborhood that’s a destination for many outsiders, who come here for the festivals, restaurants, shops, beaches. You can tell who they are a mile away by the slow, wide-eyed way they walk in the middle of the sidewalks and hesitate at parking meters. Out of their suburban nests, the more paranoid jack up the sensitivity of their car alarms. Many cannot parallel park on the first try.

As I write this, a car alarm is going off a few blocks away. A man is standing in front of the building across the street, hollering at a woman inside who hollers back that she doesn’t want to see him and to go away. Our elderly German neighbor, who suspects everyone in the building of either doing or selling drugs, is rearranging her Scandinavian furniture on her bare parquet floors. A Public Works vehicle is back for the third day in a row, obsessively scooping up dead leaves.

 

It is also the point in the law school semester at which John is burned out and exhausted and agonizes over how he’s going to make it to December 8, when the semester is over. I wonder how I’m going to make it to December 8. Although we don’t see each other much, we have still managed to wear each others’ nerves down to nubs.

Meanwhile a classmate of John’s just got married and looks rested and gorgeous in her photos, and I think there is something wrong with me and John. After December 8 we have three more semesters to get through. In January we will be able to say that we haven’t been on a vacation in two years. I haven’t been to Cleveland at all this year, and am spending way too much time indoors.

On Saturday, while John is at work, I decide to catch the last day of the Día de los Muertos exhibit at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. I debate whether to walk one way/which way, take the bus one way/both ways, or have John drop me off on his way to work. Because I need the exercise, I decide to walk both ways.

 

Two blocks from our building I decide I don’t want to work that hard. When I make it to the Milwaukee Public Market, I say to myself, if I don’t feel like walking anymore, I won’t. I’ll just have a coffee and turn around and go back home.

By the time I hit Wisconsin & Water, I am walking at a clip. I barrel past the Public Market. The sun glints off the holiday decorations strung up and down Wisconsin Avenue. The temperature has risen to fifty degrees. I shoot through the Third Ward, across the bridge, and into a part of the Fifth Ward I’ve never walked through before, especially alone. I’m wary but act like I belong there. I see things I never notice when we drive through: clubs, restaurants, galleries, murals. A man calls to me from his open window and waves gaily when I look: it is a scene from a foreign movie. I take pictures of things I find on the sidewalks. A tree’s dried leaves and berries clatter in the breeze. I stop to take a shot of a planter on the sidewalk made of recycled kegs. A door opens and young man stumbles out holding half a beer in a plastic cup, and I realize this is where Milwaukee Brewing Company is.

On my way back from the gallery I stop at the antique store at 5th & National, which I had driven past numerous times but never before visited. I take a different route back and decide to go inside the Public Market and order some take-out from Aladdin’s for our dinner. I text John the menu; he chooses chicken curry. The market is busy. I stop at a T-shirt booth to take a picture. I ask the young woman who steps in front of me just as I aim my camera if she would mind if I got this shot real quick, please, and she looks at me as if I’m something she doesn’t want to step in.

 

As I leave the market I run into Patrik, a writer/animator/filmmaker on his way to a production meeting for a new zombie movie. We hug and he hands me an invitation to the opening of his next film. John texts me to say he is on his way home from work; would I like a ride? I write back, no, I’m just one mile from home. I know he will come by anyway, and when he does and opens the car door, I get in.

On Sunday I leave John to his law studies and drive ninety miles to Rockford, Illinois, to rehearse with a group of musicians our horn section is performing with on December 1. It’s sunny again, warmer than yesterday, and I take the freeway the whole way. I feel like a gleeful escapee. I put the radio on loud, vacillate between Howard Stern and First Wave, and set the heat where I like it for a change. INXS comes on and I think what a waste of a gorgeous hunk of man that Michael Hutchence died. I drive past Alpine Valley and think about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter plowing into the ski hill in the fog after a concert in 1990, and what another waste of a gorgeous hunk of man.

 

A giant pickup truck passes, going eighty, eighty-five. Two dead deer are tied to a short platform off the back bumper, their bellies marked with spray paint. Their legs bounce; the doe’s nose hangs four inches from the pavement. I’m glad when the truck is so far away I can’t tell what it’s hauling anymore and I can think again.

After it exits, the road trip feels exhilarating again. I don’t exactly know why at first, but I eventually determine that since moving to the city I don’t drive much anymore, especially by myself. As a result I don’t know how to work many of our car’s fancy voice-activated controls. It occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve moved this quickly through space. Since I’ve seen the countryside. The stars.

On Monday I feel restored. I look at the pictures from my seven-mile walk on Saturday and know that if I ever move away from the city I will miss its energy and quirkiness; our view of the lake; seagulls calling as the sun rises. No dead hunted deer are ever carted through the city. But it is seldom that I see the low canopy of stars in the night sky. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen an aurora borealis or a meteor shower, and the holiday lights on Wisconsin Avenue are no substitute. Just different. I want it both ways. It is a conundrum.

Patrik Beck’s alien film “Broken Orbit” opens at Milwaukee’s Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse Dec.1 & 2. Click on the image for details. Happy holiday.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Oh Robin, I was a lifelong Milwaukeean and am walking with you. Thanks so much for a look at a city I love, so well. You and John are welcome to see those stars, from Blaine Hall. We are a 2 hour drive from Milwaukee. Seriously. Then you won’t have to move away to see them.
    Oooh. I just looked at all the photos. I’m jealous of the Aladdin menu, ask John about the T-shirt photo and how I am related to it, and thanks for the tour in the car, also.

    • Hi Kathleen: Thanks so much for your very sweet comment. I, like you, will always love Milwaukee, no matter what. I am jealous of your view of the stars. The first time I ever saw them touch the ground, so to speak, was on a vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was astounded, being surrounded by them like that. I’d love to come out by you sometime. Then you can come in by me and not have to move away from your place.

      I asked John about the photo and he is stumped. You’re not the one who makes the Zak’s T-shirts, are you? Thanks again for commenting–and reading.

  2. Well I have to say you have a way of taking the mundane and making it a compelling read. That’s what GOOD writers do you know. I can’t wait till you write about waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant ….hahaha! thanks for the time with my cup O Joe.

    • Haha, John: we usually get our Chinese to go, and usually after stopping at Paddy’s Pub first. Our fave place is China Wok on Farwell (“don’t wok! we delivery!”), whose female owner is hilariously militant, and who uses a mid-size BMW sedan to make deliveries (with a lighted China Wok sign plunked atop it). I’ve taken pictures while waiting there, but never considered writing a story about it. Hmm… Now you got me thinking… Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it.

  3. While I live in the same city, I do not live in the same dense/intense neighborhood. You took me on a walk through the lower east side, downtown, the Third Ward, the Fifth Ward…places I seldom see anymore, and not on foot anymore, either. The sense is different–it has life. A pulse timed in footsteps. Raw energy. Surprise. Mystery. The GOOD part of the city! The part you can’t touch while zipping past in your car, dodging the myriad pedestrians who are intrinsically part of the “life”. I miss that sense of connectedness. Thank you for making it come alive in me again.

    • You’re so welcome, Denise; thanks for your comment. Yesterday I went on 6.5-mile walk, this time to Marquette University to have coffee with the delightful food writer Lori Fredrich. Following that I hit the Central Library’s used bookstore (bought three old cookbooks); Officemax; Spice House (there was this really annoying woman there who left her baby and stroller in the middle of everything, and she talked baby talk to the child everywhere she went in the shop) (kid, of course, was crying); Usinger’s; post office; Metro Market. Took several pictures, including one of a perfectly good country-fried-steak sandwich from a vending machine, still in its wrapper, that someone apparently had dropped. It was cold but beautiful and sunny and I really enjoyed myself. That’s precisely what I would miss if I ever left the city.

      • Would never have seen the country-fried steak sandwich (from a vending machine?) from my car! That element of surprise and mystery… 😉

        • I know, so true. John would have been mortified. It was alongside the police department on State. I long ago told John, “Just keep walking, I’ll catch up” and I long ago stopped worrying about what other people think. I actually walked past the sandwich and then walked back. It was too good. As a matter of fact, it’s inspiring me to compile Part 3 of “Sidewalk Series” this weekend.

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