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This New Yorker Hits the Road, Part III
Banditos, bratwurst, and brushing off the retarded in Wisconsin's capitol.
Going into the third week of my four-week trip helping sell posters on college campuses, my boss Joey and I drove from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin on a Saturday morning. It was a quick drive and we were soon cruising down the shady lanes of Madison and sharing the road with cyclists and pretty joggers.
I used to claim Wisconsin as my favorite state. I was in the 5th grade and had never been there, but my heart was set on writing historical novels and living in Wisconsin. To me Wisconsin represented green fields, rolling hills, plentiful cheese, and other pleasantries not abundant in Yonkers, N.Y. at the time. Now I had been in Wisconsin a week and my New York chauvinism was being softened by the friendly people and inspiring agrarian landscapes.
Madison, Wisconsin has some of everything that’s American: Socialists hawk newspapers on street corners and denounce our latest war; dirty wandering hobos rest their strung-out bodies on benches and beg for change; purple-haired teenagers who are freshly free from their parents all promenade down State Street, the main drag of Madison that leads from the University of Wisconsin campus to the state capitol building. In between are dozens of bars, bookstores, record shops, restaurants, cafés, and other fixtures of college life. Because if the strong tradition of social activism at the University, Madison, Wisconsin has been called "forty square miles surrounded by reality". It’s not all politically correct horror stories and radical chic bullshit, though. Bicycle lanes are everywhere, as is public park space, affordable food, radical literature, and other things that make city life tolerable. The office of a Veterans Association displayed an Uncle Sam poster reading ‘I Owe You!’, a folk band played an acoustic version of the Ramones’ ‘Rock and Roll High School’, a country/bluegrass band complete with overalls and funny hats called the Schwillbillies told me they were "from the American highway system".
We left our hotel and walked around town. Joey went into a bicycle shop and I wandered from bookstore to bookstore until I got hungry for lunch. I ate at the Radical Rye, a very good sandwich shop that has pictures of Che Guevara etched into the windows. I’m pretty sure Che Guevara would not be happy having his image used to sell sandwiches, however delicious. I didn’t let it unsettle my stomach – it’s not nearly as offensive as using Jack Kerouac’s picture to sell pants.
I was lucky to have family in town. My aunt Alice, a New York native who grew up in the Bronx, has lived in Madison, Wisconsin for several years. On my first night in town she met me at my hotel with her boyfriend, Bob. We ate outdoors at a Turkish restaurant as streams of students buzzed by, bringing an air of excitement and expectation with them. We finished and went to visit the campus student center.
Whereas most colleges have very uptight regulations about having alcohol on campus, the University of Wisconsin’s student center has an outdoor patio where beer is served in large pitchers and cups. Your average Wisconsin coed can sip a hearty brew in the school’s beer hall/cafeteria, the Rathskeller, without fear. The outside patio overlooks beautiful Lake Mendota and is always full of congregating students. The night I went there with my Aunt Alice and her boyfriend Bob, it was the Saturday before the beginning of class and students were partying to celebrate their arrival. A punk rock band called The Mistreaters was playing. Even though the man who was supposed to be working the mixing board was usually wandering around the patio aimlessly and the band regularly suffered technical problems not of their own doing, they sounded good and put on a hell of a show. Their lead singer swung from the awning and light rigging in the best Stiv Bators tradition.
Walking up State Street after getting our required dose of punk rock we stopped to watch a street artist make a painting. He was seated on a crate and wore goggles and a breathing mask. Using only cans of spray paint, pieces of paper, and a straight edge. As the crowd watched, a squat Mexican man and his friend were chatting rapidly in Spanish and suspiciously hovering hear the artist’s tip jar. As we suspected, the Stealing from street artists is a despicable crime, it’s worse than stealing pension checks from little old ladies. I gave chase with the artist not far behind. "Suelte la (drop it), amigo!" I shouted. Hearing us gaining on him, the slimy thief tossed the plastic jar of bills over his shoulder. I kept after him for a few steps, but figured that if the artist had his money back, it was good enough for me. I would have loved to catch him, pummel him, and take his money, if he had any. But it would not have been worth the legal liability, race war, or street stabbing that might have ensued. The artist thanked me for saving him from being robbed.
I rejoined my aunt Alice and her boyfriend and commented on the sorry state of our porous borders. They praised my vigilantism but failed to see the connection between such street crime and our nation’s immigration policies. The evening ended pleasantly nonetheless. We walked around some more and I went back to my hotel still pent up and needing some form of Charles Bronson-esque closure to the alien-fueled street crime I had witnessed.
Our second day in town Joey and I had to start the poster sale. Joey and I got an early start setting up and then went to have a special brunch at the Orpheum Theater, which had a big brunch buffet in their lobby. As we wolfed down eggs and bacon and hollandaise sauce (or in Joey’s case fruit and juice and healthy foods), a jazz band played on a small stage. Eating like a pig, I was informed by our effeminate waiter that I could not get an omelet made with American cheese. Imagine that – in Wisconsin, America’s great mothering milky breast, I could not get American cheese on my eggs. Also, Joey pointed out the very un-jazzlike attire of one of the musicians was wearing: white pants and shoes with a short-sleeve floral print shirt. Joey explained that real jazzmen wear dark suits and expensive black shoes with no socks. We finished our brunch and went back to campus and started selling posters
The first day of the poster sale was hectic as hell. Students crammed into the room we used and bought posters hand over fist. That evening, the school had a special party at the student center to welcome new students. There was free food and drink everywhere as well as lots of different venues of entertainment. In a nearby lecture room, the school had set up a Condom Casino – a large room filled with casino-style game of chance and heavily decorated with free condoms. I love the idea of schools encouraging safe sex, but when I was in school, free condoms more often than not reminded me of my abject loneliness and made me depressed.
As the party got under way, our room was flooded with young freshmen doing more damage than commerce. The room was so packed I had to give up trying to keep posters restocked. I stood behind the cashier’s table with Joey. "This is why I got a vasectomy," he said. I cracked up. We shook our heads at the kids that packed the room, sitting on tables, leaving garbage behind, and destroying more posters than they bought. They weren’t bad kids, just young and sloppy and in numbers too great for anyone’s good.
The first day of classes a few days later brought a new and vibrant energy to Madison. The fountain on the main campus green was filled with small rubber ducks, one of which now sits in my bathroom. Feminists students put up a display denouncing rape complete with cardboard silhouettes of women standing along the sidewalk. Student groups chalked the sidewalks advertising the sailing club, the Catholic student center, the Green Party, fraternities and sororities, and other groups and causes. In the early evening, middle aged men and women in medieval costume bashing each other with ancient weapons; students, old folks, and hippies joined hands to do Eastern European dances.
The students at Wisconsin were the most sophisticated we encountered, the bought the least amount of smut and the greatest amount of art. It warmed the heart to sell a copy of the Gandhi poster and run out of Toulouse-Lautrec reprints. Still, there’s no justice in a world where Vin Diesel posters outsell Jack Kerouac posters.
I was fortunate enough to hang out with my Aunt Alice again during the week. My Aunt Alice is by far one of the most fun relatives the Sheahan family has, and speaks with a compassionate candor not always openly encouraged in Irish Catholic families. She showed me undeserved generosity. She treated me to bratwurst at State Street Brats and made a Baked Ziti that would have made Tony Soprano slap his mamma.
Late one morning, a retarded man came to the poster sale. He was middle aged and stocky with black hair that was peppered with gray and looked as if it had been combed and slicked down by someone else. He meandered about the poster sale, adjusting his fish-bowl glasses and sticking his face close to things he wanted to see. I was working behind the counter at the time and he approached me. He was panicked and had drool at the corners of his mouth and snot running from his nose.
"Can I tell you something?" he asked me. He looked and sounded like Milton Waddams.
"Yes?" I asked, ready to push an Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King poster on him (he turned out to be looking in vain for a poster of Anna Kornikova in an orange bikini).
"I can’t go out," he said, motioning to the door.
"I can’t go out." He took a few timid steps back and motioned for me to go towards the door. No one was blocking the door and nothing menacing loomed outside.
"OK," I said, walking out the door. The retarded man followed directly behind me. We were safely in the hallway. Joey followed us out there to see what was going on.
"I can’t go down," he said, motioning towards the stairs.
"You can’t go down?"
"I can’t go down," he repeated.
A woman came around the corner. At least it was a woman at first glance. I never was able to make up my mind. It was either a hideously ugly woman or a man who was on his way to becoming a woman.
"What’s going on, Bruce?" the man/woman asked the retarded man.
"I can’t go down."
"We don’t know what his problem is," I told the freakish female.
"This is Bruce. Do you know Bruce?" she asked us.
We did not know Bruce. I tried to move out of Bruce’s way, so that he could see that his path to the stairs and out of our lives was clear and unobstructed. He only shuffled behind me, which made me nervous. I once dated a girl who worked in a home for the retarded. She described a fight between two retarded residents that she and at least a dozen other workers had to break up. It was not a pretty picture. If this unfortunate retarded man got violent, it was a no-win situation from me. Either he would beat me to a bloody pulp with his emotionally troubled strength, or I would be branded a odious thug for beating a poor retarded man. … I could envision the newspaper headlines: ‘RETARD HICK SLAYS N.Y. MAN’ – The New York Post; ‘SPECIAL STUDENT STANDS UP TO CALLOUS WHITE MALE’ – The Badger Herald.
"You just need to walk down the stairs and Bruce will follow you," explained the man/woman who apparently was too important to do this for Bruce herself.
I started down the stairs. "Will I have to walk all over campus with this guy?" I asked.
"No," he/she said, annoyed.
Only later did I realize that this would have a great opportunity to get away and see more of Madison.
The rest of the poster sale went smoothly. We finished on a Friday evening and had to pack up and start that night on our great drive back East.