Monday, May 01, 2006

Late at Night, Near the Interstate, Your Correspondent Rambles
Greetings from what I think is Milwaukee. I say that because it could be one of the suburbs, depending on whether the boundary line is Interstate 94, which is just outside my window, or Layton Avenue. I'm not from around here, so I don't know for sure.

Next to Madison and Iowa City, Milwaukee is probably my third-favorite city. Part of what I like about it is the odd sort of inferiority/superiority complex many residents of the city and its suburbs possess. Inferiority, because Milwaukee is forever comparing itself to Chicago and finding itself wanting. Superiority, because Milwaukee is also forever comparing itself to the rest of Wisconsin and finding itself, well, superior.

I'd met very few people from Milwaukee before I arrived at UW-Platteville, the small state university I attended right after high school. Milwaukee people were easy to spot there. For one thing, they had an accent all their own, one that's different from the standard Wisconsin accent. But even more noticeable was the Milwaukee vibe. Milwaukee kids seemed to breeze through life with a worldly outlook we didn't get in rural Wisconsin. They seemed faster, louder, more opinionated, and yes, far cooler than the rest of us. Small-town rituals that seemed normal to a lot of us, like obituaries on the radio and the crowning of community pork and beef queens in the summer, just made them laugh.

We didn't know about the self-belittling comparisons to Chicago some Milwaukeeans reflexively make, though. All we knew was that if you were going to hang with kids from Milwaukee, you'd better bring your A game. (I am convinced that part of what attracted me at first to the woman who is now The Mrs. is that she was from a Milwaukee suburb, and therefore quite exotic by farm-boy standards.)

That was then. In the nearly 30 years since, I've spent enough time in Milwaukee and with Milwaukeeans to know that the place is, like most places, a lot more subtly graded than it seems at first blush. And I feel quite at home here now. Once you get off the main streets, which are as clogged with Generica as any American city, the neighborhoods have a unique appearance, especially the older ones. The fabled Milwaukee bungalow, a popular style of house dating back to the 1920s, is everywhere. Lots of duplexes too, dating from the post-World War II era. And if you've got either a Milwaukee bungalow or a duplex in Cream City brick, you've really got something. (Although even the Milwaukee bungalow is, according to some experts, based on the Chicago bungalow.)

My favorite part of the area is the southern suburbs, not far from where I am right now. The northern and western 'burbs are the wealthy ones--the southern suburbs are working class. People who worked at the meat-packing plant or other factories built the homes and raised their families here--and despite the devastation of the factory economy in the last 30 years, these communities, Greenfield and Franklin and Oak Creek and South Milwaukee and Cudahy and the others, still feel solid in a way other suburbs don't.

I'll be here for a few days, and I'm glad of it. It's not a bad time to be in a place that's grounded during a time when the news is breathtakingly awful and likely to get worse.

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