Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Visiting Madison, WI

I am a born tour guide. I love telling people about places, and if one were to ask me to take them around Madison, Wisconsin, this is what I’d do.

First I would drive in from the west, since I live over there now. I use to come off I 90 on 151 but haven’t as of late. We’re going down town, so watch for a small street off of State Street. State Street is a pedestrian and bus only thoroughfare that connects the Capital to the University of Wisconsin. The street we're looking for is called Henry Street. If you drive up Henry far enough you can usually find a free parking spot. If not, go down a bit more towards the capital and park on Wisconsin Ave.

My first apartment was on Wisconsin Ave, on the third floor of a very neat building. There are a lot of really neat buildings downtown. Take time to admire them. The old Quisling Clinic is pretty neat-it has been turned into Apartments. I still have the “Q” from the clinic sign. When they were remodeling I was walking past and all the letters were lying all over the sidewalk so I picked one up.

Apartments made from old hospitals and doctor’s offices must be haunted, no?

Trees are changing colors now, and the air is skin-warm. The sky is so blue. People don’t believe I don’t Photoshop pics of the sky when I take them, so I just keep taking them.

We walk down Henry Street, passed the Vientiane Palace which serves the best curry. Even my spice-aversive mother loves it. I actually used their coconut milk, yam infused base as a start for my own homemade recipes. Besides this restaurant is the Plaza Tavern, home to one of the best arcades in Madison. And next to that is the fabled 4 Start Video Heaven. Although it can feel a bit uppity at times, there are tons of rare movies, tv shows and the like to rent and enjoy (I just watched a documentary on “Rock-a-Fire Explosion” and remember renting seminal flicks like “Terminal USA” when I was going to college.)

Walking down State Street, you will be assaulted by sights sounds and smells that seem set in separate universe, but in fact coexist here. Gyros mix with incense. Guys jangling coins in a cup and asking pretty girls to smile at them mix with scared college students with headphones in, sunglasses on, and eyes cast downwards towards their iPhone.

Stop into Community Pharmacy. They are a great haven for anyone looking for bulk herbal shampoo, ecologically friendly hair spray, or lipstick not tested on animals.

When I walk down State Street, my heart is inexorably pulled towards the Memorial Union. This core pull takes me through the Mall, a space crowded with students headed to the library and food carts hawking their wares. I hate that there is this whole “resurgence” of food cart “culture” being touted by liberal cities around the country. Madison has had food carts since I was in school, and perhaps it is because we don’t talk it up that we don’t get the publicity. Then, when we do (as in a recent article) we are so down on ourselves, pointing out that most of the food carts are just extensions of traditional restaurants that what, they don’t count?

Onwards though. The Memorial Union has two distinct personalities. The one I prefer is the one inside the building. Old wooden tables scratched with initials, beer flowing from behind the bar, garbled talk, clicking of keyboards. Outside there is the tender wildness of the wind off the lake, those chairs everyone obsesses over, and sailboats galore. Music plays for free periodically at both places.

Walking back up State, I hear a bit of a conversation about the proposed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. To me, these two cities do not need to be linked more than they are. What does need to be linked is the small towns and farming communities. I read about Frank Lloyd Wright and the fact he used to be able to take a train from Spring Green to Chicago. Mazomanie too was connected to Prairie du Chine. Now, not so much as a bus travels that distance.

Lunch was to be had inside, as the sun was beginning to beat down by this time. I went to Nick’s, a place that reminded me of a tavern in Cleveland, Ohio. Dark but friendly, I had their lunch special which was a “French Dip” roast beef sandwich served with a side of gravy plus mashed potatoes. Drank a few Capital City Oktoberfest beers and called it a day.

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