Monday, July 24, 2006

A visit to Milwaukee

Milwaukee was actually a second choice. We’d been planning a trip to Mississippi for vacation this year, but the difficulty of being away from our pets for 10 days, along with some concern for the durability of our Nissan Sentra – a ’98 with somewhere over 100,000 miles on it – caused us to look for alternatives.

Where could we go within about 500 miles? We talked about Marquette, Michigan, and the south shore of Lake Superior. We mentioned Winnipeg, on Manitoba’s prairie. The Black Hills had some attraction, but they lay a bit farther west than we were inclined to drive on a five-day trip.

I thought of Milwaukee. I’d never been there, and neither had Amy (she’d never been to any of the other places we mentioned, either). What did I know about Milwaukee on the day I brought it up and we decided to head there?

Not a lot. When I was a kid, my best friend, Rick, had relatives in Milwaukee whom his family visited nearly every year. I still have some of the postcards he sent me (written for him by his mother in the early years). Based on my memory of the postcard of a gorilla, there was a zoo there. I knew there was a major league baseball team (pro basketball, too, but this was the off-season). The headquarters of Miller Brewing and of Harley-Davidson were there. As was Lake Michigan. And – a draw for me, if not for Amy – the resting place of Al Simmons, most likely my favorite historical baseball player.

So what did we find during our three-plus days there in late May?

Not quite all of the above. We didn’t get to the brewery, though we talked about it. The Harley-Davidson headquarters wasn’t a real draw. But we got to the other things on that short list and saw a fair amount more than that.

My over-riding impression, as I let the idea of Milwaukee play in my head, six or seven weeks after the fact, is of neat neighborhoods of small and tidy houses. That’s what we first saw as we headed to our motel near the airport, and that’s what we saw in a lot of areas of the city as we drove both from place to place and just to wander. (As does any major city, Milwaukee has those areas that are less savory and most likely less safe; we saw those, too, primarily in the areas north of downtown. We stayed on the south side and saw more of that part of town.)

Those south side neighborhoods, it seems, are the Polish neighborhoods. I’m not sure if the ethnic concentrations are as strong now as they would have been a hundred, or even fifty years ago. But a lot of the small businesses had Polish names, and we found a Polish restaurant called Crocus, where we had a very nice meal (kielbasa for me, stuffed cabbage for Amy, and we shared two soups: a beef-barley and a sorrel, the latter of which was quite pungent and savory, but both were delicious).

Sadly for me, I was unable to have a dark Polish beer. The waitress said that until the Poles brew their dark beer with a little less alcohol or the U.S. changes its import laws, no dark Polish brews may be imported. So I had a lighter-colored beer, and it was pretty good.

We learned about the restaurant from a staff member at the motel. As we headed out about 6 o’clock on Saturday, a few hours after arriving in the city, we asked her if she knew of any German restaurants nearby. She didn’t, but she mentioned that there was a Polish restaurant not far away, on 13th Street, “across from the cemetery.”

It was actually the cemetery where we were headed. St. Adalbert’s Cemetery has to be one of the largest in Milwaukee, stretching about seven blocks north and south between 6th and 13th streets in the middle of the South Side. I read after we returned home that the cemetery holds 66,000 graves and about 12,000 sites in its mausoleums. We of course, we interested in just one of those 66,000 graves, the one holding the remains of Al Simmons, born Aloys Szymanski in 1902.

(I saw “we,” although the interest was mainly mine. Certainly, Amy would not be driving through a Milwaukee cemetery searching first for Section 17 and then for one marker in that section were it not for me and my interest in baseball and its great players. She likes baseball well enough, but the fact that she joined in my search in the cemetery that Saturday evening and returned there later during our stay in Milwaukee is testament to her love for me, not for baseball.)

It turned out the grave was adjacent to the street that circled Section 17 – easy enough to find. And we noted that the names on the other markers left little doubt that we were in the Polish section of the city: Wikowski, Grabowski, Nowak and more.

To me, Milwaukee had the feel of an Eastern city for some reason. Its roots, I sensed, ran east through the Great Lakes and linked it with the great industrial cities of the Northeast: Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo. Something about the buildings in the central part of the city, maybe, gave me that impression. Maybe I’m seeing things that are not there, but I got the sense that the city’s vision – its historical vision, anyway – is pointed east across Lake Michigan.

One thing I noticed came in one of our more obscure finds of the trip: the little locally owned pizza and hot dog joint called The Hangar, located across the street from the airport – as was our motel. We stopped in there twice, I think, and had sundaes and malts made with frozen custard, not ice cream or ice milk. Although there are chain restaurants that now serve frozen custard here in Minnesota, it’s not a native treat. I don’t recall ever seeing it offered on a menu here until the advent of those chains.

To me – and I may be wrong – frozen custard is an Eastern treat, something one finds in the streets of Philadelphia and Brooklyn and other points closer to the sunrise than we are.

The three full days we spent there – Sunday through Tuesday – saw us with one major activity on each day, along with some wandering and minor things. Sunday, after a look at the lakefront downtown and a drive through the area around University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found us watching the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Monday brought a day spent almost entirely at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where there was a special exhibit of art objects from the Vatican Museums, as well as the museum’s regular collections, which ranged from displays of ethnic art and Milwaukee around the year 1900, to butterflies and dinosaurs. Tuesday, we spent a good portion of the day at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which was fun, if not all that different than other zoos, although Amy did get a chance to pet Helga, a Scottish Highlands cow (as shown at the top).

Of those three, the one that stood out was the Public Museum. The special exhibit had some beautiful things, but after a time, my thought seemed to be, okay, another jeweled something or other than another pope wore. More interesting to me were the portions of the exhibit that dealt with the design and construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, including one piece of correspondence that had the signature of the artist Bernini. And I think I had more fun yet in the museum’s regular collections and exhibits, whether I was peeping into the window of a reconstruction of a Latvian home of the mid-Nineteenth Century (the display had replicas of the homes of origin of more than twenty ethnic groups that made their ways to Milwaukee during the 1800s), or feeling the difference in density between a replica dinosaur bone and a real fossil.

As to the lake – the last of the five Great Lakes in my personal travels – Lake Michigan was calm – mirror-still – on Sunday morning, when we spent some time on the lakeshore in downtown. A few ships passed by in the distance as we walked along the park-like waterfront, freighters bound for Chicago, perhaps, bearing who knows what from who knows where?

One of my happy finds during our time in Milwaukee was Sprecher Special Amber, one of the better beers I’ve ever tasted. I discovered it at the ballpark. Given that the stadium is named for Miller Brewing, I wasn’t all that optimistic about what I’d find to drink, as I prefer dark beers and the products of smaller breweries. But tucked into a small corner near the concession stands was a little kiosk that sold three of Milwaukee’s micro-brews. On the recommendation of another customer, I tried the Sprecher Special Amber, and was delighted. Later on, I picked up a four-pack at a liquor store and kept it on ice in our cooler. So far, I haven’t been able to find it here in Minnesota, though one of the local liquor stores says its distributor is trying to get it.

And I indulged myself in a little bit of mischief: I sent Rick a postcard of Milwaukee County Stadium, now demolished, returning the favor from 48 years or so ago, when Rick sent me a postcard of the same ballpark, then home to the Milwaukee Braves.

When we left for St. Cloud Wednesday morning, we had several things left on our to-do list. We’d hoped to go to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and we’d talked about the tour at the Miller Brewery. There was an arboretum southwest of the city, and – it turned out – another one right in the middle of the city, not far from the ballpark. But our days were filled with our major activities and lot of driving through various parts of the city.

We’ve talked about heading back there for another short vacation, and I suppose that might happen. There are other places to see, though – I still hope to see Mississippi and Memphis. Still, another trip to Milwaukee to see those things we didn’t get to – and to maybe wolf down another kielbasa at Crocus – would be all right.

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