On the doors of some campus liquor stores there are signs reading: "No admittance for you if you were born after this day 1963." On this date in 1963, some of you were not yet born. Too bad for you. It means you'll have to send in a friend to buy your booze.
But the sinking feeling you get from seeing that sign is nothing compared to the one I get. Because on that day when you weren't even born, I was about to begin my senior year of college. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Not that I had dreamed my way through high school, fantasizing about the heaven on earth awaiting me on the shores of Lake Mendota. No, I was going to take a fancy Eastern school by storm and blaze my way through the Ivy League.
As I was making my wild-eyed plans for the takeover of New England, my father said to me, "Shorty, why the hell do you want to go out there when the best state university in the country is here in Wisconsin?"
Now, I have to tell you that the man was no fool. Not Wisconsin-bred, he chose the UW of his own free will back in the '30s and had nothing to gain by proving his state had the best university. His state, which was Illinois, did not have the best university.
He had nothing to gain (aside from the fact that it saved him a fortune, which would not have figured much when it came to educating his kids), but it's possible he had no choice in feelings the way he did. Because I think my father was the first person I knew who suffered from the undocumented and unnamed sickness the preys on so much of the population here. He was a Madison junkie.
When your guidance counselor or the UW recruiter showed you that first brochure introducing you to Bascom Hill, Langdon Street and the Terrace, he or she probably neglected to warn you that you were about to become hooked. "Caution," the catalogue should read. "This information could be hazardous to your health."
That's sort of what this story is about: Madison as addiction. The fact that you are already in town and reading this piece may mean that for you it's too late. Because for some, one hit of this city and the monkey's on your back. It has happened to stronger people than you.
Scenario: It's a sunny summer Sunday on East Gorham Street. Brunch is being served in a home cum roominghouse. Of the six adults at the table, most of whom haven't met until this moment, four have returned to Madison after varying lengths of time away. One, a man in his mid-twenties, had managed to be absent from the day he graduated in 1975 until 1978. Two others, a couple, had been on the wagon for about six years. I hold the record with eight. When I point all of this out to them, they are surprised. To me, it is only another example of insidious creeping Mad City Junkiedom.
There are three ways the Monkey manifests itself. One, as in my father's case, is where you just believe that Madison is the best damn campus in the country. There's no discussion and nothing's negotiable.
The second form: Not quite the true affliction, but more serious than the first, is when you get to town and never leave. You enroll at the University, graduate or not as the spirit moves you, and settle in for the duration. This is more or less what happened to one of my father's sons.
Then there's the most virulent kind of addiction. I call it the Mad City Douglas MacArthur Syndrome. You will return.
These tragic cases want to leave. They put their few small belongings into a U-haul, set up a whole new life in places like Pittsburgh, Denver or Seattle and then find themselves years later the guests of honor at Welcome Back parties on Williamson and Mifflin streets.
What happens? Well, it's similar to that very frightening film from the '60s called The Tingler. There, alien amoebae take control of your nervous system and make a helpless puppet of you for the rest of your life. To keep those little rascals from hopping down off the screen and into your spinal column, you are informed you must scream like mad at various times throughout the picture.
At least with the Tingler you can scream. With the Douglas MacArthur Syndrome, even that won't help.
What happens? "Madison gives you a license to be crazy," says somebody. "Madison is the only place that's ever felt right," says another. Or, "Cleveland left a lot to be desired." "There was an overwhelming smell of the Mafia in New Jersey." But mostly, "I could give you a reason, but I really don't have a clue.
The small town with the big-city personality? Drug Central for the nation? A place to hide out? In September 1948, Life magazine did a cover story on Madison, suggesting that it represented "the good life" in America. The article may have sounded the first alarm on Mad City Junkiedom when it said: "Few people who have lived in Madison ever move away of their own free will." Uh oh.
In 1978, Madison was named one of 12 winners in the National Municipal League's annual All-American City Award Program. The League has as its reason: "Meeting special housing needs…public transportation access…neighborhood improvement and downtown redevelopment."
Is that why we keep coming back: Access and redevelopment? And if we are looking for an All-American City, why not Green Bay, La Crosse or Beloit, which were honored before Madison?
The answers to these questions are all contained in newspaper headlines from the city's not-so-distant past.
Maybe it's the beautiful lakes?
"Olin Beach Reopens. Vilas Doesn't"
"Both Madison beaches closed last weekend after routine tests showed the water had been contaminated by large amounts of bacteria."
The safe streets, then?
"Man Charged With Murder, Sex Attack."
Well then, the restaurants!
"Despite Worker Effort, Creperie Goes Under"
"The State Street clientele demanded cheaper prices…People who are used to fast food were not understanding enough to realize that it takes time and money to provide good food that is cooked right," said Paula Sherman, an employee.
Its openness to racial and religious differences?
"Jewish Center Vandalized"
"Swastikas and obscenities defaced walls, windows and sidewalks at Beth Israel Jewish Center, 1406 Mound Street, Wednesday.
How about the many recreational facilities?
"Outraged Kids Ask For Skateboard Park"
I don't know about everyone else, but, to be honest, I came back because it seemed like such an easy thing to do. At least I thought it would be easy. Five years' experience in my field, articulate, a simple lifestyle and a childlike soul. How could I miss?
But it was like that joke where a cowering young woman holds up the cross to ward off a menacing fanged creature, only to be told, in a heavy Jewish accent, "Whoo, boy, do you have the wrong vampire." Whoo boy, did I have the wrong vampire.
I found Madison trapped in its own mythology. Seen as a Shagri-La of intelligence, youth, openness and ease, it is at the same time afflicted by a brain glut, often propelled by the need to think young at all costs, and sometimes so laidback that quality work can't get done.
And it is a vicious circle. We come back because of the mythology. The chance to be enlightened and still in the majority. The license to be crazy.
But surprise! It is as easy to be victimized by the good guys as by the bad guys.
Scenario: I lived for several years in the eastern student ghetto. One weekend my fun-loving neighbors gave a party, complete with stereo speakers pointed out the windows and into the yard. Things got going at 5 in the afternoon, and at 3 a.m. "Saturday Night Fever" still sounded through the neighborhood. Anywhere else I would have called the police. Here I was afraid to look like a fascist tight-ass anti-life Scrooge. I know, that's my problem. But the interesting thing was, nobody on that quiet dead-end street complained. Was everyone afraid of looking like a turkey? Was everyone at the party but me?
And have you tried to get a job here lately? A regular job, I mean. Forty hours a week, a few dollars more than minimum wage. People with master's degrees are being turned down at the cab companies - not because they're over-qualified, but because the Ph.D.s have all the jobs. And if the overeducated are selling shoes, what are the under-educated doing?
Then there's male-female relationships. A woman in her thirties in Madison is faced with two choices: males for whom she might better be babysitting and males her age who have just received the 14th extension on their doctorates and are giving Peter Pan a run for his money. A telling comment on the situation came from a concerned married male friend who said, "I'd introduce you to the excellent single people I know, but they're all women.
So that's why I came back, and that's what it was like.
Don't get me wrong. I could give you a long list (and I will) of all the terrific things waiting for you in this all-American city. The striped sails of the boats on Lake Mendota at sunset. The sunset itself. The Farmer's Market. The carrot cake at the Fess Hotel and the ice cream from Babcock Hall. Early morning on the Union Terrace, even in the fog and even though it's not flagstone anymore. The "before 2 p.m." movie prices. The garden on Henry Mall. The Lake Monona bike path. Lots of WORT-FM. The Art Fair. The fact that everything on the Rennebohm's menu can be ordered ahead to go.
What more could you ask?
Not much, really, when the monkey's on your back.