There have been plenty of times that a trip out of town has gone awry and beer has not been to blame, but I never thought that would be the case for the night I spent in Milwaukee.
It was October 2008, and I was visiting my girlfriend S in Chicago. S was nineteen, and had a great sense of humor. We had had met on a train about two months earlier, and despite my reservations about getting into a long-distance relationship, we went for it. We talked and texted on a daily basis, and that was my first experience dealing with extended text conversations. Those were difficult on the dinosaur cell phone I had, and she was constantly berating me to program the T9 capability so that I could respond at the same pace she was accustomed to. This I always brushed aside, and tried to spin it as one of the numerous charming aspects of being with someone of the older generation. The debate never resolved, but in any case we generated a ridiculous amount of MC names via text banter. Based on the example a friend of hers had set, we formed a band that didn’t exist just as a repository for song titles that crossed our minds. We named it Chronic One-Uppers, after our mutual tendency to try raising the bar when countering each other’s stories, and we made a MySpace page. Did I mention it was 2008? We were both determined to hit upon some million-dollar internet-based idea as our long-term plan for success amidst the ever-unfolding economic collapse. The country’s ever more evident financial woes played a large part in the whimsical decision making process I was utilizing at the time, and I felt very romantic as I quit my job and extended the visit I’d planned to see S around Halloween. It was going to be the second time we’d spent time in person.
In the weeks leading up to my visit, we had joked about me renting a 70’s Caddy from some vintage agency so that we could cruise the South Side in style, but given my recent self-imposed unemployment, I had to be realistic and reserve an economy car. The joke then became that at least when you’re driving a Kia, no one mistakes your girlfriend for a ho. I wound up with a Chevy, but it had a decidedly Kia-esque lack of character.
The first day I drove to Calumet City as part of an ongoing cheesy mission to get closer to the characters in the Blues Brothers. I was also keen on finding a hat to complete my Halloween costume, which I was calling “Failing Private Eye”. When I landed in Chicago, the costume consisted of my only suit, a lengthy backstory I was prepared to give anyone ready to listen, and a picture of a muppet I had torn out of the in-flight magazine that I decided was a picture of the guy I was looking for. The outfit really needed a hat to tie it together, and I figured the fictional home of Jake and Elwood Blues would supply just a hat. I didn’t expect to pick it up at the Burlington Coat Factory, but who cares about that part?
I found driving in and around Chicago to be really frustrating, so the use of the Chevy in-town was limited to one evening where S and I rolled over to the Gold Coast after midnight to pick up some crusty friends of hers who were staying with a drug dealer. We got rippin’ high and drove aimlessly around town for hours, at one point passing an all-night pumpkin patch on Fullerton. I wanted to turn around and check it out, but S successfully convinced us that it must be crawling with lowlifes, so what element of society demands/supports a 24-hour pumpkin patch remains beyond my knowledge. I ran a stop sign that I didn’t see at one point and freaked everybody out, and they were unamused by me trying to play it off as “part of the fun”.
Anyhow, the main reason I had rented the car was to make a voyage up to Milwaukee the night before Halloween. S had to work again, so we didn’t leave Chicago until after eight. The original plan of stopping by her old hometown to meet her folks was canceled due to the late departure, leaving us no real agenda once we got to Beer Town other than to get a hotel room, get hammered, chain smoke, and hopefully find COPS on TV. The first crimp put into this plan came when I stopped at a convenience store and found the beer cooler locked up. Noting the thick glass protecting the cashier, I figured we must be in a rough part of town where the cooler had to be unlocked by request. The cashier responded to this request with the terse and cryptic “After nine.” He repeated this statement several times, and, thinking I was just dealing with an asshole, I left, resolving to find a friendlier store. I went back to the car and grumbled to S about the jerk in the store, and the color drained out of her face.
“Oh shit, babe. I forgot. You can’t buy beer after nine.”
I’d considered stocking up before leaving Chicago just in case such a stupid law existed, but I worried about being judged a paranoid alcoholic, so I demurred. Now my paranoid alcoholic fears had proven well-founded, and I was in disbelief.
“Aren’t you from this Goddamn state? Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Babe, I’ve never bought beer.”
Idiot, what are you doing in Wisconsin with a teenager? Why did you quit your job? You’d better hope the economy collapses and the credit record is erased like you’re counting on. My first night in Milwaukee and I can’t get a beer, what is wrong with my life?
“Sorry, I didn’t think about it,” she said. “We’ve got that Vicodin…”
This was true. A friend of hers with some sort of connective tissue disorder had given us a criminal amount of painkillers and muscle relaxants. All was not lost. But I had to ask…
“Well, you mind if I stop into a bar really quick just to grab a beer?”
“And leave me waiting in the car?”
It was worth a try.
While we commenced searching for a motel, S revealed that while she had been to Milwaukee several times, there was really only one part of town she was familiar with. This was the area surrounding Marquette U and The Rave, a venue she’d been to a few times. This irritated me; when we’d discussed visiting Milwaukee and what we might do while there, she had portrayed her familiarity of the city along the lines of “Oh yeah, I’ve been there a bunch of times”. While this was technically true, the fact that she hadn’t explored the town beyond the campus area further drove home the point that she was nineteen and I couldn’t get a beer.
We stopped at the first place we came past. The Village Inn fit the description of the sort of place I was looking for, i.e. cheap. We were buzzed into the front office, where the desk clerk grumped behind the counter while some guy sat watching a small black-and-white TV in the minuscule area on the customer side of the lobby. I started getting a clearer picture of the sort of lodging we were signing up for when despite my paying with a credit card, the clerk asked for both of our IDs to make a copy of. The impression deepened when we saw the room.
The lightswitch by the door did nothing for us, nor did the bathroom light. Instantly full of trepidation, I had to step slowly to the middle of the room while S held the door open to find a light that worked. The pale light revealed that the headboard of the bed was gone, though a jagged half of the two-by-four it had been mounted on dangerously remained. There was an impressive array of tears in the carpet and cigarette burns in the comforter.
“I think this is a hooker motel,” I remarked to S.
“I’m getting the same feeling.”
“I think my California ID made me look like a John.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, next to your Wisconsin ID that still has the under-18 stripe on it…”
Even with an economy rental car, my girlfriend had been mistaken for a ho. Milwaukee was not a complete bust; in the morning we took a nice stroll along the Lake Michigan waterfront, had breakfast at a crummy restaurant where I could smoke inside that gave me my change in three two-dollar bills, and visited the Miller Brewery, which was fucking wonderful. But that first night, as I lolled around on Vicodin, chain-smoking in a hooker motel and listening to for-pay sex through the wall, I should have anticipated the reaction of a Marquette student we encountered back in Chicago when we told him where we stayed.
“Oh shit, that place? And you didn’t have any beer or heroin?”