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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Growing Up in Madison, WI

The title of this blog entry may seem confusing if you know. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois like my characters in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA (though I was born in St. Louis and lived there til I was eight). But Madison, Wisconsin is the place where I actually *grew up* and became an adult.
In a few hours I will be driving up to Madison to visit some friends, as well as students at an alternative learning program, and do a reading (Tuesday, March 16th at 6:30 pm at A Room of One's Own, 307 West Johnson if you can make it!). So it seemed like an appropriate time to share some of my stories about the city.

Madison is a city I love to visit, but don't get to nearly enough even though it is only a two and a half hour drive from me. I lived there for a total of two and a half years, made some really dear friends and some really big mistakes, but all in all I have nothing but love for the place.

I graduated high school early. It wasn't really much of a feat. I hated my high school and living in Oak Park and wanted to escape as fast as possible so I looked closely at the graduation requirements and realized that I could easily meet them all in three & a half years instead of four without taking summer school or anything. I did take health class in summer school the summer before my freshman year, but even if I hadn't I still could have graduated early. As it stood, for my senior "semester" I only had a half day. I took only the classes I needed and had my dean help me arrange it so I could do them all in the morning, leave early and go to work at that fabulous job as a grocery bagger (I mean "Utility Clerk") that I mentioned in my last blog entry.

My friend Tai was already finished with high school (she'd hated hers so much, she'd done a home schooling program) who also wanted to get out of her Chicago suburb. We were both vegan (I was actually vegetarian, but she helped me become vegan), both feminist, both getting more and more into goth, both emotionally screwed up but very devoted to helping each other through these issues. In other words, we were the perfect match for roommates. I'd always wanted to move to Minneapolis because... well this is silly but a lot of bands that I liked were from there (Babes In Toyland and the Replacements) and it was still in the Midwest but a good distance from home. So my dad drove us up there one long weekend... and we were disappointed. Something about it didn't feel right. I'm not sure exactly how to explain it.

On the drive back home, Tai suggested we stop in Madison. She'd visited before and really liked it. As soon as we drove in, I was sold. I loved the way John Nolan Drive took you right over Lake Monona. I loved the downtown area, the pedestrian mall of State Street with all of its unique funky shops. As a college town, Madison felt young and like a place that was safe enough to live on my own for the first time, but far enough away from home. We decided it was our city right then.

We moved into a one-bedroom apartment downtown. This was my very first apartment building (though it looked a little different as I took this last year, 11 years after I'd lived there):

I had the bedroom and Tai transformed the living room into her bedroom. We didn't have much. We gave up the internet (which was only a newfound addiction since it was 1997, but Tai and I actually met through a Riot Grrrl forum on AOL) and cable (which was fine because the only TV I was totally addicted to was my soap opera One Life to Live). But we had my adorable cat, Sidney, who loved exploring our little home, especially from the highest place in the house:

And hanging out in my room or on Tai's bean bag:

We lived a block from a tiny park with a swing set and when you swung you could look at the lake. I sat there and wrote in my journal and went home and typed up pieces for my zine on the typewriter I got along with a record player for graduation. (It was 1997, but I was pretty old school). We were a couple blocks away from a fabulous food co-op that had the most delicious vegan cupcakes. A short drive away was a bigger co-op near a coffee house called Mother Fool's that also had delicious vegan dessert and a veggie restaurant that I want to say was called Seva.

I'm not going to lie, the first day we moved in, I cried. My mom and best friend helped us move. it was the middle of January and I had a sprained ankle, so it was stressful. When we got everything in and my mom and BFF drove off, I plugged in the phone (land line of course, I wouldn't get my first cell phone til later that year when I went to college and that was for emergencies only) and it didn't work!!! My mom and best friend were driving away and I had no way to reach them! I cried like crazy, but of course Tai comforted me. It was something we'd do for each other often and still do to this day.

In the morning everything felt better. We went to State Street and started job hunting. We took a short break to see The People Vs Larry Flynt (I was and still am a huge Courtney Love fan and she was really in prime back then) and eat at what would become one of my favorite restaurants on the planet. Himal Chuli, a Nepalese place with the best dal soup ever. Fortunately (unlike a lot of places I loved in Madison), it still exists and anyone who visits should absolutely stop there and try it. We applied at every shop we could, imagining how cool it would be to work at Four Star Video Heaven (aka the best video store on earth, in a pre-Netflix world it was the only place I could ever find obscure arty or foreign films) or the Triangle Market... solely because the guy who worked there was *really* cute. Of course we ended up with the glamorous jobs of gas station employee (Tai) and grocery store cashier (me, and it was a struggle to get that job because they had weird rules in Madison about hiring people who were under 18 full-time. Tai was 18, but I was still only 17 so I had to prove I was done with high school.)

Everything we did was an adventure. We decorated the apartment. We laughed over the notes we got from maintenance about them coming to clean the "mole off of our windows" (because obviously there were little creatures living in our windows, not green slimy stuff). We grocery-shopped at midnight at Woodmans. We went to the University's alcohol-free goth dance night. We went out driving late at night into the Wisconsin countryside, just randomly choosing roads until we ended up in a small town where we'd sit in the bar and just observe (these little experiments was where I ultimately drew inspiration for Emily's small fictional Wisconsin town in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE). We didn't have friends. It was just the two of us and Sidney in our own little bubble of vegan cooking, zine-making, late night emotional conversations, and dance parties to the Smiths... for a little while at least.

Then we met the homeless goth boy. That is a story that needs a whole other blog entry. But the long and the short of it was we met this homeless goth boy and we let him live with us for a week, which was obviously very stupid. Nothing terrible happened. We just found out what many girls discover--sometimes boys are very pretty until they start talking and you discover they are morons. He was a dolt and we kicked him out, but we met new people through him. Older people. Over 21 people. Who could get us in to the real goth club... The Inferno.

Here we are headed to our first night there (Tai on the left, me on the right) where we would share one vodka and cranberry very innocently:

The innocence wouldn't last. I'd quit smoking, drinking and drugs at the end of summer before my senior year because I was seeing myself going down a path that ended in heroin addiction like a couple of my ex-boyfriends. I had an addictive personality. Once I realized the freedom I had--no parents around to hide my smoking from and new friends to buy me booze and who held weight in the goth scene so I could hang out at 21+ places without an ID or any questions--things quickly spiraled out of control. And there was a boy. A boy who was very toxic for me, but I ended up being involved with for eight years.

Tai and I were both under the spell of Madison and easy club access and booze and boys and self-destruction. We both had plans to go to college in other states, but we both ended up dropping out of those colleges and moving back to Madison within a year to live with our respective boyfriends. Tai wasn't nearly as in to the whole drinking and clubbing thing as I was though so she got her life together and ditched her toxic boy much faster than me.

I lived in Madison in a drunken haze for two years. Then, around my twenty-first birthday, I decided I needed direction in my life so I decided to move back to Chicago and go to school for Fiction Writing. Madison as much as I loved it, was starting to feel too small for me.

So like I said, it is the place where I grew up. I discovered what it was like to be an adult. At first it was innocent and fun and carefree and then I lost control. But I learned that when you are an adult no one can reign back in, you have to chose to take responsibility. Ultimately I did.

I am a person who lives without regret. Everything I did, even the stupid stuff, led me to where I am now so I'm glad to have gone through it all. And I have nothing but love for Madison. Sometimes I still daydream about moving back there even though I know it is too cold in the winter and too small for me. I know that one of the reasons I love Seattle so much (the place where I hope to move some day) is because it reminds me of a bigger Madison, with larger bodies of water and better weather. So I will enjoy my visit, especially the old friends and the best dal soup I've ever had.

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