My first memory of you, not necessarily the first time I was visiting you, but the first time I realized this was where we were making our home was in May of 2007. Kate and I came out to you and we tried to find a place to live. The weekend is a blur, but I remember the heat and the humidity. It was like the jungle. I kept saying to myself, “This is just for a year.” We stayed for three. If only I knew then what I know now about you.
You are surprising in every way. I wish you got to surprise more people. I leave you having not shared you with anyone besides a few family members. You are our little secret; three years of our lives will be unknown to my friends and even family members. Only our parents will know what we refer to when we talk about the beach in Milwaukee or Alterra or a restaurant called Carnevor. I am still sad about all that. Someone once referred to it as stubbornness. It is not that. It was a desire to have people visit us in our new home. We leave holding you dearer in our hearts than we could have imagined. And we are the sole keepers of these three years and that is an important task for us for there are fewer people to ferry these memories into our next community and tomorrow’s conversations.
Milwaukee, you gave us hard times and we were recipients of bad news over and over again while we resided within your borders. You made us feel a world away when we wanted to be next door. Had we not been a thousand miles away I would have gotten into trouble, thrown a couple of punches and might have defaced a church. I often daydreamed of it and you kept me from those releases of bitterness and anger. I have stored those away for now. Occasionally, they poison me and I feel some anger rise up and I wonder, will moving back renew some of that? I don’t want it to, but it isn’t out of the question. Returning to the source of your demons forces you to confront them. And Milwaukee, you prepared me for that. I am more able because I have felt a greater depth of pain and disappointment here than I had ever felt before.
But I have also felt and known a deeper love, a greater respect for life and its wickedly beautiful and tortuous twists, like the day I realized I love you. I thought it would never happen, but that idea took a beating from so many people, places and things. The walks with my wife on the shores of Lake Michigan, the once untapped city at our fingertips, the friends we made, the team I grew to love, the championship, immersing myself once again in the wonderful world of swimming and the coaches who coached beside me, and the lovely upper-Midwest touches of humidity, cheese, fish fries and snow on the ground for months; all of these things built up a love for you. I will miss the color green and the abundance of it here, the green screaming from the forest’s edge, forest of the likes I hadn’t seen since 1991 in New Jersey, a forest you can’t find in Colorado. Impenetrable. A massive, verdant wall.
Your inhabitants are one of a kind, Milwaukee. With 1.5 million people, you are diverse like any other big city, but nearly all of your inhabitants are native to the state and, on a larger scale, the Midwest. I’ve never encountered so many people so unhappy with their hometown. Not that you are bad, you are lovely, but there is just this propensity for Midwesterners to stay put. Moving out of state is not something your people do. They exude a sense of duty and loyalty to you even though they want to leave, even though they seem envious of people moving on and moving out. Yours is a grounded people. Happy and sometimes frustrated with you, but not going anywhere, even for a little while, because the Midwest is where they live, where they will always live, and that is fine with them…for the most part.
Milwaukeeans are fiercely loyal to you. You should be proud. From your boring Brewers to your agonizingly overrated Summerfest, there is no shortage of fans. No one tailgates like you do before every single Brewers’ home game. Mini grills and a lot of crappy beer being drunk. That is another thing your people are astonishingly proud of—the crappy beer. You are a beer city, but a domestic beer city. Yes, you have standout joints like Café Centraal and the Sugar Maple, where you can’t find someone drinking an MGD, but your lifeblood is Miller Lite, High Life, Milwaukee’s Best and something called Schlitz. This is what your people run on and that humors me because I think there is so much more out there to experience in the beer world, but I know that your people don’t care. They are unwavering in their devotion to you and your products. It is beauty that I can raise an eyebrow at and simultaneously deeply respect.
I didn’t cry when I left you, I cried when I realized I was going to leave you. It was months before July 29, when I was driving to work over the Hoan bridge and it was a crystal clear day with the skyline in front of me, Lake Michigan to the right and I-94 far below me, weaving westward to the horizon. I didn’t just remember the last three years at that moment; I felt them wrapping around me, pulsing through me at the speed of light, like a wave crashing over me, flipping me end over end over end and whatever thought filled my head last made me smile and shed a tear.
Milwaukee, I learned so much while I was within your borders. I thought I knew a decent amount about life when I arrived in the upper Midwest. I thought I had some crap figured out. I didn’t. Life only got more confusing, but you helped it become more beautiful too. Kate and I will be lucky to find that again. You will always be our first home and you will always be missed, no matter how many smiles our new home brings us.
I love you.