Just remembered I used to tool around Milwaukee on warm summer nights in Pete Fountain’s MG. How I got all 6’5” of me in there I don’t know, but Fyl and I had a ball. Her brother in law had bought it off Pete one weekend in New Orleans after a night of gumbo and that crazy blowing clarinet and driven it the length of the Mississippi Valley back to Milwaukee. Even after being stuck in the garage through long winters and a near fatal collision with a deer it still oozed hot jazz cool, that car. Zero to sixty in double time, oh yeah, a joyous ride. We’d head into the city and hop the clubs on Brady Street or wander through Summerfest all day and then take all the side streets and woody lanes to her sister’s place north of the city. On the way back we’d stop by the lake at a gorgeous little park in Whitefish Bay and sit on the grass and smoke a joint and watch the lightning bugs flash around us. I remember bolts of distant heat lightning playing on the lake, and huge June bugs appearing out of nowhere. What was that, a quarter century ago? I’d forgotten it till someone posted the cover of an old Pete Fountain LP tonight and it all came back, the muggy night air, the breeze off the lake, the music blasting from the radio, the fire flies and that car. It had a powerful engine that surged as you pressed lightly on the accelerator and could turn on a dime and I played the clutch like I’d been driving stick my whole life. Sigh….
In the long run it was utterly insignificant, of course, driving Pete Fountain’s little car, but it was such a strangely cool thing to do. It was a different world then, an analog world, experiences were real and tactile and I’d write memories like this with a pen on paper. I think I wrote this down once, which is probably why I remember it so vividly, why I can feel that Midwestern nighttime summer air and see the fireflies like they’re right here around me right now. It’s like if you live right, or even live wrong, life is full of such moments, meaningless and special, and sometimes you remember them half a lifetime later, and they seem like perfection.
One of the most humiliating moments in my life was playing sheepshead with my in-laws and having no clue what was going on. The cards in my hand were meaningless. Not that one, that one! I couldn’t tell the difference. You owe me five cents my normally mild mannered mother-in-law demanded. I gave her the nickle. I was down twenty cents and had no idea how. More shuffling and drawing and dis-carding and I was down another twenty cents. I still hadn’t a clue what was happening. The three Wisconsinites whipped through their cards. I dropped mine. Don’t let us see them! Finally my wife had pity. I don’t think he’s getting it, she said. Well, you should’ve married a guy that could play sheepshead. Once again I was the dumb Irish guy, they were the superior Indians. They sent me outside to shovel snow and talked about fish fry. The next day we got together with more in-laws and I talked too much. They listened politely. Then Friday night at fish fry we sat between two Polish families from south Milwaukee. They drank too much beer, scarfed their food, talked too loud and laughed uproariously. My wife identified me as an Irish Catholic from New Jersey. I’m an atheist who hadn’t lived in Jersey since 4th grade but no matter. They told me Irish jokes that were the exact same as Polish jokes I didn’t dare tell back. Slapped me on the back. Bought me a couple schnapps even though I’d never been to Lambeau Field in the dead of winter. Really, never? They bought me another sympathetically. I sang in the car on the way to the Post. He’s a little tipsy they told the bartender. He’s from California. OK, then no more schnapps for him and he drew me 16 ounces of Pabst. There were more of those as the evening progressed. The bartender put the dice on the bar. I drunkenly demurred. He got cleaned out at sheepshead already, someone said. Laughter all around. Wisconsin is an experience.
George Carlin reruns on the tube. He’s not so high strung yet, still doing the stoned schtick. The hippie dippy weatherman routine hasn’t aged well, but the rest has. Reminds me how my wife Fyl saw George Carlin get busted at an outdoor gig in Milwaukee for doing his dirty words bit. That was in 1972. Fyl was sixteen, a bad girl, sassy and curvy, smoking a joint with a couple of hippies she’d never met before. But they were cool, she was cute, and they had grass. They’d rolled it in an American flag rolling paper, hippie chic in Nixon’s America in ’72. Carlin began his bit about the seven dirty words you can’t say on television and rattled them off, fuck etc, and out came Milwaukee’s finest. Well, Milwaukee’s finest was a beer. Out came the Milwaukee cops. Cuffed him right on stage. Fuck the Pigs one of the hippies said. Yeah, fuck the pigs she said. She told me this story probably right after we met a lifetime ago, and it crystallized into permanence in my memory so vividly I was there. I can smell the weed, feel the paranoia, feel the breeze coming off the lake. She’d be wearing low slung jeans, flared, and a tight rock’n’roll tee shirt her mom hated, reveling in all this freedom and excitement, smoking pot with hippies. Every freak in Milwaukee was there digging George Carlin and he gets busted. Something to talk about in the rock’n’roll bars on Brady Street that night, George Carlin and the Man and revolution. She snuck into those too. Milwaukee was loose in those days, loose and a little wanton. Innocent girls turned bad, hung out with hippies and a little later morphed into punk rockers. Ahh, the seventies.