Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 17, 2004 Madison, Wisconsin.

I was looking forward to Madison. I figured it would be a bit like Marquette, but much more so. A much bigger college town, the state capital, with more coffee houses, and more used bookstores, and more leftists and a bigger intellectual community. I stayed with my friend Nelson, whom I met a few years ago at a conference, and whom I’d seen a few times since then. He is a professor of

agronomy at the university, and was interested in where he could fit into the ecological economics community. He stayed with me in Virginia a few years ago, so I figured it was fair to invite myself to visit while I was in Wisconsin.

It turned out there was to be a Kerry rally while I was there, and Nelson asked if I wanted to go – or if perhaps I preferred to go to the event at which Laura Bush was to speak? I jumped at the chance to hear Kerry speak and to set eyes on the man who I hope will be the next president. Somehow Nelson managed to procure us VIP passes. It was pouring down rain, so the event was held indoors in a huge hall. It was a hot, chaotic mob scene. Our VIP status got us a little closer to the front than the “masses” with no passes at all, but it was still a battle to get a spot from which we could see anything.

I only half listened to what Kerry said. I was more interested in taking pictures, scanning the crowd, watching the press photographers, and simply getting the feel of a big political rally. I don’t really know what these rallies are for – press coverage, I guess. Certainly Kerry’s words didn’t convince anyone in the room. Perhaps they are like the anti-war demonstrations, about numbers, not content. The room was certainly packed, so if that’s how anyone was judging the event, it was a success. It scarcely made even the local news, though – Kerry’s speech later in the day got that attention.

The next day the weather was fine, and I took my bike out to explore Madison. The city center is on an isthmus between two lakes, and the university sprawls out along one of the lakes. I decided to ride around it to see what I could see. It was a pretty ride, albeit a bit predictable – and hillier than I’d expected! Right along the lake the neighborhoods are residential, most of them quite fancy. In a few places there are local waterfront parks, and a few boat launches, which were good to see. When I was forced off the lake by the street patterns I found myself in areas typical of the edge of a modest city – suburban development mixed with a bit of remaining agriculture, one lovely state park dominated by flowering native grasslands. As I came back into Madison the neighborhood got very fancy, huge homes surrounded by equally huge lawns, and high fences. The grandest of all was, as I’d guessed from the flags waving in front, the governor’s mansion.

I seem to have a pattern when I visit new cities. I ride around on my bike, looking for the coffee houses, the food coops or health food stores where I can pick up local newspapers and announcements, the YMCA, and the historic downtown where I can walk around and browse in cute trendy shops even though I don’t need to buy anything. I try to get some sense of the economic base of the community. What do people do for a living? Is the city sprawling outwards, or redeveloping its downtown, or decaying? Does it have some of the amenities I’d like – parks, bike paths, swimming pools, interesting downtown residential neighborhoods? What are the people like – not only their politics, but whether they do things I find interesting. What are the hot issues in the community? Is there public transportation, or does everyone drive everywhere? How much does it cost to live there? If I’m thinking about where I’ll stop when I decide I’ve had enough of being on the road, should this place be on my list?

Madison stacks up pretty well, though as someone said to me about college towns, “you go to school there, you like it, you stay, but then after a while you realize that you are getting older and the community around you isn’t.” For those involved with state government, of course, the university isn’t what Madison is about. And there’s clearly a thriving arts community – the day after I left, the gleaming new arts center opened up, to vast acclaim from absolutely everyone. I don’t know what my life would be like if I lived in Madison. It might be harder to find a niche in Madison than in a town like Marquette, though, because it’s big enough that one more educated liberal would just be lost in the shuffle. It would certainly be a fine place, though.

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