Thursday, June 4, 2009

Milwaukee's Best

As of last Friday, I had never set foot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We drove by on the way to our honeymoon in Door County, but never graced MKE with our presence. Friends who've visited and/or lived there said we would like it, and we'd talked about taking a weekend, but the stars just hadn't aligned.

Until last weekend, that is. We were looking for someplace to go to celebrate Carla's second graduation from Drake University (a school so nice, she went there twice) when we realized that The Decemberists (the latest band for whom I've developed a cult-like devotion) were playing up there. Stars? Aligned.

So, now that I'm safely back in my Des Moines nest, here are some of the hits (and a few tiny misses) from a long weekend in the land of the cheeseheads:

Thanks to the random blessing of those name-your-price websites, we ended up in a pretty classy joint. The Milwaukee Hilton is clearly an OLD building that's been kept up over the years. It made for a pretty stylish and comfy home base as we worked our way around the town. How can you not feel important when you're greeted by a guy in a top hat every time you come to the door? I felt like an extra in a film adaptation of The Great Gatsby every time I went through the lobby. Downside? Internet access was $10 a day, which is why The Cycle didn't post live reports from the scene (my thumbs are too fat to use Carla's smartphone). Upside? Walking distance from two of our major attractions, the aforementioned Decemberists concert and the art museum.

I went 3-for-4 on coffee over the weekend (the lone miss was a desperation run to the Starbucks in the Hilton), drinking local brew so good that it made my toes curl. Most notable was Alterra, a Milwaukee chain. The location I visited was right next to a yarn shop, which kept Carla occupied while I downed refill after refill of astonishingly good joe. The monstrous dual roasters looked like something out of science fiction, and it was only the "no customers past this point" chains that kept me from worshiping on the massive steel steps of their twin metallic altars.

Sorry, Des Moines, but you aren't a real city until I can pick up a paper copy of The Onion within your borders. Get on that, please.

MKE-hip pals on the iBOB mailing list told me that Ben's/MBC was the shop to see, and they did not lie. I started at Ben's (on one side of the street) and was kind of let down. Seemed like a pretty ordinary bike shop to me, other than a little more emphasis on hipster fixie stuff than I'm used to down here in RAGBRAI Central. Then, I crossed the street to MBC. Have you ever fallen in love with a bicycle at first sight? I'm talking totally smitten, "oh, you will be mine" cycle-lust? The orange MBC fixie in the window did that to me. In my defense, it was built around the massive tire/fender clearances of Tektro R556 brake calipers, so it would have been a sensible relationship, not just one based on physical beauty. I was able to leave the shop with my love unrequited, but not before we'd shared a few gentle caresses.

Take one cool old theater (The Riverside -- a refurb'ed match to our classy old Hilton), throw my current cult favorite band on stage, and it's a sure-fire winner. Mix in a good opening act and great seats? We were so money, we didn't even know how money we were. The first set was the band's current concept/folk-rock-opera album The Hazards of Love (not nearly as pretentious as it sounds, really) in its entirety. Beginning to end. No breaks. One song relentlessly piling on to the next. From vocalist Shara Worden loosening the theater's plaster on "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" to the entire band taking up drums to accompany "The Rake's Song" in a blasting percussion chorus... absolutely stunning. And just when I thought, "Well, okay, but I can listen to that album at home," the band kicked off a very loose, fun second set, pulling a few gems out of the rest of the discography. In a bizarrely rocking twist, bandleader Colin Meloy started the acoustic guitar intro to Heart's "Crazy on You" -- I thought he was joking until the rest of the band kicked in and Worden and vocalist Becky Stark appeared on stage to again risk the building's structural integrity with an explosive take on the old gem. Perhaps one of the best concerts I've ever attended. Seriously.

MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM: I am not the art geek of the family. That's Carla. But when a museum walks my feet off and still leaves me wanting more, that's saying something. We showed up right when it opened and got to see the sail-like roof unfurl with Lake Michigan in the background. Then it was off to gallery after gallery after gallery after gallery of one of the most diverse collections I've ever seen. Yummy lunch break in the museum restaurant, then MORE galleries... and galleries... and galleries. If there's a specific type of art you're really interested in, go there first. Carla saved the massive folk/outsider art collection for late in the day, and we almost didn't have the energy to finish it. I knew we were in the presence of greatness when my wife -- who devours lesser museums like dainty finger-sandwich appetizers -- turned to me after we'd seen about 75% of the place and said, "We have to stop now. My brain is full."

Didn't eat a bad meal the whole weekend, saw a bike culture of everything from fixie hipsters to everyday commuters wheeling around town that put Des Moines to shame, and -- save for one incident with a mystery missing exit -- didn't get lost once, nor did I ever have to pull a driving maneuver that caused someone else to curse Iowans. Honestly, it felt like I expect the Midwest to feel, only in city form -- kinda Minneapolis/St. Paulish, very comfortable despite its novelty. I'm not normally one for wanderlust, but within a couple days, I thought to myself, "I could see living here." And that's high praise.

(The side trip through Madison on the way home was fun too, but that's another story for another day...)


Larry Weingarten said...

I've been watching for your report since you solicited ideas from the iBOB list. Sounds like you had a good visit. You hit the real highlights, especially Alterra. I think anyone who enjoys and appreciates Des Moines will get along fine here. Did you see Dave Wages of Ellis Cycles at Ben's/MBC? He often rides in on one of his sweet bikes. Very nice guy.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Larry - we had a GREAT time in your neck of the woods. Thanks for the tips and for the offer of loaner bikes, although we did just fine on foot.

One place we wanted to see but couldn't fit in to our weekend was the Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design. I used to work in advertising (unfortunately), and my wife just got her graphic design degree, so it would have been right up our respective alleys. Guess we'll have to make another trip.

I think I was most taken by MKE as we stood outside the art museum on a beautiful day looking out across the lake. It felt like being in Chicago without the (many) things I dislike about Chicago. The Milwaukee Tourism Bureau must have ordered the weather for the weekend, because it was just gorgeous. It's like that year-round, right? ;-)