Each person donating to the Plaza Tavern’s crowdfunding campaign is trying to save a slightly different place.
Photos in illustration courtesy of Mia Sato, Andy Schaaf, Alex Arriaga, Sarah Witman, and Hunter Reed.
GoFundMe campaigns have become an enduring symbol of the tenuous and provisional support many have had to turn to during the pandemic. I’ve seen many more than I’d like, from a page fundraising for a karaoke bar, to a campaign to pay for a beloved Chicago tamale seller’s hospital bills. So when I came across a link I had to reread twice just to be sure I was indeed seeing the words, “Save The Plaza Tavern and Grill’s Legacy,” it was crushing and panic-inducing; mostly, somewhere deep in my consciousness, it was anticipated. I immediately donated, watching it spread through friends’ social media and the contributions flow in. The campaign reached its $75,000-goal in a week. Sentimentality had us all opening our purses.
Plaza (or is it The Plaza? Debate amongst yourselves), through no fault of its own, is the ideal candidate for nostalgic reverence. In a sea of campus bars that violently announce Badger pride—whatever that entails—Plaza maintains itself as a neutral no-man’s-land, which might be why it felt unclaimed, not belonging to any kind of patron in particular. I spent every Thursday night (and the occasional Saturday) there between roughly 2015 and 2017, when college felt most worthwhile, after the languid anarchy of being a freshman but before my friends and I were forced to come up with a postgrad gameplan. Most other campus bars have a calling card: State Street Brats is the tourist/parent trap, the Kollege Klub is for everyone in Greek life. Plaza is just a dive.
We went to Plaza as much for who might be inside as we did for the $2.50 Long Islands (or $5 doubles, if you really hate yourself). Going to Plaza was an anchor and a game of chance; you never knew who would get there, or when, but the possibility of seeing someone you knew—or someone you wanted to know—was always around the corner.
Many relationships were built and sustained strictly through time spent together at Plaza. Those weren’t meant to last outside of the perfect equilibrium of the bar, which made them feel all the more precious and unlikely.
Gina Nerone, a regular from 2016-17, told me about a night when she walked into the bathroom to find a woman bawling, maybe about a breakup. Two others were wiping her tears, comforting her.
“I hope your friend feels better,” Nerone said.
“We just met her,” they replied.
“They’d just found her crying in there and were treating her like their best friend,” Nerone told me.
But then again, some Plaza encounters stuck for the long haul: Andy Schaaf tells me about meeting his wife by the bubble hockey table in the early 2000s. The couple swung by for a picture on their wedding day. Some meetings start at Plaza without you noticing: Sarah Witman was back in Madison for a job interview when she met up with a friend for a Plaza burger. Years later, Witman happened to show her partner a picture of her in a Plaza booth taken on that visit. He was in the background.
“We could tell ourselves we went for the low-cost drinks, the fun of a pinball or pool table victory,” said Alex Arriaga, a Badger Herald alumna. “But the reality is we were there on Thursdays for the faces we’d see standing in the spaces between the games and the jukebox.”
I recognize glimmers of how I remember Plaza in many of the anecdotes people shared with me as I wrote this piece. But more interesting is getting to witness the fond recollections of a Plaza I don’t recognize. My fellow student journalists will insist it was a journalism bar, but I’m unconvinced—we made Plaza too much a part of our personality, but so did everybody else. It wasn’t until the bar was on the brink of closure that I was able to see all of its discordant realities come to the surface.
Some of the commenters on Plaza’s GoFundMe mentioned bringing children to the bar. I found this completely baffling, not because it’s morally objectionable (hi, Wisconsin), but because I can barely remember seeing a child on campus at all in my four-plus years living in Madison. Many Plaza patrons reflect on playing pinball and bubble hockey, but my friends and I hardly touched the games—we were more likely to be the people you had to ask to move so you could put a quarter in. The music at Plaza seems universally beloved, but I wonder what the person who remembers hearing the Beastie Boys and “Psycho Killer” would think of my friends and I feeding singles into the new digital jukebox every week to play the same four pop songs, like a cursed ritual.
If I went to Plaza on an ordinary Thursday in non-COVID times, would I recognize it as the place I’ve spent so long crystalizing in one inorganic image?
Collective memory usually fails us. It blurs and contorts itself to power. Nuance, dissent, or even simple contradictions are lost like particles through a sieve. And Plaza, for all of its ardent customers who are now sharing their most cherished memories, is no different. Those of us who saw the GoFundMe and immediately felt compelled to throw some change into the digital pile are agreeing on something: That Plaza is worth preserving, and that downtown Madison would be worse off without it.
But beyond that, the consensus mostly dissolves into fragmented fantasies. Whatever you think Plaza is, there are likely 10 people who will hear your sappy memories and have no idea what you’re talking about. We pick and choose how to remember our past; the careful sorting is what gives others a silhouette of coherence—then you just need them to fill in the shadows. That Plaza’s legacy is built more by a color-by-numbers system than by fiat is perhaps our only hope of protecting it.
I can’t help but want to stockpile as many memories from my time at Plaza as I can, but the truth is that my friends and I, week after week, did nothing special there, nothing different than the throngs of undergrads that came through and waited in line in sticky September heat until they too moved away. Every poorly exposed photo I see of strangers could be in the same booth as the cherished pictures showing my friends and I, blurry and warm. We each replaced one another, ouroboros through passing years.
All through the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve felt like I’m just barely cobbling together some semblance of survival. And why wouldn’t I feel this way, when my personal ineptitude is just a microcosm of the chaos enveloping us all? As millions of people lost their jobs and were plunged into fragile economic circumstances, the social safety net revealed its brittle scaffolding across the country. In Wisconsin, as Wisconsin Public Radio reported this month, just 0.5 percent of the 41 million calls made to the Department of Workforce Development, as people desperately sought to get their unemployment claims approved, were answered. Americans have watched other countries resume daily life without thousands of people dying or getting sick, while our government has made mistake after mistake, seemingly fumbling every available action that could improve our lot.
Nobody is coming to save us, through small business assistance or livable wages or rent cancellations or otherwise. But we are at a profound moment where the expansion of moral imagination feels more in reach than ever in my life. This summer, some bail funds received so many donations following the waves of anti-racism protests that they had to close donations or redirect the money. My local mutual aid fund, run by volunteers, has redistributed half a million dollars and provided an estimated 275,000 meals since its inception in March. Before the bottom fell out, I often felt like I had run out of ways to explain to people why they needed to care about the well-being of others. Now, we can no longer act as if our very existence—or our favorite bar—is not at stake.
The sooner we surrender our delusions that we are somehow exceptional—that we are singular in our feelings, or misfortunes, or beloved college moments—the sooner we might rise to the occasion of saving what we love. Dysfunctional systems don’t care how unique you think your circumstances are. The hatchet will come down regardless, eventually. If it wasn’t Plaza now, it likely would have been Plaza in a month, or perhaps Plaza in three years to make room for another new luxury development.
I have contorted my brain every which way to form a coherent narrative out of all of this: 200,000 deaths, millions unemployed, a transactional $1,200 for the trouble. The Plaza Tavern’s uncertain fate feels like a trivial heartbreak in a sea of calamity so oppressive it’s almost impossible to comprehend. By now I’ve talked myself out of my own fantasy of it—I haven’t been in a few years, so who am I to say what I’m even saving?—but still I can’t let go of what it might feel like to know this bar no longer existed. We are all probably trying to save a different place, but still I’ll preserve and cocoon what I know to be true about Plaza: My favorite booth in the back right corner, the distinct orange lighting bouncing off the landscape paintings, my friends, frozen and perfect in time. Make it mean something.