The work is all around us

Personal memory, New Deal history, and anger unspool on walks around Madison.

Personal memory, New Deal history, and anger unspool on walks around Madison.

Illustrations by Ashley Wilkinson.

Every day at 2 p.m., I go on a walk. My walks always have goals. I walk as far as I can out onto the lake until I get so nervous I turn back. I get a cortado at Domestique and finish it by the time I get to Bradbury’s so I can have another. I can’t touch anybody, so I challenge myself to walk past at least three houses where I’ve had sex, instead. In December, I got an orange chocolate chip scone at Lazy Jane’s for energy on my way to the Elvis Karate Fight Scene plaque on East Washington. While I run the stairs at Monona Terrace, I contemplate breaking onto the roof garden to see the Otis Redding plaque. Once, I saw a thin man in a Packers T-shirt, sliding on the icy sidewalk, holding a chocolate cake. I hang behind the Crystal and pretend I’m out back, smoking a bummed cigarette, while my friends inside wait for me to take my turn at pool. I count the abandoned gloves on the trees. I like knowing where B.B. Clarke lived. 

Walking through the big John Nolen intersection, there’s a plaque commemorating “the first Christmas tree in Madison and perhaps the country.” When you cross over to the Capitol side, a much smaller one says, “TRAGEDY OF WAR. On July 21, 1832, during the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Militia ‘passed through the narrows of the four lakes,’ Madison’s isthmus, in pursuit of Sac Indian leader Black Hawk and his band. Near this location, the Militia shot and scalped an old Sac warrior awaiting his death upon his wife’s freshly dug grave.”

I try to walk around the Capitol building a few times a week. I like the way the snow sits in the statues’ laps. One day in the first week of January, I did my lap parallel to a group of about 10 Trump supporters (most of whom were children), parading their pathetic little flags. My vote was one of the votes Trump tried to have thrown out. I dropped off my ballot on my way to my best friend’s small, outdoor wedding. In 2016, when he was elected, I cried on the phone with my Dad in the alley next to The Robin Room. I was so scared. Sometimes on my walks I stopped to look in the alley, where I said “you were right” to my old self, who I felt still haunted the block.

My walking goal lately is to see as many New Deal projects as possible. In Madison, the products of FDR-era legislation are everywhere, from the airport to the pipes beneath our feet. Desperate GoFundMe’s for my favorite bars kept popping up online. Someone had touched my hair or told me I looked like the girl from Alabama Shakes at every one of the bars that were begging for my money now. Many of them were owned by white people who were experiencing feeling truly abandoned by their government for the first time. They were so naïve. They hadn’t even experienced hate yet, only abandonment. It made me angry, and I suspected this anger fueled my walks. 


I ignored the snow melting inside my boots at Hoyt Park on the West Side, as I stomped my way over to a sign: “many unemployed workers…took so much pride in the Park that when money ran out, workers continued to work on it without pay.” The Hoyt Park facilities were built by a workforce consisting almost entirely of Italians. I couldn’t wait for the snow to thaw, so I could run through the Arboretum trails again. I had doubts that very many black people were working with the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, when they knelt there and replanted trees. Even if they were, I had serious doubts about them being treated as equal, because it hadn’t happened to me here yet.

The plaque on the side of Breese Stevens Field calls its sandstone wall a “significant Great Depression era Civil Works Administration project.” Close by, carved into the wall, underneath an eagle: “CWA, 1934.” Before 1934, the field was surrounded by a chain link fence. I had only been inside once, when I worked Yum Yum Fest in 2017. I’ve only ever thought of it jokingly, as a true hub of whiteness here: ultimate frisbee, Toby Keith concerts, charging people too much money to eat tiny portions of deconstructed hot dog. Back then, I was often annoyed by the presence of Breese Stevens concert people, invading my normal bars. Or I was hungover at 6 p.m., writhing in my bed near the corner of Livingston and Dayton because of the noise. Now, I walked off the nervousness I would have fixed then with a few shots of fernet. 

A man catcalled me as I walked around the field. “What you doing, Miss. Lady?” he yelled from his truck. I was walking circles around Breese Stevens field, forcing myself to enjoy the stonework. There was no way I looked inviting—I often found myself thinking so hard I scowled. And I was thinking very hard. I wasn’t paying attention to the stonework.

I was distracted by the Paycheck Protection Program website. I would love for all my favorite bars and restaurants to make it through the pandemic. But I assumed most people who owned bars and restaurants were white people whose parents had helped them financially in purchasing those bars and restaurants, and who had those parents voted for? My sympathy petered out. 

I circled the stadium again, touching the stones. On one wall, there was a little piece of paper taped up: “Thank you for supporting BLM. Please continue that support. Help fund this family’s struggle against homelessness,” followed by a GoFundMe link. I had seen the same slip taped all over BLM signs in my neighborhood, too. This summer I got scared and angry enough to get up the courage to join a march down Jenifer Street. I cried. I had been hurt so much, just in those few blocks. Later, I checked the Madison subreddit, where people were complaining about being kept up late: “When will they realize we’re not their enemies?” 

The pandemic had proven that I did not have a good relationship with time. I did, however, have a good relationship with history. I lived inside it. It meant the present and the future surprised me less. The only thing that surprised me in Madison was that none of the Jenifer Street moms was leading a secret movement to take down the tents in McPike Park.

Our government should feed us, house us, educate us truthfully. In the 1930s, the government had paid the people to build up the city. Were they doing the same thing now, awarding the company that manages Breese Stevens a combined $378,940 in PPP loans? When would people gather there next? I imagined Breese Stevens as a vaccination site, lined with masked people, each with one arm hanging out of their winter jackets.

I do a lot of learning on my own. I do it every day on my walks. Even when I come across bad memories, I learn that I have changed for the better. The parking lot by Los Gemelos whispers, “remember the time you did a hit-and-run in your mother’s rental car here?” I often come across the curbside where I really hugged the last person I really loved for the last time. I am constantly reminded of the embarrassing ways I behaved at Burrito Drive, very early in the morning. And I still shop at the Co-op, where my supervisors once repeatedly gaslit me into believing I was overreacting to racist customers. The world is not kind. We will lose places this year. That’s why plaques exist.

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