A few days before I was scheduled to leave Madison, I went for a walk down State Street, the main artery through the heart of the city, my home for the past four and a half years.
The street begins in the heart of campus across from Bascom Hill, the de facto mascot of the university in all of its publicity mailings, and continues through Library Mall – bordered on one side by the art-deco Memorial Library and the faux-classical Historical Society on the other – and eventually makes a beeline toward Capitol Square, with its prominent marble dome perennially glistening, bathed in blinding spotlights from all four sides.
I couldn’t sleep that night – a combination of stress from work and sheer curmudgeonity – and so I decided to go for a stroll, the drizzly weather notwithstanding. I grabbed my umbrella, threw on my coat and headed out, not knowing where to go. I hesitated at the crossroads, but my feet turned left outside the door, and I found myself squinting through the dawn fog on State Street. It was surprisingly crowded for five A.M. in the morning; a combination of students returning from late-night studies mingled with those already finished with their finals, heading back home from a last hurrah before winter break.
I passed some of my favorite gastronomical haunts. Mediterranean Cafe beckoned from my right, where a bag full of some of the most delicious pita bread I’ve ever eaten in my life cost the change I had in my pocket; It Sugar, a magical candy heaven where I filled many last-second birthday gift bags; Kabul, an Afghan joint that will always hold a special place in my heart for being my first-ever restaurant I visited in town; Asian Kitchen, a Chinese take-out hole-in-the-wall with some astoundingly crappy food, but hey, it was five bucks for all the fried rice you could eat; and Parthenon Gyros, where a single word (and appropriate payment) will send a disinterested man to a massive spit rotating on its axis, shave off enormous slices of lamb meat, and squish them between a massive moon of bread with tomatoes, onions and sauce. Ian’s Pizza, home to some of the world’s weirdest (and most delicious!) topping combinations.
I wasn’t hungry. I moved on. And the closer one gets to the Capitol, the more one begins to appreciate: Madison is a drinking town. From beer and wine to fancy martinis and cocktails with little twisty orange rinds and a parasol leaning on top, one will never, ever be thirsty in this city. Madtown will see to that.
There’s The Old Fashioned, with what is unquestionably the best cheese curds in the world; lightly breaded and fried to perfection, not too crunchy yet not overly soft, perfectly squishing themselves between your teeth before oozing out on your tongue and exploding into a sensation of delectable flavors, best accompanied with a local ale. Speaking of beer, there’s Genna’s On The Square, a two-story establishment where the beer list literally covers half of the ceiling. If one gets tired of drinking brewskis, it’s only a quick hop, skip and jump to Natt Spil, where a vodka-infused high tea will clear up your insides faster than you can say, “no more beer”.
I passed all of those places. Even if I wanted a drink – I didn’t – it was far past bar time; and drinking first thing in the morning was (usually) not my modus operandi.
My feet took me to the base of the Capitol, facing west, looking down on State Street at the other end from my apartment. The entire street curved slightly downwards in its trek to Library Mall, so I was treated to a panorama of sorts; the diffused yellow lights from the lamps cast a pale aura on the whole proceedings. The first buses of the day rounded the corner, on their way to their respective transfer points on the far ends of town, and their growling roars were the only sounds to break the silence of early dawn.
And then, the sun came up. I couldn’t see it, of course, for I was facing the wrong way, but I felt the sky change from pitch black, to dark navy, then a lighter shade, and then finally, the streetlights blinked off. A light blanket of fog had barely begun to clear – I turned around and looked upwards, and a small halo had formed around the Capitol building’s top half, courtesy of the spotlights and the fog. It was a majestic sight.
When you settle down at one place for long enough, the city becomes a part of the fabric of your identity. You learn to grow into it; absorb all its quirks; earn the ability to wake up in the morning, open your window, take in the view, and be content. You memorize the bus routes; the drink order at your favorite bar; the most efficient route to your classes. So what do you do with all that, once you move away? What should you do with all of that information in your brain, now useless? Throw it out, or keep them, locked away for just in case? Neither option sounds pleasant.
Writing this post, a week removed from Madison, I’m struggling to fill in the blanks in my memory lane stroll. Yes, there was that one knick-knack store, but what was between that and that one pizza place? With time, the ins and outs of Madison will no doubt begin to fade from my mind. I probably won’t remember Potbelly’s with its wonderful pastrami, nor the name of the friendly middle-aged woman who often gave me free chips at Chipotle, nor the twists and turns of the Lakeshore Path as it wound its way across the north side of town.
But there are a few things that I will never, ever forget. And that is the sound of street musicians, the smell of freshly-mown grass on Bascom Hill, the sight of the first snow on Observatory Drive and the frozen Lake Mendota beyond, the taste of curds, fresh from the farmers’ market on Saturdays, the touch of marble as I lay underneath the rotunda inside the Capitol, admiring the ornate mural above and the perfect circles that inched their way up toward the ceiling, seemingly miles above.
I can hardly begin to imagine a town better filled with opportunities and hidden treasures and quirks worth discovering, a city packed with so much amazing people, ideas and things, than this little gem of a place sandwiched between two lakes in the middle of a state I barely knew. And for that – and a trillion other little things that I have neither the time nor memory to recount right now – I say thank you, Madtown. I might not come back for a while, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss you.