“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Alice in Wonderland
I drive into the city of Milwaukee for the first time ever, the dark sky overhead, stars everywhere, the city lights sparkling like fires. I follow my GPS down the I-43 to North Avenue where it takes me deep into an older neighborhood of bars and row houses and breweries and pubs and clubs and food pantries for the homeless. I turn left on High Street and drive slowly forward, eyes searching. A huge Gothic cathedral looms ahead on the left as an almost full moon soars between the spires and I instinctively look around for yellow bats and black bat-mobiles. On the right a couple of tall narrow store fronts rise up from the cracked sidewalk like faded, dry, gray flowers of yesteryear. The first one, the one with the tall windows and a large glass door turns out to be my Airbnb place of residence for the next few days. I gulp and gird up my loins with strength. A lady, long black hair, skinny and pale, is peering out the door and points me to a parking spot. She turns out to not be a covenness although her and her eclectic abode could certainly pass for a haunt of some sort of eastern religious cult following. She also turns out to be a generous soul, a real dear, an elderly artist with very eclectic tastes who designs avant garde clothes from hemp. Go figure.
The foyer is unheated, surrounded by glass and metal bars and ragged rugs on the bare concrete. Ahead on the right a door leads to my bedroom and the one on the left leads to her house – the kitchen, the living room, and… the bathroom. She welcomes me very warmly and shows me to my room.
I look way up at twelve-foot ceilings topped by white stucco, cracked and flaky, a large window, and a creaky old door that stands topped by another window, uncurtained, thin and dirty. One wall to the outside is uninsulated and the cracks let in the 20 F cold blowing in from the outside. Rugs hang everywhere – textiles from India and who knows where else. Hardwood floor, an old bed topped with two thin blankets and two pillows. Two walls are bright red, two walls are unfinished chip-board of some type. Various figurines and lamps and painted chairs sit and stand here and there, sentinel over this very strange abode. A wild array of perpetually shining Christmas lights run along the curtains and shed an eerie light on the three headless female mannequins that stand motionless behind a large and curved leather-topped counter. Each one is wrapped tightly in garish garb, mummified with colorful thick strips of hemp and polyester. They will keep me company for the next three days and I trust they are not avid conversationalists and don’t mind a little snoring.
Turns out the bed is comfortable, but the room is cold enough that I don’t sleep very well and must use all my resources to keep warm. I feel cold winds cross my face from time to time and hope at least the mannequins are keeping warm. I vow to bring another blanket from the truck for the next night.
A tall incense stick is burning in a clay jar when I arrive. The room is smoky and thick with the smell of good karma, fat Buddhas, and smelly Hindus all rolled into one messy fragrance that makes me choke. I eye the stick suspiciously for a bit, we size each other up, and then I deftly flip it upside down in the pot, bury the bright burning end in the soil, wipe my eyes, and pray for daylight.
To reach the bathroom one must exit the bedroom straight into the freezing foyer; push hard to open the huge thick wooden door to the other side of the house and walk through the very cluttered living room, past all the rugs and textiles and paintings and pottery and guitar and garish walls and pictures of eastern eclectic gnomes and finally reach the diminutive bathroom. If she’s up there will be a haze of incense smoke floating in the room, striated clouds like you see over and in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If she’s up we visit and I smile and nod as I choke up and my eyes run and I imagine contracting a sudden case of smoker’s lung. Meanwhile, she probably thinks she’s touching my heart with emotional vibes. She says she can’t hear me come in to use the bathroom in the middle of the night because she’s got her ear buds in listening to diurnal rhythms… or something like that.
And to think, if I would have stayed in a nice, clean, perfectly appointed hotel with temperature control and fluffy blankets I wouldn’t have this story.
BF – 2017