This story takes place 35 years ago almost to the day. Join us for First Monday First Person, my memoir writers’ salon, at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library on Monday, April 7th at 6pm.
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In 1978, my senior year at Indiana University was coming to an end. For the last two years I had shared housing with my best friend Colette. We were approaching a cliff we would both soon fall over. Where would we land?
For the umpteenth time we sat in our favorite coffee house, drinking our gourmet coffee and searching for the answer.
“All I know is, I am getting out of Indiana,” I said.
“My sister in San Francisco would put us up for a while,” Colette mused, “But I’m not so sure I’m ready to leave Tim behind.” Tim was her latest boyfriend.
We were both looking for our futures in the steam rising from our coffee cups, but the visions we saw were beginning to diverge.
Colette’s friend Abby stopped by our table and our conversation. “My best friend from high school went up to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She says it’s a lot like Bloomington, only bigger. And with lakes.”
“And longer winters,” Colette muttered.
As that winter wound down, I examined my balance sheet. Trained as a typesetter, I could pick up work anywhere.
But I was a product of small towns and close friends, barely prepared for life in a larger world. I needed a place to take my first independent steps without falling into danger.
And so, starting from Abby’s suggestion that day, I began to ask everyone for advice: “Where do you think I should go?”
I began with my boyfriend Don, a Bhuddist. His reply: “I was in Madison a few times for seminars with their East Asian Studies department. I think you’d like it there.”
I went to visit my parents over spring break, and went to our church on Sunday. The youth minister asked what was new with me. I replied, “I’m trying to find a good place to move to.” “Have you thought about Madison, Wisconsin?” he asked. “I went to school there, it was a great town. I think you’d like it.”
The emerging pattern wasn’t lost on me. My decision was made. After graduation I had only to perch with my parents long enough to earn my grubstake, and then I would be on my way to Madison.
When spring of 1979 rolled around, I was ready for my move. Colette, who had spent the year after graduation in Bloomington with Tim, agreed to help ferry my stuff north. I was beginning to feel the familiar first symptoms of strep throat, but didn’t say so. I didn’t want to delay our start for Madison by even one day.
Colette and I arrived on a Tuesday night and checked into the Kings’ Inn Motel. We got our first look at the city when we went in search of an urgent care clinic that would treat my sore throat. Madison, dressed in gray snow, her frozen lakes like empty parking lots, was a disconcerting sight. Doubts pulsed like the throb of fever in my ears.
Colette had brought the phone number of Abby’s friend in Madison, Karin. They arranged to meet that night while I holed up in the motel room to nurse my sore throat.
Trolling the TV channels, I came across coverage of the local mayoral election. The charismatic young “Red Mayor” Paul Soglin had reached the end of his third term; two opponents were vying for the chance to follow his act. The election coverage dipped into the events of Mayor Soglin’s reign, a history lesson I feverishly absorbed.
The next night Karin and Colette convinced me to venture out with them to State Street. In my fever the swirl of young people, beer, and bright lights reminded me of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. My opinion of Madison began to improve.
Karin generously opened her world to provide me a point of entry into Madison life. On her advice I rented a furnished room overlooking James Madison Park. On April Fool’s Day I moved in, and Colette headed back to Indiana.
Madison in early spring was closed up and cold. I doubted my decision daily. But spring came, and then summer. The park outside my window, once a white waste stretching down to a frozen lake, became a green meadow covered with frisbee-playing young men.
My new life began to take on a shape and color that pleased me. Soon the smell of lakes in summer provided the link I needed between my childhood and my present. Before long I began making friends of my own. In Madison, as I had been advised, I found a place to start.
Some places, when you find them, seem so right you stay.