When Milwaukee seemed bohemian

How the 31 bus took me to a whole new world


When people ask about the town I grew up in, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, I tell them that it's a great place to live if you are under 12 or over 40. It's safe, clean, quiet, with good shopping and recreational facilities and excellent schools. It's not all that different from Copenhagen, where I live now that I really am over 40.

I lived in Wauwatosa until I was 18, which was at least 5 years too long. There was not a lot to do as a teenager there if you weren't involved in sports or the marching band, or had failed the tryouts for the school Pom-Pom squad, as I had.

I spent my free time running the high school newspaper, which at least had the benefits of its small lockable office on the second floor of the school building. The only other staff members were two nerdy gay men, one a business manager and the other a cartoonist.

We ran a lot of news about sports and the marching band, as well as a gossip column which was entirely made up. I didn't know the hip people well enough for anyone to tell me any gossip.


On the pedestrian bridge over Highway US-45,
Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

Blondie's Autoamerican album, released
in November 1980. I was 16 years old.


Wauwatosa is technically a suburb of the city of Milwaukee, and shares a border with it near 60th Street. I grew up on 120th street, which was a good 8 miles from downtown Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan.

By the time I was 15 or 16, I realized that this part of Milwaukee could easily be accessed using the Number 31 bus from Wauwatosa.

The 31 was tortuously slow - it took nearly an hour to cover those 8 miles - but on the long dateless Saturdays and Sundays, I had plenty of time and not much else to do.

I wasn't an unattractive teenager - I had a clear complexion, a nice figure, and wore a lot of black mini-skirts in imitation of Deborah Harry, the lead singer of Blondie.

But Blondie was considered 'new wave', a postpunk musical style that in those pre-MTV days was slow to reach Wauwatosa, where stadium bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx were popular. New wave perplexed the kids in Wauwatosa, and so did I.


The 31 bus took me to a whole new world, or several new worlds.

Starting out from the mall I had known since childhood, it drove through the posh neighborhood of Washington Highlands, with its 1920s Germanic mini-mansions.

It drove through the rough areas around Wells Street, where jobless men hung out in front of the welfare office in tattered parkas, and then on to the very heart of the Milwaukee business district.

Continuing along the sparkling lakefront, it took me along Prospect Avenue to East North Avenue and North Farwell, to the center of the bohemian East Side, to Oriental Drugs.



Oriental Drugs, as seen in the 2000 documentary
'Death of a Corner Drugstore.' Oriental Drugs closed in 1995.

Oriental Drugs, a combination diner-pharmacy-hardware store-newstand-candy shop, was one of the most unique places I have ever been.

Founded in the 1920s, it was named after the Oriental Theater next door, a gilded movie palace illuminated by Buddhas with red lights in their bellies.

Oriental Drugs' long, curved lunch counter was a hangout for every hanger-on in the decidedly nonconformist neighborhood. There were no tables or booths. Everyone - punks, jazz musicians, staff from the local hospital, businesspeople, assorted cranks, me - sat at the counter to be served by the Orientals' elderly waitresses.

The diner food was no less eccentric. My personal favorite was "shrimp shapes", odd bits of seafood chopped up and reshaped in the form of a king-sized shrimp, then deep-fried. Everything on the East Side seemed cool to me.

My mother worried about me going downtown all by myself: she said I was young, pretty and naive. On the last count, at least, she was right. One day on the street near Oriental Drugs, a man asked me if I wanted to come up to his place.

Why? I asked, and I really didn't know why.



I can pinpoint when my adult life began, or at least the part of my life I don't look back on with dismay or regret.

It was the day I saw, on the East Side of Milwaukee, a flier on a telephone pole for a concert by the Tense Experts, a local band.

I immediately loved the name - I've always been a sucker for assonance - and something told me I had to see them in concert. They, too, were 'new wave.'

Now, if you were to see the Tense Experts today, you might be less than impressed. There were four of them, all around twenty, thin and ill-looking, with their hair dyed a flat black.

They had come to make their musical fortune in Milwaukee from Rockford, Illinois, an industrial town not much bigger than Wauwatosa.

They wore only black and sang about dark, desperate things, which in 1982 was still a relatively fresh idea.

I thought they were the coolest thing I had ever seen.

The Tense Experts flier

Another Tense Experts flier

The Tense Experts played a lot of local bars, but their real home was the Starship, a poorly-lit former strip club on 5th Street. The walls were covered with grafitti, and it smelled of stale beer.

I spent some of the happiest nights of my life there, waiting for the midnight show, slowly drinking a single beer.

There were dozens of fans of the group, male and female, also dressed in black. When the band finally came on we all danced violently with nobody in particular to the rumbling bassline of songs like "The Suicide's House", "Tourniquet" and "Real Mock Life."

We loved the Tense Experts. It was like watching creatures from another, better planet.

Twenty-five years later, the Starship is a hotel parking lot. The Tense Experts, who were rumored to have drug problems, are probably dead or in prison. I can't find any of them on Google.

But they taught me something important: that a musician or writer or artist, you don't have to get rich and famous. If you make an impact on one person's life - or two, or three - your work is a success. Art is about communication, and you've communicated.

The Tense Experts disbanded in 1983, and they probably think of their group as a failure, but I don't.

It was my window into a whole new world.


Next: New York City

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