There is a wonderful stretch of road heading east in West Allis where Becher Street curves north for a few blocks and transforms into Burnham Street. One minute you’re driving down Becher, and the next thing you know, you’re on Burnham. I suppose a lot of cities have things like this, places where one street changes into another, for no apparent reason. I’ve never understood it – how it can be Becher here and Burnham there when it’s the same road? You’re just driving along and all of a sudden – blam. You don’t even have a choice – once you hit that curve, the change is inevitable.
There are no houses or businesses there on that stretch of road – just an old disused railroad bridge that you pass under, and an old factory of some sort, which has always been mysterious to me because I’ve never known what it is, or was. It might have already been shut down when I was a kid, or it might still be operating now, I don’t know. It just looms there in the background, removed and off limits, yet imposing, somehow larger than the rest of the city, or more existent; a presence from another, older world, when West Allis made things.
West Allis, the town where I was born and raised, is an old manufacturing town. It grew up around the Allis-Chalmers factory complex, and once upon a time a lot of the men in the city worked there. Allis-Chalmers made tractors for farming. During World War 2, some of their facilities off of 60th Street were used for the Manhattan project – some Stallions helped make Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then, in the 1980s, slowly, little by little, Allis-Chalmers closed. I don’t know why – I’m sure some banker or politician has an explanation. The main complex off 70th and Greenfield emptied out, and for a while it just sat there, empty and silent like a Zen monk. Then the first new business moved in, a harbinger of the new West Allis: Blockbuster Video. It was perfect. A chain video store, providing minimum wage jobs for only a handful of people, and sending a clear message to the rest of the city: You can’t earn a decent living anymore, but you can numb your brain watching garbage in your living room.
Some of the smaller buildings in the old factory complex were converted into offices. When my parents got divorced in ’84 I had to go see a child shrink in one of those offices so that he could testify in the custody dispute. Later, the large building across the street from there was turned into a Pick N’ Save grocery megastore (which caused the closing of one of my favorite places in old West Allis – Van’s Grocery store – a small mom and pop joint down the road.)
My aunt got a job at the Pick N’ Save. She used to be a stay-at-home mom whose husband worked at a factory and made enough to support a family of six. But that just isn’t possible anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. Nowadays some of her kids work for Pick N’ Save as well, earning a fraction of what their father made working a factory job.
Those facilities where they made the bombs, those were converted into a Sam’s Club. We may as well have dropped those bombs on ourselves. The Milwaukee Business News reports that “between 1979 and 1989, West Allis lost 8,500 manufacturing jobs, 10,000 people moved out of the city and the average wage dropped 25 percent.”
This is the time when I and my friends were growing up, while the city was crumbling down, as though we were all on one side of a see-saw, and the city on the other. When Ross Perot said in 1992 that the North American Free Trade Agreement would cause a “giant sucking sound,” cities like West Allis already knew what he meant. Yeah, we thought, this place already sucks.
West Allis is today known as Dirty Stallis, though I never called it that, nor did anyone I grew up with. All my life it was a city in decline, but I guess I got out before it became quite that bad. We just called it Stallis for short, a name that I swear to God was invented by my friend one day when we were getting high in The Pit, our favorite neighborhood weed spot. Or at least that’s the first time I remember hearing it. I thought it was kind of stupid and fake-ghetto to shorten the name like that, like saying “Chi” for Chicago or something, but it stuck anyway.
When I reached adulthood – or rather, my twenties, which is hardly a time of adult behavior nowadays – I became aware that people in the surrounding towns made fun of West Allis. Wealthy suburbanites in Brookfield and New Berlin, artsy hipsters in Riverwest and on the East Side of Milwaukee, they all looked down on Stallis as a white trash dump where the women still dressed like heavy metal skanks and the men still wore mullets and Zubaz pants because everyone was too drunk to realize that the 80s had ended. I guess to some extent that was true.
But I also soon realized that these outsiders were snobs and hypocrites. The same people who espoused all sorts of progressive politics in their coffee shop conversations, who were so “pro-working class” in theory, had nothing but contempt for the real-life working class people of West Allis, who had suffered through so much in the previous decades.
My grandfather was a storyteller, among other things, and this book is a continuation of the tradition that he passed down to me, among other things. He grew up in Kohler, another small manufacturing town, just outside of Sheboygan, named after the Kohler family and their now-international plumbing company. At the time of this writing, I’m in Shenzhen, a large industrial city in southern China, and there are Kohler faucets and toilets in the bathrooms here, and Kohler billboards adorning the streets. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, Kohler employees went on strike in 2015.
My grandparents moved to West Allis in the 1950s, and lived there until my grandfather died in ‘95. They weren’t rich, but they owned their own home, and my grandmother never had to work. They had a small cottage house on the corner of a dead end street right above some train tracks, a little two bedroom shack, in which they nonetheless raised four kids. Later, they also raised me there. By the time I finished high school, I’d moved over a dozen times because my mom, a single parent, was always struggling with money, so the only constant thing in my childhood was my grandparents’ house on that dead end street. Whenever I’m in Stallis these days, I always drive back there to reminisce – the new owners probably think I’m some psycho, just sitting there in the car looking at their house.
Sometimes my grandpa told made-up stories, but most of the stories he told were true, things that he’d lived through in the past. The same goes for me, though I’ve changed all the names to protect the innocent and the guilty alike. I used to sit, spellbound, listening to Grandpa’s tales of life in the 1920s, when he was a boy growing up on a farm, and the 1930s, when my grandparents got married and struggled through the depression, and the 40s and 50s when they were building their life together and raising their children. When Tom Brokaw called theirs “the Greatest Generation,” I just thought: Well, duh.
My generation, especially those of us who grew up in old factory towns like West Allis, are the last of the old world, which was already 90% gone by the time we got there, even though the new world hadn’t quite come along yet. They never even found a name for us – the older guys were “Generation X,” and after them there wasn’t anything until the “Millennials.” We grew up in between, on cassettes and VHS tapes. We learned how to type on computers in grade school, but we didn’t have them in our homes until we were finishing high school or already out of it. By the time the Internet became ubiquitous and changed everything including childhood, we’d already reached adulthood – or gotten as close to it as we were going to get. The millennium came and went, passing us by, and after it was gone we were left with the ruins of the old world, and left out of the new one.
Some of the older generation saw what was in store for us. I remember my high school History teacher, a surly old German-descended pessimist in the tradition of Schopenhauer, who one day decided to get real with us after we’d pissed him off one too many times: “You know what? Fail this class, flunk out of school, do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter. There’s not gonna be any jobs in this country by the time you guys graduate.” A bit hyperbolic, to be sure, and probably more the result of his listening to alarmist talk radio than of any great insight on his part, but nonetheless more true than any of us would have preferred. I didn’t take his advice – I went to college and got good grades. And proved him right.
When Becher turns into Burnham, you’ve come to 60th Street, and the site of two old Stallis landmarks. The first is Burnham Bowl, which is, as the name suggests, a bowling alley, but to every comic book geek in the greater Milwaukee area, it’s much more importantly known as the location of the bimonthly Comic Book Show which has been hosted there for as long as I can remember. The second landmark is the Iceburg Drive-In, which had the best hot dogs in town when I was a kid. In retrospect, they were probably serving the same mass-produced dogs and buns as everybody else, but it was the place itself that added flavor. I don’t know why – just one of those things you have to be a local to understand. There’s still a drive-in there today, but it’s not called Iceburg anymore. The new place, whatever it is, made the papers a few years back when some gang member shot somebody in the head there.
We didn’t call it Dirty Stallis, but as soon as I heard that name I knew it was right, and I knew that it had been that for most of the time I was growing up there, and we just didn’t realize it. Nonetheless, this book is not about West Allis in the 21st century. I have no idea what the place is like now, so it’s not for me to tell that tale. Occasionally I read that things are “looking up,” that some new developer has a project there, or some new company added jobs there. I hope it’s true.
Fitzgerald famously wrote that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Me, I was born facing the past, always stumbling ass-backwards into tomorrow because I was always focused on an older world that felt like my real home. Old comic books and baseball cards; grandpa’s stories; old junk from Trash and Treasure, the neighborhood flea market that used to be held every Sunday at the West Allis Farmer’s Market.
Which is more tragic – to love the future, or to love the past? Both are always out of reach. The future promises a moment – just one, brief instant – when you will be able to touch it, to have it as the present. But time is always divisible into smaller units, and the nanosecond in which your beloved future comes will pass before you even become aware of it, like a bullet breaking the sound barrier.
The worst thing about the future is that it’s never quite what you think it is. You’re looking at it getting closer and closer, and you think you can see it for what it is, but when you get there, it’s not as good as you thought it would be. The future is a mirage in the desert of the real. But the past, the past is always only what you think it is, because memories are all that remain of it.