My Darling B and I spent all day yesterday in downtown Madison and all we saw was a lousy two hundred thousand union supporters rallying around the capitol! Man, did we feel ripped off!
We started off the day normally enough, washing up and heading into town to stock up our pantry with various and sundry items from the Dane County Farmer’s Market and, while we were there, we filled our bellies with a delicious breakfast: burritos, hash browns and a few leafy greens. Leafy greens might sound a little unusual to those who have not eaten at a farmer’s market. I thought they were at first, too, but after you’ve eaten breakfast at a farmer’s market for a couple years you not only get used to it, you feel a little guilty if you don’t eat your leafy greens, like maybe you’re cheating. “Hiding your leafy greens under the table mat again?” “No, Mom, honest!”
While My Darling B was shopping I had to run down the street to get first aid for an eyeglass emergency. At first I was just going to duck into Dorn’s Hardware to see if they had any of those little screwdrivers you can attach to your keyring. That would’ve been the quickest and easiest way for me to fix my glasses, if Dorn’s had been open, but they were not, so I ran shuffled on down to State Street to an optometrist’s shop on the intersection with Gorham Street. I’m going to give C. G. Schanel & Associates a plug because not only was he the most pleasant optometrist I’ve even dealt with, he didn’t just hand me a screwdriver and leave me to fix it myself. Instead, he took my eyeglasses over to his little workbench, made sure everything was put together and lined up correctly, cleaned off the glasses and handed them back to me at no charge. “Just come back to me when you need glasses,” he said with a big smile. And I will.
State Street was a steady stream of people walking up to capitol hill and by the time got back to the neighborhood where the farmer’s market is held I was starting to worry that I would never find My Darling B in the crowd. I milled around for a bit in the parking lot, then went into the market itself and looked around, but eventually had to admit to myself that I was never going to spot her and, as it turned out, I was right. She was going to spot me. She came out of the ladies’ room just a fraction of a second after I came out of the men’s room and chased me down. So we didn’t have to wade into the mass of people congregating around the square.
The first time we showed up there it must’ve been about ten o’clock. There were already quite a lot of people crowding the sidewalks around the square, so many that they were already filling the street as they walked around in the customary counterclockwise direction. I wonder who started that, and why? Anyway, we milled around for a bit, collecting pro-union buttons and checking out the signs before we were swept up by the crowd and marched hand-in-hand up Carroll Street to the top of the hill where Hamilton intersects at an angle with the square in front of the Inn on the Square. That’s where we backed up to the curb to wait for the tractors.
This was what My Darling B was most interested to see this morning. Farmers brought about two-dozen tractors (and the inevitable manure spreader — that was sort of required, wasn’t it?) to parade around the square. Real farmers. We knew several of them from the farmer’s market. The parade was headed by an old green fire truck and I’m pretty sure I saw Dan Nichols in the bunch that stood on the back shouting, “This Is Grassroots!” The crowd quickly took up the chant and amped it up to a deafening roar.
As the tractors came up Hamilton Street one by one and turned to head down Main Street at a slow crawl the crowd raised a cheer to each one of them, and when a farmer raised a hand in salute or otherwise acknowledged the crowd they were rewarded with a round of “Thank! You! Thank! You! Thank! You!” from the crowd. It was quite a moment.
After the last tractor turned down Main Street the crowd closed in behind it and marched along in the road. I don’t think we got any farther than halfway down the Pinckney side of the square in a half-hour of marching before we decided to mill around some and see what was going on. What we found was mostly a hundred thousand or so people milling around to see what was going on. Various people were making speeches from the platform set up near the base of the stairs on the State Street corner of the square, but we were too cold by that time to stand still and listen to them, and when My Darling B suggested we pop into Merchant’s to warm up a bit I eagerly agreed.
Merchant’s is a relatively new restaurant on the high-visibility corner of Pinckney and Doty, right across the street from Johnny Delmonico’s. We snagged two stools at the bar and, a few moments later, the attention of the bartender to beg him to fortify us against the cold. B was somehow hungry already, and as soon as she said that I was, too, so we split an open-faced sandwich and chased it with our favorite libations, a Hopalicious from Ale Asylum for me and a glass of Malbec for B. With a fresh supply of antifreeze coursing through my veins I was able to take my coat off … thirty or forty minutes later. I was really cold.
While we enjoyed our brunch, demonstrators streamed past the windows, most notably a long line of bright yellow cabs from the Union Cab Company, honking their horns in syncopation with the chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” (an earworm that no one in Madison can get out of their heads these days) and waving hand-made signs from the windows. When the red light at the corner of King Street stopped traffic, cab drivers would pop out of almost ever cab to take photos of the line. You can google “union cab madison wisconsin” and come up with any number of photos of the cabs lined up in the street yourself right now.
As our brunch came to an end we had to decide: go home, or stay to witness The Return of the Wisconsin Fourteen? The wouldn’t make their appearance until three o’clock, so we would have to find something to do for a while. We debated for a little while longer over another round of bellywarmers, just to keep the juices flowing in the cold, don’t you know, then wrapped ourselves up and headed back up to the square. After a quick stop at a book shop where My Darling B searched but was sadly unable to find just the right kind of journal she was looking for, we plowed back into the crowd to see what we could see.
Not much, as it turned out. It was about two-thirty and by this time the square was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people. I’ve read estimates of the crowd at about one hundred thousand. Pssht. If it was anything less than a quarter million, I’m a greedy union thug. Oh, wait. I am. Well, I still say it was closer to a quarter million, but maybe that’s my uncontrollable need to collectively ask for too much.
And while My Darling B and I were standing on tippy-toe trying to see who was at the podium, the lady next to me nudged me with her elbow and said in a conspiratorial whisper, hooking her thumb at the gentleman standing in my way, “Do you know who that is?” He looked maybe a few years older than me and wore plain denim work clothes. Could’ve been anybody from anywhere in Wisconsin. I turned back to the lady and shook my head no. “That’s Tom Barrett,” she said. Barrett ran against Scott Walker in the gubernatorial election and lost by a narrow margin. I wouldn’t have recognized him if he’d turned around and introduced himself, but many people in the crowd reached out to shake his hand and give him their regards, and after that happened a couple dozen times the crowd itself turned their cameras from the podium to Barret, snapping away and shouting, “Hello, Mister Mayor!” If you can find any of those photos on someone’s Facebook page, you’ll probably see My Darling B and I standing right behind him.
When the Wisconsin Fourteen finally returned, they were literally welcomed by the crowd as returning heroes. The crowd was signing a hymn to their return. I swear I am not making that up. To the strains of God Bless America they marched up the stairs, took their place at the podium, and one by one thanked everyone for everything.
And of course there was Jesse Jackson. I think he stops by every Saturday now to say a prayer. This Saturday he asked us to pray for the people in Japan and even I ducked my head to thank goodness that the friends I had in Japan were okay.
Tony Shalhoub was the Hollywood star this week, a good pick, I thought. You can’t get any more native to Wisconsin than Green Bay, but I say that with a touch of bias, having grown up in Green Bay myself. He brought his sister Amy along because she’s one of those overpaid teachers you keep hearing about.
We began to make our way off the square at maybe four o’clock, cold and exhausted but happy we stayed. Being part of a crowd like that will be a memory that will stick with us for a while.
Oh, just one more thing: Cows.