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Wednesday, august 16, 1989
Milwaukee is not famous. Don't believe the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, which has claimed since 1871 that Schlitz is "the beer that made Milwaukee famous." This is an indisputable lie. As a teenage resident of downtown Milwaukee--as an inhabitant of the zip code 53202--I was as anonymous as anyone else in America. There was no fame magically coursing through my city's rusted water pipes. There was no fame in the boarded-up homes and concrete warehouses of my neighborhood.
Schlitz or no Schlitz, my family lived in a four-story building on the border of a Section 8 housing development. We inhabited one wing of the top floor. My mom posted this sign just above our mailbox, in cheerful red ink and Scotch tape:
The Balodis Family Welcome You!
Come into our home in Apartment Number 7!
In Latvian, Balodis means pigeon. We were a small roost of Soviet immigrant pigeons--just the three of us--huddled together amid the urban decay.
Yes, the apartment was dingy. But dingy in a hopeful way, dingy with a heart. Looking back on it fifteen years later, I recognize that it did have certain low-budget flair. There were posters tacked to the walls, or rather, 81/2-by-11 advertisements that my mom had carefully torn out of the magazines in the library. These were advertisements of many different sorts: Coca-Cola, Wrangler Jeans, the Toyota Camry. Anything with bright colors or a sense of consumer wealth. She tacked them up behind sheets of plastic, and at night the plastic would catch the lamplight and shimmer. "That, my darling," she liked to say, "is the most beautiful advertising bulletin, do you not think?"
On the main living room wall there was an enormous vainags, a yellow wreath that was made mostly from straw and dried flowers. This vainags supposedly brought good luck if you rubbed it, and so there was perpetually a trail of crumbled straw on the floor. That, coupled with the open jar of salt on the dinner table--salt to bring flavor and fertility to our house--made me feel something like a barnyard animal.
We had five rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, and a living room. We ate our meals at a table in the kitchen, just the three of us--at times it would get a little lonely. But to my dad, this was the extreme of luxury. "Yuri," he once told me, "for an apartment similar to this in Riga--you would have to turn in at least four neighbors to the KGB." He loved the thick, olive-colored shag carpeting. Barefoot--this is how he liked to be when he was home. His feet were enormous and hairy, and slightly redolent of decay. He liked to shuffle through the carpet, to luxuriate his decaying feet in the petroleum fibers.
Invariably, though, my dad would end up drinking on the balcony. I do believe that if the weather had been more cooperative he would have slept there, covered in his nylon sleeping bag, staring up at the stars. Some summer evenings when my parents weren't fighting they'd drink wine outside and stand uncomfortably close to each other. This would force me to hurry to my bedroom, where I'd burrow under the covers, embarrassed by their affection, and try to read with a flashlight.
The first Latvians, my dad would often tell me, came to Wisconsin in 1903. The Wisconsin Valley Land Company lured them to the farmland west of Milwaukee. They came with the Croats and the Lithuanians, the Bulgarians and the Slovaks, the Armenians and the Fins, the Poles and the Ukrainians and the Montenegrins. Part of an Eastern European exodus--a steady stream of immigrants from east of the Danube--the Latvians became factory workers and farmers and solid middle-class citizens of middle America. They founded their own Latvian Lutheran Evangelical Church--all the way out in Wauwatosa--a little suburb twenty miles to the west. They opened a small group of specialty stores and started printing a Latvian-language newspaper.
But by 1989, most of the stores had closed. The newspaper had shut its doors in 1971. The few elderly parishioners who gathered each Sunday to warble through A Mighty Fortress is Our God did so with increasing frailty. And as Latvians living downtown, anyway, we were out of luck. My dad preferred to go to the Catholic Church that was two blocks from our apartment building. "The communion wafers taste better there," he told me. "More like bread, and not so much like paste and suffering." When we did go to mass--mostly on the holiest of Holy Days--we bundled our way over to St. Philippe's. The spires of this cathedral rose magnificently over Lake Michigan, a tribute to Victorian Gothic architecture, in all of its gargoyle-laden glory.
Because of the lack of Latvian merchants in downtown Milwaukee, my mom shopped instead at the Polish specialty stores on South Kinnickinnic Avenue. In her years in the city she'd managed to pick up a few Polish phrases, and so she'd haggle with the retailers, demanding better prices in her scornful, but limited, Polish. When I was free from school I'd accompany her. On this particular Wednesday, we crossed the Milwaukee River twice, taking both the Wisconsin Avenue lift bridge and the steel-truss bridge that followed it. By the time we reached Zigorski's--her favorite of the little shops--my feet ached and throbbed. But, then again, she was my mom, and she demanded a certain amount of Eastern European foodstuffs.
Zigorski's was a Polish delicatessen of the first order. Ropes of sausage dangled from the ceiling. The refrigerated case overflowed with a variety of pickled products--eggs, cucumbers, mushrooms, even a big jar that held the brain of pig, bobbing in a dill-studded brine. No one bought the pig's brain. I guessed that it was a decoration. My mom was looking for fresh herring. She didn't want herring that came in a tin--this you could buy, she told me, at any supermarket. "We will have a good meal that I have been craving recently," she'd said.
When my mom asked the man behind the counter for herring, he frowned and said that they were out. They might have some next week, he indicated, and crossed his heavy arms over his chest. He wore a white apron and a small triangular cap. The apron was stained with broad streaks of blood. His graying sideburns, I noticed, reached the lowest portion of his jaw.
"You bastard," my mom said. "Don't lie to me."
If I'd been inexperienced in the ways of shopping with my mom, I would have been nervous at this point. As it was, a woman standing near the baked goods gasped and dropped a cake on the floor. The cake exploded, scattering frosting in a wide white arc. Another Zigorski's employee scurried out of a back room with a mop.
"Don't call me names," the attendant said. Then, raising the volume of his voice: "Does anyone else need help?" Though there were several other customers, none of them seemed eager to get involved in this particular confrontation. My mother stood there, resolute.
"I know you have it, you bastard," she said again. She then added a few phrases of Polish. They sounded guttural and malicious, and from the expression on the man's face, I guessed that they weren't overly polite. He shook his head and disappeared wordlessly into the back.
This was, then, the old way of shopping. My mom took the lessons she'd learned in Soviet Latvia and applied them to the American grocery marketplace. When the counter attendant vanished, she patted my arm gently. "Do not worry, Yuri," she said, "he will return in a moment with our herring."
Zigorski's also had an extensive selection of olives. They sat in open barrels near the door, green and black and brown. I liked standing next to the olives and inhaling deeply. I'd bring the scent of the vinegar into my lungs, wincing as it made me slightly dizzy. I looked at the walls. Every available space was overflowing with goods--with packaged crackers and cookies and strips of dehydrated meat, sold in bulk. The store carried products from a variety of Eastern European countries. The ceiling was decorated with a series of flags, flags I recognized as Bulgarian, Albanian, Polish, Yugoslav.
The attendant returned. He held a neatly wrapped bundle of newspapers.
"Here you are, Mrs. Balodis," the man said. The animosity had left his voice. "We just received it this morning. We hadn't put it in the fish case, yet." He smiled. This transaction was probably one of many similar transactions that he endured over the course of a day. I had a vision of an army of middle-aged Eastern European mothers--all jovial and abusive--demanding products that were not on display in the front of the store.
That night, we ate herring in mustard sauce, a particular favorite of my mom's. My dad used a stale piece of rye bread to soak up the mustard. After he finished this, he licked each of his fingers--carefully, very carefully--and carried his dish to the kitchen. He poured himself three inches of bourbon.
"It keeps the stomach digesting," he said, somewhat grimly, and walked out onto the balcony. My dad held a position as a part-time night janitor at Jack Baldwin Chevrolet--a car dealership on Milwaukee's Auto Row. He was preparing for work with a shot of bourbon; on the nights he worked, he liked to be continually and slightly intoxicated. He'd come home around seven A.M., saturated with alcohol's scent.
Summer evenings could be balmy and pleasant in the parts of Milwaukee where the wind came off of the lake and the paper mills didn't scent the air. We lived just over a mile from County Stadium, the old ballpark where the Brewers used to play. Occasionally you could hear a cheer from the stadium bleachers, as the Brewers scored a run or struck someone out. The noise would float toward you, disembodied, the clamor of a thousand voices, now faint as the voice of a single bird.
I went into my bedroom and retrieved my ragged copy of Crime and Punishment. I was reading it for the first time--stunned by the drama of the language. I brought the book into the living room and sat on the carpet in front of the television. I began to read. The TV was on and tuned to Wheel of Fortune. I tried to block out the noise, focusing instead on the book and the sounds of my mom doing the dishes. I was reading in front of the television at her request. She was suspicious of my books, and she felt no worries about telling me this. In my mom's eyes, loneliness bred independence, and independence, in Latvia during the Soviet '60s, meant nothing but trouble. The culture she'd been raised in--I was led to believe--had emphasized communal life. Privacy was not something that she'd been raised to treasure.
"Yuri," she'd say, "why are you always reading, reading, reading? So quiet, away in your room. Why not come out here and join us, when we are doing things in the kitchen or watching the television?"
When I was being particularly quiet, my mom would show me a photograph she'd kept--a black-and-white picture of the sprawling housing developments outside of Riga where she'd grown up. The buildings stretched to the limitless horizon, fifteen stories each, dropped on the treeless earth by some demented construction deity. It was George Orwell meets Walter Gropius meets industrial concrete, and it always terrified me.
"In here lived four thousand people," my mom would say. "The walls were thin as flour." This was a favorite expression of hers, "thin as flour," and I still believe she is solely responsible for its invention. "Everyone was quiet, all of the time," she'd continue, "because if you said anything, made any noise at all, someone would make a note and call the secret police and you would disappear. So be happy for reading in here with me and being together with all of this nice electricity."
I was to live in the open and be free to say everything I wanted--openly--in the living room of our house, as loudly as I wanted, with the windows open even, and with the television on, and with the record player playing, if I so desired. I was to be a typical American teenager and not worry about matters of nationality or language or anything as complicated as this. I was not to worry about speaking Latvian; I was to simply enjoy network television sitcoms and dramas. Sometimes, I confronted my mom about this:
"Mom," I'd ask, "why can't I learn Latvian?"
"Latvian?" my mom would answer. "But you are an American, Yuri, are you not?"
"Well, sure," I'd say. "I'm an American. But--"
"There is your answer. Americans speak American language, which is English. Do you see many Americans running around speaking Latvian? Do not be ridiculous."
I was a lonely kid, I suppose, but in my loneliness I took some solace from the city. We lived in Milwaukee's Third Ward. The Third Ward in 1989 was not what the Third Ward is today--an aggressively reclaimed urban neighborhood, home to a slew of fashionable houseware boutiques and gourmet coffee vendors. In 1989, the Third Ward was just what you'd expect from the tenth-poorest urban area in America: an expanse of boarded-up warehouses, a sprawl of low-rent tenement buildings, a mixed commercial and residential district that overflowed with trash and potholes.
The Ward itself was a peninsula, bordered on two sides by the Milwaukee River--that sad, gray, industrial waterway--and on a third side by Lake Michigan. But Interstate 794 cut through the center of the district, and so our section of the Third Ward had the feel of an island. Water on three sides and the overpass on a fourth. Roughly thirty-five square blocks, all of it paved, all of it lit, at night, with bulbous electric lights, lights that made everything blossom with shadows.
That night--a Wednesday night--I couldn't sleep. The herring and mustard sauce churned unpleasantly in my stomach. I could feel the school year approaching, and a formless sense of anxiety settled over my limbs, sheathing my skin with sweat, sending cramps up the sides of my calves. I squirmed uncomfortably in bed for a few hours. Midnight turned into one A.M. turned into two A.M. turned into four. Finally, I resolved to go out onto the balcony--to breathe in the warm summer air that would be tinged with the carbon scent of exhaust.
The balcony was strange and expansive without my dad's presence. I stood against the rail and watched the city beneath me. I could see little pieces of the streets that cobbled outward into our section of downtown.
From the Hardcover edition.