I just heard U2â€™s "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the band's 1984 song about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Whenever I hear the lyrics ...
Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
â€¦ I canâ€™t help but remember that April 4 in 1968.
When I was a kid growing up on the Northwest Side of Milwaukee, whenever I had a little extra spending money beyond my consistent forays to buy candy or baseball cards, I couldnâ€™t wait to get Downtown. And it seemed that aside from unloading my snow shoveling income for a pair of Bucks tickets in the winter, the only time I was flush with cash was right after my birthday on April 3rd. Those trips were also pretty consistent.
With my $10 or $15 secured deep within my off brand jeans, I would â€“ with semi-full knowledge of my parents â€“ take the #64 bus east on Capitol Drive, remaining diligent on the lookout for Fond du Lac Avenue where I knew I would have to transfer. There were probably times I was so nervous about losing my transfer ticket that I ran the risk of rubbing off the ink.
Sometimes with a friend or occasionally with my younger brother (not my neighbor Gino Salomone; his parents wouldnâ€™t let him go with me), we would wait for that next bus in a manner unfathomable to the current existence of a ride within minutes available to todayâ€™s adolescents with a phone and Uber app.Â
I had very little comprehension of where Downtown started and ended, but I sure knew Wisconsin Avenue was what to look for. I pretty much knew it by seeing statutes of old guys on horses. Same statues I probably drive by a hundred times a week now without even noticing.
First stop was always The Moon Fun Shop, where I risked spending all my money on the necessities that only they had â€“ such as fake cigarettes, tricks, counter-culture items such as political pins and other harmless clutter. I loved that place.
Next, we would usually wander over to a small auto parts store Downtown that was a hidden gem. Not that I needed a carburetor, but for a 12-year-old boy, there was no greater treasure than an STP sticker. I have no idea how I found out, but I came to realize that if a nice little kid ventured into the store, went up to whoever was at the counter and asked if they had any extra stickers, they would usually oblige. And I was not very willing to share that amazing information. I could usually walk out with four, five or even six different stickers.Â
By then, I was already hungry, as I was every day as a kid who both couldnâ€™t get enough to eat and a mom from England who didnâ€™t believe in cooking food with flavor. While I already knew McDonaldâ€™s was the occasional cuisine treat I could look forward to, Downtown Milwaukee had an A&W on Wisconsin Avenue. That place was downright exotic. Not just because of the wonderful Greek family that must have owned it and nosily staffed it like something out of a movie, but because I could eat my chili dog and root beer like I was at the counter of a diner in a Tom Waits song.
It then seemed like a five block walk would be in order right down to Radio Doctors. If I could afford a 45 after my prior two expenses, I was happy. And something like The Turtles' "Happy Together" was a true value equation for a little kid with under a dollar left. As long as I correctly calculated the remaining necessary bus fare.
All fond remembrances. But I also remember that specific April 4, 1968 as the only time my parents vetoed my birthday shopping spree Downtown. They were worried that conditions were too volatile in Milwaukee based on what they saw on the news.Â
Interesting that not many years later I would spend most of my adult working life Downtown.Â And if it seems foreign that a little kid would travel Downtown by himself, this same kid has never ever ever felt unsafe or unfamiliar in Downtown Milwaukee. The magic of the Moon Fun Shop has shifted to amazing restaurants, cranes everywhere I look and a renaissance that even my adult business side sees as astonishing.
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