Walker by the Wash Brite

Scott Walker was a great next-door neighbor

image by Edward David via flickr

If I ever had to tell someone where I lived, as a kid, I’d say “just up the block from the Wash Brite.” Locals knew what I meant. They’d have had the road salt washed from their car there at some point, or else they’d have seen the big blue-and-yellow WASH BRITE sign that stood at the corner of 73rd St. and North Ave. in Wauwatosa, WI. Depending on whom I was talking to, I’d add, “Right next door to Scott Walker.”

Back then Walker wasn’t especially well known, so the reference only worked for certain attentive adults. He wasn’t governor yet, just an ambitious state legislator and, later, chief executive for Milwaukee County. Kids my age were more likely to know the Wash Brite. But it was true that, for about eight years spanning Clinton’s demise and the rise of the Bush Era—1998 to 2006—Walker and I were neighbors. I was 6 to 14 years old.

My past tense framing above is a little misleading. I’m up the street from the Wash Brite right now, composing this shred of millennial memoir on my parents’ desktop in my childhood home. I’m a recent college grad, looking for work and house-sitting for my parents while they take a well-earned summer vacation. My only real duty as house sitter is to water my mother’s garden, and also to get a job. Meanwhile Scott Walker has become a household name as one of the earliest-leading, and now earliest-dropping, Republican candidates for President.

Despite our political differences and the absurdity of American politics, I have only good—even banal—things to say about the Walkers as people. They’ve endured death threats and an exhausting public spotlight, and have tackled the campaign trail’s trials with steadfast sincerity. They have remained a perfectly picturesque political family even as the boys have openly disagreed with their father on gay marriage, demonstrating a healthy American capacity for harmonious dissent. All of which is just to say: respect, Matt and Alex. Respect, Tonette and Scott. My memories of Mr. Walker himself are especially positive. He was a good neighbor, mowing and hosing and parenting and parking. He carried a briefcase and wore suits. He matched your stereotype of a suburban breadwinner, a ’50s sitcom dad, a rare real-life instantiation of the folkloric postwar “average American.” If I happened to be in the yard while he was crossing from house to car, he’d wave and say “Hi” in a kind, mild voice. My mother tells me that once when I was very young, he stayed out on his front lawn playing catch with me even after his own offspring had gone inside.

Given Mr. Walker’s subsequent achievements, it’s hard for me to extract even my most personal childhood memories as his neighbor from an omnidirectional web of political significance. Here’s one obvious example: September 11, 2001. I was 9 years old and didn’t realize that anything unusual was going on until I saw my mom waiting for my sister and me in the parking lot after school. On the ride home my mom tried to explain what was happening. And while of course I didn’t understand the attacks, I at least registered that the nation was, in some way, under attack. At home, the minivan’s door slid back to reveal Matt and Alex, all of six or seven years old, wound up and running in circles on their front lawn, shouting, “THEY CRASHED INTO THE TOWERS LIKE [exploding noise].” I don’t think this was a particularly inappropriate reaction. It was neither reverent nor irreverent, neither obnoxious nor obsequious. All it was, was loud. That’s what I think, when I think of the Walkers as neighbors: loud. All of them except for Mr. Walker.

The boys would chase each other for hours: down the driveway and around the tree by the street, pivoting around the fire hydrant and crossing back over the front lawn, back up the driveway to the backyard, around and up and down the swing-set-and-slide structure, back down the driveway and around the tree by the street. Shouting: war cries, exclamations, narrative developments in some imagined plot too byzantine for anyone else to understand. Alex shouted accusations against Matt, Matt shouted refutations, their mother Tonette shouted at both of them, the boys would shout their respective cases, she’d shout her general impatience, they’d shout a defense, she’d shout a final warning, they’d mutter their acquiescence, and she’d leave them to let the cycle begin anew.

I was not a loud child. I was a child at pains to concentrate on a rotating set of hobbies. First, reading: Brian Jacques’s Redwall, Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, all of these laying the foundations for a political consciousness sketchily defined by the empathetic imagination. Then, juggling: after mastering the basic three-ball routine I added pins, which forced me out into our backyard, where, from across a line of small evergreens and a picket fence I could hear Matt and Alex running and shouting. They irritated me—though I honestly can’t remember them doing anything to really interfere with my activities. Later I dropped juggling and took up magic tricks, which, happily, I could practice indoors. After a year or so, the Walker boys and I established a mutual disinterest—though I suspect that I also projected some sort of disdain. I wasn’t much interested in playing with anybody then, not even kids my own age, and I found it difficult to concentrate on my Very Important Work with the Walkers‘ intrafamilial drama clamoring next door.

Which isn’t to say that we were perfect neighbors ourselves. In fact, towards the end of the Walkers’ residency by the Wash Brite, we did some serious damage to their property. It was near Christmas but hadn’t yet snowed, and my dad decided to burn some documents in our backyard fire pit. (Why he chose this method I’m not sure. He subsequently acquired a paper shredder.) Later in the day he dumped the ashes into our garbage bin. The ashes had cooled but hadn’t died, and proceeded to stage an astonishing comeback there among our trash, generating flames that breached the bin, lit the evergreens and the fence dividing our yards, caught on our garage’s siding, and blazed high enough to tickle the overhanging phone lines. It was scary for a moment: my family standing outside in a small crowd of onlookers, wrapped against the Wisconsin cold. I don’t remember Mr. Walker or the boys at the scene, but I do remember seeing Tonette, stunned, staring at the blaze, looking almost delighted by the strangeness of it. Before long the fire trucks arrived, and Wauwatosa’s unionized firefighters quickly snuffed the conflagration. It was over in time for Mr. Walker to attend a celebration of his latest victory against the judiciary, while my parents hosted a dinner party featuring affiliates of the very same. Family friends—at least on our side, and maybe the Walkers’ too—still joke that the fire was intentional. But since my parents covered the Walkers’ damages with a check for $500, I doubt it.

Mr. Walker had begun seriously eyeing the governor’s mansion by then, and his family soon put their house on the market. It was also around that time that he set about aggressively cutting government spending, targeting public-employee unions especially. The latter included my own mother’s union, the Association of Milwaukee County Attorneys. Two years before Mr. Walker’s successful run for governor in 2010, the county had offered the AMCA a compensation package modeled after those offered to other unionized county employees, such as nurses, a package which AMCA was prepared to accept. But once the deal approached Mr. Walker’s desk for approval, the county withdrew its previous offer and replaced it with an even slimmer deal, a deal freezing salaries and slowing the rate of growth for retirement funds. When the union objected to the revised offer, Mr. Walker’s office began suggesting that layoffs and hour-cuts might be in order, and so the now-disoriented AMCA had little choice but to accept. These negotiations ran into 2010, during which time my dad was laid off in sweeping cuts at the Journal Sentinel. My sister was in college, I was soon to enter, and both our schools were pricey out-of-state institutions. This was an unpleasant time for our family. Mr. Walker moved his into the governor’s mansion.

The AMCA affair turned out to be just the iceberg-tip of Mr. Walker’s union-busting ambitions, which have since defined his governorship and his presidential candidacy. His actions on that front have been well-covered elsewhere. More interesting, to me, is how Mr. Walker has developed this reputation by methodically nurturing a sympathetic and demographically homogenous base. As a lowly state legislator, he used to stand on street corners and shake the hands of passersby; as our neighbor, he was the only homeowner on our street who ever organized a block party; as county executive, he laid track for his gubernatorial runs by riding a Harley Davidson all over the state. And it’s paid off: he hasn’t lost a major election since 1990, when, at age 22, he lost a run for state assemblyman to Gwen Moore, who after defeating Mr. Walker would go on to become an important liberal presence in 414 politics and who is now a congresswoman for Wisconsin’s fourth district. Mr. Walker identified his mistake quickly: he was a white, male Republican running against an interesting black, female Democrat in the relatively (for Wisconsin) cosmopolitan and liberal metropole of Milwaukee. He solved this problem simply: in 1993, he ran in suburban Wauwatosa, home of friendly white folks like yours truly.

However canny and disciplined his campaigning, Mr. Walker’s successes rely primarily on his access to white electorates. In 2002 he slipped into the county executive’s seat by drawing on Milwaukee’s pale ring of suburbs, which stand in contrast to the to the city proper’s Democratic mayor and more diverse population. Running for governor in 2010, he drew even more successfully on the dairy state’s vast stretches of farmland and rural backcountry, where Milwaukee- and Madison-types fear getting caught with a flat tire. To drive through rural Wisconsin is to expose yourself to a disorienting sequence of billboards promoting a contradictory yet somehow coherent set of products and ideologies: FIREWORKS, XXX VIDEO, CHRISTIANITY, STRIP CLUBS, the fact that HEROIN IS BAD FOR YOU and that IF YOU’VE EVER HAD AN ABORTION YOU MIGHT AS WELL KILL YOURSELF. And while I doubt these billboards perfectly reflect their target audience, they nevertheless share said audience with Mr. Walker. By crippling public-employee unions’ collective bargaining capacities with Act 10 and provoking the 2012 recall vote, he went on to capture the support of the only remaining demographic even whiter than Wisconsin dairy farmers—neoliberal American billionaires. Thus Scott Walker: Candidate for President.

Aside from disempowering public employees like my mom, Mr. Walker’s governorship hasn’t impacted me as dramatically as it has plenty of my fellow citizens, especially as I’ve spent much of the past five years studying and working out of state. One feature that does concretely impact my week-to-week existence, though, is Mr. Walker’s distaste for mass transit. As a student attending college in the greater Chicago area, and more recently as a semi-employed and then unemployed person living on Chicago’s North Side, I find myself indebted to my parents and grandparents, who have together funded my continuing existence. This debt compels me to visit them on occasion, for financial, logistical, and emotional reasons. In order to do so I can either take the Amtrak, which costs $20 and adds at least an hour to my trip, or the Metra, which is more convenient and much cheaper, but which only takes me as far as Kenosha on the Wisconsin side of the IL–WI border. Mr. Walker could have accepted nearly a billion dollars in federal stimulus money to improve rail service between Chicago and Milwaukee and connect them to Madison and perhaps even Minneapolis. Similarly, he could have supported a more modest project connecting Cook County’s Metra rail to a new line linking Kenosha and Milwaukee. Mr. Walker did neither, priding himself on Wisconsin’s financial independence from the federal government, and on his base’s ability to own and operate automobiles.

With the Walkers next door, I was a child at pains to concentrate. With the Walkers in the news, I am a legal adult at pains to concentrate. They’ve never exited my field of consciousness, never stopped distracting me. Whereas I used to read the New York Times for a metropolitan escape from the grubby and boring regional news, when I click on the Times now, I’m confronted by a nightmare image of all that is typically middle-American in my background: Scott Walker’s simple white face.

But if the reappearance of Mr. Walker’s face in my life strikes me as nightmarish, it’s not because of the austere darkness in Wisconsin’s political psyche that liberals might find reflected in that face. It’s nightmarish to me specifically for far more intimate and egoistic reasons. Ten years ago, the Walkers and I started, in a sense, from the same place: just up the block from the Wash Brite. By the time he was my age Mr. Walker had already run his first campaign for public office. And even though he lost, I can only admire the will, discipline, and fortitude the run must have required from such a young candidate. By way of comparison, I, at age 23, have stacked my CV with merit badges (i.e. departmental awards) from a top-flight university, but I fear that my professional resume is a joke, leaving me with very little to offer prospective employers. An honest list of my accomplishments would run something like this:

  • Graduated from college, costing my parents close to $300,000
  • Took a degree in creative writing, which in retrospect feels like a rather shitheaded thing to do
  • Worked for a year as a research assistant to my former profs in the humanities, making nearly zero dollars and saving even less
  • Gained acceptance into zero of five MFA programs
  • Failed to attain further work when my RA-ships reached term
  • Ended a relationship with a cherished romantic partner

With no neat path forward, I now glance into the future’s gaping maw only through a wince. I devour terabytes of empty-calorie digital content and carcinogenic quantities of microwave popcorn. I’ve engaged in all manner of unhealthy, clichéd attempts at auto-obliviation in order to avoid the existential terror so common it’s banal among underemployed humanities grads. In short I’m exactly the sort of artsy-liberal, liberal-arts spacewaster against which Walker has long defined himself, first by dropping out of Marquette to pursue full-time work way back in the late 1980s and then, more recently, by sapping the state’s education budget and pushing for a shift away from UW Madison’s longstanding emphasis on truth as an ideal and toward an emphasis on the nuts and bolts of workforce development. As a drain on the economy, as a superfluous bundle of inapplicable philosophies, as a product and practitioner of neurotic indulgence, I’m a living, breathing argument for all kinds of Walkerism, and I hope you appreciate it, Scott.

Are you there, Scott? It’s me, Ezra—the curmudgeonly prepube from 2338. I’ve got a secret for you. I did you a favor this past year, specifically during Wisconsin’s 2014 gubernatorial election: I didn’t vote.

I’m not sure why. It’s hard to remember. I registered for an absentee ballot, which I received, and which sat for weeks on my desk in the little room I sublet in Chicago . . . and then must have gone invisible; my attention went elsewhere. It’s inexcusable, I know. I remember realizing that it was Election Day when I came home from work on November 4. I remember looking at that big, flat envelope on my desk, unopened under a distressed pile of notebooks. I could have filled the ballot out quick and stuck it in the mail. Maybe somebody would have counted it. But by then the polls were already calling you the winner by a mile.

I could chalk it all up to feelings of defeat: I’d voted against you twice already, and you won anyway. Or I could cite the fact that I was living in Illinois, and most of my active relationships were with people who didn’t know or care at all about Wisconsin. But I, like Kutcher’s Kelso, love Wisconsin, billboards and all. It’s home to my parents and grandparents and many of my friends and favorite teachers, crushes, connections, milestones, memories. Did I really just forget?

No, Mr. Walker, I didn’t forget, not exactly. I saw and remembered that envelope periodically during those days in fall 2014, those oddly-structured days, those short, exhausting days, days I spent reading dry academic monographs and sending desperate emails, preparing MFA applications while furiously writing stories too ugly and ill-conceived to belong in any respectable workshop. And then returning to that small Chicago room just thirty yards from the CTA tracks, filled with the noise of passing trains and nocturnal construction and dumpster lids slamming in the alley. Living with people I barely knew, very nice people, nice enough to make me wonder if I was nice enough to them. Wondering where everybody went, where did they go, where did all those friends who had majored in sensible disciplines go? Where did they who had gotten their lives right go? California, Florida, Ohio, DC; England, Germany, China, France. Not Chicago, mostly, and definitely not Wisconsin. And throughout it all there was that envelope that I never quite forgot.

I was, am, embarrassed. Every time I meet a new person, send another email, tinker hopelessly with my résumé: embarrassed, embarrassed, embarrassed. I’ve done more damage to my mother’s retirement plans than you could ever dream, Mr. Walker, and I remember it every time I come back home to find her just a little bit older. As an apprentice member of the creative-writing field I happily learned to sell the very stuff of myself to classmates, professors, and awards committees. Now, shut out of that field’s institutions, it’s hard to avoid thinking of my self as spoiled goods, product left to languish by an oversaturated market. Last fall I couldn’t imagine doing anything as abstract as voting, addressing the state’s needs when I had such heavy shit to work out before I could meet my own. Though I wonder now, too late, whether in doing the former, I might have begun the latter.

I know—if I don’t vote, then I can’t complain when you stick around. But by “stick around” I don’t just mean in the governor’s mansion. Ever since those backyard juggling sessions—and I mean this with all due respect—I’ve wished you and your obstreperous kids away, hoped you would take your innocuous, happy lives elsewhere and disappear, so I could focus on my Very Important Work, Work which my parents encouraged: they were never too seriously worried about the money until your rise to state power. And now you buzz through my brain, through my newsfeed, through my country, the pesky poltergeist of White Wisconsin.

Sure, you’ve dropped from the race, in an apparently noble attempt to “clear the field” and foster some as-yet-undiscovered “positive conservative message.” But I know you, Mr. Walker. You play an incredibly long game. Twice now (in 1990 and 2006) you’ve used ostensibly-failed runs to lay track for later, successful campaigns. By exiting the present competition, you can maintain your nonlosing streak for another three years, at least. I do not doubt your ability to run for president again—and maybe even win. You’re only 48, after all. And who knows? Even in 2016, with a Fiorina or a Bush as the GOP candidate, maybe you have a shot at VP? Or a cabinet post? Just imagine: Scott Walker, secretary of labor.

I’m in no position to offer you advice, Mr. Walker. But here it is anyway: You’re an outstanding neighbor. I’ve heard through the grapevine that your newer neighbors on 68th St. liked you a lot, although you might want to start wearing a shirt when you mow. The point is, though, you’re no good as a neighbor to anybody stuck in the governor’s mansion, or at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, or forever on the campaign trail. So take a breather, and say hi to the kids, hi to Tonette, for me. And remember that the best thing you’ve ever done for at least one self-serious kid from your suburb, Mr. Walker, was play catch. Thanks for that.

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