Teach a Man to Fish (or “Unclaimed Baggage at MKE”)

Landmark 1850 Inn

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin

42.94° N, 87.89° W

Paul VanDango’s minivan has the dirty-iced flanks and early-onset rust common to midwestern family trucksters. From my perspective, standing along Milwaukee’s internal airport’s arrivals curb, the VanDango wagon is as anonymously dreary as the next idling minivan. And if every idling driver stepped out of their minivans into this twelve degree frostbitten midday, they’d likely all be wearing the same wardrobe of basic-color fleece sweater, shorts and galoshes or flip-flops. The uncanny commonality shouldn’t be confused as conformity amongst midwesterners as much as it is reflection of a pattern of natural selection. This is the species of man left-standing after the lake-effect whittles away at the weak. Not that evolution is survival of the fittest, or survival of the best fitting fleece. No, it has never been that. Evolution is propagation, survival of whichever gene pool can spread the most seed. And these are the descendants of they, the seed-spraying propagators, and these progeny mostly drive minivans. It’s baffling, I know. I’d have no idea which minivan was the VanDango wagon if the dim sun gleaning off the piercing blue-eyes of this prince douchebag of the ice zombies hadn’t been so glaring through the windshield. Oh! I toss my mittens in the air and Paul VanDango makes eye-contact, slowing his roll in the thru-lane, slow enough for me to dodge taxi-cabs and reach his door with minimal sweat and ice-road slippage. Dude, he says as I climb in. Dude, I respond. How much shit did you pack, douchebag, he inquires with a side-glance at my carry-on. Your mom had some things she wanted returned, I shrug, struggling with the gimpy seatbelt. Paul smiles and drives us to the nearest dive. 

We arrive within 15 seconds of leaving the airport. This tavern is nearly as old as the city and has been the primary watering hole into and out of MKE since before humans figured-out flight. Dude, you want to talk about fucking foresight, Paul says with an admiring nod towards the tavern which, we assume, had a name less grandiose than Landmark 1850 Inn back when the year was 1851. There were no airplanes back then, therefore no airport. These parts were focused on milking and cheesing and little else. Perhaps this dive was once called, Yee Auld Publick House of the Oak Tree next to the Creek or Table-Tennis Ted’s Livery and Whore Emporium. Today, the inn stands as a worthy airport lounge and its interior is humid with the airborne grease bubbles of fried cod; it’s Friday after all and the catholic majority doesn’t eat hamburgers today because Jesus died on a Friday and, I am guessing here, I am no theology scholar or anything, catholics think Jesus died of food-poisoning, maybe, and they insist on not eating beef or anything warm-blooded. Thus all the fish-fries here in the midwest, or, as they do along the Gulf Coast, grilling alligator tail and charbroiling oysters. 

Landmark 1850 has plenty of German beers on draft, but Paul prefers pours from the well. He orders two Old Fashions and the gypsy barmaid, who is the spitting image of my long-dead father’s longer-dead mother, asks sweet or sour, hun? Paul VanDango replies, pressed, which the gypsy barmaid nods at, understanding this means brandy topped with equal parts soda-water and 7-UP. Actually, I’m fine with a beer, I say to Paul. My internal clock thinks it’s time for breakfast back home in the Pacific Time Zone; it’s a bit early for my internal machinations to handle a Wisconsin Old Fashioned. My gypsy grandmother scrutinizes me to the bone before shifting her glance to Paul VanDango, who insists she continues, two Old Fashions, pressed, he says. 

Everyone listens to Paul VanDango, present company included. He’s the chief financial officer for an agricultural company which manufacturers farm equipment, and by equipment, we assume mostly udder-wankers and cotton-gins, though this is conjecture; just because I have a dating app for Farmers Only doesn’t mean I am a farmer. 

Paul VanDango is an insidiously ingenious mind-fucker. He could tell you your next words will be a lie and it will stump you into speechlessness. I’ve known Paul VanDango since college and I’ve never seen the mind-fucker not have a grip on a situation. His competence level is uncanny. He’s quite honestly the most competent person you’ll ever meet. Sure, if there is an argument or fight he cannot win, he will duck out, but this is a part of his genius. Paul VanDango does have a call, though, should you ever play poker with the man. When he’s getting especially competitive, excited, he will blow on his finger-tips as if they were lit matches. When you see this, you know Paul VanDango is dialed-in and you better call his bluff, unless he already anticipates your bluff-call, in which case, he has you right where he wants you. You should probably not play poker with Paul VanDango.

It is nice being back in Milwaukee. Things are simpler here. It’s a blue-collar drinking town. Packers, Brewers, Badgers, Bucks and a tall-boy of Pabst Blue Ribbon, that is Milwaukee. My current home of Portland, Oregon, is a drinking town, but it is also a cocaine and heroin town and has the most strip-clubs per capita. Paul VanDango thinks this laughable when I mention it. Milwaukee Airport Lounge is a stone’s throw, he says, and has the best strippers in town, from what he’s heard, which isn’t saying much as all the good-looking dancing girls around here have left for Florida or Nevada. And, Paul goes on, you think you’re special out there in Oregon, but the priest who married me and Mrs. VanDango has been defrocked for smoking crack. Milwaukee isn’t as far removed as you’d think.

The drinks arrive and we clink glasses, toasting Jacques, Paul’s brother. Jacques VanDango is to be married over the weekend. Jacques’ last wedding had been at a botanical garden in Fairbanks, Alaska. Paul had been the officiant of that wedding while I drove the RV to get us there from Anchorage. For this weekend’s wedding, we will be at Aunt Carol’s farmhouse in Oak Creek, Paul will serve as the best man while I will be officiating. And Jacques’ bride is altogether a different person. 

Vic & Paul

But let us not get ahead of ourselves…

Dude, Paul asks from our place at the bar of Landmark 1850, those months you wintered at Aunt Carol’s farmhouse, did you ever date a girl you met in line at a Panera Bread? It sounds familiar. Yeah, says Paul, I think you won her B-52 tickets. Oh? Yeah, Paul VanDango continues, I was commuting to work, listening to local radio and they’re doing a contest for concert tickets. Whoever has the weirdest first date story wins. So this chick calls up, she says, hey, my name is whatever and I once dated this guy who was hiding out in South Milwaukee from his murderous ex-girlfriend down in Chicago. We met in line at a Panera Bread when he asked if I liked hazelnut or if I preferred my roast dark. We made out, yada, yada, he speaks in riddles and quotes scripture. He was waiting for the Rocky Mountain passes to clear before he leaves for Oregon. We were dating and then, out of the blue, he disappears into thin air. This is what she says on-air, Paul tells me. And I am thinking, he says to me, Jesus, dude, this sounds a lot like Vic Neverman. Anyway, she won the tickets to the B-52s. 

Yeah, I guess that was me. First of all, though, I say, I never quote scripture. Paul VanDango nods at this, I’ve never heard you quote scripture before. I did date a girl I met at Panera Bread. Her name was Melissa. Or Michelle. Probably Melissa. She was rather fetching. A little flighty, but I liked her. To this day, when I smell fresh-baked bread I think of her. But I didn’t disappear into thin air. She probably didn’t bother to mention on the radio that a couple days after our first date she found out she was pregnant. Jesus, dude, Paul VanDango says, it doesn’t work like that. It takes more than a couple days. Yeah, I say, I know. It wasn’t my baby, dude. It was her second ex-husband’s who she was still on “friendly” terms with. Jesus, Paul comments. Yeah, I say. And her earlier first ex-husband, which she probably didn’t mention on-air, was some whack-job who took her down to Texas to live with his religious cult where she wasn’t allowed to wear shoes. Jesus, dude, Paul says. Yeah, I say, and I am the craziest asshole she dated? I don’t think so. She wanted to keep dating until, and these are her words, not mine, she wanted to date until she got fat. I liked her enough that I was tempted, but the last thing I needed was to fall in love with an overly fertile religious fanatic when I am planning on traveling the Oregon Trail come spring. Right? Yeah, dude, Paul says, that’s valid.

We finish our drinks. I order a schwarzbier on draft and Paul asks for a dunkelweissen

I am tempted to say, Paul VanDango says, I taught you better than to get mixed-up with dames like this. But hey, at least you got a chance to sleep with a pregnant chick, he says. That’s a bucket-list bullet right there. Yeah, you taught me well, Pablo, I say. I continue, you know what Jesus said, you teach a man to fish and he’s going to pick-up random weirdos at Panera Bread.

Dude, I think you just quoted scripture, Paul says.

Hmm… I guess I did.

After a moment of thinking about Melissa, I ask my gypsy grandmother behind bar if she happens to have a local phone book. I don’t have a date to the wedding, after all. And let’s be honest, I know all I need to know about the VanDango sisters. If only I could remember Michelle’s last name. 

Where: Landmark 1850 Inn

When to Go: Anytime you’re near the airport in Milwaukee

What to Order: a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, pressed. 

  1 comment for “Teach a Man to Fish (or “Unclaimed Baggage at MKE”)

  1. Sue
    November 21, 2021 at 2:02 pm

    This is now my fav. Great story of the pregnant first date 😂


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