by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on June 9, 2019, as “Pentecost on Locust Street.” It is republished here with the author’s permission.
“And at this sound, the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews, and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’.”
Acts of the Apostles 2:6 – 2:11
Karin and I went to Mass on Pentecost. Karin sang with the choir. I got up and read a passage from the Acts of the Apostles to the congregation. Father Rich wore a red chasuble over his other garments. Red vestments signify a number of different things. The color often implies bloodshed. So, the priest wears red on Passion (Palm) Sunday, and on the days when we remember Christian martyrs. Red is also the color of Pentecost. It might be because Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who is often imagined as fire, and fire is often connected with the color red. Anyway, Father Rich was clothed in scarlet during the Mass.
Father Rich talked at length about the Holy Spirit, that one Person in the Trinity who is impossible to define. Our priest got emotional about his topic. He said,
“The Holy Spirit goes where it wants and when it wants. We often hinder the work of the Spirit, because we try to control it. We try to box it in. We need to open our hearts to whatever the Spirit wants us to do.”
I had wanted to go to Shavuot at the synagogue the night before. Shavuot is the original Pentecost. I was too tired to go. I stayed home, and I looked forward to being with my son, Stefan, on Sunday.
In the afternoon Stefan took me to the Locust Street Festival. Locust Street is a major road on the north side of Milwaukee. It starts in the east near Lake Michigan and then runs straight as an arrow westward through most of the city. Locust Street passes through several starkly different neighborhoods. On Milwaukee’s Eastside the street is home to wealthy liberals, college students, and assorted hipsters. That community ends at the bridge crossing the Milwaukee River. A couple miles further west, just beyond Martin Luther King Drive, the street turns into Desolation Road. It gets ugly in a hurry. In between the Milwaukee River and MLK Drive, there is the Riverwest neighborhood, a place that defies any neat or tidy descriptions.
Most of Milwaukee is intensely tribal, and often rabidly racist. Different ethnic groups do not mix, not at all. Social and economic borders are clearly defined. People are not necessarily unfriendly. They just tend to stick with their own group. Riverwest is unusual in that people there do mix. Riverwest is full of large, older homes, but it has a younger population than other parts of Milwaukee. Riverwest has a gritty, working class feel to it, but it doesn’t have the sense of despair that a person encounters in some of the other neighborhoods.
Locust Street is in the heart of Riverwest and it’s radical, not liberal. There’s a difference, I think. Liberals tend to be comfortable. Radicals are not. Riverwest is a tight community, but it is not a comfortable community. People struggle there, but somehow they seem to thrive, or at least survive. There are lots of taverns on Locust where the residents can drown their sorrows in glasses of beer from local micro-breweries. On the other hand, Locust Street is also home to the T’ai Chi Ch’uan Center and Woodland Pattern Books. My home away from home for many years was the Great Lake Zen Center, which had to move from Locust a while ago due to rent issues. Even after the Zen Center left the area, I have kept a fondness for the neighborhood. I just feel at home there.
The festival was going strong when Stefan and I arrived. Locust Street was closed down for several blocks from Holton Avenue to Humboldt Street. These two streets serve as unofficial bookends to Riverwest. Stefan parked his truck near the corner of Center Street and Pierce Street, and we walked a couple blocks to the block party. The street has rows of quiet, modest, well-kept homes, and a canopy of mature trees. It was a nice place to walk and look around.
When we hit Locust Street the volume cranked up quickly. We bought a couple beers and plunged into the swirling crowd. All of Locust Street was lined with tents and booths. I was fascinated by the variety of people. There was a black man wearing a turban. There were Harley riders, on foot for once. A couple Latinos talked rapidly in Spanish as they hit the taco stand. There was guy with his hair bleached blond and glitter in his beard. He was holding the hand of his partner as they wandered through the throng. I saw an Asian girl with green hair and John Lennon glasses. A Muslim woman hurried down the street, looking chic in her robe and hijab. A Hasidic Jewish family walked along the edge of the crowd; the father with his black fedora and a beard of biblical proportion, the two little boys wearing their kippahs, and the mom with her long, billowing skirt. It was a seething, flowing mass of humanity, and it was beautiful. God, it was beautiful.
Stefan and I listened to a couple bands, and then we walked back down Locust Street to find something for lunch. We got back to Pierce Street and saw a BBQ stand. A young black man from that booth yelled to the crowd,
“Y’all don’t be afraid! We got us soul food here! Try some!”
Yes, they did have soul food. Stefan and I looked at the menu. Stefan saw the “rib tip sandwich” for $12 a pop. We decided to get two of them. Another young man took Stefan’s order. A couple other guys started to get the food ready for us. I saw an old black guy sitting in the back, minding the smoker. He had the best job of all. I grabbed a flyer off the counter for the ‘2019 African Cultural Festival” that is coming next weekend. I might go with Karin to that.
I asked Stefan, “You want me to get us a couple beers?” The tent for the Lakefront Brewery was right across the street. Stefan said, “Sure.”
I walked over to the bar. A guy with a t-shirt that said “support veterans” asked me what I wanted. Stefan wanted a “Rabbit Hazy IPA”. I was okay with a “Riverwest Stein Beer”. The man walked away for a moment, and then came back apologizing.
“I’m sorry, but they are just now tapping a new keg of “Rabbit”. You wanna wait? Or do you want different beer?”
I looked at the list of beers.
“Okay, how about an ‘India Pale Ale’, and the ‘Riverwest’?”
The guy replied, “Cool.”
He came back to me sheepishly with two cups of beer, that looked almost exactly alike.
“Hey man, They just ran out of ‘Riverwest’. I got two IPAs here. Is that okay?”
I nodded. Then I handed him a ten. He handed me the beers.
I looked at the guy and asked, “What branch were you in?”
He got interested. He said, “Army”.
I smiled and told him, “I was in the Army too.”
He smiled back. “Really, when?”
“1976 to 1986.”
The barkeep nodded top me. “What did you do?”
I replied, “Well, I went to West Point. Then I flew helicopters for five years.”
The guy raised one eyebrow slightly. “Cool. Where were you stationed?”
“Mostly in West Germany. How about you?”
The guy shrugged his shoulders. “Vietnam.”
“Oooooooooh…,” I said, wincing a little.
He nodded again and walked away.
I found Stefan and gave him one of the beers. He handed me a cardboard container full of rib tips.
“Damn, this is a lot.”
Stefan said to me, “Yeah, it is. I find it ironic that they call this a sandwich. I got you a fork. You’ll need it. You’ll need these too,” as he showed me a big wad of napkins.
Stefan and I stopped talking for a while. We were busy with the ribs. They were swimming in barbecue sauce. I used my mouth as a vacuum cleaner to suck all the meat off of those bones. I needed napkins often. I wanted to eat the ribs, but not wear them. The sauce was sweet and very tangy. It stung me sometimes, but I couldn’t stop eating. At the bottom of the dish was a slice of bread. It was only there to soak up the drippings. I ate it after all the meat was gone.
Stefan went to take a piss. I sat on a stoop, and waited. As I waited, an old black man tried to hustle me for some cash. The music nearby was really loud, and the guy was mumbling, so I couldn’t quite understand him. But I knew he was hustling me. I’ve been hustled by the best: military officers, corporate lackeys, and sleazy politicians. I didn’t mind this guy hustling me. He needed the money. Those other bastards, they were just vampires. I slipped the guy a bill, and he wandered off. I don’t know what he used the money for, and it’s not any of my business.
Stefan and I walked back on to the street. We walked all the way east to Humboldt. There was a bandstand there, right in the middle of Locust. It straddled the street between Ma Baensch (producer and purveyor of Milwaukee’s best pickled herring) and The Tracks Tavern and Grill.
The band on the stage was Shonn Hinton and the Shotgun. Those guys played the blues so hard that it made you cry. The bass player was excellent. He was like a rock in that band. Shonn sang his heart out and the rest of the band had his back.
I looked around me as they played. Some people nodded their heads to the rhythm. Some folks tapped their feet. Some people moved their whole bodies. They all heard the music in their own language. They all heard the Holy Gospel according to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mance Lipscomb. They all felt the pain and the hurt and love. The Holy Spirit was there.