Flash News from Milwaukee
Most people in New York, where I grew up, and Maryland, where I went to college, have never been to Wisconsin, and don’t know much about it.
Some confuse it with Minnesota, others believe it’s the capital of Saskatchewan. One mentioned exile to the steppes, and offered to write the Tsar for a pardon. Most visualize Life In The Land of Bland – – a monochromatic, mayo-white-bread place, awash in Schlitz, bratwurst, jello salad, Sons of Norway lodges, and endless “Laverne & Shirley” re-runs. And cheese. “Processed American Cheese Food,” that yellowish stuff the Dept of Agriculture is always stockpiling in Area 51 warehouses and old missile silos.
Yeah, Milwaukee does have its share of bland – smiling but reserved Midwesterners, making guarded, ambiguous comments – but the city is also a lively, interesting, multicultural place, and a great place to find good food. A vibrant, diverse, “minority-majority” town – comprised not just of German/English/Irish stock, but Polish, Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian (especially Hmong), Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Serbs, Scandinavians, etc. They host one of the biggest Native American gatherings every year.
And I was happy to find there are a least a few people of Greek and Italian descent, and some Mediterranean-style eating places. You may have seen the Greek flags waving in the stands, since Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing for the Bucks.
So while the city has all the usual delivery and ride-hailing services – Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, etc. – the ride service I use is staffed entirely by Greek and Italian immigrants. And it changes its name weekly.
In its first incarnation, it was Quicksilver Messenger Service, but that was already taken, by a hippie band in the ‘60’s. So the next week, it was Mercruiser, but that’s the outboard motor company in Fond du Lac. Then MoussakaKar, followed by Quo Vadis, Dude?, Ben Hur’ry, ToGaToGo, and currently, Bona Fide Ride.
Saturday, I was starving for Greek food – gyros, souvlaki, and the local classic, Spam-ikopita – and kept chanting under my breath, “I wanna go to Golden Acropolis,” and somehow summoned this weird old driver, Hermès. He skidded to the curb in a beat-up old Zephyr, once silver-colored, and he had this whole Mercury theme going, wearing a cap with little wings on it.
He jumped out with an Olympus point-and-shoot, mouth going a-mile-a-minute.
“A quick snapshot of each passenger, my memory is fleeting, c’mon, jump in, your chariot awaits and all that, you can call me Hermes, Quicksilver, whatever, just don’t call me Freddy Mercury, alright?”
There were little wings on his sandals, too. I figured he must be from Minneapolis.
He popped a Styx 8-track in the player, put his foot down, and his bucket of bolts peeled out. I heard Sirens wailing, but we made it to the gyro place faster than was humanly possible.
He waved off the tip, “Save it for the ferryman, at my age, I don’t need drachmas, I don’t need drama, I don’t need…” and off he went, like a silvery streak of extra-virgin-olive-oil-greased lightning.
Yeah, I’m just gonna take the bus next time.
But I recognized him, of course. Hermes/Mercury, The Messenger. A lot of the old Greco-Roman gods, semi-retired now, live around Brady St, or the Shorewood area of Milwaukee. Tzatziki sauce and lightning storms all over that neighborhood.
Ceres has a vegan place called “Ancient Grains,” Vulcan has forged a chain of body shops. Bacchus tried opening a wine bar (dude, in Milwaukee?), went broke, and I think is in rehab somewhere. Hermes opened a seafood place with another guy, but “Neptune & Mercury Fish” didn’t go over well for some reason.
I was surprised to see Hermes just driving around, especially with a V8 getting 12 mpg, but he told me, yeah, he’s the Patron of Thieves, Liars, and Tricksters, but his Titanic success in Washington had actually scared him a bit. “I’m not really a bad guy, just kinda fickle, y’know, mercurial, who needs The Messenger when everyone’s texting, right now I’m focused on Auto-Mobiles and Transporting…”
A real live wire. But riding shotgun in the cab, was some glum, totally boring type, humming tunelessly, that I didn’t recognize. At home, I looked for him in my Big Book of Forgotten Deities, riffling through a whole horde of lesser Greek & Roman gods, demi-gods, heroes, satyrs, etc.
After a half-hour, I’d gotten as far as Hypnos, the somnolent god of sleep, and his semi-famous sons, Morpheus & Phantasos, the gods of dreams – – at least a nodding acquaintance for most people.
Hypnos had literally a thousand other offspring – – one thousand kids to keep in sandals, he’d say, and they had to share their birthday parties – – always joint affairs at Chuck-E Cheese, to save money. And then, in a photo from one of the parties, skulking in the corner, with no one talking to him, was the guy from the ride:
Phragmites, The God of Monotony.
Hypnos can make us sleep, Morpheus & Phantasos can shape our dreams, but Phragmites is so very dull, he can induce a coma.
And I realized, as if waking from a dream, that’s what I wanted to write about today.
Phragmites australis, a/k/a common reeds, are now everywhere.
You may wonder, along with countless screaming Argonauts, why did I wander
so far into the weeds,
to just talk about reeds
Yeah, it’s a ridiculous segue, but honestly, I cannot hear Phragmites without thinking it’s some sort of Greco-Roman hero. One that fights Hydras, or at least Hydrilla.
(So, just to be clear, this is a segue, not a digression, ok? I’m not digressing anymore. It would be cool to work a Segway in here, as a modern-day chariot for Mercury, but that would be a digression.)
I am seeing phragmites everywhere. Ponds, marshes, ditches, drainage swales, unused parking lots, etc. – – it’s like hearing Justin Bieber songs on the radio, why is this reedy crap everywhere I go? Chesapeake Bay, all around upstate NY, and now in Wisconsin.
There are several varieties of these reeds, including one native to the eastern U.S., but the ones I’m talking about are aggressive and invasive. The native plants are not a problem. They mix, they mingle, they get along well with the other plants.
The invasive strain, which can spread ten feet in a summer, crushes diversity, crowding out cattails and other native marsh plants, and forms dense, pretty much lifeless thickets.
Just like some of the talking heads on TV, you ask yourself, how can anything this monotonous, dull, and boring, be so successful at taking over?
They poison the neighbors.
This is called “allelopathy” and you probably already know that. I’d heard about this tactic, because there’s black walnut trees all over New York, and you’re always told, don’t try growing a garden anywhere near them. But the walnut trees seem to practice restraint, because often there’s ferns etc. , thriving all around their trunks, and anyways, the nuts are delicious.
The invasive phragmites seem to be much more zealous – – the plant equivalent of Assad, pursuing total war with chemical attacks. They poison and disintegrate neighboring plants, and I’ve seen cattails, for example, be eliminated from some small marshes in just a few years.
Here’s a good succinct article:
University of Delaware. “Invasive Plant Secretes Acid To Kill Nearby Plants And Spread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071012084128.htm>.
And how to tell the native vs invasive reeds:
Monocultures, whether it’s farming, fields, or woodlands, are a problem. There are marshes overrun with purple loosestrife, and others with nothing but these reeds. Some woods in the Finger Lakes now have nothing but garlic mustard as the undergrowth.
Now, “The Naturian” blog just listed some recipes for garlic mustard pesto, so there’s a positive, and you can certainly find beauty, and a kind of calming music, in a rustling thicket of reeds.
It’s the lack of balance that’s the issue. A lot of things beginning with “mono” kind of stink, if you think about it. Monotonous, monopolize, monotone, “Kissing disease,” monocles, etc. Gardeners tell me that monocots are OK, but I prefer a regular size bed. There’s wonderful monotone of course, B&W photography, but a lot of the time, I’m hungry for color, kind of a Kodachrome guy, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.
I hope I’m not being too subtle, so >here’s another segue< . (I heard that Barry Manilow song “Copacabana” and at some point, he yells out “Key change!” so I guess it’s ok to announce a segue.) It’s a pretty obvious analogy here today. Monocultures are boring, whether it’s in cities or wetlands, and it’s not good for you, it poisons the land.
I grew up around marshes full of iris, ferns, Joe-Pye weed, arrowhead, cattails, salamanders & sycamores, willows, pussy willows & winterberry, redwing blackbirds, egrets, milkweed & muskrats – – and I don’t enjoy going back to find a expanse of unbroken, lifeless, dun-colored boredom. And then moving 500 miles west, and finding the same dreary reeds have spread here, too.
Life should be a variety show. There’s something wonderful and stimulating about places with a teeming mix of plants and animals, people and cultures. A complex mosaic, not the dull monotonous prosaic. I like to hear new music, sample fantastic new foods, maybe learn a few new words, or even new ideas. Hear the full orchestra, not just the reeds. I’m happy to live in a town enlivened by immigrants, old-time and new.
But what’s to be done about these pesky plants? I’m in talks with Mercury about a food delivery “Pesto Presto” and already lined up some guys in Parks & Recreation to start yanking the garlic mustard. The reeds, I guess if Washington succeeds in returning us to the Dark Ages, we’ll be glad to have materials for thatched huts.