I’m more than halfway through Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her three-month solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death from cancer. The goal is to finish it before she comes to Boswell Books next Monday, April 16, (7 p.m. CT). Milwaukeean Loyal Mehnert, another adventure traveler, will also be there.
My husband John and I have been living on Milwaukee’s East Side, a vibrant urban neighborhood a mile from downtown, nine years now. We walk so much we got rid of one of our two cars.
Last Friday, after emailing two stories to a client, I decided to take the afternoon off and walk to Calvary Presbyterian Church on 10th & Wisconsin, where I was hosting the labyrinth, then walk back. Six miles all together. As I threw a peanut butter sandwich, water, and Wild into my Urban Outfitters backpack, I pictured Cheryl Strayed scoffing.
Nonetheless, it was a beautiful day and I was excited to get out and walk and think. I left early to stop by the Central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, across the street from Calvary and home to a used bookstore, The Bookseller, which sells hardcover and paperback books for anywhere from 25 cents to two bucks.
I’ve copped to collecting grammar books. Well, I’m afraid I also collect cookbooks. Old ones, from the 1950s to the mid-70s. One of my first times in The Bookseller, I pulled a 1958 cookbook from the shelf whose wispy illustrations of women in aprons, steaming casseroles, sliced fruitcakes, and crown-wearing pigs took me right to my mother’s kitchen drawer where she kept the food coloring, the Fizzies, a few hundred loose recipes, and her McCormick and Cutco cookbooks with those same illustrations.
My brothers and I had two parents who cooked, and did it well. They taught us how to cook and bake well too. One of us is even a professional baker and organic farmer.
As a kid, I pored through those two cookbooks of my mom’s, fascinated. When I saw that 1958 cookbook at the library, I had to have it. I make it a rule to stop by whenever I’m in the neighborhood. I’m now up to 27 cookbooks.
That Friday, I climbed the steps of the library behind two women. A guy sitting on the steps was hollering something at us. One woman pulled on the door. It didn’t budge.
“Dang,” she said. “What’s going on?”
Her friend pointed to a sign taped to the window, and then I saw the sign taped to the window: “In observance of the holiday, the library is closed Friday, April 6, and Saturday, April 7.”
“Dang,” said the other lady again.
Crestfallen, I headed to the church, early. A good-looking middle-aged man who walked the labyrinth very slowly tacked a note to the prayer request board that read: “Humbled and grateful that Jesus died for my sins.” A young couple with an entourage stopped by to scope out the sanctuary for their wedding. An elderly woman walked the perimeter of the labyrinth and said her prayers out loud, but not too loud. Every once in a while she stopped and raised her hands toward the faraway rafters of the tall neo-Gothic church.
On her way out, she stopped and asked some questions: what time is service, is there an Easter service, would there be communion? She sounded like she was from somewhere else, New York City maybe. Before she left, she cupped my face and said, “Aren’t you the prettiest thing?”
Very middle-aged women love hearing this.
On my way home, a man on Wisconsin Ave. said, “How are you?”
“Fine,” I said, “how are you?”
“Oh, not so good.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He looked at me in my leggings and Merrell boots and the coat I got for 20 dollars at Goodwill and the hat I found on Juneau two winters ago after the spring thaw. I had a feeling he was going to ask for money next.
“You look sexy,” he said.
Hmph. I’ll take that too. Call the city what you will, it’s entertaining, good exercise and, on certain days, just plain good for a girl’s ego.