TJ Ryan's

TJ Ryan’s

I have a confession to make: sometimes on Mondays, when I’m in my studio in Cedarburg, working late, I sneak out the back door and down a back stairway to catch the second half of the Big 12 college basketball game at TJ Ryan’s bar on Washington Avenue. The act isn’t as deceptive as it might seem; if my father-in-law doesn’t notice my blurry, paint-spattered corpse slipping out on one of his army of unnecessary security cameras, someone, or someone who knows someone else, will undoubtedly see me and mention they saw me out. Nothing goes unnoticed in Cedarburg. But for me, precisely because of this hyper-surveillance, the back way is seductive…like 007 seductive – it somehow reignites a rebellious streak in me that once flouted authority by hanging out at a 24 hour Taco Bell in the early morning while my parents imagined I was in bed.

Tacos always taste best when they’re eaten on stolen time.


Taco Bell

Taco Bell


Last week I sneaked down to Ryan’s, nuzzled up to the bar, ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon and asked politely if they’d mind tuning one of their flat screens dedicated to showing celebrity roasts on Comedy Central to the Big Monday basketball game. About halfway through the second half of the game, I glanced out onto Washington Avenue and noticed my silver-haired father-in-law stopped at the crosswalk in his father-in-law-style sedan. As if he was supernatural, he turned to me at the exact same moment, smiled semi-accusingly and began to parallel park. He came into the bar, mounted a stool and matched my Pabst with a sparkling water. Then, with impeccable timing he whispered, “hittin’ the bars hard tonight, are we?”

“I don’t know how hard I’m hitting them…more of a love tap, really.”

He barely let me finish my thought before he struck up a conversation with the bartender, who he of course had known for decades.

“You can’t belch in this damn town without everyone telling their neighbors the next day what they think you had for dinner…”

He was too busy reminiscing with the bartender to hear me.

Distracted, and my bartender stolen, I got to thinking; the kind of thinking one can only do as they watch individual carbon dioxide bubbles wiggle up the side of inadequately cleaned pint glasses.

Something flashed on ESPN about the now famous Manti Te’o incident and I thought about my very mild shame for sneaking to the bar. Given his train wreck, mine wasn’t even a tap-out from a bad parallel parking job. But Sandy’s righteous glance lingered.

“Why should I even be phased by a sneaky Pabst run when America is overrun by public blunderers and moral transgressors: Petraeus; Spitzer; sex tapes galore. And Anthony Weiner!?”

Anthony Weiner

Anthony Weiner

Something about Lance Armstrong and a montage of other doping athletes flashed on the screen. All heroes until outed and dragged through the town square on their donkeys. Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin never did talk shows. Is it possible that Anthony Weiner is just a victim of a paradigm shift that happened to expose his ignorance about technology? A victim of circumstance? A man who grew up with mechanical cameras and tape recorders?

Maybe big city rollers, whose shenanigans once trickled like pittles of urine into the distracted ocean of big city life, have been caught in the age of social media with their pants down. Sitting in T.J. Ryans watching glances trade and polite eyes pry, it occurred to me that after years of anonymous and unchastened bacchanalia, New Yorkers might have let their social defense mechanisms dull a bit, while in Cedarburg they’ve been playing social goal keeper for 200 years and they hone their skills nightly.

New York City has always been a refuge for geeks, dissidents, weirdos, freaks, non-conformists, Bohemians, and anyone hoping to challenge prevailing cultural norms. It’s one big back door for individuals living an alternative lifestyle who wish to return to a 200 square foot apartment knowing the world won’t judge them like it might have back in Iowa. But media eyeballs have become more sensitive and prevalent, gathering information, filing it away for all to enjoy in some future CNN segment that will unfortunately be shown…in Iowa. We all do things that most find morally stinky, and holding it seems to be becoming a valuable life skill. Unfortunately for New York, it’s a city that thrives on letting it out rather than holding it in.

Watching another gas bubble rise through my pint of Pabst, I turned back to my father-in-law, a local politician who, in his worst public moments might tell a bad joke about ice fishing or forget your last name. He holds in his gas. He’s lived 75 years in a place where moral transgressions travel at the speed of light, and as a result he keeps his cards as close to his chest as a gambler. I know he’s a good man, but anything that might be untoward in his past is buried deeper than a lifelong neighbor could dig up. In other words, he’d never sneak out the back door, because he knows he’d be spotted, and he knows people would talk, and he knows they’d write their own narrative.

Pulling back the last ounce of flat Pabst I agreed to head home with my father-in-law, not really guilty, but still feeling a tinge of perverse small town shame that comes from knowing that you hid something.

As dad-in-law and I left the bar, I felt a little like a bad teenager plucked from a party that was busted by the cops. And as the door swung shut behind us I thought about Anthony Weiner and what his presidential chances would have been had spent the past 5 years in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

Back door to Ryan's

Back door to Ryan’s