Meerkats, sand dollars, 8 tracks and PROM
… continued from the first installment of our trip to Racine.
PART TWO: THE ZOO
EP: Our hopes were high for a petting zoo, giraffes and rambunctious primates. The Racine County Zoo has made a few changes since I moved away — walking paths are re-paved, the gift shop has moved to make way for the “Jungle Grille” and they’ve added an African Safari wing as well as an aviary.
Here’s the thing about the Racine Zoo: it only spans about 4-5 city blocks, and it’s smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. While we watched two elegant giraffes strip bark from a tree, we could also look into some guy’s back yard. From the zebra enclosure you can see cars driving down Main Street. It kind of ruins the whole safari theme. Nonetheless, we found ourselves mesmerized by orangutans, cooing at lions and tigers and bears and chasing the peacocks. We also met the coolest meerkat ever. At the end of our trip, though, I was disappointed to find out that the petting zoo had been replaced by an aviary (which was also closed for the day). We were really excited to feed some goats, and it’s all we talked about the entire time that we were at the zoo. We even saved it for last! What’s the deal, Racine County Zoological Society?
AE: I agree that the lack of a petting zoo was a disappointment, although perhaps not in any intellectual sense. I was worried that this small-city zoo would be kind of depressing and under-resourced, but I was pretty impressed with the cleanliness of its habitats, and the animals seemed pretty happy. After a solid hour of talking back to the parrots, squealing at the lemurs and watching lots of small, adorable children enjoy the zoo as much as I did, I was gleeful, and kind of exhausted.
PART THREE: THRIFTING
EP: When I do get a chance to visit Racine, it’s for one of two reasons: to see my sister and niece or to thrift shop. Racine boasts some of the best thrifting ever. Besides mega-stores like Value Village and The Salvation Army, there are tons of privately owned or church-run thrift stores carrying the most insane shit at the best prices. Racine thrift offers a massive, random selection that is rarely picked over.
AE: Case in point: I found a pair of adorable ceramic owls that look like the kind of affected-vintage bric-a-brac you find at American Apparel for $25. I snapped them up for $1 – for the pair. And next to the owls – a selection that I could not convince DJ to buy for the life of me – a little wooden clog, branded with the word “Oral.”
EP: We hit up the Value Village (2917 Durand Ave; everything in the store half price, every day!) and a favorite Lutheran store (1455 Douglas Ave) and left with:
-One pair brown huarache sandals (mine)
-The porcelain owls (Amy’s)
-One tooled leather wallet with the initials BRJ (mine)
-One mosaic ashtray (mine)
-One mauve dress (Amy’s)
-One vintage Schlitz tumbler (Amy’s)
-One bright yellow mini-dress from the ’80s (mine)
AE: On the “should’ve bought it” list, along with the Oral clog: DJ found an amazing Japanese karaoke machine that accepted cassette tapes and 8-tracks. What the hell?
EP: Believe me, that machine would have been ours, but it was missing a microphone and it cost about $15, which is just too much when you don’t actually have karaoke cassettes or 8-tracks.
INTERMISSION: KRINGLE, BLOODIES, SAND DOLLARS
AE: DJ, apparently bored of girly girls freaking out about girly stuff, headed home after our shopping spree, and we decided it was time for a drink. I don’t feel like myself on a Saturday until I have a bloody mary, and we were pushing the five o’clock hour, so I was feeling seriously bleary.
EP: But we couldn’t let an ache for spice, tomato juice and vodka stop us from stopping at O&H Danish Bakery (1841 Douglas Ave) for a world famous kringle.
I f-ing love kringle, and I forget that it’s such a delicacy everywhere but Racine. Kringle is a light, flaky Danish pastry that’s usually filled with fruit or nuts, then baked and iced. Racine is the epicenter of the kringle universe; O&H alone ships out thousands of ’em every year. As a kid, every time we visited out-of-town relatives we HAD to bring one, or else it was kind of a big deal.
We got to the bakery just before they closed and I sent Amy home with a delicious iced cherry kringle. (If you’re ever inclined to buy a kringle, O&H is the best. The Racine Danish Kringles brand sold at grocery stores are not the real deal and will only taste like soggy biscuits and pie filling.)
AE: The kringle delivered. It was buttery and sweet, and the cherries were fresh, tender and tart. It was also gigantic, and satisfied the kringle-y cravings of no fewer than seven people.
EP: Over a few bloodies at The Boiler Room (5200 Washington Avenue, where – shh! – I tended bar for about three years), Amy and I took stock of the day, which already felt like a lifetime. Maybe it was because I was trying to be a good tour guide, maybe I just wanted to show my pals that Racine was more than you see on the news, but I had more fun in town on Saturday than I did in the 18 years I lived there. Lake Michigan looked cleaner and bluer than ever and the city was bathed in sunshine, making even dilapidated houses and abandoned gas stations look a little poetic. Hell, even the Root River Dam (where many a body has been found) looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. For all of the times I felt completely alone in that city, it seemed like I was seeing familiar faces everywhere: old regulars from my days at the bar, former co-workers, two cousins and an aunt that I haven’t talked to in almost six years.
AE: It wasn’t just Erin – Racine was looking hot. I expected more blight, more abject poverty, and more of “make your own fun” fun. Instead, Racine was a lovely, small Wisconsin city — the kind of small city that attracted me to Wisconsin in the first place. The bloodies at the Boiler Room were killer, Erin taught me how to play pull tabs (instructions: insert cash in machine; pull tabs; hope for a cash prize), and the evening light filtered through the smoky air. Everyone got a free raffle ticket for a bottle of liquor, a Saturday afternoon tradition at the Boiler Room. We didn’t win, but for a moment, we had a great deal of tipsy feel-good hope.
After bloodies, we ventured down to the harbor to The Yardarm (920 Erie Street), a shanty bar on the river where, to our surprise and delight, the Charles Walker Blues Band was playing an all-night set. We crammed in at the bar while we waited at our table, then got a table in The Lodge (deer heads! Chandeliers made from bar tappers!) and savored beers, tasty portabella burgers and the promised sand dollars: little home-fried potato chips sprinkled with salt and parmesan cheese. We went back to the bar after eating to watch grown men sink into foot-high ice cream cakes and drink digestifs before the main event: the celebrated Racine Prom.
PART FIVE: THE MAIN EVENT: PROM
If you know anything about Racine’s post-prom (or if you’ve heard about it on This American Life or seen The World’s Best Prom) you’ll know that it’s one of the weirdest nights of the year. A lot of us remember prom as a big let down: you spend a bunch of money on fancy clothes, dinner and transportation, only to be surrounded by the same damn kids you’ve been in class with for the past four years. But in Racine, prom is a red carpet event. Literally. There are about ten high schools in the city (between public, private and alternative schools) and each one has their own prom celebration earlier in the evening. At about 9 p.m. the post-prom begins and each school moves the party down to the Festival Hall on the lakefront. Couples walk the red carpet amidst screaming “fans” that have been crowding the bleachers all day long. The entire event is televised and members of the prom court from each school are interviewed from the promenade.
AE: Also an ice cream truck, and what looked like a pontoon.
EP: One year, a kid actually rode in on an elephant. It’s absolutely insane. As we walked up, streets had been blocked off and you could hear the roar of the crowd blocks away. We scored a few spots on the bleachers and watched the procession. It was already after 11 pm and there were still several schools to go. People were cheering and screaming as their friends walked past, stopping for photos or to show off their evening wear. This year, we saw a surprising amount of white suits and sequined dresses that were damn near DayGlo, leading us to wonder if we were out of touch with teen fashion.
AE: Thigh-high slits with garters, lots of low scoop backs and cut-out midriffs … what is going on, ladies?
EP: We hooted and hollered with the rest of em’, shouting “This is as good as it gets!” and “You have the whole world ahead of you!” as we laughed hysterically at the spectacle. Of course, it wasn’t long before we started to feel like two creepy adults hanging out at the senior prom, so we called it a night and told our own prom stories on the way back to my car.
As ridiculous and excessive as it sounds, at least Racine’s prom delivers on all of the “Night to Remember” cliches. Arguments about the validity of the event itself aside, the prom is an icon in American teen culture. It’s a rite of passage, a mile-marker in young lives and in Racine’s case, it’s a chance to feel like royalty — and maybe makes all of the preparation and money seem worthwhile.
Before we hit the road to head back home, we stopped at Wind Point Lighthouse for one last look at the city. It’s a breathtaking view and a spooky drive at night, with the only light coming from the lighthouse itself, which is at the end of a long and winding road. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get out and traipse around because there was a suspicious looking gentleman unloading oddly shaped bags from his trunk and we got freaked out. He was most likely a guard of sorts, taking his uniform out of his car, but we were convinced that he was definitely a sociopath and those were definitely bags full of body parts.
In the end, it was a lovely and exhausting day. I left with more warm feelings and hometown pride for Racine than I’d ever had. Within 45 minutes I dropped Amy off, thrift store loot and kringle in tow, and headed home, excited for our next road trip and missing my home.