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Header: Jess Anderson in Madison Wisconsin
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533 West Johnson Street
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533 W. Johnson Photo: 970917

Four of us shared the lower flat of this duplex house. Quite a lot of living occurred in that place. It was something of a dump, but thoroughly typical of student apartments in those days.

There was a front room, home to one piano or another and after the John F. Kennedy assassination, a television set. There was a daybed there for occasional overnight guests who weren't invited to share a bed with one of the residents. Next came the living room, dominated by a huge and hideously ugly burnt-orange sofa, a couple chairs, beat-up floor lamps and a seriously ratty rug. Elegant it wasn't! Off that room, one small bedroom and one large bedroom (mine). A short hallway with a large closet (the records and the hi-fi were in there), then at the back the kitchen, bath, and back porch.

About a half block east of the house (towards the left in the picture), Johnson St. makes a 45-degree left turn. When I lived there, Madison's major private employer, Oscar Mayer, still had a hog-kill facility in operation (it's gone now). All night long, large semitrailers carrying hogs would roll down Johnson St. on their way to the plant, which was on the northeast side. The trucks would slam on the brakes to negotiate the turn, and several tons of pigs would be mashed to the front of the trailer, letting out a tremendous chorus of squeals. As summer nights involved having all the windows open, sleeping became a matter of ignoring that noise, which dwarfed other traffic noises. It was a little harder to ignore the little hop the whole building took when the trucks hit a dip in the pavement right in front of the house.

One night I was just putting my head down on the pillow when there was a huge blast, rattling the whole house. I had just time to sit up when there was a second big blast. We had a particularly antique oil-fired furnace, and my first thought was that it had exploded and the basement right beneath me would now be completely full of flames. I do not like the idea of being in a burning building! A roommate who had just been leaving ran back into the house, hollering: "Ohmygod! Look at the fire!" Still terrified, I said weakly, "Is it here?" "No," he said, "run to the window, quick!"

Most of the block on the cross-street a half-block east had blown up. The blasts and resulting fire (which killed one elderly couple) were caused by a foul-up at the gas company that released high-pressure gas into low-pressure mains. The pipes ruptured in many places, and the gas flowed along the lead-in pipes and into basements. The first blast came from a lead-pot heater at a plumbing and sheet-metal shop, closely followed by the explosion of the house next door. It was really very spectacular, for there were a lot of volatile chemicals stored in cans and these were exploding and going up in the air, trailing fire like rockets.

Dressing quickly, we ran down to the corner, arriving even before the fire engines, though the station was only a block away. By now flames were jetting out of the storm sewers and rising 30-40 feet in the air, and the heat was so intense it almost immediately ignited utility poles across the street from the blaze. As soon as they assessed the situation, the police and fire people began an evacuation of the whole neighborhood, including us, for fear of more explosions and fires as the gas flowed around in the sewers and along other feed pipes.

Nearly simultaneously there had been other explosions and fires a dozen blocks away as well, and there was some thought the whole center of the town might eventually be involved. Fortunately it was all fairly quickly brought under control. The streets all over central Madison were being dug up for many weeks afterward as the gas utility repaired the damage, and the lawsuits amounted to several million dollars.

For someone as deathly afraid of fire and burning as I am, the incident an order of magnitude more drama than I needed.

Most of the drama in this hourse was more on the personal level. Over the seven years I lived there, there was a gradual turnover of roommates, the details of which I mention under my extended families link. We were locally renowned for the size and debauchery of our parties, which usually had some sort of theme associated with literature or music, or as in the case of the "Aimez-vous Brahms?" party, both.

People not interested in the classical music would come later, but those who were would sit quietly, listening and sipping various more or less poisonous alcoholic concoctions, slowly getting plastered while not paying much attention to that. When the program ended, we would put on the party tape and the party would take off like a skyrocket. We used the formula three of four times with great success.

Two blocks away in the direction the camera is pointed the University has built an enormous sports arena, population densities are rising, and a prime corner location close to campus grew too valuable for the building that was on it. It was replaced in 2003 by a 12-story apartment building, private housing for students.

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