July 14th, 2018
I like the Fuel Cafe. I guess I like it because it feels real. Fuel is located on Center Street in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee. Riverwest is this kind of in-between area between the trendy east side of Milwaukee and the hood. It’s a diverse, working class neighborhood. A relatively high percentage of young people reside there. The area has a vaguely radical feel to it. It definitely not as conservative and conformist as the white bread suburbs, and it is not nearly as desolate as the ghetto.
Fuel has been on Center Street for years and years. It has two neon signs. One says, “Killer Coffee”. The other says, “Lousy Service”. Both statements are true. There is also a sign that says, “Sorry, we’re open”. I like that one.
I went to Fuel with a young woman that I know. We got there just before the coffee shop opened at 8:00 AM. There were already two bikers there, waiting to get in. The Fuel Cafe caters to bikers. The cafe has always done that. Most everything inside the cafe has a biker motif to it. Every year, during March, the coffee shop sponsors “The Frozen Snot Ride”, when bikers brave the cold of the Wisconsin winter to ride their motorcycles for no good reason. It is an impressive event.
An employee of Fuel came outside as we were waiting to come inside. He was remarkably surly.
“We don’t open for another ten minutes”, as he took a drag off his cigarette.
He continued, “I’m just opening the door to bring out the outdoor stuff.”
He went back into the cafe to drag out chairs and tables to place on the sidewalk. He slammed a stack of chairs on to the curb. Then he carried out a couple patio tables and dumped them on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. He did everything grudgingly, and with obvious disdain.
I said to the young woman, “I don’t think he likes his job.”
She smiled and nodded.
The two bikers waited with us for the cafe to officially open. They both rode Kawasaki’s. The guy was older, my age. His female partner was somewhat younger. She had tattoos that covered both arms and hands. She had a lip ring, and her hair was extremely short on the sides, but long on the top.
The young woman said to her, “I love your hair.”
The biker chick ran a hand across her head, and smiled. She said, “Thanks.”
Eventually, it was safe to enter the coffee shop. I walked in with the young woman. There was a girl behind the counter. I could see the disgruntled guy standing back in the kitchen.
I ordered coffee in a mug.
The girl asked, “Room for cream?”
“No”, I replied. I like my coffee black and bitter, like my mood.
The young woman looked up at the menu list, and asked for a double Milky Way.
I looked at her and asked, “You don’t want any breakfast?”
She smiled and shook her head.
I paid, and we walked away from the counter. She turned to me and said softly,
“I don’t want the angry guy spitting in my breakfast sandwich.”
We got our drinks and went back outside to sit. By that time about a dozen bikers had arrived on the scene. Most of them were on Kawasaki’s, but I also saw a couple BMW’s. They all knew each other, and they also knew the two people that had come early.
The young woman said, “They are all from Minnesota.”
I looked at the license plates, and found that she was right. The woman is very observant. I was a bit surprised that she had noticed it, and I that had been oblivious to the fact. These bikers rode all the way from Minnesota, and they wound up here at the Fuel Cafe. I found that to be very interesting.
The young woman mentioned that she wanted to get a post office box. She asked me where the nearest post office was. I told her that I didn’t know. She looked up the U.S. Mail on her smart phone, and found a couple post offices in the local area.
She said, “Well, there is one not too far from here. But I don’t know where MLK Drive is.”
I replied, “Don’t go there.”
“That is definitely in the hood. Martin Luther King Drive is half a mile west of here.”
“Is it as bad as 32nd and Fond du Lac?”
Then the young woman told me the twisted tale of how she had to go to the Milwaukee Transit bus terminal on 32nd and Fond du Lac in order to recover some lost property. It was apparently a stressful experience.
She told me, “It’s pretty bad when somebody yells at you and says, ‘You’re in the wrong neighborhood, Girl!’. And while I was near the Checkers, I was attacked by a flock of seagulls. Not “Flock of Seagulls” like the band. I mean real seagulls. It was like being in The Birds, the Hitchcock movie. And there was this guy circling the block, asking if I needed a ride. He was probably into sex trafficking.”
She went on, “I was holding my Exacto knife really tight while I was waiting for my bus.”
“Those are sharp.”
“Yes, they are.”
She went on, “You could just feel the hate there. I have never been in a city as segregated as this one.”
I told her, “You’re right. Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country. Every year. We always top the poll.”
“Yeah, every year.”
Then she said, “I ought to own a gun, but I can’t have one.”
“What kind would you want?”
“Something that would fit in my purse.”
She asked me, “What are those guns with the things that go round? Like in the cowboy movies.”
“Yeah. What shoots faster: a revolver or the other kind?”
“I think a semi-automatic is faster.”
“That’s what I need.”
I thought and said to her, “A nine millimeter Beretta is a nice weapon. It doesn’t have much of a kick.”
The young woman looked at me intently, and said,
“Oh yeah, that’s right…you know something about guns.”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“Maybe you could buy me one.”
“I am pretty sure that would be illegal.”
She shrugged, “You would probably be dead before anybody figured that out.”
I suggested, “Well, in this neighborhood, you could probably buy a gun in about five minutes. But you would need cash.”
She shook her head. The young woman had decided against the gun idea.
The sidewalk was crowded by this time. Most of the seats were taken. A scrawny guy holding a coffee in one hand came up to us, and he asked if he could sit at our table. We said yes. He had a purple vape device in his other hand. I noticed that he had a tattoo on his arm that looked kind of Native American.
After he sat down, I looked at his vaping thing and asked him, “So, how does that work?”
He seemed confused and asked me, “What do you mean?”
I pointed to the purple thing.
He said, “Oh, that. It has cotton in it and some electrodes, and it burns some kind of nicotine stuff.”
He went on, “I smoked for thirty-seven years. A few months ago, I had a stroke. I tried smoking after that, and when I did, my leg went numb. So, I decided to vape. This works better.”
I asked him about his tattoo.
He told us, “This is a Blackfeet design. It is about integrity and honesty. I got it when I had two years of sobriety. I’m coming up on ten years now.”
The young woman said, “That’s so cool. Can I take a picture?”
After she did, I told the guy that I had been travelling with Native Americans earlier in the year. We talked about sweat lodges. The man was familiar with AIM, and other Indian activists.
He looked at us and asked, “So, are you two brother and sister?” He was dead serious.
A long, awkward silence.
Then, from both of us, “Uhhhhhhhhhh…no.”
He kind of retreated a bit. He said to me,
“Well, it was a compliment. I mean, except for the grey hairs, you look okay.”
We talked a bit more, but everything else was anti-climactic.
The young woman and I finished our drinks. We said goodbye.
We will probably meet at Fuel again.