Thursday, May 29, 2008

the Dive Bar Project

So I was anchoring for the Wisconsin Guys, Murph and Prebil, yesterday. As often happens to be the case, we got a little off topic, and through the course of our discussions, began debating the finer points of dive bars. More specifically, we talked about the joy of driving to the middle of nowhere and finding a hole-in-the-wall with absolutely NO class, but character in spades.

You see, I think there are three factors that elevate a dive bar above your run-of-the-mill dump to make it something worth noting. First, it has to be cheap as all hell. In a world where a plate of noodles, a soft drink and a hunk of flat bread will cost you into the double-digits at a place like Noodles and Company and still leave you hungry for dessert, a good dive bar will serve up a beer, all the sides and a heaping portion easily enjoyed by two for under ten bucks. For instance, the Kourt House Bar in Portage serves gyros that one could easily use as lunch, dinner and breakfast. But damnit, even if it COULD feed an Ethiopian family for a week, it's the diner's DUTY to finish the whole thing in one sitting...even if that sitting is three-and-a-half hours long.

Secondly, there's the quality of the food, and this is a biggie. If I'm going to ride for two hours, sit down, eat a cheeseburger and then ride two hours back, I don't want it to be some patty knocked off a two-foot tube of frozen beef. I want hand-kneaded, home-grown, never-frozen, greasy-as-shit All-American burger, cooked medium rare with tender love and care, baby! I want it seasoned, then smothered in ketchup, and so thick I nearly have to unhinge my jaw to gnaw a hunk off. Fresh tomatoes? Yes. Onions? Fried please, and breaded. I want something that's going to coat my arteries in a layer of goo so thick, a doctor won't so much perform open heart surgery as he'll conduct an archealogical dig someday. You don't find that kind of food in a city as health-conscious as Madison. In fact, I'm pretty sure there's an ordinance against it.

Finally... and this is where Bumblefuck, Nowhere's dive bars can really outshine any other drinking establishment... But finally, there's the character. Rather, there are the characters that inhabit these holes in the wall. Be it the owners, the bartenders or the regulars, a good dive bar will have some of the most memorable people you'll ever meet. And my God, there are the stories you'll hear told and retold, to the point where you'll be able to retell it yourself, though not to the same effect. The people in these places come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common: they rock.

So anyway, Murph, Prebil and I began recounting stories from our favorite dive bars, and Lo and Behold, the phones started ringing off the hook. Seems everybody has a dive that's near and dear to their hearts. I siezed on the opportunity right away, and began to scribble a list on the back of the forecast I was reading at the top of each newscast. It's sitting on my desk at home right now, and after a number of callers' suggestions, this is verbatim what it reads:

Algoma - Hudson's
Rio - Old Theatre Tavern
Hill Point -
Deansville - Smith's Crossing -good fish-
Eagle Crest - Hwy 30 off E side
Marshall - Marshall Pub... fish
Rockdale - Heather's
Leeland - Sprecher's Bar
across from Glenway (golf course) - Village
Blue Mounds - Hooterville Inn... pizza

So this, I think, is the start of something. I consulted Kyle Brown, my riding buddy, and he agrees a project could be in the works here. If we find time every couple of weeks to ride to one of these bars and bring back the information and stories we gather, we could quickly compile a pretty decent list and ranking of rural dive bars within two hours of Madison. For now, our plan is to bypass Algoma... Door County's a bit of a ride for one day... and check out the Old Theatre Tavern in Rio as per Prebil's suggestion. I figure we'll write up a review and critique it in terms of cheapness, quality and character, then build it from there.

Of course, the list we have won't last long. I would be interested in hearing other suggestions. In the end, I hope to find the ultimate dive bars and compile a map based on proximity to Madison and overall ranking. What can I say? We all need an admirable goal.

Long live the DBP!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Work Stoppage

So yes, it's very true that I haven't posted in almost two weeks. That can be attributed to a couple of factors that have been making my life a lot more hectic than I generally like it to be, but given time, I have confidence at least one of them will clear up...I hope.

Earlier this spring, long-time sports reporter Ben Larson left the company in order to have more time to do his thing as sportscaster for the Madison Mallards. Ben held down a significant shift at the station as a news anchor as well. Then, a few weeks ago, the management let Wisconsin radio veteran Jamie Westpfahl go. This leaves Morning Drive guru Tim Morrissey, force from the north Erik Greenfield and me to field all the news anchoring there is to be done at the station. Our news director, Tara Arnold, can occassionally step in if really needed. It's good exposure, but more time at the anchor desk means less time in the field, which is where a working 80% of my best inspiration for writing comes from.

That's the way it sounds like we're going to roll for a while, too. God forbid the day when Morrissey's on vacation, Erik is sick and Tara is tied down with management meetings. (For those of you keeping score at home, we do live and local programming 12 hours out of the day... which would equate to a 12-hour shift at the anchor desk, not counting prep time).

But in a completely unrelated stressor I hope to have cleared up soon, finding housing in Madison is downright next to impossible. I'll admit, someone else did the legwork that found my first apartment, and the one I live in right now, in hindsight, was a damn lucky strike early in the game. Maybe that's why I'm having such a hard time of it now, because I have unrealistic standards and expectations. But it's beginning to seem like my options can be lumped into two categories: living in a closet or going broke.

At any rate, I'm sorry for the lack of posts recently. There's plenty going on, and I think plenty of outrageous things about it, I'm just up to my eyeballs in stuff. For the meantime, I'm going to try and stick to a bi-weekly post schedule, and when I fail at that, I'll post as I see fit.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Going fast

I'm guessing this means the police have cleared Brittany Zimmermann's house as a crime scene.

We wouldn't know, of course, from what they've told us about the investigation thus far (Read: nothing). But this is still maybe a little premature. Have they even had time to repaint the walls and recarpet the place yet, or are they counting on that as a selling point? "And if you'll look to your left in the (REDACTED BY THE MADISON POLICE DEPARTMENT) room, you'll see the stain where Brittany Zimmermann laid in her final minutes on earth. And over here is the door the killer broke through. Don't worry though... we've fixed the lock!"

And in fact, it says right in the craigslist ad: the building "could easily be used as a whole house for a group of friends!" That's good, because someone will be upstairs to hear you scream. And if you need an early move-in, no worries! It's not like the outgoing tenants are around to object.

I think Wisconsin Management Company is doing the honorable thing here, I really do. After all, sure Brittany Zimmermann's death is tragic, but the real tragedy would be if one of Madison's biggest slumlord management companies went a year without squeezing every conceivable cent out of the UW's student population.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Update.. Ogg

You're welcome, Deborah Ziff. Let's say this one's on the house, but next time you attribute your stories to Dustin Weis at WTDY, this blog and Dane101, where you heard it first. zzzzzIIIIInnnnnggggg!

Actually, I'm not too concerned. The different media rip each other off all the time. I had them stolen when I was a newspaper reporter, as well...not to mention I 'borrowed' one or two myself. I wonder if Deborah is a listener to the radio station, or if she pulled it from the blog. No worries. In fact, look for the papers to make off with another of my stories, which I will be posting on later this week.

In related news, I did speak with Dave Helbach, the state Facilities Administrator, on the phone today. He confirmed for me that, yes, in fact, a large piece of falling Ogg debris crushed someone's car. And that, quite frankly, is awesome. I knew the old firetrap wouldn't go down without a fight.

It's been a long day, and I did attend Kathleen Falk's press conference today. I may or may not have the energy to launch into another tirade tomorrow. We'll see. But the moral of the story is, and remains, there's way too little information being let out about this or any of these murder cases. Period.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ogg 1, UW 0

So I managed to confirm a rumor I heard over the weekend at work today, and even though I didn't get a LOT of info out of the sources, the nature of the story still brought a smile to my face.

Ogg Hall, a decades-old Madison institution in what-they-haven't-torn-that-thing-down-yet-ingness, is going to be an unfortunate feature in Madison's skyline for at least another handful of months. Linda Barth from the Wisconsin Department of Administration confirmed for me today that they've dismissed the contractor who was doing the work because of issues with safety and the quality and pace of the work. Or, to quote the entire release she sent me:

"The contract with Dore and Associates, the company hired for the Ogg Hall de-construction project, has been terminated for time, quality and safety issues. We recently hired another company to complete the work on the west tower and we will re-bid the east tower work."

Herman Melville Ms. Barth is not.

Apparently, and this is just hearsay, but there may have been a few issues with large pieces of debris falling and doing property damage (Read: Huge freaking chunks of concrete crushing something). Again, just hearsay here, but I'll have Linda Barth on the phone tomorrow, and hopefully she'll be able to answer some of my damn questions.

At any rate, I have two gut reactions to this news. One is simple relief. I pledged some time ago (see above link to Portage Daily Register column) to make off with a souvenier from my Beloved Ghetto, but a particularly harsh winter and mounting professional responsibilities have thus far kept me from my goals. With the deconstruction stoppage, this means I'll have another couple of months to penetrate the security system (Read: Chain link fence and night lighting) they've erected around the first home I ever had in Madison.

Even though my old room on the sixth floor was dismantled by the first contractor, the East Tower still stands almost in its entirety. If I remember correctly, one substitutes pretty well for the other (Read: it's impossible to tell East from West tower from within the old firetrap's halls when you're loaded), so a spring evening's romp through Ogg should still be a trip down hazy memories lane.

But a part of me swells with pride to hear the job was too much for the pros at Dork and Associates to handle. After all, sure it's an eyesore, but it's my damn eyesore! The longer that fortress of concrete and asbestos stands, the longer we can stave off the day when an incoming freshman, ignorant of the truth, proclaims him or herself a resident of the REAL Ogg. It may be an inevitable travesty, but as long as the new dorm that bears her name lies in her shadow, there will only be one Ogg.

Besides, as long as one of Ogg's towers is standing, there's always the off chance it will tip over on its own and take the playground they're building where University Square used to sit with it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mifflin Aftermath

I had a great time at the Mifflin Street Block Party this year. In spite of the crap weather, we persevered, and the sun even came out eventually. I'm sorry to see another one go, but I'm also very concerned about the future of the event.

For the second year in a row, I noticed an overall decline in the atmosphere that made me fall in love with the first block party I went to in 2004. I think the dropping levels of "magic in the air" can be attributed to a growing unease between revelers and police, the falling number of bands and live performers on porches and balconies and, of course, mounting arrests.

The Madison Police Department's stance that the Mifflin festivities are an "illegal party" is what's sucking the life out of them. I stopped to think briefly about the implications of an "illegal party," and it made me shudder. The administration has been posturing itself, gradually each year, to deal with the block party as if it's an affront to order and decency. They turn the vise a little tighter each year, and it's starting to seem like a scene in Footloose, where an oppressive city regime passes an ordinance against fun. The block party is not the devil. It's an excuse for students and the community to blow off a little steam after a cold, miserable winter and welcome in the summer by getting a little out-of-hand, listening to some music and hitting a few beer bongs.

The most telling moment of the afternoon, for me, occurred at about 5:30. There was still plenty of daylight left to party in, but there was only one band left playing on the street. As per police orders, they had their volume turned down quite a ways, but understandably, a crowd began to gather as the three-piece worked its way through a blues and rock set...they were the only show on the street! I almost laughed out loud when they launched into a stirring rendition of "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine, and almost on cue, a line of police moved up to the front door. It was too surreal. Zack de la Rocha would have torn his own hair out.

I talked to Allison Huber, a resident at the house, after the cops left. "It was just a warning," she said. "They were really nice about it. They said if we want, we can keep playing, but we would be risking it."

They left by noting they were also worried about the crowd gathering in front of the house...which would not have been an issue had there been OTHER BANDS playing elsewhere on the street. But the number of live music acts has dropped off rapidly in the past few years, because of the authorities' insistence on writing tickets for noise violations.

"That's just why we wanted to have the band," Allison said. "No one does it any more."

Even recent City Council President Mike assistant District Attorney, for Chrissake...recognizes the problem. What's more, he notes that silencing bands on porches isn't helping police keep order at the block party. It's taking away a source of legitimate entertainment from party-goers.

"When you take the music away, all that really leaves is drinking," he told me. "But so many bands, this year and last year, are scared to even try to perform because the cops have been so strict about music. I think it's unfortunate and unwarranted."

I'm not levelling a blanket criticism at the police. I take every exception with the policy decisions that dictate the way they handle the block party, but there are plenty of individual officers on street level who go out of the way to make it a safe, fun event. I saw one reveler who followed a group of police all the way down the block carrying a sign that read, "Get the pigs off Mifflin." Remarkably, when someone rushed in and violently siezed sign-guy's plaquard, officers wasted no time in tackling he thief, cuffing him and walking him down the street. That was very big of them, and it exemplified exactly what I think the police should be on Mifflin for.

Noise violations? Waste of time. Drinking laws? For one day out of the year, how tough is it to just get over it? Police should concentrate on keeping people from hurting other party-goers or damaging property. And for the most part, I think that's what they do, but there are plenty of people like Mike Klein who get cuffed and dragged off as well.

"They took me on a bus with a bunch of other people," he told me, "took me down to this garage and processed me, took my finger prints, mug shots, everything like that."

What was Mike's heinous crime, that he should be aprehended and run as grist through the mill of the justice system? Did he burn down a house? Rape a fellow student? Punch a police horse?

No. He cracked open his first beer of the day with one foot inadvertantly on the sidewalk, and when police breathalized him as part of his processing, he blew a double-zero. I know several other people with similar stories, and every time I hear one, it kills MY buzz.

Friday, May 2, 2008

the Person vs. the Policy

I received a response to a recent piece I wrote about the Madison Police Department's planned response to the Mifflin Street Block Party, and even if it's not legit, with all the ragging I've been doing on the PD lately, I have some 'splainin' to do.

In the aforementioned post, I called Police Lt. Joe Balles "Buzzkill Balles." He (or someone writing under his name, but there are a few clues in context that convinced me this is legit) responded, at God's-Ass-O'clock this morning, with this note.

"Hi Dustin, Just an FYI... if you really knew me you would know I'm not a total "buzz kill"... and I enjoy a beer w/ friends just as much as anyone... stop by the Echo Tap sometime and I'll buy you one. I also do not enjoy seeing "force" (handcuffs and whatever else) used to control an unsponsored college drinking party. If you ever want to do a ride a long on the MPD side of the fence...let me know... I think the experience will change your perspective a bit... it has changed many others'...Lt Joe"

I had two distinct reactions on reading this. The first was, "Holy crap, someone reads my blog!" After recovering from the near stroke I had, the second one set in, and it's that second feeling I hope to explain in this piece.

It's an easy mistake to make, in any line of work, when you make assumptions about a person based on contact you have in a professional capacity. There have been plenty of times in my line of work where I've had to place a phone call to someone in a difficult or tragic spot and ask questions that are hard or painful to answer. It's not because I like to make people suffer, and then show it to the world. It's what the job...and my supervisors...demand.

In our conversation about the cameras on Mifflin Street, Balles presented himself in a very hardline manner. That may or may not be how he feels personally about the block party, but it IS the stance the Police Department's administration has taken, and as such, it's a line he's expected to toe. When you think your boss is being a douche-rocket, you may vent about it to friends or family, but you don't advertise it to strangers on the phone.

I do think the feelings of malaise he expressed with regards to the unsponsored nature of the block party are sincere. He shares that with the department's administration, I know. But let's face it, even though it would lose some of its mystique, the block party would do well with a sponsor to put forward a definite timetable and action plan for emergencies.

But I have had the pleasure to get to know a number of law enforcement officers beyond just the Blue and the Badge. Portage police officer Gary Peterson, Portage Assistant Police Chief Kevin O'Neill, Columbia County Deputy Scott Oelke and Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards are just a few of the people I've gotten to know as more than just "cops." They're good guys with a job to do, and they do it to the best of their abilities.

Knowing them certainly hasn't kept me from disagreeing with a position they take. In Sheriff Richards's case, I was pretty frank that his department was way out of line in its handling of the 2006 Sheriff's race open records request the paper filed. They were wrong to surpress the information the way they did, and the State Supreme Court eventually agreed with us.

But my issue was with the Policy, not the Person. And while that disagreement took a good deal of time to overcome, we still managed to see eye-to-eye eventually.

In Lt. Balles's case, he doesn't even set the policy, and I was mistaken to "shoot the messenger," as it were. I have a lot of respect for the fact that he approached it directly as he did, because it took... well... Balles... And he subtley called ME out for being a jerk, which, let's face it, I can be sometimes . What's more, someone seems to have told him that my mortal weakness is an offer of beer and an open bar stool. I accept your invitation to the Echo Tap, sir, and the second round is on me. Email me,, and let's set it up.

What's more, if it's not clear, most of the issue I've taken to date with the police department has been with the administration. I do think that in the lead up to the block party, they have presented too unbending a front on the Mifflin Street issue. How that works out in practice...we'll find out tomorrow. And I certainly think that the veil the administration has wrapped around the ongoing murder investigations is far more opaque than it needs to be. In the most recent case, I understand that making mistakes is acceptable and human. Covering them up, if that's indeed what this is, is neither. I certainly don't want to know every gory detail of the crimes, but a little transparency would go a long way toward dispelling the appearance of a cover up, at least.

Guys like Joe Balles are out there, doing their part to get the job done. It's at the higher levels where my buzz is getting killed.

We'll see you on the block tomorrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Real Burden

A great man, albeit a fictional one, once said, "It's a real burden being right so often." I take no pleasure in either the fact that it was, indeed, "a damn long day" today, nor the fact that everything I was afraid of is coming true.

The Isthmus broke the story today. This was a very fine piece of digging by reporter Jason Shepard. I've said before that good reporting should turn heads, great reporting should rip them off, and the shitstorm that blew up behind this article was certainly a Category Five.

As information emerged from two press conferences, I read a new version of this story on the air EVERY TWENTY MINUTES for four hours. Here's the short of it: Someone at the police department, likely frustrated, leaked to Shepard that Dane County's dispatch center received a 911 call from Brittany Zimmermann's cell phone at the time of the murder. That call was disconnected, and in their followup to the call, someone absolutely dropped the ball and may have squandered valuable time.

The police, in their infinite wisdom, won't say anything about the content of the phone call. We don't know if the dispatcher spoke to Zimmermann. We don't know how long the call lasted before the line went silent, leading the dispatcher to disconnect from it. We don't even know if it was Zimmermann who made the call. All police are saying is that something in the content of the call should have led the dispatcher to alert them immediately. Instead, the dispatcher took another call in the queue, and broke from national 911 policy when he or she did not try to call the "hang-up" back.

Dispatch center director Joseph Norwick, for his part, quibbled over the county's ability to accurately trace 911 calls placed via cell phone. None of that matters, of course, if we are to buy Chief Noble Wray's line that something about the call ought to have caused dispatchers to notify police right away. But with each side pointing its finger at the other, and neither releasing any substantive information for fear of "compromising the case," attentive citizens will just have to be satisfied venting their rage at law enforcement in general without a specific, deserving target.

The real crime here, at least the one that's not murder, is that none of this was made public until the article ran today. In all likelihood, were it not for Shepard's vigilant snooping, the public would never have known the case was mishandled from its very inception. I'm not saying police could have saved Brittany Zimmermann's life, but they VERY conceivably could have arrived on the scene in time to spot a deranged maniac with a bloody knife running down the block.

Like the decision to withhold information for a week that the home was broken into, keeping this from the public was bad judgement, and it reeks of a coverup. Norwick saying his department has "nothing to apologize for at this time" is despicable, but Wray should be ashamed of the growing lack of transparency in his department. Five unsolved murders in one year is scary. A public that doesn't know enough to protect themselves about any of them is damn alarming.

What's more, with as little information as has been released, there's no guarantee there aren't more major mistakes lurking beneath the surface of these stories. The answer to Lisa Simpson's age-old question "Who will police the police?" isn't the Coast Guard, and as much as I hate to admit it, I don't think we've seen the last cover up.

Update... Zimmermann 911


More on this after work.

This week's BAMFs

It's been one of those weeks that runs high on inspiration and low on free time.

However, I couldn't stay away from one piece of information I got for long. It was actually funny, because I was sitting at the Mifflin Street Block Party informational meeting when I heard about it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, when confronted with the choice between sitting at a table with strangers and plopping down with a couple of competing reporters, I will often plop down with the other newshounds. We delight in taunting each other with tantalizing leads we're working on and swapping stories of our favorite and least favoite public officials.

Anyway, the meeting was getting long, a student asked a particularly asinine question of an already badgered Madison cop and I was sharing a knowing glance with State Journal writer Brittany Schoepp and WIBA reporter Jason Fischer. Mike Verveer, in the midst of a sentence that likely defused the eighth potential police / student clash of the evening, mentioned this noteble tidbit. Immediately, the three of us siezed notebooks and began shorthanding furiously.

Apparently, Brittany Zimmermann's family will be at the Mifflin Street Block Party this weekend operating a food stand. That's right, the people whose daughter was stabbed by some psycho who's nowhere near being brought to justice will be selling hot dogs to drunk college kids a few short blocks from where the body was found in order to raise money to establish a college scholarship in their daughter's name. I hope you'll pause just a moment to reflect on the colossal hearts beating in these people's chests...

...because I, quite frankly, am in awe. And don't for a moment think that it's numbness or insensitivity at play in her parents. This is love. It's bravery, it's philanthropy, it's every good and decent thing most of us don't even have the gall to imagine we would be capable of in their position. Instead of wallowing in self pity and hiding from the cold reality of the situation, they're immersing themselves in it. Saturday will, in all likelihood, be the second most painful day of their lives, as they watch kids their dead daughter's age enjoying everything Madison has to offer. Every reveler they see will be a reminder that Brittany should be there, among them.

They know this, yet they'll be there Saturday, tears streaming down their faces, lips pressed tight in brave smiles, hearts broken. They will come because it's a chance, they think, to raise a few hundred bucks to keep their daughter's memory alive.

I spoke to Brittany's father, Kevin Zimmermann, a couple of weeks after the killing. He told me he never went to college, but his family loved the Univerity of Wisconsin. They went to football games for years, and it was his daughter's goal to attend school here. She made it in, and even though they were a family barely scraping by, they worked hard, together, and raised the money for her to attend. He told me he and his wife agreed founding a scholarship in her name is something Brittany would have liked a lot.

On Saturday, I hope our students show the Zimmermanns not only that we know how to party at the UW. Everyone knows that. I hope we show them how we take care of our own, and how the block party is more than just a "drunk fest." It's a celebration of life in general, and foremost this year, one life in particular.

In the worst years, through sleet and rain, I've seen 10,000 people turn out to the block party. In good years, authorities have estimated the number between 25,000 and 30,000. At any rate, if half those people visit the Zimmermanns' food stand and buy something for five bucks, they'll have enough money to start a fund that will guarantee their daughter's name will outlive them both, which Kevin told me was his goal. I will personally be disappointed if they leave Miffland with less than $100,000, and long after the last hot dog has been sold, I expect to see Badgers lined up to pay their respects and drop a tenner in the bucket.

After all, it's how we roll.

In closing, I just caught wind there was a shooting on West Washington Avenue, and crews are going to begin setting up to shoot scenes for the new Depp movie at the state capitol tomorrow. There's a whole lot of shooting going on. May 1st is indeed going to be a damn long day.