December 31, 1998. I’m shy of my 21st birthday, but I am carrying an ID that says I was born Christmas Eve, 1975. I’m visiting Madison, Wisconsin for the very first time, courtesy of my roommate Brian, a Wisconson native. After the requisite dinner with his parents, the two of us and a few of his friends and/or the younger generation of his family adjourn for more alcoholic waters, landing at one of Brian’s favorite Madison watering holes: the Essen Haus. It’s New Year’s Eve, it’s snowing, and I have no idea what I’m in for.
We enter from the parking lot, through the heavy double doors serving as the main entrance. My first clue that this is an unusual bar comes with the blast of heat cutting through the winter chill, and my heavily-insulated ears detect what sounds like … polka?
I am a native Iowan, composed of equal parts Swedish and German heritage, but of that uniquely American kind that contains not a trace of its original ethnic roots. The closest I ever got to ethnic food as a kid was when we ate pizza. We rarely had bratwurst, let alone spaetzle or some of the other German foods I’ve since come to savor. But I am getting ahead of myself …
The music, which we’ve now confirmed is polka, increases in volume as we near the bar, and it feels as though we’ve walked into a party in full swing. A serious party. There is beer EVERYWHERE … in mugs large and small, in pitchers, and … in boots. Glass boots. BIG glass boots. “I want one.” My genes are tingling.
As we settle into a long table near the musicians, a waitress approaches in full German barmaid costume. “Is this heaven?” Again I feel my heritage stirring. At least I think that’s my heritage.
We pony up for a boot of something alcholic, liquid, golden and German, but we have to fork over an $80 deposit before they’ll leave the container in our raucous trust. Doing some quick calculations, I decide that my checking account is probably up to the challenge, as is my liver. I don’t recall running into “the bubble” encountered in the movie Beer Fest, but things became a little blurry after downing the two liters of alcohol that tradition dictates must not touch the table.
The blurrier things got, the more at home I felt. The accordians! The feathered caps! The beautiful blondes in cleavage-enhancing dirndls! This was my long-lost heritage! I was home!
As bar closing approached, I grew alternately happier and sadder. I loved this place, but I was going to have to leave it, to return who knew when? I began to contemplate a souvenir, something to remind me of my newly-discovered Motherland. As the alcoholic fog set in, boldness descended, and I realized there were souvenirs EVERYWHERE. On the walls, above my head … everywhere I looked there were hundreds, no, THOUSANDS of mugs. Surely they wouldn’t miss one, right? But one mug would be lonely, right? Perhaps one mug might like a friend to keep him company in my cupboard, so far away in Iowa.
I removed two mugs from the wall as surreptitiously as my impaired limbs would allow, tucking one under each arm beneath my heavy winter coat, seemingly designed specifically for this task – I had found my heritage, and my coat had found its special purpose! When my friends were ready, I led the way, striding carefully toward the door just 10 feet, 8 feet, now 6 feet, now BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!
I hadn’t noticed the retail store-style metal detectors on the way in, but I was aware of them now, as was everyone else in the bar. I rushed out the door as fast as I could, but as my feet reached freedom, my shoulder was slowed by a strong arm trying to keep me in the door. Momentum carried me outside, but I was followed closely by the doorman, who didn’t look happy.
“If this were anything but New Year’s Eve, I would have your ass in jail right now.”
“Give me the mug.”
I carefully removed one of the mugs from beneath my coat, handing it to him sheepishly.
“I never forget a face, and you are NOT welcome back here. If I ever see you here again, I will call the police.”
As he turned his back and re-entered the bar, I spun and took a step in the opposite direction, my heart beating double-time, feeling proud of my apparent misdirection. So smart, so bold, so … CRASH. The remaining mug slipped from under my arm, shattering on the frozen asphalt.
I didn’t think. I ran.
And that was the last time I visited the Essen Haus, until last weekend, when I returned for Brian’s wedding. The doorman wasn’t there (he probably wouldn’t have recognized me anyway given my gray hair), but the atmosphere inside was just as I remembered it. Warm (especially compared to the -8 temperature outside), festive, beery. I came alone, but I felt comfortable sitting among the people at the bar, my people.
The metal detectors were gone, but the mugs were still mostly there. Some careful conversations with the bartender confirmed that more than a few of them have walked out over the years, replaced by new ones. Apparently of the thousands covering the ceilings, very few are used regularly, most purchased decades ago and abandoned like so many good intentions.
The boots are mostly plastic now, though a few glass vessels remain. The deposits have disappeared with the glass, though. On Thursday nights, UW students stream in for $14 2L boots, and they no longer have to check their account balances before sharing their beer-filled footwear with the table. School was out when I visited, so the place was a little slow, but the spirits were still as high as I remembered them, as you can see in this very brief video I shot with my new Mino HD of the house band and bar staff. Prost!
Oh, and by way of restoring my karmic balance sheet, I’ll personally donate $2 to Mercy Corps for every comment this post receives (limit $200). Hopefully that covers the mug. ;)