Wisconsin haunts me. I resided in the state through my formative years and its attitudes and pageants and undulations of mind have lived in me like tapeworms ever since. I know the place. I know its people.

When I meet them in New York we speak to each other in a shared language, flatly accented with unspoken knowledge. Like survivors, we see through each other to Wisconsin’s fields of alfalfa and corn, its corrals of dairy cows, its pastures with their electric wire fences, the sweet fermented fragrance of cow manure that’s everywhere, always, even in winter, and that we love as mice love the cheese on a baited trap. We see Door County and its air of countrified gentility. We see the steel-gray water of Lake Michigan, lapping feebly at the pebble shore. We see the wilds of Wisconsin’s great north woods and the grids of pine that have been planted to replace the acres and acres that have been clear-cut. We see Chief Oshkosh in his bowler hat and Laura Ingalls Wilder making maple sugar candy in the snow. We see brats and fried cheese curds and the virtues of vocational binge drinking.

Behind this nostalgia lurks the anxiety that we might evoke in each other the reasons we left. We see the nihilism common to the landlocked states of the upper Midwest and the particular variant strain found in Wisconsin—the brutishness of the German, the depressed stoicism of the Swede, the worst of both cultures mixing together through the generations, creating a new, constipated society that hates to learn and rejects all it doesn’t know. We see Ed Gein. We see Jeffrey Dahmer. Wisconsin Death Trip. Faces of Death.

We see all the ways a child of Wisconsin can go wrong trying to survive the long subzero nights of winter and all the ways he’s told he’s gone wrong when he’s gone right.

* * *

Wisconsin thrives on stasis. It survives by freezing out people it doesn’t like, and being Wisconsin, that includes most people. A 19th century tribalism prevails.

In Fond du Lac, the town I grew up in, people were so suspicious of the corrupting influence of outsiders that a Greek family moving to town caused controversy. Graffiti showed up under bridges and everyone just knew the Greeks must have done it. This was a family of five and none of the children was older than ten. People whispered about rising crime on the south side of town, how the Greeks had opened the door for a mass migration of frightening Latin Kings from Chicago. When I was in fourth grade, the science teacher gave us a crash course in genetics, the takeaway being that if you married a black person, you might still, luckily, end up with white babies, but one day, maybe generations later, a little black child would be born and everyone would be upset and no one would know where it came from. She was seen as enlightened for this lesson, celebrated for facing the issue directly and frankly. Including me, there were five and a half Jews in town. People put up with us, but they didn’t trust us. They were always complaining about how we might Jew them.

These weren’t the nice, friendly Midwestern folk of yore. These were large, pale, farting, snowmobile-suit wearing Visigoths, and if you differed from them even slightly, they might wave and say a polite hello in that welcoming way for which their tribe is notorious, but they kept a secret inventory of all the ways you might corrupt their children. Despite their placid, soft-spoken good manners, they scorned you, something you might not realize until you tried to get a loan for your small business, or move up in your job, or choose a tent-mate for your Boy Scout camping trip.

Running counter to all this, a history of early and important progressivism and commitment to social justice crisscrosses the state like derelict railroad tracks. In town after town you can tour old houses that still have the trap doors and hidden cell-like room where escaped slaves found solace on their way to the Canadian border. Back when the Republican Party was on the side of the righteous, it got its start in the small town of Ripon. In the early years of the 20th century, the great progressive senator Robert LaFollette led the anti-monopolist, anti-corporate brigades to the edge of socialist workers revolt, setting an early precedent for the (usually Midwestern) politicians—from Adlai Stevenson to Eugene McCarthy to Paul Wellstone and Sherrod Brown—who in the decades to come would fight increasingly losing battles against the company store.

This spirit still lives in the people of Wisconsin—certain people, who are ever conscious of their uncomfortable relationship to the closed-minded ethos of the society in which they find themselves. You see it in the student revolts of the 1960s when anti-Vietnam War protesters threw bags of their own shit at the cops. You see it in the 2011 repeal Scott Walker demonstrations two years ago—the sudden eruption of pro-union workers’-rights vitriol that led to a two-month occupation of the capitol building and in some ways inspired Occupy Wall Street.

But still, Scott Walker won his recall election. The Ayn Rand-loving boys of the Wisconsin countryside rallied on election day and slapped down the calls for an open society just as their ancestors did in 1912 when they tried to assassinate Teddy Roosevelt while he gave a speech in Milwaukee advocating workers’ rights and government regulation of industry. The Joe McCarthy wing of Wisconsin politics squashed out the opposition yet again.

These political fault lines have their cultural analogues. The progressive spirit’s legacy shows up in the people—some of them, usually the ones who yearn to leave, or if they can’t leave, to carve a space for difference into the hills—as a radical oddness. Like so many other dead or dying things, it haunts the land and lives in the shadows of Wisconsin’s prized and threatening Normalcy. You see it in the indecipherable logic of The House on the Rock—the glass-floored room jutting out over a cliff; the carousel room with its thousands of nicked and cracked mythological creatures impaled on poles and riding up the walls; the sense that there’s a pattern and a meaning to all this but no matter how you try, you’ll never access it. Or you see it in the pride Packers season ticket holders take in the certificate stating their shares in the team—they’re not just fans, they’re owners, like everyone else, and their team’s not dependent on some corporate oligarch; it belongs, collectively, to the people, as it should. You see this radical oddness in Wisconsin’s most famous bands—The Violent Femmes, Sebadoh, Garbage. You see it in Mark Borchardt, the mulleted beanpole whose attempts to make a horror flick with no money, no technical knowledge, and apparently, no talent, were documented in the great artifact of Wisconsinia, American Movie.

It exists in me.

And it was strong in Paulie Heenan as well.

* * *

As a kid growing up in Oregon, Wisconsin, Paulie was a band geek. The tuba and trombone and tympani sort. An orchestra geek, really. Circling around the internet there’s a photo of him posed with the other band geeks from Oregon High School, all baby skin and insecure smile, his hair center-parted and helmet-headed in a Ralph Macchio way that only a kid from the clueless Midwest would find anything less than embarrassing. By the time he was in his early twenties, he’d transformed himself into a different kind of band geek—he’d joined a rock band, a few rock bands: Solid Gold, Monovox. He’d taught himself how to tear a computer apart and rebuild it better in his own image. He’d combined his musical talents with his bizarrely well-developed aptitude for electronics (they were just like cars to him, or the pipes in a creaky house, or that train set waiting to be erected in the basement) and built a reputation as one of the best recording engineers in Madison.

By the time I met him, Paulie was living in New York, working at the Apple Store—which, in a way that struck me as indelibly Wisconsin, was more a vocational means for him to give discounts to his friends than anything approximating a career choice. He was dating my student Mae Saslaw, a supremely odd, radical young woman who was masquerading as a writing student at the Pratt Institute while she developed her theories relating to the numerology of freedom, the illusion of capital, the computer as solution to the problem of itself, the notion that math, not narrative or myth, is the most powerful tool available to the oppressed. They were scrawny. Together, they were scrappy. They had a wiry energy about them that matched their bony bodies. A couple of stray dogs slouching in faded T-shirts, ready to bark and growl and futilely fight back if you fucked with them, but generally docile, playful, devoted to their pack. Paulie’s hair puffed from his head like a dandelion gone to seed. Mae’s, though the same length and the same general cut, hung in mussed waves just above her shoulders. They seemed, for a while, like variations of the same story.

Paulie had reinvented himself as a kind of punk rock cyber guru. He lived in Brooklyn, and looked the part. But Wisconsin haunted him, as is its way.

Rebuilding your computer from scratch for the third time, he’d refuse payment. “Pay me in meat,” he’d say with a demented grin, an echo of the barter system that so much of Wisconsin society is based on: my help picking your rocks or bailing your hay, or getting your daughter out of jail yet again, for five and a half pounds of your homemade venison sausage. He had old-fashioned values, in a way. Solid, Midwestern values. Unpretentious—or no, anti-pretentious. Protect your clan. Take care of your own. Tough out the hard times and get over yourself.

Mae, an artist with an artistic nature, prone to panicked obsession, often lost in her own head, found that he knew just how to keep her from self-combusting. They got married. They worked together fixing the computers of clueless, rich Manhattanites. For a while they were happy, in love.

But the longer Paulie stayed in New York, the stronger the tug of Wisconsin became. Though he appreciated, and mostly agreed with, Mae’s criticism of the corporate-capitalistic state and the role that art might play in combating it, he distrusted the corrupting personal ambition that inflected her arty friends’ discussions. All that posing. All those assholes whose only real conviction was that the world should be in awe of their brilliance. By his lights, if you wanted to do something, you did it. You didn’t just talk about how it fit into this or that trendy –ism. The striving and self-important intellectual posturing that defined every social transaction in New York gradually became intolerable to him.

And for the good of their marriage, Mae didn’t protest when they distanced themselves from her friends. They holed up in their apartment. They got a dog.

Mae struggled to turn herself into a homemaker, to recreate the dynamics of family life that a childhood in the Midwest had taught Paulie to expect. She tried to embrace Paulie’s longing for Wisconsin. Like so many people in their early twenties, she gave in to a version of growing up that demanded she choose between her artistic and intellectual ambitions and the coercive economics of food and shelter, the costs of time and attention that love required of her. The illusion of capital, she discovered, was harder to resist when doing so might put her marriage at stake. She could still roll out her theories about the politics of fonts and the ominous implications of the cloud, she could still hold forth on the math of English grammar and the coercive relationship between sloppy sentences and individual freedom, but increasingly these rants felt like rehearsed monologues, riffs that she’d developed long ago, their urgency depleted. She tried not to notice that she no longer wrote the manifestos she once did. Instead she made crab dip and apple pies that she photographed and posted to Facebook. The closest she came to true engagement with the ideas—nay, the ethics—that had once consumed her was to reread Infinite Jest for the nth time and to get Thomas Pynchon’s rocket bomb tattooed on her forearm.

Denying herself, she worried about Paulie. By the end of their time in New York, his self-worth—his entire sense of self, it seemed—vacillated with the Green Bay Packers win-loss record.

And finally, in the summer of 2012, Wisconsin overwhelmed him. It called him home. To justify this to Mae, he concocted a plan, a justification, through which they’d put her idealism to the test. No more words. No more posturing. They’d disappear into the great northern woods, take themselves off the grid like Ted Kaczynski and slip free of the flytrap that they both understood the entirety of contemporary society to be. Mae agreed to go with him, but I think she already knew that this move signified the end of their lives together. Instead of storehousing nonperishable food and pimping up their tent for long-haul living, they languished at his parents house drinking beer and wolfing down cheddar-wurst, driving back and forth to Madison, thirty miles away, to nostalgically revisit his old haunts, pal around with his old friends, and reintegrate themselves into the go-nowhere culture he’d moved to New York to get away from.

Three months later, they separated. Mae went to Portland. Paulie kept the dog.

* * *

Wisconsin would end up rejecting Paulie a second time. Like so many of this country’s landlocked and rural states, Wisconsin has an ass-backward relationship to what culture is and what culture is for. To aspire to more than a perpetuation of the god-fearing family unit—church on Sunday morning, a wife, two kids, the same job as your dad had, the cycle of life—is to betray your own tribe. Curiosity of any kind is seen as suspect. It’s not a question of your being uppity. The attitude is more like, “Why would you need to know more than the simple truths that have sustained us for generations? Why would you want anything other than what is?”

If this attitude makes you feel claustrophobic, the most you can hope for—without fleeing the state and its people forever—is to go where Paulie went, to Madison, Wisconsin’s liberal Mecca, where, safely protected by the city’s aura of progressive acceptance (or despicable hedonism, depending on which side of the fault line you fall), you might be able to create your own cool. Or at least take part in the cool already there in Madison. It’s a cool town, one of the coolest, so cool, in fact, that even the cow tippers and frat boys and cheese-headed lugs the radical oddballs flee there to escape migrate down periodically for the better drugs and the rock and roll and the possibility of sex with drunk college girls.

On Friday, Saturday nights Madison roils with bombed-out-of-their-minds guys in Badgers gear spilling out of the bars on State Street and the house parties in the streets that ring the UW campus. These aren’t the radically odd. They’re not odd at all. They’re the youth of Wisconsin here to party for four years at the country’s most celebrated party school before returning home with nothing but their livers changed.

But sometimes these guys stay. They go undercover.

What this particular kind of Wisconsin boy wants is to go on listening to his Boston and Steve Miller and AC/DC, driving his crotch rocket and snowmobile and shooting his allotted two bucks a year while also getting props for being slightly cooler than his buddies back home. And if he realizes, somewhere deep in his soul, that cool is an ethical and moral challenge to the belief system around which he’s built his life, if he knows he’s a faker and that his new friends see through him, don’t really like or trust him, doesn’t it make sense that he’d grow to loathe the people who scoff at him behind his back? And doesn’t it make sense that he’d burrow down and defend the culture that these radically odd people are threatening to upend?

And what happens if this guy is a cop? What if this guy, like so many like him, compensates for his insecurity and fear of others by taking the officer’s test and funneling his rage into enforcing the law, punishing those whose very existence mocks everything that gives his life meaning?

And what if his name is Stephen Heimsness?

In that case, his beat would be the downtown party scene—the third shift, closing time. He’d spend his nights herding drunk sorority girls off the street and breaking up their boyfriends’ fights, icing off the late night drug casualties and talking down the early morning suicidals. He’d be chummy with the people who keep the scene alive—one of them, except for all the ways he wasn’t. He’d be into all the things that make Madison cool and he’d want the approval of the people he patrolled. A jokey, you-know-me doof of a cop.

If you weren’t on the force, if you didn’t know how involved he was with the police union or how many commendations the department had given him, you might mistake him for a radical oddball, one who’d, oddly, infiltrated the authoritarian ranks. But in that, you’d be wrong. Sure, he was a loud, public advocate for the repeal of Scott Walker, among the leaders of the cadre of police officers who refused to shut down the protests that roiled through the city in 2011 and instead joined the rabble occupying the capitol foyer with its homemade signs and interminable drum circles, but Heimsness also contained in himself the nihilistic Wisconsin cruelty that exists in most boys who grow up in the state. As with cops everywhere, he understood the value of protecting the clan. He’d seen the good that could come from cops protecting cops. He’d benefited from it. As he wrote in his 2012 statement describing why the Madison Professional Police Officer’s Association should reelect him to its board of directors, “The reason I initially ran for a seat on the board was to give back after I was the focus of an investigation. I understand what it is like to be under that microscope and how important it is to have a union representative there on your side.” By then he’d had twelve complaints lodged against him, usually for excessive use of force, but also for “overbearing, oppressive, or tyrannical conduct” and “insulting, defamatory, or obscene language.” In the two most well-known of these cases, he’d shot at a moving car as it sped away from him in a parking lot and, according to witness statements reported in the press, walloped on the head of some guy who was purportedly resisting arrest in front of a rowdy college crowd at State Street Brats until he was nearly unconscious in a pool of his own blood. An employee of the brat house where this second incident took place actually called 911 to report Heimsness and his partner, telling the dispatcher, “They were kicking him in the head and stomping on his face and bending his neck over to the side, and he’s out now, and there’s blood everywhere.” And nearly every time Heimsness’s rage billowed out of control he was either exonerated or let go with a record of “no finding,” presumably protected by his friends on the force.

Which is how we arrive at November 8th, 2012, and the events that took place early that morning on Baldwin Street.

The papers described it starkly in their initial reports. Police, responding to a 911 report of a burglary in progress, arrived on the scene to find two men struggling outside the home in question. When instructed to cease and desist, one of these men—the suspect—charged the officer and grabbed for his gun, at which point, the officer, fearing for his life, shot the suspect three times. The suspect died on the scene.

The Madison Police Department classified it as an “Officer Involved Shooting.” Beware the brutality hidden in neutral language like this.

As the days and weeks passed, the story would grow more complicated. Names would be released. Paul H. “Paulie” Heenan. Officer Stephen Heimsness. It would be revealed that Paulie was unarmed, that the person he was “struggling” with was Kevin O’Malley, the husband of the woman who’d placed the 911 call, and that what was described as struggling was more like the sort of grappling that goes on when a sober person is trying to retain his grip on a drunk friend, to hold him up, to help him walk. Paulie had moved into the neighborhood one week before the shooting. The houses all looked the same. He’d entered the wrong one and his neighbor, who, after all, is a tolerant Madisonian, had recognized him. He was taking him home.

More information would make its way into the press. Heimsness arrived alone. His uniform was black as the night, a blur in the darkness. His hair was long and greasy, his face cloaked in an untrimmed goatee—more the look of a good old boy out in the night than a police officer responding to a 911 call. He did not identify himself before he began barking orders at Paulie and O’Malley. Paulie’s blood alcohol level was .208, so high that he would have been reeling and lurching, his relationship with time and space as slurred and his speech. One of the shots that entered his body went through his hands, as though he’d had them in front of his chest, a posture of submission. O’Malley would make a public statement claiming that Paulie was backing away when Heimsness fired.

The story didn’t go away. When the Madison Police Department exonerated Heimsness (again), a loud, insistent call for an outside investigation rose up from all corners of the city and the police department flailed, publicly, as it tried to manage the scandal. The comments sections of web articles about the story filled up with angry rhetoric—the two Wisconsins at war with one another, one maintaining that the cops were infallible defenders of society, the other questioning everything the cops did. Amelia and Nathan Royko Maurer, the local musicians Paulie had been living with during the final week of his life, made advocating for justice in his case—and reforming the MPD—a full-time job. A charity meant to support music education in the Wisconsin Public Schools was formed in his name. The coolest bands in town got together in May to do a show called Paulie Fest at which they played covers of his songs and kept the story going.

Paulie has become an icon, a symbol, a tool with which to hammer out political change. People are selling T-shirts silk-screened with his face. And though questions of the Madison police culture’s culpability in his death have been successfully buried in the convoluted bureaucracy of internal reviews, some measure of public resolution has been achieved. In June 2013, the MPD police chief, Noble Wray, filed a formal complaint against Heimsness, recommending his dismissal from the force, not for his actions that night but for what he claimed were the unrelated offenses of “violating department conduct rules.” The complaint details a history of messages Heimsness sent from his squad-car computer to dispatch, including such choice examples as: “sometimes they forget they’re not in Africa anymore,” and “i’m ready to go on a shooting spree up in dispatch.” Two days before he shot Paulie, he wrote “i’m a hater. one of these days i’m going to snap and go up there and start shouting WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU?” In the statement he made announcing the complaint, Wray was careful and explicit about the relationship between his desire to fire Heimsness and Paulie’s death. “Nothing contained within the filing changes my conclusions regarding the officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of Paul Heenan. The use of force was objectively reasonable and within MPD policy,” he said. Disingenuous, maybe, but worded in such a way as to complicate the wrongful death suits headed the city’s way.

Seeing the end, Heimsness agreed soon after the complaint was filed to resign from the force. A typically unsatisfying American ending.

* * *

I, meanwhile, linger on the events of the night, replaying them over and over in my head.

Since separating from Mae, Paulie had been on his own, trying to figure out how to rebuild his life. He was relying on his support network to get through this difficult period in his life. He’d gone out for dinner and drinks with his new roommates earlier that evening. Later, he popped by the studio and hung out with Mark Witcomb, the guy who owned the place, his old friend and collaborator. They had a beer or two and debated who might want to work with Paulie, where and when their next gigs were, which member of this or that band he should talk to.

It must have felt good for Paulie to be back in Madison. Good to be free of New York and its bullshit pretensions. When he left the studio, he hit the clubs and he scouted some bands and he downed some more drinks and he overdid it, simple as that. He chased the high his future dangled in front of him all the way to the edge where the bottom fell out. And then he was just a skinny guy going through a divorce who’d gotten himself piss drunk again. It was closing time and he needed a ride home.

On Baldwin Street, every house looked the same. The same porch. The same shutters. The same arched roof. And having just moved to the neighborhood, Paulie didn’t yet have the sense memory to navigate all this sameness. He chose the wrong one, but he didn’t know that. He was barely conscious, just a body moving toward the bed where he’d drop fully dressed and lose contact with himself until tomorrow’s sunlight started drilling at his skull.

What happened next is a matter of public record. The 911 call. The neighbor O’Malley’s struggle to walk Paulie home. The big dude lumbering toward them through the shadows. Greasy shoulder-length hair. A beard of some sort. Those tinted glasses that go from dark to light.

I wonder what Paulie thought when he saw him. What O’Malley thought. What I would have thought. I keep asking myself, When did Paulie realize this dude was a cop? When did O’Malley, the neighbor, realize it? What was the informational transaction and who in this moment was paying attention, assessing the signals, making quick, smart decisions?
I know that Paulie could be belligerent—especially when he’d had too much to drink (which was one of the reasons, when I knew him in New York, he often declined to drink at all). But we also know O’Malley shouted when he saw Heimsness’s gun, “He’s a neighbor! He’s a neighbor!” And we know O’Malley never saw Paulie reach for the officer’s weapon. And we know O’Malley claimed they were separated by five or six feet when the officer began to fire, with Paulie’s hands “at his chest, in a defensive position.” One other thing we know is that while making his official statement to the MPD on the incident, Heimsness couldn’t stop himself from betraying the more resentful aspects of his state of mind, saying “I was pissed off at the guy that he made me shoot him.”

When Mae called to tell me the news the next morning, she was blunt and direct. “Paulie’s dead,” she said.


“Paulie’s dead, Josh.” Her voice had a guarded severity to it that crackled like sarcasm and smacked with bitterness, the self-protective front of the sensitive and frail. She often sounded this way. Though I knew she wasn’t joking, or being metaphoric, I didn’t at first comprehend what she was saying.

We talked about details—who to tell and when, whether she had anybody in Portland to help her with the waves of confusion and grief. Paulie’s name hadn’t been released to the public yet because, though Mae knew, she hadn’t been officially informed of his death and she wouldn’t be until later that evening. We didn’t get into the specifics of the crime. They weren’t relevant right then. There’d be more than enough time for outrage later.

I tried to comfort her. I was careful to let her define how much comfort she would accept.

Before she hung up, she choked up for a second and I could sense that she was gathering her strength to say the thing she’d been trying to avoid while we’d talked. When she spoke again, her voice had shifted. It was plaintive now. Her defenses were gone. “Josh,” she said. “We were better. We’d been talking. We were friends again. Everything was going to be okay.” She said it again. “Josh, everything was going to be okay.”

* * *

They say Heimsness cried as he gave his statement about what went down that night. As a child of Wisconsin, I have to wonder if he was crying for Paulie or himself. Was he crying because he was tortured by what he’d done? Or was it that he’d been caught? Were those the tears of a perp terrified of what might be coming next, unable to stop himself from envisioning the way the gears were going to start locking in place and then turning, and then stretching him until he broke? Because boys in Wisconsin don’t prize compassion and Heimsness might have thought he was cool, but he’d never truly been radically odd. He was an unremarkable but exemplary specimen of the other part of Wisconsin culture. The part you try to forget, the part that made you want to flee the state way back when, the part that was waiting there when Paulie returned, watching him, readying itself for the moment when it could unleash its punishment and remind him, finally, irrevocably, that Wisconsin never liked people like him.

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