Nontoberfest: A Guest Entry by Rochelle Hartman
[Note from Sophie: Rochelle Hartman of Tinfoil + Raccoon graciously agreed to write this thoughtful piece about Oktoberfest in her community, La Crosse, WI. Many thanks to Rochelle! This is cross-posted at Tinfoil + Raccoon.]
After posting a picture of “Accordion Man” on the blog Sophie Brookover contacted me about writing a piece for Pop Goes the Library about La Crosse’s Oktoberfest. She and co-library popper Liz Burns are working on a book on pop culture and libraries, and Sophie thought I might have something to contribute, in that I am a librarian in town that boasts the biggest Oktoberfest in the US. I was game. After all, I’m a Wisconsin newbie, have some German heritage myself (who doesn’t), and have a fondness for public spectacle that involves liquored-up people in costume.
The library tie-in? Um….I did see people in the library who dressed funny that week. And I worked with one patron who smelled strongly of fresh beer and who wanted a Chilton manual. He was also toting a huggie that held a foamy canned beverage. Finally, I had to ask, “Dude, are you drinking beer in the library?” As he slowly moved the huggie behind his back (slick move if you are in 3rd grade), he said, “No, but I was drinking earlier.” Mind you, it was about 1 pm. But, hey, it was Oktoberfest, so I let it slide.
There were a couple Oktoberfest events at the library--a photo show and a needlework display--neither which were library-sponsored programs. I did make it downstairs to the photo show, hoping to find tons of photographs of Oktoberfests past and recent. But, it was a community photography contest, with few Fest photos. Here’s what I learned from the photo show: people sure love their cats (and their dogs to a lesser degree). Disappointingly, none of the cats were sporting lederhosen or jaunty Bavarian caps.
Aside from doing a count of sidewalk puke splats on my downtown lunchtime walk, and having a delightful evening of brats, beer and conversation at the Director Goddess’ house, we completely missed the Festing. I missed the Tapping of the Golden Keg. I missed the two parades. I did not make it down to Fest grounds for schnitzel or polka music or beer.
A couple weeks before the start of Oktoberfest, I decided that I needed to stop drinking for awhile. The alkie gene is strong in my family, and I have danced closed to the edge a few times in my life. I moved to La Crosse having heard about its reputation as a Town that Drinks, and honestly, was pleased to know I’d be among my tippling tribe. If Virginia is for Lovers, Wisconsin is for Lushes. I’ve heard plenty of jokes about drunk driving being the state sport, and have a neighbor who had offered me the key to his garage in case I needed a beer or snort of Jim Beam.
In fact, Wisconsin is the number one state for gout (still looking for this stat), largely owing to its fondness for beer (although I imagine that the prevalence of head-sized apple fritters makes a significant contribution to state’s goutiness). After a couple dry weeks, I decided that I was not a candidate for AA, and made the decision that I would only drink socially. Shortly after I decided to quit drinking, a study came out showing that social drinkers have a much higher income potential than teetotalers. Honestly, I couldn’t jeopardize my family’s well-being, and decided that I could be a moderate, occasional social drinker. My father was “only” a social drinker, which is why he was pretty scarce at home. Since I don’t venture out or entertain much, I think my decision is a sound one.
Oktoberfest began on a Friday, September 29 at 11 am with the Tapping of the Golden Keg. On Sunday afternoon several UW-L students reported that one of their friends was missing. He had last been seen around 2 am Sunday, drinking at downtown bars. Even before the sniffer dogs came out, I’m sure the decision had been made to focus on the riverfront. Since 1997, five young men, last seen drinking and highly intoxicated at downtown bars, have disappeared, only to be pulled, dead, from the Mississippi. After three or four of these deaths, there were murmurs about a serial killer, and police were bashed about not doing enough work to solve these cases. All you need to know is what I’ve already told you. All were college-aged men, drinking and drunk at the time of their disappearance. The body of Luke Homan, 21, was pulled out of the river the first Monday morning of Oktoberfest, becoming number 6. An autopsy showed that he had a blood alcohol level of .32 at the time of his death.
Midweek, the La Crosse Tribune ran an article with the headline “Has Oktoberfest Finally Grown Up?” citing fewer arrests, and lauding the fact that crowds have gotten much less rowdy since the Fest’s early days in the 60s, which were characterized by near-riot conditions. On Friday, Oct 6, one of the front page headlines was “ER Doctor Calls Oktoberfest Drinking ‘Worst in 32 Years.’” The article mentioned the flood of young people who were admitted to both city hospitals, some critically ill due to alcohol poisoning, some who required trach tubes to keep them breathing, a blood alcohol level high of .42, and many students who literally could not identify themselves to ER staff. This happens every weekend in local ER rooms, just not on the scale prompted by Oktoberfest.
This Thursday's Tribune had a story about a young man who was picked up for resisting arrest the night Luke Homan disappeared. He was apprehended on the riverfront walkway, highly intoxicated, and said that he was headed home. Although his address was for a residence south of where he was picked up, he pointed to the river, insisting that’s where his house was.
The city has an Alcohol Oversight Committee, formed in 2004 after an alcohol-related drowning. Shortly before Oktoberfest, there was an article in the paper about how the committee had not been able to accomplish much due to lack of participation. Its last recommendation, from July of this year, was to put up a barrier at the levee. La Crosse is a tourist town, and few people want to see the Mississippi fenced in. The latest proposal is for motion-sensor lights and video cameras to be placed along the river. It’s an expensive proposition, offered late in a tight budget year. The library is a unit of city government, so it’s quite possible that we could be affected by any big-ticket solutions to the prevention of drunk drowning.
Do I blame Oktoberfest? No. Oktoberfest is simply an expression of deeply-held cultural tradition. Unfortunately, one component of that culture is binge drinking, which is subversively endorsed through finger-wagging lip service. I’ve been a witness to this myself. I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the adults would run through a case of beer—each—every weekend, then display crocodile tears when their kids came home drunk (okay) or threaten military school when they found a bag of pot tucked inside a sock (not okay). My enthusiasm for participation in Oktoberfest was certainly dampened this year, though, given the recent evaluation I applied to my own cultural and genetic heritage of addiction, juxtaposed against the truly sad ending of Luke Homan. I was not feeling particularly festive that week.
Aside from my personal issues with drinking, I have been very thoughtful about how the library can be an active participant in Oktoberfest next year. My first thought was to provide displays and information about alcohol safety. But, really, how After School Special and utterly useless is that? For us to focus on that one aspect would make us an accomplice to the pervasive notion that Oktoberfest is all about the beer. It’s also about the lederhosen, the dirndls and the oompah music. I’m hoping that next year I can work with our crackerjack Archives staff to dig past the stereotypes and offer at least a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage that remains after the last stein is emptied.
(If you run into me at conference, I’ll still let you buy me a drink. Just one, though.)