GAMBLE: An overdue thank-you note

My thank-you notes are usually mailed about six weeks too late, but deadline kept this one on time. Writing this is a little like throwing punches under water, with each word of newsprint looking like a premature munchkin in comparison to the giant feelings behind it.

The most generous inch count wouldn’t lend me enough space to say thanks to all the people and places I’ve fallen in love with, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: Thank you, Milwaukee, for being my stomping grounds for the past four years. I’m going to miss you. Sorely.

Thanks for giving my friends and me our “spots”: the restaurants, bars and shops we discovered after eventful bus rides and a few mistaken routes. These are the places we visited when we were still learning about this city and each other, and they are the same places we’ll inevitably miss most when we leave.

Thanks for all the music: the soundtrack to my college years. From catching shows at the Pabst to hearing new songs on 88.9 to dancing with friends at Jazz in the Park, you have exposed me to more music than I know what to do with — and that’s a wonderful problem to have. I can only hope the students who stay here take advantage of the concert venues, spontaneously go to shows on school nights and see bands they’ve never heard before — because those may very well be the shows they remember most. When I play the years back in my mind, it’s going to be anything but a silent movie.

Thanks for the arts: the plays, improv shows, art exhibits and never-ending creativity. I’m grateful for my Milwaukee-centric experiences, like hanging with the owner of the country’s oldest bowling alley, the Holler House, or watching people throw food at one another in the East Side tomato toss. And in the moments when things seemed calm, when Elvis impersonators weren’t holding conventions and Harleys weren’t taking over the streets for festivals, I could simply walk down to the lake. The view, especially on those infectiously sunny days, was art enough.

And the folks. Thank you, Milwaukee, for the distinctive characters that became familiar and made this place feel like home. Some of my most colorful conversations grew from small talk with strangers — record store owners, bartenders, grocery baggers, pool sharks, concertgoers — and all of a sudden they weren’t strangers anymore. The oddballs out there (and there were many) made my time here all the richer, especially when I was college-poor. There was a reason I sometimes called this place “Mil-wacky” — I didn’t always have to pay for a ticket to be thoroughly entertained.

Many of my best memories are those I didn’t expect to make, the people, places and things that surprised me. My favorite meals weren’t in white-tableclothed bistros, but in friends’ crowded apartments with paper plates, mismatched coffee mugs, Indian-style seating and an iPod playing classic rock. With our college roots in Milwaukee, I hope my friends and I never grow to take ourselves too seriously. If anyone does, though, I’ll gently remind them of where we came from: a city where a Jesus-Mobile, covered with signs and bald baby dolls, inched down our streets blasting Bible verses from decrepit speakers. They’ll know what I mean.

This thank-you note is not a goodbye. I’m terrible at those. In a couple weeks, I’ll receive my diploma, pack my bags and move back home. My post-grad job will be the prestigious position of golf course employee while I continue the job hunt — not really part of my “plan.”

Then again, many good things never were.

And in my car, half the radio presets are set to Chicago, half to Milwaukee, and they’ll stay that way. I’ll be back. You take care, Milwaukee. See ’ya soon.