Closed Permanently

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I’ve been thinking about writing this one since November 16, the day I took the three photos you’re seeing here. I took those photos with the full intent of getting home and writing about the experience. Why didn’t I? Many reasons, none good enough. I just needed a little time.

On that day, I had taken a little drive, 274 miles round trip, to drop off a few items at the home of a very dear friend with whom I’d had a sudden and severe falling out three weeks earlier—not my choice, I assure you. I had dropped off a few belongings and Christmas gifts in a last-ditch effort to save a relationship with someone who still matters to me very much and I chose to do it at a time when nobody would be home, in order to avoid a confrontation as well as to ensure that my offering wouldn’t be rejected outright.

And so I was driving home in a somewhat emotional state—don’t ask me why but Wisconsin has always proven to be an emotional state for me. I went to college there. I fell in love there, several times. Got married there, once so far. Had my heart torn to shreds there more than once. Sometime before I drop dead, I am going to live there. Anyway, so there I was, driving home, alone, blasting out my iTunes playlist on my Chevy’s stereo and hoping beyond hope that somehow the day would end differently than it had begun.

As I approached Kenosha, the last set of exits on Interstate 94 before crossing back into Illinois, I decided to stop at Mars Cheese Castle to see if their string cheese offering had improved any since my last time stopping there. Mars, which is actually short for Mario’s and has nothing to do with the planet, is an excellent touristy place to stop for cheese and souvenirs, but their string cheese hasn’t been all that great for the last twenty years or so. Think glorified mozzarella rope. I picked up a couple of bags, only to be disappointed later, along with some heavenly fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds for my wife, before continuing my drive home.

Before I returned to the interstate, however, I pulled onto a stretch of a former frontage road (now a dead-end, how appropriate) in order to visit the shuttered location of a different Wisconsin institution known as the Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop, which closed for the last time on July 31 of this year. Earlier that month, my wife had brought home a copy of the Kenosha News article about the store’s closing, so I knew the place wasn’t open anymore. I just wanted to see it one more time. Given my emotional state that day, perhaps I hadn’t picked the best time to do so, but there I was.

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The first time I visited Bobby Nelson’s was in July of 1978, as a teenager on my way home after having experienced Milwaukee’s Summerfest music festival for the first time, of many, in my life. I have no idea why my soon-to-be brother-in-law chose to stop at Bobby Nelson’s, a small, nondescript, rectangular building that sat just down the road from the even then more touristy Mars Cheese Castle. As a 17-year-old kid, not yet in love with the charms of The Dairy State, I was less than impressed.

During the years that followed, I attended Marquette University, fell in love with all that Wisconsin had to offer, eventually married a girl from Kenosha, and learned to appreciate Wisconsin-made cheeses. Only during my post-collegiate married years did I come to appreciate that little rectangular store off I-94. During those decades, Bobby Nelson’s remained pretty much the same while the Cheese Castle up the road evolved into the massive tourist attraction that it is today.

Although the owners Phyllis and Richard Giovanelli never came to know me by name, nor I them, we surely became familiar with each other’s faces over the decades. More than once Mr. Giovanelli acknowledged me as a biker. He himself had ridden motorcycles when he was younger, as he relayed to me during one or two of my visits.

He also appreciated my manners. To this day, I recall walking into his store one day and removing my driving cap as I greeted him. “I can tell what kind of man you are,” said Mr. Giovanelli with a sincere smile, “just by the way you removed your hat when you walked in.” Before getting down to business, we talked for a few minutes about good manners and the current state of society at large. He never asked me my name, nor I his, but we came to identify each other through our interactions.

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And so on a cold and particularly lonely November day, with my heart already at half-mast for personal reasons, I got out of my Chevy and walked around the front of the old store, stepping through the snow that had no reason to be shoveled and snapping a few pictures to share with you here.

The original Bobby Nelson, I learned earlier this year, had been a professional wrestler. Besides being the founder and original owner of this cheese shop, he was supposedly the athlete after whom the “full nelson” and “half-nelson” wrestling maneuvers had been named. Following one last visit to the shop before it closed for good, my wife relayed to me how Phyllis Giovanelli had told her that back when she and her husband bought the shop, they had to promise Nelson that they would not resell the business when their time had come to retire.

The Giovanellis have kept their word. And so a good Wisconsin cheese shop, more than just a tourist attraction, is no more.

The world has since moved on. As for my 274-mile road trip, well, this blog post may prove to be the most substantial byproduct of my efforts. Life is sometimes complicated.

Thanks for hanging with me.