For the next couple of weeks, I return to this extraordinary time with a spotlight on some ordinary people from around the Madison area. I pulled the photos from my archives with an eye to the interesting characters that live in our town.
It’s hot and humid here in Madison this weekend so I thought I’d start off with one of the first photos I took with my first digital camera. It was New Years Day 2005 just after the sun came up, Lake Monona was frozen, and the temperature was about 20° F. Sometime I’m going to make a do over for a better composition, just have to get out of bed early on January 1, 2021!
This chalk artist was creating a masterpiece on the street that goes around the Capitol Square. It was a Saturday morning, the Dane County Farmer’s Market was in full swing so a lot of spectators wandered over to see what was going on. The things I like about this photo are the shadows and feet of the observers and the light on the image the artist is creating.
The Farmers’ Market has been a Saturday morning fixture on the Capitol Square from April to November since 1972. All the products sold by the vendors have to be raised in Wisconsin so it’s direct from the producer to the consumer. In ordinary years, thousands of locals and lots of tourists promenade around the Capitol sipping coffee, munching on a morning bun, and checking out the items for sale. In the spring it’s a lot of bedding plants, spinach, and asparagus. As we move into summer strawberries, radishes, zucchini, and peas begin to appear. Then about mid-July until the end of August, the tables are loaded with produce of all types, sizes and shapes. In the fall it’s potatoes, apples, and pumpkins.
The Market is not without it’s memorable characters. The photo below is of Big Jim Salzman, a Market fixture at the corner of Mifflin and Pinckney Streets for many years until his untimely death in 2007. Jim was a tall guy with a big, robust personality. He kept a jabber going as people filed past his booth. It was both entertaining and a good way to draw in customers to buy his goods. He always had a deal going, buy two get one at half price. He also would dress up in costumes, wear a funny hat or a wig as in the photo below. Over the years, we bought a lot of produce from him, a decent guy who worked hard to bring customers quality products. Every time I pass by the corner where he had his stand I think of Jim. He died of a heart attack in Clearwater, Florida where he went every year to sell Wisconsin grown Christmas trees.
The opposites of Jim are the many vendors from the Hmong community in Madison. They quietly go about their business raising and selling food much like they did before they left Laos as refuges. The Hmong Diaspora began in 1975 when the Vietnam War began winding down. France and later the United States recruited the Hmong people to fight against the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army, and their Laotian communist supporters. After the war ended, many of the Hmong fled to refuge camps in Thailand and then came to the US. There are about 6000 Hmong currently living in the Madison area. Most of the elders didn’t speak English and worked at low wages jobs that didn’t require the knowledge of English. Second and third generation Hmong live with one foot in their traditional culture and the other in the American Midwestern culture. They are a hard working people trying to carve out a life in a foreign land that can be intimidating. The young woman in the photo below is a great example of how the family works together at the Market to serve customers and make a living.
The Farmers’ Market isn’t the only attraction around the Capitol Square on a Saturday morning. Musicians and performers of types stake out a small piece of territory and busk for donations. Catfish Stephenson (I don’t know his real first name!) has been fixture for many years on the Square. He’s a Madison based blues musician with a knack for playing a mean slide guitar. He is said to arrive early at the Market to get a good spot usually near the Wisconsin Historical Museum at the corner of Mifflin and Carroll Streets. He sits in his chair playing his guitar with the case laid out in front to accept donations. It doesn’t take long for the $1 bills to pile up. He also takes requests and chats with the Market patrons. A super nice guy and an excellent guitarist. He’s still around performing in clubs and on the streets somewhere but I haven’t seen him for a while. Hopefully, when we do get back to ordinary time our paths will cross again.
On a typical Friday or Saturday evening during the summer (when we are in town) we head down to the Memorial Union Terrace to listen to a live band, have a beverage and people watch. On a number of occasions, we’ve come across this lone saxophone player on the Library Mall in front of the University Bookstore. The acoustics are excellent with the sound amplified by the surrounding buildings. His name is Robert Rhymes and that’s about all I know about him except that he plays a mean jazz saxophone. I like this photo with the light on his face and shadow on the wall.
I’ll end today’s post with another character that I’ve encountered in Downtown Madison a few times over the past several years. I don’t know her name but she has a very distinctive look. In the top photo, I like the red hair, shirt and jacket. I’m guessing those strong character lines in her face have a lot of stories to tell. In the second photo, I’m not as close, her hair isn’t so red and she’s wearing blue this time!
Check back next week for another edition of photos of people from around Madison.
Until then, happy virtual travels.