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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Chaos of Mifflin Street Block Party less troubling than predictable

Credit:Lin Weeks

A line of red plastic cups sit along a balcony rail at the corner of Basset and Mifflin. Someone must have intentionally placed them like this, because there's just no reason five cups on a third-floor balcony should find themselves spaced so perfectly apart, their shiny white rims almost -- but not quite -- touching. It's too orderly, things tend toward chaos, entropy prevails, especially on West Mifflin Street in the heart of Madison's disheveled college student neighborhood. Four of the cups contain varying quantities of beer, completely foamless and still. The other cup is almost empty, but there remains a thin layer of darker liquid. It's too red to be wine.

The cups aren't the only inhabitants of the deck. There's a group of people there too, equally sun-soaked and serene. Music and talking can be heard from inside the house, and there's a steady buzz coming from street level, but here on the balcony nobody is saying a word, just leaning forward on the parts of the rail not otherwise occupied, surveying the scene below.

It's 11:30 a.m., and there's a sea of people at street level. A mass of sun-drenched, shoulder-to-shoulder revelers as far as the eye can see in both directions. Directed movement is difficult; the best bet is the sidewalk or a detour to a parallel street. There's constant motion, though no one is actually going anywhere. Where would they be going, anyway?

The soundtrack to the scene is the hundreds of conversation within earshot, rising and lowering organically. Occasionally one group or another will break into song. Closer to houses it's easy to hear stereos playing inside. Shouts come from balconies.

A row of vendors sits across the way, spaced evenly. They're half visible, their tops lit up by the sun and the tables and coolers inside completely hidden by the crush of humanity swirling on Mifflin's 500 block. It seems strange to have these tents here; their rigidity in stark contrast to the amoebic flow around them is like plaque in a constricted vein.

The food tents are much more popular than the drink tents, mainly because the 2011 Mifflin Street Block Party allows attendees to bring their own beverages. Choice and economy have always been prized by the college class and a handful of liquor stores nearby are glad to lend a hand. The net effect is increased access to alcohol and a crowd that doesn't dissipate for lunch time.

It's a unique kind of camaraderie that forms down on the street -- tens of thousands of people aged within a few years of one another all focused on having fun but with no real goal beyond that. It's the most effortless happiness imaginable, a celebration of all the best parts of youth and a good portion of the worst as well.

An observer might ask whether this constitutes redeeming value. But that's the wrong question, the type of constricted world view that leads to decisions like licensing the sale of beer at a college block party and, in so doing, allowing in all manner of unregulated drinking in the street. Addition of structure by subtraction of law seems a dubious concept indeed.

The walk home carries an air of satisfied exhaustion. The sun is beginning to fade and at the music stage on the 400 block, crowds dance to an act they've never heard of and will never spend a dollar to see in concert. Still, they're here and people dance, as they are wont to do. We pass house after house with balconies still overflowing with people.

Later there will be two reports of stabbings and three police injuries, but word has not spread quickly, the party has barely slowed. The five cups on the railing are gone, scattered among others on the balcony, the beer and red liquid slowly soaking into the wood. It's less troubling than purely predictable.

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