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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Fair
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Wild on the street
A late-night pub crawl up State
Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

"Do you have anything else with your name?" the man on the stool asked in an accommodating tone. "Anything at all? A credit card?"

"I got my highlights done since then," the young woman explained confidently, gesturing at the photograph on the ID.

The bouncer studied the document, then the woman's face. Her young friend, in fishnets and bright red hot pants, watched hopefully.

"Yeah, you got tanner, too," he finally remarked and, handing back the card, waved the pair in.

It was another Friday night on State Street, and the City Bar was filling up. The subterranean tavern's handsome semicircular booths held groups of people, many of them apparently college-aged, some of them slightly older - the age, perhaps, of graduate students not yet lost to the years of solitude that go into writing a dissertation.

But all of them were young, which reminded me of a complaint I sometimes hear from slightly older Madisonians, the ones no longer in school but not yet settled down with families. Love the bike paths and the farmers' markets, they say, but where are we supposed to go at night? And they have a point. In Madison, evening-entertainment options for grownups pale compared to the offerings in bigger cities.

Still, Madison has a resource all but unheard of in the metropolises: a downtown nightlife district catering almost exclusively to patrons who are young, who sport bright red activewear and who are in search of cheap drinks.

And so it fell to me, your loyal nightlife scribe, to walk the length of State Street late one recent Friday night. In this column I have covered salsa dances and leather contests, drag shows and lounge singers, but until now, never before have I turned my sights on a signature Madison phenomenon, the State Street bar scene. A teetotaler, I was able to look with, you'll pardon the expression, gimlet eyes.

What did I see? Among other things, I saw people drinking and people talking on cellular phones. I also saw a man in a peach-colored toga.

Actually, my ramble began not on State Street proper but on Lake Street, the site of the Kollege Klub. I meant to limit the scope of my research by covering only State Street bars, but it seemed a shame to leave out the Klub, beloved as it is by kollege students, as well as by certain varsity athletes.

Unfortunately, it was too early for excitement when I stopped by the Kollege Klub at 11:30 p.m. Some weeks ago I happened to wander by the bar at 12:30, and the line to get in stretched down the block. This time, though, a calm prevailed outside the basement tavern, and within.

I strode past the bouncer, who barely looked at me, to find that inside, amid tattered furnishings, young men in baseball caps were sitting in small groups. Many tables were free. A television showed the NBA playoffs. A DJ spun Michael Jackson tunes. I headed back up the stairs and south on Lake Street.

I turned the corner and eyed, across the street, one of my most important destinations: State Street Brats. As I learned when I moved to Madison eight years ago, there are indeed very good brats to be eaten at Brats, but after midnight on a Friday, dining is not the first order of business there.

State Street Brats was crowded when I entered, after having first shown my identification to the T-shirted bouncer. He gave me a startled look when he realized I was born in the first Nixon administration. On multiple floors young people, mostly dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, drank beer. Many of them were shouting.

As U2's "One" played loudly, I was transfixed by a large television screen - not the one showing the NBA playoffs but the one with a scrolling list of messages. "3207: Lisa wants her salad tossed," read one. "2831: Rob drinks his own pee," read another. These were, I realized, text messages, and instructions on the screen explained how it worked. I texted a message of love to my boyfriend, who was sleeping at home, and it quickly appeared.

As I left I noticed that one booth held a group of women wearing identical powder-blue T-shirts. "Seniors," the shirts read. In the cul de sac outside State Street Brats, the iconic musician Art Paul Schlosser was arguing with a street evangelist.

Next I descended to the City Bar, where I watched more of the NBA playoffs. Leaving, I made my way through a cluster of people intently smoking outside the door. I saw, incongruously for the late hour, a young woman pushing a baby in a stroller. In the street was a sight new to me: pedicabs, which bore whooping revelers up and down the block.

Strolling east, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a man and a woman. "That was our first chapter," she said.

"Really?" the man replied.

"Yes, Alpha chapter," she said.

Soon I came to the Pub, where groups of men sat at long picnic tables and watched the basketball game. In the cavernous main room, all the pool tables were in use. A group of 10 or 12 people were dressed relatively well, the women in cocktail dresses, the men in ties and shirtsleeves. E-40's hip-hop ditty "U and Dat" played on the sound system. At a dartboard, one man worked on an underhand technique.

Emerging, I saw the man in the peach-colored toga. He was a vivid reminder of the costumed revel that convulses State Street every Halloween, but the scene outside that Friday was subdued. The sidewalks were busy, but not full. Everywhere men and women publicly displayed affection. A fight seemed about to break out, but the peace held.

My next stop was the evening's pleasantest surprise: Hawk's. The room was attractively paneled in wood, and although the bar was full, the mood was more urbane than the loud merrymaking of State Street Brats and the Pub. The young clientele was well dressed, and the NBA game was being shown on relatively tiny screens, not giant ones. (One looks for refinement where one can.)

Next I came to the Irish pub called, appropriately enough, Irish Pub. The already intimate interior was made even more cramped by a group of 20 or so people wearing - once again - identical T-shirts. "PUB CRAWL," these shirts proudly said, and listed downtown pubs.

I was nearing the end of my own pub crawl. Near the Capitol I stopped into Nick's, which was quiet, and then the crowded Paul's Club, favored by graduate students who disdain the chaos of lower State Street. At the top of State Street I stuck my head into State Bar & Grill, which seemed virtually empty.

There was one last stop: Frida, the storefront that is a Mexican restaurant all day, a nightclub in the evening. Having paid the cover charge - the only one I paid on State Street - I made my way in through a miasma of fog and disco lights. Salsa music played, and there were a few dancers, but at nearly midnight, the party was still only on the verge of starting.

Soon I understood why. "Why is the music so quiet?" a patron asked an employee.

"It's the comedy club upstairs," the young man replied, referring to Comedy Club on State. "Their show ends at midnight. We can't turn the bass up till then."

Feeling slightly dizzy from the machine-made fog, I left Frida and walked back to the bottom of State Street, where I had parked. It was well past midnight, and a small crowd had formed outside the Kollege Klub. A group of women in black minidresses eyed me through cigarette smoke as I passed. My State Street frolic had come to an end, but theirs, presumably, was just beginning.

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