Gather 'round, new UW students, and I'll tell you a story about one of Madison's most colorful characters. This is the 25th anniversary of his death.
Art Nesson died just as he lived - on the streets downtown. Better known as "Art the Window Washer," Nesson etched his hulk of a figure into the memories of UW students of the early '80s in a way no other State Street character will likely ever do again.
A giant of a man with a whale of a thirst, Art lumbered down State Street sidewalks armed with the tools of his trade: a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee. For a few bucks a pop Nesson washed the glass storefronts up and down State.
"What is Art?" read the rhetorical question spray-painted on the outside wall of the Humanities Building. "Art is a window washer," someone answered in a different color.
They say your head makes up 10% of your body weight. At this rate, Art's head must have weighed 30 pounds. It sat on the shelf of his broad, sweaty shoulders like a boulder. His face, carved into the front of the big red rock, was pinched into a perpetual squint.
Because of his massive size, his expression was often mistaken as menacing. His squint was more likely the product of years of sleepless nights and unseen pains. Pains he tried to quiet each day by getting as drunk as he possibly could.
The first quart of the day steadied his system enough to get some windows done. He wore his squeegee in the hammer hook of his denim overalls, which gave him a raffish look, like a looped Sir Lancelot.
In those days I washed dishes at the Baker's Room restaurant, the State Street bistro that introduced Madison to croissants and morning buns. Each midnight after closing I took a big, black garbage bag filled with the day's unsold croissants and buns out to the curb, where Art leaned under the street lamp smoking.
"Hey, Art," I said, handing him the bulging sack. He reached in, snatched a bun with his giant paw and gobbled it like a bear eats a live salmon on the bank of a rushing stream.
Even though this ritual took place most every night for a year, he never said a word. His bloodshot eyes gleamed, though. At that hour Art was hammered to the max. But Art wasn't like many street alcoholics, the ones who have two settings on their toggle, agitated or passed out.
Art cruised through his days and nights in the midst of a harmless, unhappy fog. He also seemed aware of his addiction. If he saw you approach, you could catch him half-heartedly try to conceal the bottle behind his back.
None of which means people weren't intimidated by Art. He sometimes hunkered down inside the dark of doorways of State Street like a big, drunken ghost.
From the shadows he would bark out loud commands and taunt invisible foes. Startled pedestrians would jump out of their socks when they turned to see his hulking presence.
Nesson was 42 when he died.By that time most everybody on campus had an Art the Window Washer story. Of all the tales I've heard, I'm married to the person with the best one of all.
One morning Peggy blasted out the doors of Rennebohm Drugs, now known as Walgreen's, at State and Lake. She moved through the humming throng of students up State toward her apartment. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Art, steadying himself against a newspaper box.
Half a block up she heard him yowl. A rare morning burst, one that caught everyone's attention on both sides of the street.
Peggy turned and looked, and then she saw something no one had ever seen before. Art began to run. He pointed at Peggy and began to run straight at her.
A sea of slack-jawed onlookers parted before him. Peggy did what anyone would do. She started to run, too. She pitched forward into a sprint when she heard Art's howl grow closer. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Art's red eyes staring her down, his fists pumping.
It took Art a full block to get up to speed, but the big hoss was moving now. Peggy darted around the corner at the Towers building at Francis Street. She pressed her back to the bricks, panting, waiting to watch Art fly by unaware of her hiding.
Once at the corner, Art reversed his jets. It took a good 10 steps for him to cease forward motion, but he shuddered to a stop.
"Hey!!!" he bellowed back, looking at Peggy. He took a shaky step toward her, reached into his pocket, and produced the wallet she'd dropped coming out of the drug store.