Leaving Madison – And Home – for College In New York City

By Jo Shaffer | September 2, 2015


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On the near west side of Madison, there’s a triangle-shaped patch of grass in the middle of the Hillington Green neighborhood. Ingeniously, we call it Triangle Park. Though it contains only a small play structure and four benches, it anchors a community I’ve belonged to for my entire 18 years.

At Triangle Park, I met lifelong friends, got pinkeye, and everything in between. On this tiny green island, my neighborhood has held celebrations, talent shows, and fundraisers. Once it even hosted a professional wrestling league that my friends and I started—and that my parents quickly shut down. This fall, I leave the Triangle Park community to go to college in New York City.

I’m scared. But then again, everything frightens me. In the summer, I was afraid of the bigger kids playing tackle football at the park. At Halloween, I was afraid of the untended bowls of candy on front porches, with signs like “Only take two pieces or the ghouls will get you!” In winter, I was afraid of wiping out on the park’s makeshift ice-skating rink.

This time, though, it’s not physical harm I’m afraid of. Sure, I might get run over by a taxi, or die in a fiery falafel cart accident. But mostly, I’m afraid of leaving the community that tended me. When my Mom had surgery, food piled up on our doorstep. When my short film screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival, people stopped on the sidewalk to congratulate me. Everyone knew your name, and everyone knew what you were up to.

True, that kind of intimacy has its drawbacks. The other day, I came home by way of Commonwealth Avenue, and my Mom was waiting for me.

“Marybeth said she saw you walking in the middle of the street. Why would you do such a thing?”

“I don’t know, Mom,” I said.

I do know this: In New York, you can’t walk in the middle of the street. Nobody knows your name. And if someone asks you to wrestle professionally, you should probably run.

The Triangle Park community existed long before my birth. Now, as I leave Madison, I’ll have to create a community of my own. How to begin? When I get to New York, should I put up flyers? Or maybe place an ad in the Village Voice?

Kid from Wisconsin seeks group of people with whom he feels he belongs.

No, I don’t think it works like that. I’m going to have to do it the hard way, by starting conversations with strangers and finding points of connection that don’t begin in Triangle Park.

Still, even though I’m going out to the East Coast by myself, I don’t feel alone. I know I have a community back home supporting me. Maybe, on vacation, one of them might even see me in New York, crossing Broadway. Maybe they’ll immediately call my Mom.

“Joe didn’t even wait for the light! He just walked right out into traffic!”

Jo Shaffer

Jo Shaffer

Jo Shaffer is a former Madison resident, who attended Madison West High School when they wrote stories for Wisconsin Life. Jo now lives in New York City and works as a filmmaker and musician.

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