Tom Crawford: Terminal Milwaukeean
As the longtime station manager at WMSE, Tom Crawford knows a thing or two about community. It’s what powers the station—and, by extension, what provides his livelihood—but his connection to the city goes far beyond work. Crawford is a lifelong Milwaukee resident, steeped in the neighborhoods and traditions that make up this strange place we call home. Over the past year, he has been the focal point of Ex Fabula’s “Terminal Milwaukee” storytelling series, using his experiences to illuminate the history and character of our fair city. Before the series’ lavish finale Saturday, April 28 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre—which promises bagpipers, gospel singers, and punk rockers in addition to stories—The A.V. Club caught up with Crawford to talk about what motivates the series, and why, if you don’t like Milwaukee, you should shut the hell up and leave.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with Ex Fabula as a performer? Was it something you had wanted to do for a while?
Tom Crawford: Ex Fabula had been doing their story slams for probably close to a year, and they asked me a couple times if I wanted to tell a story. For certain reasons—a combination of work and my own fears—I was able to kind of avoid it. Then suddenly I heard one of the storytellers and thought it was just awesome. The theme for one of the slams was “Busted,” so I volunteered and got to speak that night. I was the last storyteller, and as I was walking out, they were onstage announcing the winners and I thought, “There’s no way I won, there were so many great storytellers, it’s time for me to go.” And as I was walking out they said, “The winner is Tom Crawford.”
AVC: How did that experience grow into a full-fledged series? Was it your idea?
TC: I ended up telling a story at their all-star event, and based on the stories that I told at the “Busted” slam and the all-star event, David Ravel, his wife Phylis, and a few other people thought there was something there. David Ravel says, “Why don’t we go out for coffee?” So I go to Alterra on Prospect, and I thought I was having coffee with just David, and suddenly I get there and there are all the Ex Fabula people. I’m like, “You guys just leaving? I’m here to have coffee with David.” And they were like, “Actually, we’re here to have coffee with you.”
AVC: Was it focused on the city from the outset, or did that come about later?
TC: I can’t tell you how to tell a story; I don’t know how. I can’t say I know how my narrative goes, what my structure is, that I know where my callbacks are or where my reoccurrences are, I can’t tell you any of that. I just have things up inside my head that I just tell people. That’s all I really do. What was noticed, what I was told by others, was that the stories were deeply tied to geographic detail—that being Milwaukee. That’s where it gets personal. That’s how it makes sense to me.
AVC: Once it became about Milwaukee, how did it become “Terminal” Milwaukee?
TC: I got very upset one day in a coffee shop when a couple of guys who were standing in line said that they hated this city. They were just waiting for their coffee and the guy goes, “This town sucks.” I had so much going on—I had a father who was dying of cancer, we were on the verge of a pledge drive, I had relationship issues, and it was everything all at once. I was like a borderline psychotic. I just needed that one last thing to set me off, and these two guys handed it to me on a platter. I just completely lit them up. I said, “What about the baristas who are waiting on you? What about the bars you guys went to last night on Water Street? What about all those people waiting on you, the barbacks, the door people, the DJs? You ever go to concerts? You go to art galleries and museums? You ever go to street fairs or festivals? What keeps you here? If you don’t like it, I think both of you should just call Mayflower movers and get a plane ticket and get out of here.”
I just realized, at that moment, how much I love the city. Then, a few months later, I was being interviewed and the guy told me, “Describe yourself.” Why not just ask me, “What’s your favorite color?” right? So I said, “Well, you know, I’m just a terminal Milwaukeean.”
AVC: Terminal in the sense that it’s going to kill you?
TC: Life will kill you. No, when I say “terminal,” it means that it’s a condition that is chronic, that there’s no cure. My condition about my city is chronic. I look at it this way: Blessed or cursed with a terminal condition, you’ve got to embrace life and live it to its fullest. I choose to be here, and if you think my city sucks, then I guess I’m terminally here. But I’m going to have the best fucking time anyone can possibly have, make the absolute best of it. I’m going to embrace it, because I know I’m not going to be able to do it forever.