Milwaukee is an easy drive from Chicago. The rental car arrives on time and I’m parking outside the Calatrava-designed alien bird-insect edifice of their art museum a couple hours later.

The week leading up to this trip was full of painting pets so a change of scenery’s a good palate cleanser. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy staring at snapshots of Bobby, Margie, and Simon as much as the next guy. It’s obvious their humans love them even in the shittiest cellphone pic. I don’t take the job of translating that love into paint for granted. But once that work is done it’s good to have something that changes the subject, clears the deck.

On a break from my commission work I go to the Art Institute and spend time with one my favorite paintings. In it, a large fish lies on a tabletop in front of a dark copper pot along with some oysters, an eel, a strange little red fish, a lemon, and a knife. All wait to be thrown in the pot for dinner. I can’t say why I love it so much. I don’t even eat seafood. But I’ve sketched it a half dozen times since first seeing it shortly after my arrival in Chicago in 1990. It’s become an old friend.

Another night after a day of dogs and cats I’m invited to draw at Wendy’s dance studio. I’ve known her as long as Manet’s still-life. That doesn’t sound right but I don’t mean it in a bad way. She reminds the audience of our long association on a break between numbers so that’s why it stuck in my head.

Drawing music and dance and listeners/watchers is a kind of communion. Not exactly like the pet portraits but not wholly unlike it either.

I’ve been to Milwaukee’s art museum before. It’s a lot more manageable than the Art Institute. There’s a pressure with admission prices as high as they are to see every single display but all that leads to is sensory overload. That’s why it’s nice to visit a small museum. My plan is to spend most of my time at the Ashcan School exhibit but I wind up strolling through most of the building. I sit and sketch a Utrillo a few minutes then buy a postcard in the gift shop and get back behind the wheel of my rental.

The real purpose of this trip is a bookstore event in the Bayview neighborhood. I drop off my box of books at the shop and go down the street looking for food. On the walk back I stop in a record store where I’d driven Bill for a gig a few years back. In Milwaukee people are still wearing masks inside some of the businesses unlike most in Chicago so the owner doesn’t recognize me. There’s a good chance he wouldn’t have even maskless and I don’t feel like reintroducing myself. I manage to leave without buying a record.

No one shows up for the reading but I spend a pleasant hour chatting with the owners. Turns out we have friends in common. They’re apologetic, cursing Milwaukee for being so out of it, but I assure them that my expectations for public events couldn’t be lower. It’s always a crapshoot and I’m grateful when anyone shows up at all. They end up buying most of the books I brought anyway so the visit is a runaway success despite no one coming.

Art openings and book readings have never been anything I look forward to. Unlike a concert, they are an afterthought, a commercial add-on, rather than the main event. That happens on the page and the canvas, away from any audience.

I wipe away any trace of disappointment on the drive home. There’s junk food to eat and a podcast to listen to—something about the history of clothes—and a dark road that helps clear my head. Maybe tomorrow there’ll be another dog or cat to immortalize and the cycle can start all over again.

—Listen to me talk to Janet Bean about her bands and about writing and to Mallory about Black Christmas.

—I recommended both Bardo and White Noise after not expecting much of either going in.