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  • Writer's pictureMary Dippolito

The Ghost of Westside's Past

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

This post was written in February, 2021.

Nathan Offerdahl, owner of the Westside Bowl, poses for a photo in front of the main bar.
Nathan Offerdahl, Westside Bowl owner. Photo by Jill Farrar

My friends in the band SHAFT played at the Westside Bowl last year. It’s the last live show I went to. I’m not a huge metal-head, but doom metal is slow—like really slow—and although I still don’t listen to it much myself, something about hearing it live transcends the genre. The music vibrates through the speakers and comes at you from every direction. The dirty, distorted bass buzzes through the air and fills my skull. The drums come up through the floor, travel through my feet and up my body until my heartbeat synchronizes to “Acid Pegasus” or “God Bless Antarctica” or one of the other tracks from the last album they put out. In the heated mosh pit, everyone’s bodies were jumping and banging into each other. The crowd was pressed so close to each other that I took notice of the shirtless guy in front of me. I was pushed into him over and over and could practically taste his sweat. It was cool to have that close, tangible intimacy with a stranger, the two of us united through the music. People don’t touch each other like this normally, not even back then, except at a place like the Westside Bowl during a metal show. But it was all good. We were all here together. A sublime communal experience for only a $10 cover.

The venue made money. SHAFT made money. Jimmy running sound made money. Everybody drank and everybody tipped so the bartenders made money. That was a year ago. Now, as I stand outside the glass doors at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, staring at the sign that says “NO MASK, NO ENTRY,” I wonder how much money these people are making now.

A Venue that Feeds the Soul || Entryway

Nathan Offerdahl, owner of the Westside Bowl, has kept the venue open during almost the entirety of the pandemic. I know that he's done so by adhering strictly to the CDC guidelines; while other venues were fighting the shutdowns and trying to keep people in their bars to earn money, he changed his business strategies to affirm to the guidelines and stay open by putting into place a “pay it forward” promotion for their pizzas, increasing their takeout traffic and helping the community, while shutting down the bar and bowling alley immediately. (Cowan)

In the entryway, before entering the main room, there's a beautiful collage of photos from dozens of past shows here. I recognize some of the faces, and even some of the shows.

I understand the panic of these other bars that fought the guidelines. I'm not saying it was right, but I also can't imagine being a local business owner like this in any city and having my livelihood and security stripped away by government mandates that no one prepared for.

I believe that Nathan is a different kind of owner. This is his livelihood too, but I don't think it's in the same way. What keeps him going? What does he think the role of venues like this are in a community like ours? I don't know the right answer, but I know how it's fed my soul in the past. How does it feed his?

What's Happening? || The Bar

God, there is so much art here. Murals, big beautiful paintings, smaller sketches, framed memes, band stickers on every counter, beautifully restored vintage furniture, skateboards painted and hung up on the pillars, animal skulls, antiques, little sculptures. This place was supposed to be a love letter to all forms of art. Nobody stays long enough now to notice it, they couldn't. In and out.

It's almost like a “Where's Waldo?” of artwork, I wonder what you would spot if you only stepped in long enough to pick up your pizza and go.

A collage of photos taken on stage of various artists holding guitars, singing, and other miscellaneous pictures of the bar. The photos are aligned quilt-style alternating brightly colored and black and white.
A collage of Westside Bowl Acts over the last three years
Photos by various photographers

Inside, CNN is on the big screen and the kitchen bell dings. The owner, Nate, and the bartender, Jeremy, are discussing political memes behind the bar. The place is empty. I tell Nate about my project and he lets me sit behind the bar with my laptop. A man walks in and picks up an order of pizza. I'm sitting at a table full of cookies with their logo on it. They look stenciled. They're selling them. Tee shirts line the walls. Cute little ways to make extra side money, but probably not nearly enough.

Before my fieldwork I researched the Save Our Stages Act (Aswad). It was included in the last stimulus bill, and it allows these types of businesses to apply for grants from the Small Business Administration to cover six months worth of rent, employee payroll, and utilities. According to the text, businesses will be able to apply the first four weeks after the bill passed on December 21st, 2020. It’s January 20th, almost five weeks since, so I ask Nate if he’s seen any of that money.

“No, we haven't even seen an application yet,” he says. “We meet with NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) every week on zoom, hopefully tomorrow we'll hear something.” He sounds in good spirits. “The problem is there's a specific amount of money to go around. There's these big places like The Beachland Ballroom, the Agora, that are eligible for the full $10 million, who seat 4000 people. And there are places that are going to abuse it, apply when they don't deserve it. Bars and breweries that have music on summer weekends, places that aren't full-time music venues like this. And when the money runs out, the chances that D.C. is going to resupply it is going to depend on the rate of malintent.” He rocks on his heels. “We'll get the money though. I know we will. It's just a matter of when.” The kitchen bell dings again and he hurries away.

I order a plate of wings, Nashville hot. They’re still doing takeout only, but I’ve temporarily become a member of the “behind-the-bar” crew, until when the kitchen bell dings. Then Jeremy asks me to move out into the empty bowling alley, “Yanno, so technically we're not breaking any rules.”

I finish my wings and my laptop flashes “low battery,” so I move back into the main room and rejoin the news cycle, just as another Doordash driver comes in. There used to be tables in here, and pool tables. And karaoke. It's all been cleared out into empty space.

As I plug my laptop in behind the bar, a new employee comes in and starts ranting to everyone immediately. She needs an MRI but her insurance won't cover it without six weeks of physical therapy. She mentions another job. She is a bartender after all, which means she must have like three jobs. I wonder if her hours have been cut. Probably.

“People say 'well, just be a takeout restaurant’”— Nate shouts this at me from the kitchen, picking up where we left off —“This is a 2,000 square foot building, and we're only using this little kitchen for income.”

It's after 5 now, and pickups are increasing every few minutes. This is all they do now. Over and over, all day. Kitchen bell rings. Someone walks in. Thank you very much, have a great day.The phone rings, May I take your order? Rinse and repeat.

Sometimes people ask for beers-to-go. They have local brews: Birdfish, Penguin, Modern Methods, Paladin.

Two young women come in, close to my age, and ask to look at the menu. One of their masks doesn't fit right and the girl is complaining about it so Nate points her toward the case of medical grade masks at the door. Maybe they'll stay for drinks and I can talk to them. They're dressed warm enough to be able to manage outside for a while.

They leave after their food comes.

What Would Have Been Happening || The Bowling Alley

A large platform rests on top of removed bowling alleys with a fabric cover over top of it.
The barely used new stage area

The bowling alley is closed, it's taped off and blocked by barrels. A stage was built last year on top of some of the lanes so that bands could perform literally on the lanes when bowling shuts down at 10 pm. A big projector is playing Avengers, but there's no bowling, no one around. The projector is mostly used as a background for bands. Nate put it up last year. The bowling alley has murals on every wall, painted by local artists, and all the seating is vintage 70's furniture.

Soon, Nate comes out to check on me. I ask if bowling will open up again soon because it seems like a decent social-distancing activity.

To the contrary, he sighs. “We had to shut the bowling down,” he says. “People can’t self-govern. And not only does it require two people on a shift to manage the customers, but if you're a restaurant, which we technically are, you're required to have a Covid-compliance officer, someone who is solely responsible for making sure guests are following CDC guidelines and wearing their masks. I was spending six hours a day telling people, ‘Sir, put your mask on,’ ‘Ma’am, you can’t eat standing up,” which puts me at risk too because these are people who are obviously non-compliant in their daily lives. We just couldn't manage it, I don't think we will have bowling any time soon.”

ScarJo is saying something to Thanos on the projector but it's muted, Motown playing from the speakers. I watch an action scene to the tune of “My Guy” by Mary Wells.

I wonder if the bowling balls ever get sad.

What Used to be Happening – The Basement

Nate lets me go down to the basement. The walls are lined with tee shirts from every band that has performed here. I'm going to try to count them someday. I’m guessing about 400. Nate says there's probably about 200 more in the back just waiting to be put up. I like the one that has a big picture of the state of Wisconsin, and in big bold letters it says “Beer, Cheese, Serial Killers.” Another one just says “WHORES.” Another, “Ugly music for ugly people.”

Band stickers are on every pole. The stage still has equipment on it, a drum kit, a couple amps, a PA system. I think about the punks that used to pack this place, bodies wall-to-wall. I wonder if I will ever feel safe in a mosh pit again. So much sweat and everyone screaming and hyperventilating.

A concrete basement with a platform stage, trash cans and stray cords and other miscellaneous band equipment strewn about
Forgotten equipment scattered around the basement stage

A couple guys come downstairs and start moving furniture out of the Green Room. I tell them about my project. They tell me they're moving furniture that's been laying around in various nooks and they're trying to set them up in the bowling alley. Since bowling is a no-go, they want to make little small group sectionals all around that area, so different groups can be socially distanced from one another. Maybe set up a study lounge and upgrade the Wifi so students can come here. That's what all the vintage couches up there are about.

I shiver. Every time I've been here, I've always been hot. I don't think the heat was ever on, I think it was hot from stage lights and sweaty bodies moving everywhere. It's empty and for the very first time ever, I am freezing in the basement of the Westside Bowl.

The guys pull out another couch from the back.

Then another chair.

Then another couch.

There's already so many upstairs, I wonder how many they are hiding back there. When did they collect them all? So many couches.

It’s quiet, too. Except for the drink machine humming in the corner. Creepy, even.


Ghosts are things that are gone but not gone. Things that are dead, but still somehow reminding us of their presence. Or their past? Something that existed in a tangible way and now exists in intangibly. Can an idea be a ghost? Can a community be a ghost? A band could have performed here last night or last year. It's hard to tell. Music equipment strewn about, cords stretching across the cement floors in every direction. It’s like the whole place stopped for intermission and never came back.

They have livestreams down here, though. They haven't had one for over a month but they're starting back up in February. Bands will come down here and record onstage without a crowd, and it will be livestreamed on Facebook. Does this generate any revenue? How much does it cost to put the lights up and to have Jimmy come in and run sound and video? My friends in the band Fuzz Aldrindid one a few months ago, I got to hang out for it and be a crowd of one. A literal cricket was down here and in between every one of their songs, the cricket would chirp. I remember Hayden, their frontman, joking throughout the set, bantering with the cricket like it was a heckler. It was a cute bit. They got 763 views.

I wander down the hallway that the bands load their equipment through. I pass the Men’s restroom— also covered in stickers— and reach a door with two googly eyes stuck onto the doorknob so it looks like a little surprised face. I open it into the Green Room, a room I've been in only once before, and find the source of the endless chasm of furniture, more of it stacked up. A few kegs line one of the walls, and I know people used to be able to sit in here like a little living room waiting for their show to start. Now there's some woodworking equipment, a table saw, and wood shavings on the floor. It looks like someone was cutting up boards for something.

In the corner of the basement rests a collection of furniture stacked together in front of a wall of band t-shirts
Ancient relics of a lost society

When I head back upstairs, I ask Nate about the livestream revenue.

“No, we don't technically make any money. And we pay a sound guy, a video guy, a still photographer, and a lights guy. Plus the electric goes up. We pay them all, so a livestream costs us about 400 dollars. But although it doesn't generate any revenue, it generates market value in a sense. It's marketing. Because we will open back up again, and we will book touring bands again, and touring bands and managers look at the internet. They look at our facebook. So to be able to see the space, see what's still happening, see the quality of videos and what the sets look like does add value. But no, we don't make any money. And plus, it's a way for us to keep up relations with the local bands, give them something to do, and they get to walk away with a full recorded live album and video and an album of still photos.”

Nothing || Outside

The patio has been extended and banistered off. There's three warehouse heaters so the truly committed bar warriors like me can order a drink inside and then go out to the patio and pretend it’s 2019. Right now, there's just a fry cook smoking a cigarette. I give him a nod and a “‘sup,” and he shoots me one back. Then he snuffs his butt into an ashtray and heads back to the kitchen.,

Now I'm alone. I think I'll sit here a while and see if someone comes out for me to talk to.

It is Tuesday, though.

In a pandemic.

I'm shivering, so forget it.

You see, the pandemic hasn't just taken away this establishment's income. I believe the desire to create entertainment and value goes beyond the scope of paying the bills. Venues celebrate art, they elevate musicians and creators, and they create a whole community around them dedicated to that celebration. How long will we be able to survive just keeping these things alive, even if the lights stay on? I believe in Nathan Offerdahl. His spirit is resilient, and passionate. If any of this ever ends, if I eventually find myself going to a crowded show in a basement for the first time in years one day, this will be the very first place I will be.

I go back in and close my tab and a haggard man with holes in his jacket comes in and asks what kind of beer he can get for four quarters. Then he asks if there's any snacks for fifty cents.

Maybe he is the Ghost of Westbowl Past. Maybe if I buy him a beer and some chips, the world will go back to normal.

A close-up of the aforementioned tee shirt on the wall that reads "Ugly Music for Ugly People."
Ugly Music for Ugly People.

Mary Dippolito, February 2021

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