In Elkhart

I’m in a Perkins in Elkhart, and I’ve barely seen anything here, but it’s all very weird. Let me see how much I can explain before my food arrives.

I left Elkhart, or at least stopped calling it my home, when? 1989, when I graduated and went to college? 1991-ish, when I returned the second time and vowed to never come back? 1995, when I moved to Seattle? I don’t know. But I guess the 1991 date is when I stopped spending any regular amount of time here. And I haven’t set foot in Indiana since 2004, partly by coincidence, and partly by design. So it’s been long enough to make it seem like an alien experience when I return.

I got into O’Hare and got my rental car by about midnight last night, then pointed it east and headed toward the toll road, hoping I could still figure out my way around Chicago and to Indiana with no major incident. The toll road was eerie, driving with nobody around, counting the exits and wishing I could go to bed.

Right after the University Park Mall zipped past, I exited on 331, and took the route home I’d normally take from the UP mall, on Cleveland road. The second I pulled up to a railroad crossing, the gates went down and a 200-car train inched by. I joked about this in Summer Rain, but it really happens to me every time I get here.

I drove down this stretch of road with only farmland on either side, and remarkably it was still farm. I used to max out my car here late at night, because there are no intersections for miles. Then my friend Peter got killed there in 1991, so I stopped. The old drive-in movie theater – a gas station, and what looks like a Super Target or a Wal-Mart going in. The Pleasureland Museum – still there, but I couldn’t tell if it was closed or not.

Nothing really changes in Elkhart. A lot of the same businesses had the same signs that they did in 1985, the same displays, the same paintjobs. They build new subdivisions of prefab houses in the outlying areas: Goshen, Napanee, Granger, Simoton Lake. But they’re the same subdivisions they built in Dunlap in the 70s, just different trim and formica and sunroom options. And when they build a newer and more expensive and further out subdivision, it means the old ones won’t get updated and won’t get redone and essentially get trapped in time, to wear their 1970s aluminum siding forever.

Some stores go under. The old Templin’s music, where I bought many a pair of guitar strings in the day, is now a Mexican furniture store. The Taco Bell where I worked is now a crack Chinese place. I used to spend a lot of time at this Perkins, but back in 1989, it was a few blocks south, and the last-gen design of Perkins buildings. The new one is nice, but it isn’t the old one. (This one is currently filled with a gaggle of high school girls basketball players, which might be enticing to jailbait enthusiasts. As for myself, it sort of freaks me out that they were born after the last time I was in that other Perkins.)

I thought Denver was a bit conservative, but this place makes it look like a hippy ashram chanting in a drum circle. Two out of three cars have this Jesus license plate that you can tell was designed in spite when the JFreaks here lost that ACLU case about the ten commandments. There are are churches everywhere. The Concord Mall now has a sign that says “Great Deals, Family Values.” (Does that mean you can’t sodomize the girls working at Pretzel Time anymore?) This is the one place in the country where I feel Nicole Ritchie thin. When I walked out of the hotel, there were about two dozen people chain-smoking like you’d suck on a bottle of oxygen if your spacesuit exploded and you hadn’t breathed in five minutes. Lots of magnetic ribbons, and I haven’t seen a single Kerry/Edwards or anti-Bush sticker yet.

I saw both “de-malled” malls, Pierre Moran and Scottsdale. Back in the old days, they turned strip malls into malls by enclosing them. For whatever random reason (*cough*Wal-Mart) malls have gone into the toilet, so someone got the wise idea to break apart the interior spaces, and turn them into a huge parking lot with a bunch of freestanding big-box stores. This makes it much easier to shop, because you have to either move your car six times, or carry a lot of stuff in the rain and snow. Both malls look even more deserted, but it’s obviously some liberal conspiracy and we all need to pray to Jesus to make sure the local Panera and Dress Barn keep in the black. (Wait, I mean they are making money, not that we want african-americans shopping there.)

The biggest change I see is that all of the trees have doubled and tripled in size. When I drive by an old dentist or insurance agent and see a giant oak stretching way into the sky, I remember when it used to be as tall as me. Driving past houses and streets, it seems like I have the angles and distances and setbacks burned into my brain. When I cross Prarie on Mishawaka, I know in my head exactly how far it is to the u-pick strawberry place, even if it was plowed under and turned into a medical clinic. The occasional bodega where a video store used to be throws me off but it’s usually in the same building, just a different sign.

I spent the day with my sister, nephew, and niece. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Belle, and she is already mobile and stealing her brother’s toys at any possible chance. I always think the kids are cute, until a few hours later when Wesley runs down a row of toy trucks in Target and presses the sound button on every single one two dozen times, producing this cacophony of sirens and explosions and jackhammers, and I realize there’s no way I could do it for five days, let alone 18 years.

Not making much progress on this food – I better shut down and go back to my little Holiday Inn Express and see if the TV channels are just as bad as they were 30 years ago.

P.S. The waitress handed me my check and it said, in giant, curvy, girly cursive, “God Bless!” at the bottom. I still gave her a tip.

P.P.S. Re my previous entry about thunderstorms – I am back at my hotel, and just saw the most monumental t-storm I’ve seen in a while. Very close strikes, loud as hell booms, and the kind of bolts that arc from sky to ground (okay, vice-versa) in such a way that make them look like scratches etched into a tinted window. There was even a five-second power outage that really reminded me I was in Indiana.

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