I mentioned before that my great Midwestern tour this holiday season was a two-parter. We spent a week in Wisconsin with Sarah’s family, which I’ve done every year for I think five years now. But this time we also took a few more days and drove out to Indiana to see my family. I haven’t been back there since August of 2007, when I brought Sarah back to meet my family and show her that I wasn’t exaggerating about the place.
I don’t get back to Indiana much anymore. For a long time, I made an annual trip, and I started by going at Christmas, back in 1995. And that year, it seemed like such a pointless exercise; pretty much all of my family and friends were out of town or busy with work or having surgery or in jail or otherwise preoccupied, and I basically ended up taking a week of unpaid vacation to sit at home and watch Saved by the Bell reruns for hours at a time, or tag along on a late-night Wal-Mart run (the center of culture in Elkhart) and having the most fun I had all break, which was reformatting the hard drives on all of their Packard Bell PCs on display. After I wised up and realized that taking this annual trek during the worst months of winter was probably not a great idea, I started doing these preemptive visits in October, which is probably my favorite time of year in Indiana. But then I realized that it cost me the same amount of money or less to fly from New York to Vegas and stay there, and the whole annual visit thing fell apart.
I never had great overwhelming nostalgia for Elkhart. I used to have crushing sentimentality surrounding Bloomington (see also my first book) and I would go down there every chance I got. When I would cruise around Elkhart though, I would get a certain sense of remembrance, seeing the bits and pieces of the city that shaped me so much back in the day, but I would never call it a homesickness, and I would never wake up in the middle of the night and say “dammit, I need to leave Seattle/New York/whatever and go back to the City With a Heart!” I’d make my annual trip, mostly as a way to feel grateful for wherever I currently lived, and to get enough of a dose of the place that I wouldn’t want to come back for the next 365 days.
I’ve been thinking about Elkhart a lot lately, because I was writing a book that chronicles the last couple years of my high school experience in the late eighties. I can spend too much time trying to make things like this period accurate: digging up old music, wasting time on wikipedia looking up failed fast food chains and defunct department stores; I scour my archives looking for old receipts and bad photos and little pieces that remind me of this previous life. This has been way harder for this new book than it was for Summer Rain; for the latter, I still had a lot of old emails and I started writing a book about 1992 in 1994 and 1995. I had cassette tapes of my old radio show, CDs still in my collection, a huge cache of old zines, and the entire paper trail that a year at a university can provide. But now, what little I still have from 1988 and 1989 is locked away in a storage unit, and I didn’t save as much stuff back then. So aside from visiting family, one of my motives for this brief trip was to plug back into the general feel of this old life of mine, to drive the streets of northern Indiana and try to remember what it was like as a kid in the region.
And this trip was so hurried and we had to see so many people, I had little time for this. In fact, I didn’t even stay in Elkhart for this journey, and I only ventured into the city twice. We actually stayed in South Bend, just north of the Notre Dame campus on what’s now called 933. (They renamed all of the old US highways and put a 9 in front of them. I don’t know why; maybe they lost some federal funding because they felt a need to put the ten commandments on every god damned thing in the state.) But that did remind me of the times I spent in South Bend and Mishawaka back in the day.
I tried to explain this in a previous post, and it’s hard to really describe it. But when I grew up in Elkhart, I quickly tired of everything there. For example, there were two “real” record stores, neither of them very good, plus the chain places like Musicland. And the only places to buy books were the Waldens in the mall, a religious bookstore in Pierre Moran mall, and this used book place called the Book Nook that was downtown. I wasn’t a serious bibliophile back then, but by definition, you pretty much had to go to South Bend to even look at a book that wasn’t published by Stephen King or Danielle Steele. That meant when I got a car and got to spend my days off school driving west to this sister city that was roughly twice as big, it had a certain slight magic to it. Yeah, it had no skyline, and aside from the grid of streets downtown and the mess of strip mall suburbia jutting out from the university campus and the Scottsdale Mall area, it was just a big bunch of nothing like Elkhart. But it was my first glimpse of something, and it had this appeal that later made me seek out a new start outside of Elkhart, and eventually out of Indiana.
And now, twenty years later, I was cruising through whiteout snow conditions in a rented Chevy “this is why we needed a bailout” Cobalt, driving down Main and up Michigan and past the Century Center and beyond Coveleski Stadium and down Grape Road, remembering all of those trips across Elkhart and into St. Joe county, taking Cleveland Road over to the University Park Mall, and visiting Orbit Records in the Town and Country strip mall.
Elkhart has had some rough times in the last year or two. That’s no secret; the President has been making all of these trips through the city, using it as an example of a city that’s hit rock bottom. This is news to some, but it’s always had this boom/bust cycle. I remember right before Desert Storm, when gas prices were going up, nobody was buying RVs, and pretty much every corner had a “will work for food” sign on it. You could buy pretty much any car by taking over payments for someone, and the housing market plummeted. You saw laid-off fifty year old dudes working the register at McDonald’s, and every other factory warehouse was shuttered. Fast forward to six months later, and everyone’s working mandatory overtime, the RVs are flying off the lots, and everyone is pricing out Harleys and swimming pools and additions to their houses and boats. People never remember the hard times, and when the next slump happens, everyone has three mortgages and four car payments and not a lick of savings.
Sarah said this best when she said that Indiana had this desperation to it, like a smoker with emphysema. There’s no culture to it, and especially in the winter, all people do is buy stuff at the local big box store, haul it home in their long-bed extended-cab truck and sit in front of their 70″ TV and get fat. Other than the bars, the entire culture is built around this hoarding of material goods, this need to have every piece of junk made in China that’s stamped with Dale Jr’s number. There are always these token attempts at it, a ballet or a symphony that a hundred people might find out about, a token museum with a couple of paintings in it, but people’s main cultural investment is in their retreat from the day labor and into their nothingness of eating bacon-wrapped everything while watching electrons flicker by on their DLP screen.
There were so many memories fallen in my drives through the old territories, so many old stores boarded up, killed off by the Wal-Marts and Best Buys and lack of interest. And every other vacant storefront was transformed into a “We will pay top dollar for your gold!” place. It’s no surprise Glenn Beck takes a close second behind Jesus in these parts, and Glenn loves to tell everyone that gold is the best thing to stockpile for the end times. So pretty much everyone with a failing VCR repair business or minimart is now buying up gold from losers who bought gold-plated everything during the salad years and are now trying to find a way to pay off their $3000 heating bill this January. It’s one of the infallible businesses in Elkhart: car parts places, check cashing stands, liquor stores, and pawn shops. If you want a recession-proof business, start one of those.
I unfortunately took no pictures on this trip. It was too damn cold to be enterprising about walking around with a camera, and I’ve been gone long enough that I now send out the “you ain’t from around here” vibe and set off the hillbilly paranoia security alerts when I try to get all investigative about this. Maybe next time.