bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.

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