End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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Indiana, travel, suitcases, quarries

I’m taking off for Indiana tomorrow morning. Haven’t been back in three years; I’ll be staying for eight days, which might be too many, especially in the cold. I’m done with work until the second, so today is full of last-minute errands and packing and whatnot.

I had to replace my suitcase today, which broke a little while ago, and then our spare broke on Monday while S was packing it up. I ordered a new one on Amazon, paid for the one-day delivery, and of course it didn’t show up, and it got stuck in that weird limbo where the tracking was dead and I couldn’t pull up any info or cancel the order. The damn thing was coming from a warehouse fifteen miles away, and they couldn’t get it here in a week. I cancelled the order today, and went to the mall and bought another one.

The death of my old suitcase is bittersweet, because I got so much damn use out of it. It’s a Samsonite hard-shell case I got for Christmas in 1995. It’s covered in every imaginable sticker; any time a band or an author or a zine or whatever sent me something, I slapped it on there. It’s pretty much got a solid laminated layer of in-jokes and obscure products and old memes caked on the outside. I brought the thing on every vacation, dragging it to Hawaii a half-dozen times, every trip to Germany, and probably half the states in the union, from Alaska to Florida and many in between. It had a ton of wear and tear, but it took a fatal blow to a corner and broke all the way through. I’ll have to take some pics of all the stickers before the thing goes in the trash.

I went to the Sears at Sun Valley, thinking maybe I should help them out with the purchase of a replacement. I looked there, and then looked at Macy’s, and the same exact thing was like fifty bucks cheaper at Macy’s. Look forward to my “death of Sears” article in the next month or so, I guess.

* * *

Here’s a weird one about Indiana that is related to nothing: I heard reports about a month ago that the big quarry in Breaking Away has been filled in. There’s a picture of it circling around, a before and after, which is disturbing if the place has a nostalgic spot in your brain outside the movie itself.

I’ve been to the quarry twice: once in the spring of 1990, and again a year later. This guy Sam who lived across the hall from me in the dorms was trying to make it a regular quest we’d do every year, like a long-term thing from a buddy film, where it would be twenty years later, and we’d all be in our mid-life crises and hiking out to this hole in the ground to have a moment. But I think the group did it twice and that was it.

An explanation, for those who don’t know what I’m rambling on about: southern Indiana is full of limestone, a light-colored rock that is used in lots of big buildings. Most of the IU campus is made of limestone, and the veins of the stuff around Monroe county have been excavated for everything from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral to Yankee Stadium. So between Bloomington and Bedford, there are large tracts of rural land covered in deep rectangular holes like Tetris pieces dug into the earth and hauled across the country for architectural projects. Those holes fill with water, and are great places for kids to drink beer and jump in and swim. Like I said, they made a movie about this.

Our first trip down there was right before the end of the school year. I think five or six of us piled into two cars and drove south of town, following complicated third-hand directions that started with us ditching the vehicles on the old State Road 37 and hiking through various forests and climbing barbed-wire fences. Part of the allure and danger is the fact that these are still functional quarries, and are all private property, no trespassing. And in the pre-Google Maps days, even finding the places involved some work. People were, and still are very secretive about the locations of the quarries. In fact, there’s a listing on that Atlas Obscura site, and it has obfuscated vague instructions that are 100% wrong.

The particular quarry in the movie was called either Rooftop or Sanders quarry, or maybe it’s neither of those. There’s also Empire or Empire State quarry, which is supposedly where they got the limestone for the skyscraper of the same name. (Maybe that’s another quarry. Or maybe rooftop is the rock at the edge of Sanders. I googled it, and there’s conflicting info, so, whatever.) The quarry was a long, rectangular hole, maybe the size of a football field, with sixty-five foot walls on each side. It was in the middle of a wooded area, an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of nature and excavation. The water was nowhere near as clean as it was in the movie, and hundreds of empty amber and green bottles floated on the surface.

None of us were brave enough to try cliff diving. (Hell, I can’t even swim.) But we did run into a group of townies who were swimming. I’d brought an SLR film camera with me, and took a great shot of a dude with an epic mullet doing a backflip off the cliff and into the water, beer in hand. Thinking back, I have no idea how I hung out at the edge of this cliff. I used to work at heights in theater, but I’ve completely regressed and have a horrible fear of anything more than a step-stool these days.

The second visit wasn’t as exciting — it was raining, and we hacked through the woods anyway. Nobody was there, and it was pretty cool to see the place during a storm, the raindrops breaking apart the surface of the water twenty yards below us. But we didn’t see anyone, and didn’t stay long.

So I never partied there all summer like some kids did. But I did get a brief look at the place. And the thought of it being filled up and destroyed was a bit of a punch to the gut. Their rationale was simple: a number of people had been injured and even killed in the quarry, and it was a liability nightmare. And it’s private property, so that was that. Still, very sad.

Of course, as I say this, there are a million other old memories at IU that are gone or changed or obscured with new construction or whatever else. I haven’t been back there since 2011, and that was just for a few hours. I wish I could go down this week, but I’m overbooked as it is. And I’ll get my dose of crippling nostalgia up north anyway. I look forward to seeing the desolation of Concord Mall one last time.

I haven’t even started thinking about what camera gear goes with me, let alone packing up this new suitcase with clothes, so I better get on that.

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