You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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The Retail Race to the Bottom

The Borders by my house looks like a food warehouse two years after the apocalypse started.  I went a few weeks ago, when the sign dudes stood on the corner with the “ALL TITLES 40-60% OFF”, hoping to snag an armful of good science fiction, because I’m going through this phase where I’m trying to read everything I “should have” read when I was a kid and too busy poring over Car Craft and trying to figure out if I had to replace the front springs in a ’76 Camaro if I wanted to swap out the 305 for a 454 that I couldn’t afford in the first place.  I found maybe two or three books I wanted, but everything else was already picked clean.  They still had stacks of “destined to be remaindered” books, but I didn’t need to Teach Myself HTML 4 in 30 days, so I ignored all of that shit.

The whole store was so depressing, for some unexplainable reason.  Store designers spend untold sums doing subtle things to layout and placement to hypnotize consumers in optimal ways to buy more stuff or feel more comfortable or set the mood.  You don’t notice it, but if you’ve ever worked in a department store and you’ve spent time after hours during a massive store reset, when pieces are scattered everywhere and the kayfabe has been dropped, you know the deal.  Something didn’t look right, and it wasn’t just the hoarders digging through the out-of-date celebrity cookbooks, looking for a deal.  Half of the entrances were boarded up already, covered with giant vinyl banners advertising the fact that everything but the fillings in the cashier’s teeth had to go.  And something about the lighting, the vacancies in shelves, the massive numbers of books in the wrong place, faces out – it made me feel overwhelmingly depressed that this place would soon be yet another vacant storefront.

I don’t even shop at that Borders; I think I’ve bought a grand total of three books there since I moved to the East Bay in 2009.  I’ve eaten at the neighboring food court quite a bit, so I guess it’s become part of the routine to go there after a falafel or some Afghani food and shuffle through the magazine racks.  But I somehow feel both strange remorse and responsibility for the sinking of this ship.  And it’s not that I miss this Borders as much as it sets off a chain reaction of emotions and memories about all of the other stores that have turned to vapor and vanished in the last decade or two.

I used to love malls.  Ask my pal Larry about the overwhelming obsession I had with wandering million-square-foot indoor shopping empires, and he’ll tell you stories of being dragged to College Mall for no reason other than to run the circuit, walking up and down the hallways  and then ending up at Morgenstern’s Books for two hours to ogle over every single World War II book in stock.  (And Morgenstern’s wasn’t even technically in the mall – it was in a strip of stores across the street.)  I found some strange peace in going to any Simon-operated property and wandering past every storefront, from Ayres to Zale’s, looking at mannequins donning bad early 90s attire.  It wasn’t even that I bought anything; I wasn’t like one of these housewife machines that walked out of the clothes stores with a maxed out piece of plastic and two armfuls of boxes.  I’d just get some osmosis-hypnosis effect, listening to the muzak and peoplewatching.

But those bank-issued sixteen-digit hologrammed devils did get shelled when I went to record and book stores.  All through college and my time in Seattle and New York, it was a weekly ritual to take every ounce of disposable income to the media gods, the places that stocked my fix for reading and listening.  In Seattle, I had a two-night-a-week habit locked in at Silver Platters, this CD palace up by Northgate mall.  They had this certificate plan where you got a paper dollar for every title you bought, but if you went in on Tuesday or if you bought certain sale items, they’d give you extra points.  And if you came in on Wednesday, you could turn in your dollars for extra value.  So I’d go both nights, buying armfuls of every Gary Moore or Peter Gabriel import single I could find on Tuesday, and then redeeming these paper coupons for more stuff on Wednesday.  And I’d end up there on weekends anyway, spending my Saturday afternoons cruising all of the other retail outlets nearby.

And I had this routine with the book stores, too.  Every Friday night, I’d end up at the Barnes and Noble in Bellevue, after gorging at the Denny’s there and scribbling in my notebooks for hours.  I’d wander the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, things I could consume, inhale through the late nights.  I’d end up reading some obscure title in bed late into Friday, knowing I’d been hypnotized too long when I’d hear the sound of the landscaping sprinklers seven stories below my open bay windows going off at 5 AM in the Jet City darkness.

New York helped break me of the mall habit.  There aren’t really malls in Manhattan; the square footage of a single food court could be broken up into a thousand studio apartments renting for two grand a month, so you’re not going to see that shit unless you take a train to Jersey City.  And I did, for a while.  I’d take the N to the Path, and emerge in this bizarro world where people drove cars and parked in outdoor parking lots and shopped at huge Simon-owned palaces of consumerism.  But these trips became less frequent.  Any time I found myself in a strange new (or old) land like St. Petersburg or Pittsburg with keys to a car in hand, I’d visit the old haunts and take a lap or two, get a corn dog on a stick and think about the days when I wore the name tag and listened to the muzak professionally for hours on end, asking people if they needed help with anything.

But then Amazon happened.  I started buying books from them way back; I remember in I think 1996, buying an old book I could not find anywhere else on the history of Indiana University, and it slowly became my go-to place for the things I could not dig up at Elliott Bay Books.  CD Universe entered my ecosystem around then too, and I’d hunt down the rare finds I couldn’t get at Silver Platters.  Amazon went from supplementary purchases to my main outlet for everything, as my go-to media places in New York began the long slide into nothingness.  I dumped serious cash at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which used to be on the first floor of where I worked (very dangerous), but is now a Forever 21 clothing store.  I also made the Best Buy pilgrimage every Saturday, when they still sold CDs.  Now, unless it’s Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, good luck finding anything there.

So yeah, my purchases, or the trends behind how people like me make purchases, may have killed off the retail stores.  I don’t know; I know I don’t even buy CDs or DVDs anymore, and either get stuff through iTunes or stream it from NetFlix.  I still buy paper books, but I also buy stuff for the Kindle.  So I’m sure the anti-digital luddites can scold me about how it’s my own damn fault that Borders filed Chapter 11.  Except for the part where Borders has lost money every year since 2006, or how they thought back in 2001 it would be genius to hand over their online retail operations to Amazon.com, or how in early 2008 (when about 7 people owned a Kindle) they announced they were so in debt, they were going to sell out to Barnes and Noble, a misstep that plummeted their stock price through the floor.

You can armchair quarterback this one in a million different ways, and the same holds true for any big retail collapse.  Blame it on Wal-Mart, or online sales, or poor holiday seasons, or the cost of gas, but it’s really this perfect storm of different things that makes it too complicated to predict or correct.  I mean, I always bemoan the shuttering of Montgomery Ward, where I did my time as a teenager and did a couple of summer moonlighting stints in college.  Most blame a bad 2000 Christmas season as the reason for their bankruptcy, but there were so many other factors: the debt from their leveraged buyout; the two-front war against discounters and other department stores; the failed attempts at re-marketing themselves; the expense of facelifting a bunch of their stores; the hundred million dollars they threw at IBM to overhaul their computer back-end.  Some even say the problems go back to just after the end of World War II, when the company focused all of its energy into building stores in the heart of metropolis areas and resisted expanding into the suburbs.  But it’s one of those things where you can’t just say “the internet killed it” and leave it at that.  And I think Borders is the same way; I think their mistakes at running a business go back much further than the advent of an e-ink screen or even the HTML shopping cart era.

And there’s all of these other things that have changed since I was in high school that alter the game.  People used to buy stuff from mail-order houses, or from catalogs; then they switched to malls; then big-box stores; then discount stores. Indoor malls have been “de-malled”; outdoor malls have shifted from low-end to boutique and probably back again.  People “don’t read anymore”.  The middle class is gone.  Gas costs as much as uranium did when I was in high school.  Book stores only sell clip-on lights and picture books of cats dressed as movie stars.  Everyone is an obese hoarder that never leaves the house.  Kids keep playing these god damned video games and Angry Pac Bird Mans.  Focus groups and religious nitwits and crowds of “what about the children” whiners have killed off anything more controversial than a loaf of Wonder bread.  All of this is true.  None of this is true.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Things never change.  Things work in cycles.  People never forget failures.  People don’t remember what happened five minutes ago.  I don’t even remember what I was talking about.

I was trying to remember the last time I’ve been to a mall, and I can’t.  We have a “mall” just up the road from us, one of those new urban bullshit outdoor mall things that has apartments in the top tier of it, and an Apple Store and some movie theaters, and a bunch of stores I’d never shop at, and a parking garage that is always a total clusterfuck.  But I can’t think of when I was last in an indoor mall.  I think I went to the Concord Mall during a visit to Indiana in like 2007, and was amazed at how totaled it was, how the old Wards store got cut into three or four pieces and turned into a discount car stereo place and some kind of hillbilly craft store where post-menopausal women buy glitter to paste on their angel centerpieces.  No wait – we had an indoor mall, Tanforan, by our old place in South San Francisco.  It was more or less the no-man’s-land between a Target, Penny’s, and Sears, with a big movie theater, and two floors of places selling clothing I’d never, ever wear.  It’s the kind of mall that made Pierre Moran mall in Elkhart (aka the “other mall”, where “other” means “not white”) look big, and they de-malled Pierre Moran about five years ago.

Must stop writing about this, because every paragraph I write involves about 200 web pages of nostalgic searches for old department store catalogs, and I’ve got other crap to do.

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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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