Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

Share

Trains and Ports

The port of Oakland is building (or has built) this new rail yard across from our building, and when I sit on the couch to write, I always look at the trains and it reminds me nostalgically of Indiana, which had what used to be the biggest rail yard in the midwest. It used to be the big Conrail yard where pretty much every east-west freight train was assembled or routed. That meant tons of rail traffic and getting stuck at the gates when a hundred-car train slowly clacked along. But it burned something in the back of my head, a strange reverence for rail equipment.

Conrail is long gone, Norfolk Southern built a much bigger yard in Ohio, and the Elkhart yard is one of many superfund sites in the city. Or was. I’m not sure what they’ll do in the future. The groundwater is still contaminated in places. The rail yard is still in use, I guess. Every time I go back to Elkhart, I get stuck at the gates again.

I just saw an Amtrak streak by, silver cars and high(er) speeds. One of the walks I take is up to the Emeryville station, across the tracks on the little pedestrian bridge, which involves going up four or five flights of stairs, then back down four or five flights of stairs. But in the middle of it, you walk across the narrow bridge and look down on this relatively new station built in 1993. It looks almost European, the modern concrete and side line with yellow paint on the crossings, where the sleep passenger trains arrive, and an automated announcer calls out the name of the station.

All of Emeryville surrounding the station is new condominiums and campuses of pharmaceutical research companies. I walk by one of these clusters of buildings, and found a plaque that said it was the location where scientists first sequenced the HIV-1 RNA. The campuses of Novartis and Bayer rose from what used to be chemical development facilities for Shell Petroleum, and production factories for Sherwin-Williams. Now the area is Pixar, Peet’s Coffee headquarters, and lots of little design firms and architect offices. It’s an eerie walk to do on a Sunday, when the offices are all closed. It’s especially nice in the summer, when it’s still cool out in the morning, and the air is just starting to heat up.

That rail yard across the street — the whole area around the port of Oakland used to be the Oakland army base. From WW2 to about 1999, it was the major shipping port for army materials sent to the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam. My uncle (who was career Navy) told me about being in Alameda, working on a carrier, and driving to Oakland Army Base to pick up parts. After it closed in 99, it sat empty for a dozen years, while the slow-moving Oakland political machine tried to figure out what to do with the toxic wasteland. There were nonstop rumors that it would become a movie studio, a casino, a baseball stadium. It ended up becoming more warehouses and rail facilities for the port.

There are still some remnants of the old base, the kind of two-story barracks-looking buildings the army built everywhere in the 1940s. Last year, I had to go to the TSA to get fingerprinted for a TSA Pre card, and they had a facility there. It was in an old Army building that was about to get torn down, a three-story structure that looked exactly like the same things you’d see on any military base anywhere. Yellowing ceiling tiles, large urns of burnt coffee, government posters of obscure acronyms. Most of the visitors were truckers needing some TSA paperwork. They closed the building a few months later. I haven’t walked over there recently, but the entire street has been under heavy construction for years, large swaths being bulldozed and regraded. Looking at the google maps images, it looks like they’re building pyramids there.

I was walking home the other day, past a new condo development. (Side note, I think they are insane, because they are cramming eight 1500-sqft units in a tiny lot, and they are all supposed to be “luxury” and cost over a million dollars each, and this is like a few thousand feet from a giant homeless encampment and open-air drug market.) Anyway, the construction crew was inside the recently-walled units, probably working on plumbing or electrical, and they were blasting music through the construction site, but it was like bop jazz, Thelonious Monk or something, which was surreal.

I need to go walk now, although I need to write first. It’s almost to the point where it is nice to walk again, after a lot of cold, rainy weather. The sun’s out, but it’s still in the 40s. I should probably go walk by the rail yard and see how the construction is going. I’m not one of those crazed rail fan types, but it’s nice to see them doing something out there.

Share

Death of the Concord Mall

I didn’t hear about this, and I saw it coming years ago, but the default mall of my childhood, the Concord Mall, is dead. I’ve written far too much about this mall in the past, but it’s time for me to drive in the last nail and ramble on about it a bit more, so here goes.

The basics: Concord Mall was built in 1972. At that time, it had two anchor stores, Montgomery Ward and Robertson’s. In 1976, they added a third anchor, JC Penney. The mall was a large T-shape, with a large fountain in the middle. Its current store count (total number, not occupancy) is about 60, although one reference I saw had it up to about 72 at its peak.

I’m about a year older than the mall, and my family moved to Edwardsburg, Michigan, which is right across the IN/MI line, around the time the mall was first built. I have no real memories of it until after the JC Penney was added. In 1978, we moved to Elkhart, about a mile from the mall. So it became my default destination for shopping and wandering around. There were two arcades, and a Kay-Bee toy store, plus the Walden Books sold enough D&D stuff to keep me occupied. There was a two-screen movie theater outside the mall, where I saw a lot of the films of my childhood. I remember fondly waiting in a giant line outside of there to see ET, which took several attempts, because it was sold out for weeks.

As a teenager, I also spent a lot of time there. They had a Musicland, which was lame, and a local record store called Super Sounds. They had a better selection there, and cool people behind the counter. I bought my first CD ever there (Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time) back when they were still sold in long cardboard boxes designed to fit in LP bins. They also had a Ticketmaster outlet, and I remember buying tickets to see Rush and Metallica there. And there was this metalhead guy Frank who worked there, who would sometimes turn me onto stuff. One time, he was listening to the advance release tape of some band that sounded like Rush, but way more metal. When I asked him about it, he popped out the copy and gave it to me. That was an advance tape of Dream Theater’s first release, When Dream and Day Unite, which I still have.

When I was a kid, I used to walk to the mall. I remember at some point, my parents forbade me from crossing US-33, which lay between my subdivision and the mall. But my friends and I discovered we could walk underneath a bridge where the road crossed  Yellow Creek and get to the mall without technically walking across 33. Later, I had a bike, and then a car. The mall was a routine after-school hangout, although it didn’t have many places to eat. I still wasted a lot of time flipping through every record at Super Sounds, looking for anything on Megaforce records I may have somehow missed.

In my junior year, I became further entrenched when I got a job at the mall. I became a Master Paint Specialist at Montgomery Ward, making $3.65 an hour or commission, whichever was higher. I worked in the Four Seasons department, which also included toys, lawn mowers, snowblowers, lawn furniture, and other seasonal items. I was a part-timer, but after I fell into the groove of things, I was spending more and more non-work time hanging around the store, shooting the shit with other employees, joking with the guys in Automotive and trying (and failing miserably) to hit on the girls in housewares. During the summers before and after my senior year, I weaseled my way into as many hours as possible, working in almost every department. I unloaded trucks starting at 6AM, painted the entire store one summer, worked shifts in mens’ wear, and ran a Nixdorf register in virtually every department of the four “worlds” of the department store.

Working in the mall showed me an entirely different side of the facility. I would sometimes get there before it was open to the public, or when only the inner concourse was unlocked for the mall walkers, all the storefronts gated, with the lights shut off. I stayed after closing all the time, counting down registers and signing in cash and checks after the 9:00 announcements. I used to work a full day, a ten to nine, never going outside, using a 30-minute break to run to a pretzel stand to get a corn dog and fries as my only meal of the day. I still went to school, but I spent more time at the mall and my store than I did at home.

I knew everyone in my store, but also knew a lot of managers and regulars at every other store in the mall. It was a good experience for me, because I was ostracized and introverted as a kid, and didn’t get along with many people at my school, because I felt like an outsider. Given the choice, I would have hunkered down with an Apple II for all four years and ignored the people around me, and I did a fair amount of that. But when I worked at the store, the adults treated me as an adult, even when I was a dumb 17-year-old kid who only cared about Anthrax and Megadeth. I learned to interact with humans in a way I should have learned at school, but couldn’t, because I didn’t fit in there.

When I worked for Wards, I saw a few things happen that pointed to the huge wave that would eventually crest, the last big spike of growth in the mall industry:

  • Right before I started there, our store was given a massive makeover. The old yellowing-white tile floors, walls, and ceilings bathed in fluorescent light went out. They moved to more modern-looking eighties-style decoration, with maroons and pastels and cobalts as accent colors, and Helvetica everywhere. I’m not saying it looked cool, but it looked very 1987. And it always pissed off old people. Instead of being a giant rectangle with straight up-and-down alleys like a grocery store, the layout was a very subtle labyrinth, designed by shopping habit researchers to optimize floor space and give psychologically-designed flows through the merchandise. This is a huge science right now, and we were at the forefront of it in 1987.
  • That remodel also included modern point-of-sale systems. No more running a credit card through a carbon copy machine and looking up defunct numbers in a six-month-old booklet. Every terminal was wired to our credit agency, and inventories were also stored and updated in these then-modern PC-like machines. It was the beginning of an IT age in shopping. (And it was one that would – spoiler alert – eventually kill Wards – more on that in a minute.)
  • The paper catalog was killed right when I arrived. This really pissed off the old people, because the Monkey Ward catalog had run continuously since the birth of Christ, and it was suddenly gone. Why? Cost/benefit analysis, and the need to expand the retail business into more profitable ventures, like consumer electronics. It wasn’t Aaron Monty Ward calling the shots with his gut feeling anymore; retail was being run by MBAs analyzing data in spreadsheets.
  • Wards was divested from their corporate owner, Mobil Oil. In 1976, Mobil bought out Wards during the great Fourth Wave of mergers and acquisitions. When I was there, in 1988, there was a management-led leveraged buyout of the company (assisted by GE Capital, who retained half the company), for $3.8 billion. This was rich in the middle of the Fifth Wave of mergers and acquisitions, one that would set the stage for the eventual downfall of almost everyone.

OK, so back to this mall thing – I graduated high school in 1989, went off to college, and returned to work at Wards again two times, briefly: for about a week over the holiday in my first year of college, and then for most of the summer of 1993, unloading trucks from 6-10 AM.

A bit more background on the Michiana mall thing, too. There were four malls in the Elkhart/Mishawaka/South Bend area. Aside from Concord, Elkhart had Pierre Moran mall, which was in the bad part of town, and had Sears and Target as anchors, and a cool record store, but not much more. South Bend/Mishawaka had Scottsdale Mall, which was a double-decker with a much bigger Wards, a Target, and a fair amount of other stuff. The big one was University Park, right by Notre Dame, and it had everything.

So Peak Mall was about when I worked at Wards in 1993. First, Simon Property Group was formed in 1993, and they bought every mall they could find in this era. University Park is still a Simon mall; Concord was, and I’m not sure of the others. But this was a time when malls were apex predators of consumerism, after we’d gotten out of a recession, when personal consumption was up and continuing to grow. There was no online, and catalog business was dead. Wal-Mart and other big-box stores were just finding their footing. And after the big decade of the mall and establishment of mall culture, suddenly these large public companies were ready to double down and rush into a huge arms race of spending that appeared like it would have no end.

In my microcosm of these four malls, there were varying reactions. University Park, roughly twice as big as Concord, continued to grow, and expanded. (Also, oddly enough, all of its big-box competitors like Meijer and eateries like Red Lobster, Famous Dave’s and Olive Garden, popped up around the mall, but only seemed to make mall traffic surge.) Scottsdale, which was now poised on a new bypass road for US-20 and much easier to get to from Elkhart, expanded in this timeframe, adding a large multiplex and food court, plus redecorating. Pierre Moran painted their awnings blue. Concord added a new bathroom by the mall office, and waxed the floors once.  (Also, don’t fuck with me about exact dates and changes here. I’m writing this from memory.)

I left Indiana in 1995, and only saw the four malls on the occasional Christmas visit home. But the bottom line is that shopping habits changed. People were more content going to Wal-Mart, and later buying everything online. All of the malls (except University Park) fell apart. Major tenants went bankrupt and weren’t replaced. Other big tenants with new overlords or strategies moved to nearby locales where they could build new stores with more optimal freestanding layouts, usually in neighboring townships or cities where tax dollars and incentives were to be had.

The wheels fell off of Montgomery Ward in the late 90s. They filed for bankruptcy in 1997, with GE grabbing ownership of the whole company. Three years later, they closed their doors. The simple answer here is Wal-Mart, with a touch of Target. But really, the quicksand was much deeper. Remember that IT thing I mentioned? Wards went through a massive IT retooling in the mid-90s, spent way too much money on it, and it didn’t work out. Also, remember when I said they got into more profitable things like consumer electronics? Well, the margins fell out on that stuff, and it wasn’t profitable anymore. You can dig further and argue about how Wards stores were not as well-placed as Sears, and that the management had some borderline racist tendency to buy into locations further out from urban centers. But it was basic math: sales were down, profit margins were smaller, and too much money was pumped into the bleeding company.

Scottsdale Mall in South Bend never recovered after its Wards closed in 2000. They also lost another major anchor, L.S. Ayres, and floundered headless for about four more years. It was then de-malled, the building bulldozed and turned into an array of freestanding big box stores. Pierre Moran suffered the same fate a few years later; its Target bugged out for a new Super Target in an unincorporated area outside the realm of higher city taxes between Goshen and Elkhart. Its Sears and a new Kroger were made freestanding, and most of the rest became a parking lot for some little storefronts that never found tenants. University Park grew like a monster, adding a giant food court area, a huge Barnes and Noble, and upgrading the interior, while upping the roster of premium stores. (An Apple Store! A Tesla charging station! Is this still Mishawaka?)

Concord Mall never entirely recovered, but it still struggled. The Wards was sliced into multiple stores, the largest being a Hobby Lobby. The big fountain in the center of the mall was removed. The Osco’s drug store in the mall left, and was replaced with a food court that only had one tenant, a Subway. Much of the mall’s interior never changed, the same tile and brown wood trim that was in the mall in the seventies. Some stores vanished because they vanished from every mall in America: Musicland died; Walden Books went bankrupt. KB Toys was Romneyed into bankruptcy by Bain Capital. I don’t know if Aladdin’s Castle or Time-Out arcades still exist as a legal entity, but they vanished from every mall I’ve seen, including Concord. Other stores just spiraled down into low-rent alternatives. Jewelry stores became dollar stores. Boutique clothing stores became televangelist churches. Music stores became storefronts with nothing but vending machines in them.

I was at the mall in August, and was amazed at how many of the stores were closed. JC Penney is still there, as is the Hobby Lobby and whatever department store is now in the Robertson’s spot. The only other remaining stores I can remember: Enzo’s pizza, GNC, Jo-Ann Fabrics, and that’s about it. I can see some of the remains of stores, like the Super Sounds location’s wood walls are still evident in the bakery currently there. But it’s like a ghost ship now, empty and sad.

The plan now is to de-mall Concord. They are spending $50 million bulldozing the building, leaving the anchors, and building some freestanding stores as a “community center.” There are no named anchors or new stores, and apparently nobody even told the tenants of the mall until it hit the news. This approach is laughable, because like I mentioned, both Scottsdale and Pierre Moran de-malled, and both of them are ghost towns of empty stores. More than half of Pierre Moran (now Woodland Crossing) is vacant. Scottsdale, now Erskine Village, was recently sold at a sheriff’s sale when the owner stopped making loan payments. And while Elkhart’s unemployment numbers are down at the moment, it’s an incredibly streaky economy of all industrial jobs related to the RV industry. The next time gas prices fluctuate, the entire region will be wiped out again, like it was in 07-08.

I think the saddest part of it all is that the community is gone now. It’s easier for people to sit in front of their big-screen and click on the Amazon web site, along with a weekly resupply run to Wal-Mart for BluRays and high-calorie frozen foods. Elkhart doesn’t even have movie theaters anymore, aside from the Encore 14 north of town, which has been falling apart for 20 years. It seems like life there is entirely encapsulated and isolated. I mean, I left the state for a reason, but it’s distressing to see the end-stage capitalism unspool and see the last remnants of my past vanish.

I feel silly clinging on to these memories, and need to stop, but this is the last gasp of it, so there you go.

 

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

Thoughts on a random picture: The Turismo

I have a million pictures in iPhoto.  (Really, 18,035 as of this morning.)  I will never use them for anything, but I spend a lot of time looking at them, dredging up nostalgia that never makes it onto these pages.  So I thought I’d visit that a bit.

This is the Turismo

This is a picture I took in 1991.  I scanned a bunch of pictures in from film back in 2006.  Looking back, I’m not happy with the quality of the scans, and I’m also not happy with how few pictures I took back in the day.  The former I might be able to solve with a long trail of tears involving a thousand-dollar scanner, a few months of my life, and a pallet of compressed air cans, which would probably land me on some TSA watch list for potential huffers.  The latter, well, digital cameras were not around in the 80s and 90s, so I have to deal with what I have.

I returned to Elkhart after my freshman year, broke, flunking out, and with this crazy idea that going to IU at South Bend would somehow boost my GPA and save me tons of money.  A year later, I found neither of these to be the case, and I spent huge amounts of energy trying to escape Elkhart like a large spacecraft tries to escape the orbital pull of the Earth.  But in the summer of 1990, I went back to living in my parents’ basement, and driving a 1976 Camaro with a V-8 that pulled down a gallon of gas every 7 or 8 miles wasn’t going to hack it for a 50-mile-a-day commute, because gas was some outrageous price like 88 cents a gallon.

I ended up buying this 1984 Turismo for $1200, and at the time, it seemed like a nice car.  I mean, it wasn’t painted in primer, it had an exhaust, it ran, and there weren’t holes in the floor.  The car was only six years old, and the bright burgundy interior almost looked futuristic, if any Chrysler product from the mid-80s could look futuristic.  It was also a stick-shift, a five-speed, and pretty much the worst car in the world would be at least 50% better if it had a manual transmission.

I remember Tom Sample being blown away by the grey hatchback the first time I came over to pick him up.  He was astounded by how nice it looked, and how he now had a passenger window he could roll down to yell at pedestrians.  (You can’t un-duct-tape a sheet of plastic while driving.)  Right before school started, we took a shakedown cruise to Chicago, driving the back roads instead of the toll road to save $2.20, listening to Helloween on the Krako tape deck (which was subsequently stolen the next day.  Elkhart – great place to raise a family!)  We both missed the old Camaro, which I’d sold for $200, because we spent many days and nights wandering aimlessly around northern Indiana, memorizing old Metallica and Black Flag and doing everything and nothing while searching to find some — something that we never found, but it was one of those “journey is the destination” sorts of things that, 25 years later, we still wish we could relive.

I pretty much lived in that car all fall.  I mean, I didn’t sleep in it like 20% of the foreclosed nation currently is doing, but I’d drive to campus and back every day, which ate about two hours of my days and nights.  I’d leave early in the morning to get to my 9:00 Calculus M215 class, stay all day, and usually work at night in the computer lab, driving home in the darkness.  I’d eat two, sometimes three meals a day in the car, from the morning’s bagels, to a lunch packed in one of those stupid insulated lunch bags, to a late-night stop at McDonald’s or Subway on Lincolnway East.

This is my IUSB ID from 1990/1991. Dig the glasses.

The fall semester was this conflicted state internally, this wish I was still in Bloomington or in some big city like Chicago.  I still clung onto my identity, at least in a virtual sense, by telnetting across a slow 2400 bps sytek line that connected me to my IU accounts downstate, where I’d email and bitnet with old friends, and read usenet and dick around on FORUM and try to keep the dream alive of someday returning to the main campus.  And I’d cruise around the streets of South Bend on breaks between classes, wishing the city was something bigger or more profound.  There’s a few blocks downtown, a brief blurb of a metropolis with glass and chrome buildings that almost made me feel like I wasn’t in the great farmlands of nothingness.  I’d go to the Notre Dame campus and walk past the Touchdown Jesus library and the huge halls of science and learning and wish I was back on a real college campus that wasn’t just a bunch of housewives on the forever plan, auditing a class a year in hopes of someday moving from junior administrative assistant to senior administrative assistant at their insurance sales office or trailer factory.

And this was at a miserable time in America, which is always greatly magnified in cities with nothing but a manufacturing base like Elkhart.  The economy was in the toilet, and nobody was buying RVs, which is all they produced in that city.  So there were “will work for food” signs on every corner, laid off baby boomers and oldsters struggling at cashier jobs at Burger King, and more and more businesses closing or posting signs they weren’t hiring.  It was nowhere near as bad as Elkhart is now, but it was definitely one of the famine states in the city’s feast or famine cycle.  We were also going into a war, or one of those excuses for a war that would become all too familiar in later years.  The Hummer was produced in Mishawaka at the AM General plant.  They didn’t sell the civilian version yet, but they were producing mass numbers for the impending saber-rattling.  Every morning when I drove in to school, I’d see HMMWVs driving from the plant to the train yard in Elkhart, to get transported to whatever military depot would eventually ship them out to Saudi Arabia.  It was a surreal site, driving down US-33 and passing a column of 50 identical M998s, painted in desert camo, like something out of Red Dawn.

I put many miles on the car, although I didn’t know how many, because the speedometer/odometer was broken.  That was my first clue at how badly I’d been swindled.  Some stupid hillbilly replaced the Plymouth 4-cylinder with a 2.2 from a completely different Chrysler, and when none of the emissions or wiring or cabling pieces matched up, he didn’t install them.  As the summer turned into fall and the cold weather crept up on us, it became harder and harder to start the car in the morning, because all of the various chokes and baffles and vacuum tubes that enable a carbureted engine to start in cold weather were missing.  I bought the Chilton’s guide and spent many hours buying pieces from the junk yard, trying to Macgyver the emissions control junk so the car would run properly, but was never completely successful.

Then came the clutch debacle.  One Friday night, me and Becky (the girl who followed me back to Elkhart, which is another story or book entirely) loaded up the car and headed to Bloomington.  We stopped at the McDonald’s by Concord Mall on the way out, and when I went to downshift from fourth to first and make the left turn into the parking lot, I found the shifter did not work at all; it dangled loose and I was stuck in fourth gear.  I drove home in fourth by revving the engine up to 6000 and inching out the clutch pedal a millimeter at a time, and by the time I got home, the clutch was fucked, burned into nothingness.  I found that the redneck genius mechanic had attached the shifter linkage with rubber bands, and it had popped off.  I fixed that (better rubber bands) and tried driving the car with 95% of the clutch gone and got stranded about a mile from IUSB, then spent $500 at AAMCO for a new clutch.

Things failed one by one on the car as fall turned to winter.  I had to replace the battery. The brake lights would blow out every week, requiring me to replace fuses constantly.  The brakes got a little weird, and there was some weird rolling sound in the front suspension, like maybe a bad bearing or something.  Then the heater stopped working.  Indiana in December and January is not a good sans-heater state, and I’d have to bundle up in multiple coats and then put a big blanket over me for the drive in.  The heater almost worked, putting out enough lukewarm air to barely get the car above freezing within 20 minutes, but it was far from ideal.

I went to Bloomington over spring break, by myself.  Their classes were in session when we weren’t, and I had some bullshit excuse, like that I had to register for classes for the fall.  I had an awesome time, hung out with a lot of people, stayed with my old roommate Kirk at Collins, and put a lot of faces to usernames.  I had Becky’s car, and she had mine for the week.  One night I called to check on things, and she told me she had some problem with the car, that it died and would not start, so she got it towed to a Sears and they gave her this huge laundry list of problems, like that it needed a new radiator and an exhaust part and a bunch of other crap.  She felt bad about “killing” the car and got a bunch of work done on it, but I had mixed feelings about the whole thing.  I had this strong emotional attachment to the Turismo, but it was also well past the point where junking the car and buying another would be much cheaper than fixing it.

I reluctantly returned to Elkhart, and got the Turismo back.  It was much quieter and I finally had a heater (just in time for winter to be over), but on the first voyage to and from school, the radiator broke, literally ten yards from my driveway, pouring hot antifreeze everywhere.  The car spent another week in the shop to re-do the repairs, and I got it back on a Thursday, for my lazy Friday commute to school.  IUSB didn’t have Friday classes, or maybe they were just a half day, but I’d work all day, and every other week, I’d get one of those cream and crimson pieces of paper for $6.60 an hour times 20 or 30 hours, and I’d have to get there early to cash it and then run to Orbit records and buy whatever Thrash metal tapes Ray told me to buy.

That Friday, I hit Orbit, then drove home for a usual Friday night: renting videos, eating junk food, doing nothing until Monday.  I remember listening to this band called Xentrix, some forgettable Thrash metal band from the nylon case full of tapes sitting in the passenger seat.  I remember it just started raining, so I flipped on the lights and the wipers.  And I remember just as I got into Elkhart, taking the left turn from Mishawaka Road to the Concord Mall, right before home, the car stalled as I was going through the intersection.  I kicked in the clutch, turned the key, and the engine spun and spun without starting as I coasted.  Then I saw smoke pouring through the vents of the car, and the wipers stopped.  I knew I was fucked.

I coasted the car into the Martin’s parking lot, and by then, smoke was pouring from the front end.  I went to pop open the hood, and burned my hand on the hot metal of the car.  People started gathering, and I told someone to call 911.  A grocery store bagger showed up with a huge fire extinguisher, and we proceeded to shoot the white foam through the cracks of the hood and front grille, which did nothing.  I knew where this was going and started throwing things out of the passenger compartment, all of the tapes and floppy disks and books and papers, and then gave the stereo a good pull and jerked it loose from the dash.

By this time, the car looked like a plane crash, billowing a column of black smoke into the air.  I heard sirens, which is always ominous when you realize the sirens are for you.  A cop, parked a dozen yards away, told me to wait in his car, and tried to clear everyone away, anticipating an explosion.  From the cop car, I saw flames through the firewall of the passenger compartment, consuming the interior.  The firefighters, dressed in full turnout gear, worked fast.  They closed the doors, smashed the windows with axes, and dumped a swimming pool full of water into the engine compartment and interior.  Becky and my sister were at the grocery store, and came over to look at the idiot with the burning car and then saw it was me.  I wish I would have told one of them to run in, get a disposable camera, and take a picture of the disaster.

Someone called a tow truck, and they flat-bedded the remains to my mom’s house.  I arrived with a burned hand, wheezing from extinguisher dust, black with soot, smashed safety glass in my shoes, and crashing from the aftereffect of the massive adrenalin rush you get when you walk away from a burning wreck of a car.

The remains of the engine

The interior

The next morning, I took these pictures, with Becky’s 35mm.  I have no idea what caused the fire, but the engine had actually melted, it got so hot.    The interior was drenched, coated with soot and the carpet melted and burned, peppered with pieces of the greenish shattered safety glass everywhere.  I actually got the aforementioned junkyard to buy the whole mess for $50, and within a week or two, got a diesel VW Rabbit for $500.  Finished the semester with a 0.67 GPA, broke up with Becky, spent a summer working second shift and then taking 8 AM summer school classes, and managed to get the hell out of town and back to Bloomington that fall.

Share

Please Shut the Fuck Up About the Rapture

Everyone is talking about how the world is ending on Saturday.  It’s like the Sarah Palin of news stories right now: incredibly embarrassing, and something that won’t go away if you keep talking about it.  So of course I’m going to write about it, because that’s what I do.

I wasn’t raised believing the rapture; I was brought up Catholic, and it’s not part of the Catholic doctrine.  But I remember the first time someone laid out the Book of Revelation to me as prophecy, which was in grade school.  I had a friend, also named Jon, who went to some fire-and-brimstone church, and one day at recess, he told me I was going to hell because I was Catholic, and started talking about the moon turning red with blood and all of this other crazy stuff that sounded more like a horror movie than any part of the bible I knew about.  Of course, I was not a biblical scholar back then — I’m still not, but back then my working knowledge was pretty much limited to the stuff we covered in CCD class.  (And if you’re one of the christian sects that thinks Catholics are satan worshippers, you’ll probably also be quick to point out that the Catholic bible is different and includes all of this other junk that the “real” bible doesn’t.)  I probably knew there was a Book of Revelation, but I didn’t sit down and look at it until much later, probably when I got into Iron Maiden and wanted to fact-check Number of the Beast.

Jon was a weird dude, and he must have gotten ahold of one of those Jack Chick comics that week or something, because he got off of the topic and we remained friends for a good decade or so after that.  His mom was some kind of hippy who didn’t let them have a TV and they eventually took off for Alaska.  We later got back in touch; he’d joined the Army to get out of Alaska and ended up in West Germany and then Desert Storm.  He got back and I saw him once in 1991 before he vanished off the face of the earth.  But that playground discussion as a kid stuck in the back of my head and didn’t let loose for a long time.

Growing up in Elkhart, there were a lot of evangelical churches, many people biding their time until the second coming, thinking they’re one of the chosen few who will magically ascend when the shit goes down.  It seemed like every abandoned movie theater got turned into a makeshift church, and like liquor stores, the worse the economy got, the more churches popped up.  And as a kid who listened to too much heavy metal and counted the hours until I could split, I disagreed with pretty much every piece of religious doctrine that got thrown in front of me.  I saw the end times as this huge bait/switch, something used to justify this huge ponzi scheme that managed to shackle every person in my podunk town with despair and misery.

What always got me about Revelations was that nobody could agree if it was stuff that was going to happen, stuff that did happen, or stuff that was a neat story with some allegory about how we should feel about god.  When I got past the point of actually believing in any religion and started looking at the bible as a literary and/or historical work, I found it somewhat humorous that this could essentially be the story of the first century of the church, and all of these people were looking at it like it was a sentence that would be served any day now.  I looked at the bible like I looked at any conspiracy theory, like the JFK assassination, starting with the conclusion and a bunch of loose pieces of evidence, trying to backfill the timeline and piece together some esoteric explanation about how it all fit together.  I eventually got bored of this, especially when the climate changed so much that if you did not agree directly with every micron of someone else’s opinion on the subject, you were a satanic child molester that deserved to bathe in the fires of hell.

Now, I don’t care.  And it’s odd to see the story have legs as much as it does right now, with everyone talking about how the world will end this Saturday, because of some loon (who, coincidentally, happens to also live in Oakland) who has been advertising it on billboards and the sides of busses for the last few months.  This has been predicted many times before, and I’m sure roughly 27 minutes after the time passes this Saturday and we don’t all blow up, everyone will have forgotten all about this guy, and some other guy will realize throwing another random date out there is a great way to get some free press and make a few bucks.  Its interesting that there are a lot of fringe way-out denominations that do believe in the end times, but I don’t see any of them putting their chips down on the same number as this dude.  Either they’re going to wait and see if it happens, or when this guy flubs up his numerology, they can all pop out of the woodwork and shout “false prophet!  You need to buy my book and find out the truth!”  Or they’ll say “well, that was just a metaphor or some shit, and here’s why you really need to pay attention to this crap.”

Life’s too short.  I’ve burned up too much time reading crap about this on Wikipedia.  Oh, and Vangelis Papathanassiou had this prog-rock band called Aphrodite’s Child that did a concept album in 1972 based on Revelations.  It was titled 666, and has nothing to do with Iron Maiden or heavy metal whatsoever.  But it has a couple of really trippy songs on it, including this one “The Four Horsemen”, which is completely unrelated to the Metallica song by the same name.  I’ve listened to it about 17 times in a row while writing this, and now I think I’m going to have to either stop listening to it or drive into the city and see if there’s a place I can buy a pair of flared jeans, a silk shirt, and about 4000 dried grams of mushrooms.

Share

Cash for gold city

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.

Share

Back from the Midwest

After two weeks on the road, my bed feels like magic. I wanted to spend all day in my shower, using non-trial size shampoo and non-hotel bars of soap. It’s good to have my stereo, my keyboard, my view of the parking lot (which looks like it’s finished, construction-wise), and mostly, it’s good to be back in today, after spending so much time talking about yesterday.

My big SUV got a slow flat while I was in Indiana, and I talked to 17 different people at Alamo, who gave me 17 different answers, ranging from “bring it back to O’Hare” to “drive on the baby spare for 10 days” to “buy a $650 tire and spend $100 and a day getting it mounted, and save the receipt and fill out a TPS report and send it in and wait 4-62 weeks and we might or might not pay you back some or all or none of it”. I drove to the South Bend Municipal cow pasture and barnstormer air strip and the Alamo there had like three cars and they were allegedly all gone, and there was some inter-location transfer bullshit that made them really iffy about giving me a car anyway.

So I topped up the tire, added just enough fuel to make it west, and hit the toll road. When I got to O’Hare, I expected a huge clusterfuck of trouble, and the inside of the rental building looked like Saigon 1975. A woman in front of me was trying to rent a car with no ID and no credit card other than a Target card, and went round and round with the clerk, to the point where I wanted to grab her and start shaking her while yelling “WHAT BIZARRO UNIVERSE LETS YOU RENT A CAR WITH NO DRIVER’S LICENSE OR CREDIT CARD?” Finally, after being asked “picking up or returning?” and answering “well both, and neither”, a guy told me to go pick any car off the lot, re-printed my contract, and gave me a free tank of fuel out of the deal. I got a new Rav-4 and hit the road.

I had something like 5 hours to kill until Sarah’s flight arrived that night, so I gave John Sheppard a surprise call and drove up to see his new place. 294 was a parking lot, so I took surface roads, and got a nice little tour of the northern Chicagoland burbs. It’s always good to see John and Helen, even in such a hurried visit, and I got to see the new homestead and four-legged members of the household. We went out for pizza at a place with plenty of dead animal on the wall and a tradition of eating peanuts and throwing shells on the floor. There were many talks of gloom and the remainder of the Cubs season, and then I had a freakout when I thought I had 20 minutes to get back to O’Hare, when really I had an hour and twenty, and a watch that was on Indiana time.

It’s almost impossible to pick someone up at O’Hare, even if you know their airline. Maybe if I was there more than once every 20 years, I would remember, but there are hordes of identical-looking parking lots sprouting from each terminal, and even with two cell phones and lots of “I’m looking at a sign that says Elevator bank 4 and has a picture of a wolverine on it” conversation, it took us a while to figure that out. Then, another trip back to Indiana.

Driving with Illinois plates at 7 MPH over the limit, you can guess what happened next. I got pulled over by an Indiana cop for the first time since, what, 1994? 1995? I handed over the Colorado license and the Illinois registration, and they came back with a warning. I’m guessing it’s too hard for them to write a ticket for out-of-staters. Or maybe they were just looking for drunks, suspended licenses, or whatever else. And get this, a night or two later, I got pulled over AGAIN, on old US-33, just before it gets to 19. This was a little more suspect, because it was a Goshen city cop, patrolling out on the area between Elkhart and Osceola. After he gave me the warning, I almost asked him “what the fuck are you doing out here?” He probably thought I’d never set foot in the Midwest before, when truthfully, I got my Indiana license around the time this dipshit was born. Anyway, don’t drive in Indiana with out-of-town plates and no Jesus sticker on the back window.

The rest of the Indiana stay was meeting after meeting. Different relatives, the same questions, reciting the same answers. It’s good to see people, it’s just tiring to answer the same questions over and over, until your conversations turn into morphing tape loops, and you can’t remember who you told what. It was refreshing to spend time with my nephews and diverge into Guitar Hero or Spongebob conversations, just for a change of pace. Two parents, two sisters, three uncles, two aunts, a bunch of spouses and step-kids and whatever else, and we managed to pull together about three free minutes to drive to my old house and see that the new people have a very fucked-up yard. There was also supposed to be a minor-league baseball game in there, but it rained so much, it didn’t happen.

Another drive, to Wisconsin this time. We spent a lot of time with Sarah’s family, and it poured rain most of the time. I got a couple of good home-cooked meals (no more chain food) and an excellent meal at Pandl’s Whitefish Bay Inn, which is this little restaurant that time forgot. And we got some not-so-fast food from Culver’s, which is an amazing little chain of hamburger joints gone wild.

We also made the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field in Green Bay to see the Packers play a pre-season game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, my first NFL game ever. Me and Sarah went with her dad and Dan, her sister’s boyfriend. I spent the trip up talking MLB and all things Brewers with Dan, who is a walking encyclopedia about that stuff. When we got there, we parked in the back of some restaurant strip mall for $20 and hiked in. This gave us a good survey of the tailgate situation, huge dudes with big mullets cooking brats and downing MGD and Jager while blasting unrecognizable Pantera-like metal from the backs of their trucks. Whory bleach-blond chicks in shorter than short cutoffs yelling WHOOOOO at every passing car. There was green and gold everywhere. EVERYWHERE. There were more Favre #4 jerseys than there are jerseys period at any Rockies game. And I loved it. The NPR totebag, Free Tibet bumpersticker crowd would denounce this as a lack of culture, but it IS culture. It’s the most perfectly cut slice of Wisconsin you could find. And that’s why I dug it.

Okay, so you go into this huge, newly-remodeled stadium, with a giant atrium, and more Miller Beer signs than a Miller brewery. When we went into the tunnel and out to our seats, it was weird. The field looked small to me, compared to TV games. 100 yards on a high school field or a college stadium is the same 100 yards in the NFL, although everything surrounding that rectangle of green was bigger and better and brighter. But when I looked down at that, I thought “shit, I could throw a 30 yard pass down there!” I had the same reaction at my first MLB game, where you’re so close, and the view of the whole thing makes it look small. On TV, it’s a giant video game, but when you’re yards from the dudes on the field, you see they are people.

We got the national anthem, and two F-18s flew over. It was some Catholic charity game, and there was a bishop on the field blessing the Packers or something. Dan wanted to know why he wasn’t damning the other team, too. As the game started, I saw the overwhelming number of commercials versus baseball; they show video and audio commercials on the big board whenever possible between plays. They played “Hell’s Bells” and I wondered if the bishop enjoyed that.

I followed the game, but I didn’t. I guess baseball is much easier to watch in that respect – less people out there, more contained game action, whatever. The one thing I noticed was that we had good seats – 50 yard line, 21st row – but they had metal bleachers, and had like 12″ of ass-space per seat, and you know the average ass width in rural Wisconsin is nowhere near 12″. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and trying to eat was a challenge. They did have excellent bratwurst, though.

A huge storm front rolled in, and it started to rain. We bought ponchos and jackets just for this weather, so I put on the poncho, and the rain stopped. I took it off, it started. I put it on, it stopped. This cycle repeated, and then it didn’t rain again for the rest of the evening.

The Packers lost, although the newspaper the next day praised only the good stuff that happened, and you’d think they had won. We drove back and Sarah hit an owl, which sounded like Randy Johnson throwing a fastball into the windshield, but amazingly, the glass did not break.

We finally got out on Saturday morning, me with a giant suitcase filled with 48 pounds of dirty laundry. On the way down to the airport, in Kenosha, we stopped at a real A&W with the drive-in and everything. The girl was trying to put the tray on my oddly-shaped, not-rectangular window, and as I messed with the controls (which are backwards from our Subaru) I managed to auto-quickie-open the window and dump the whole fucking tray onto the pavement. But the food was good. We got to O’Hare, ditched the car, flew back home, got the Subaru, and here I am.

I managed to not go to a mall the whole time I was in Indiana, and I managed to not eat any cheese curds the whole time I was in Wisconsin. (But we have a whole big box of stuff on the way from Mar’s Cheese castle that gets shippped out today.)

Anyway, pictures here, although if you’re not interested in relatives or football, that’s about all I managed to take. I’m trying out google picasa for the first time, so that might or might not work out well.

OK, now I need to start some work on this damn book.

Share

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.

Share