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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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general

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.)

[I had a link to my pictures here, but the photo sharing service died years ago, so use your imagination.]

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

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general

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 a 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 workers 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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general

Cubsalosea

So we saw two of the four Cubs-Rockies games this weekend: on Thursday, the Cubs won, and on Sunday, the Rockies. We had tickets to go to Saturday’s game. but after Thursday, we didn’t think we could stomach being in a section with 100 Cubs fans at a thing called “Cubsapalooza”. It turned out, however, to be “Cubsalosea”, with a wildly lopsided victory, and Jamie Carroll’s first grand slam. Anyway, I have nothing against Cubs fans, except that I really wanted to like the Cubs as a kid, and they repeatedly broke my heart. They play much better now, but it’s always hard to go back.

Speaking of going back, I am scheduled to make a trip to Indiana tomorrow. I say scheduled because I have no idea if we’re going to make it or not due to Sarah’s client at work completely flaking out. There are various scenarios that might play out: the trip goes as scheduled; I go tomorrow, Sarah meets me on Friday; we both come out on Friday; we reschedule a few weeks later; we move to Pakistan and leave no forwarding address. And I haven’t mentioned this trip here for various political reasons, one being that I will be in Elkhart for three or four days and I already have like 17 days of meetings requested and/or scheduled, and none of that includes seeing friends or doing something that’s actually vacation-like. (Not that there’s anything vacation-like in Elkhart. There is the Elkhart drinking game, where you drive around town, and every time you see a business you remember from childhood that has gone bankrupt and turned into a Mexican grocery store, you take a shot, and in about 15 minutes you die of alcohol poisoning.)

Believe it or not though, I do have some kind of sick fascination with Elkhart, because it’s really a fly trapped in amber. Every time I go back, I find I can still drive everywhere without even thinking of it. And there’s never anyone there when I drive around during the day. It’s like visiting the ruins of a city that was knocked out by a Neutron bomb. And I guess some of the fascination is that I have not been there for three years, and after an hour of driving around, I will be bored out of my fucking mind. But I also realize that I have almost no pictures of Elkhart, and I’d really like to drive around with my new (as of 2005) camera and get some good shots of the desolation. I always liked elkhartsucks.com, but it is dead and gone, so maybe I need to create my own version. (And I will turn on comments on pages so Larry has something to do at work.)

And I guess I think a lot of the summer between high school and college, and how it was 18 years ago, which is half of my lifetime now. Having a car now, and having an iPod that has all of my old music on it sometimes reminds me of that period. And almost all of it was in Elkhart, and it brings back thoughts of that time. And to be truthful, I did a lot of stupid shit back then, and probably the stupidest thing was getting involved with the girl that I dated right before I left for school, and the ensuing breakup. But with some distance, those thoughts are interesting. I always thought about writing a fictionalized book of that era of my life, and I made a couple of false starts, but I now realize I can’t write stuff like that anymore. The second you finish writing a book about someone that fucked you over in life, their lawyer contacts you. (See also Augustin Burroughs, although maybe you need to make a hundred million dollars for this rule to come into play.)

Christ, it’s almost eleven and I haven’t even started writing yet.

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Elkhart and the unsolved murder rate

I got an email from someone yesterday with regard to The Necrokonicon, specifically my reference to the unsolved murder rate thing. My quote, in the Elkhart entry, is this:

Elkhart also frequently earns the honor of having the largest unsolved murder rate in the country (although this may also be an urban legend.) Almost annually, a 17-year old girl is found naked, raped and dead in a farmer’s field, and the Elkhart Keystone Kops are too busy shaking down people cruising to do anything about it.

I frequently get asked about this, maybe more than any other thing in the glossary. Half of the people want to know the source because they think it’s very indicative of life in Elkhart, and the other half call bullshit on me because they think Elkhart is the greatest place in the world and I’m a horrible person for inventing such a legend. Now I feel a need to break this down and/or do some actual research to get people off my back about this.

(And before I begin, I should probably state for the millionth time that the Necrokonicon is not a reference book, or a citeable, peer-reviewed research journal. It’s my ramblings and observations, with the occasional fact thrown in. Almost all of it is my opinion, and my biggest regret to ever doing the project is that some dumb-ass mails me every other week saying “No, Concord mall is at 60% occupancy and you said it was less than 50%!” So take all of this with a grain of salt.)

First of all, the unsolved murder thing isn’t true. Elkhart isn’t the unsolved murder capitol and never has been. Statistically, it’s always going to be a large city like New York or LA. But when you talk about per-capita rate, it’s a different matter. Many people don’t realize that Elkhart has statistically higher crime rates per capita than places that are perceived as being much more dangerous or evil.

There are a number of crime statistic comparison calculator things on the internet, mostly for people shopping for new homes, and they all largely draw on the same FBI crime statistics. I used http://www.homefair.com/calc/citysnap.html, which provides an index on statistics, meaning that the national average is 100, with higher than that meaning a higher crime rate, and lower meaning a below national average number. (This isn’t as compelling or interesting as an actual number-of-incident report, but if you know the population of the US, have a calculator, and passed 9th grade math, you can figure it out. Of course, if you went to an Indiana public school, statistically you probably can’t do simple math.)

In Elkhart, zip code 46516, personal crime risk is 129, and property crime risk is 190. In comparison, my neighborhood in New York city (zip=10002), personal is 214 and property is 105. What’s what? Bear with me because I’m too lazy to make a table, and the following numbers are Elkhart/NYC. Personal crime includes murder (162/141), rape (147/85), robbery(138/361), and assault(150/175). Property crime includes burglary(193/84), larceny(246/94), and motor vehicle theft(109/112).

This really pisses me off. Why? Because every born-and-died-in-Elkhart person pisses on me about how safe and happy Elkhart is, how you never need to lock your doors, how you can leave a hundred dollars on the table and come back and there’s two hundred, and then goes into the tirade about how horrible New York is, with all of the robberies and rapes and crack cocaine and hookers and guns and blah blah blah. Now look at those numbers. You are TWICE AS LIKELY to be raped in Elkhart as you are in New York. It’s more than twice as likely your house will be burglarized. Larceny, 250% higher in Elkhart. And aside from the New York comparison, EVERY SINGLE ONE of those statistics are higher than average in Elkhart; every one except murder risk is LOWER in the state of Indiana as a whole. Per capita, Elkhart is a pretty damn unsafe place to live, at least according to the FBI.

The next logical question is “how do the unsolved murders match up to the rest of the country?” And that’s where the trail ends. There are no unified cold-case statistics, and any agency that does broadcast their numbers is probably tallying them in a different way. You could speculate that if x percent of murders go unsolved, Elkhart’s per-capita unsolved murder rate is y, based on either FBI crime statistics, or actual tallies of the dead in Elkhart. But there’s no universal unsolved murder stat, and it would vary depending on the police department. In New York City, there are millions of taxpayers, which means the NYPD gets a lot more neat toys to go all CSI on murder cases. Elkhart has, what, 10 or 20,000 taxpayers? By virtue of scale, their police force isn’t going to be as equipped to deal with murders, and their rate is going to be higher. But you can only speculate on that rate. Speculation on that trend, though, is more valid.

The next thing to factor in are the known high-profile murder cases that have gone unsolved. First is Marie Kline, who was killed on Jan 1, 1988. Her murderer, Dennis Leer, was charged at the end of 2004 for the crime. This was probably a driving force for the urban legend about the unsolved murder rate, because her parents were very critical of the police about the fact that the murder never got solved. There was also some vague urban legend that the two were at a party with a bunch of people, and got in a fight, and he said something like “if you ever break up with me, I’ll kill you,” and then she broke up with him, and her body was found and he split town. That rumor sounds similar to the “so-and-so cheerleader is pregnant” thing, but it gave the legend some substance. There’s also some conflict based on the fact that Elkhart County’s lead detective was fired for pursuing a suspect even after he was told not to. The county also never pursued DNA testing, which wasn’t done until the case eventually went to the state police. The DNA testing was also a no-brainer because Leer was already in prison for a different attempted murder.

The other high profile one was Kari Nunemaker, who was killed in January of 1991. After 14 years, there was a conviction, once again because the case got bounced to the state police. And a more recent one was Jessica Zbras, who was killed in May of 1995; Terrance Evans was charged nine years later. I can’t find any cases other than that, and that doesn’t back up my once-per-year allegation, but it adds a bit of fuel to the fire.

The last thing I add to the mess is this: I heard this urban legend constantly in high school, which was before two of those murders. Everyone accepted it at face value. It mutated, as people claimed to have seen it on Geraldo or Johnny Carson (much like people in that era also claimed to have seen the president of Procter and Gamble on a talk show, confessing that he was a satanist.) I also heard people state that Elkhart had the highest per-capita income (which makes no sense whatsoever), or had the highest interracial dating percentage. And how do these legends happen? Even if they aren’t true, peoples’ fears, doubts, and prejudices cause them to happen and to gain momentum. Everyone in high school hated the Elkhart cops, because most of them were pricks. (I’m assuming they were because the pay was bad, and the only people who signed up were power-hungry control freaks who liked to put on a uniform and act like a dick.) When a legend came about that exposed the inadequacy of the police, of course everyone believed it. Even when urban legends are not true, the legends expose either the environment in which they were created, or the people that perpetuated them.

And add to all of the above the fact that the Elkhart Truth, the South Bend Tribune, the Goshen News, and Elkhart’s public records department are still in the 19th century, and it’s impossible to tear through all of their stuff with a search engine and read results. If I wanted to seriously research this more, I’d have to fly to Elkhart and spend a few weeks at a microfiche reader, which isn’t happening any time soon. It’s no wonder almost all of my google searches on this material returned my own pages at the top result. That’s fucked up.

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Little Axl

I probably mentioned a few times a while ago that I was working on a book called Six Year Plan, that was a bunch of short essays and whatnot about my time in Bloomington – sort of an extension of what I did in Summer Rain. Well, that never went so well, and I’m sitting on about 100,000 words of shit, some of it good, a lot of it not so good. In mucking around, I’ve decided to pull a few pieces and put them here. These are not stories. They aren’t essays. They are just pieces. And they’re rough. Let’s start with one that I call “Little Axl.”

In the summer of ’91, I needed a real job, pronto. My parents were on my ass about bringing in a solid 40 hours a week at a good rate, and my computer job dried up during the summer session. I checked the classifieds and noticed the major triumphant victory in the 17-minute-long Iraq war pushed the economy into a short-term upswing. Everybody in the rich states wanted a new house or a new RV, so every factory in our shit city had a want ad in the paper. Everyone was paying at least twice as much as I made changing laser printer toner cartridges, and some were already running mandatory overtime at time and a half.

The only problem with a factory gig would be going in as a student. Most blue-collar shops didn’t like to hire young peckerwoods who were into the book learnin’, because they’d question the wise ways of those who earned union wages drilling holes in plywood 800 times a day every day. And just when the school boys started to nice and indoctrinated, they’d pick up and leave for campus in August. Most employers preferred someone local, married, with a kid or ten, and a mortgage or two. They could break in a lifer and keep them in the gallows for twenty or thirty years. A few, however, liked to bring in a crop of college kids to enslave for three months, especially if they could do it to skirt some kind of union regulation.

I ended up lucking into a job at a brass plant in Elkhart, on second shift. I worked for the same company at a different factory the year before, with my dad. The brass plant meant no commute, no early morning alarm clock, and no dad. I also somehow managed to take a morning class each summer session at IUSB. And I dated Lauren, this girl in Bloomington, and made the trip down there every other weekend. Basically, the entire summer was a long run of little sleep, lots of trucker speed, and a swimming pool or two of caffeinated beverages.

Most of the people at the plant were typical factory workers: divorced, remarried, with a couple of kids, and never questioned the life laid out in front of them. There were a couple of students my age, also in for the three-month haul between college semesters, and I hung out with them at the lunch table. But one of the best guys I worked with wasn’t a regular friend, just a forklift driver I talked to here and there. I don’t even remember his real name. But in my head I called him Little Axl.

Little Axl had a mane of longish red hair that made him vaguely resemble the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, and his raspy three-packs-of-Marlboro-Red-a-day voice sounded spot-on like he was going to jump down off of his lift truck, bust into “Sweet Child of Mine” at any moment and do that stupid snakey dance . Actually, maybe he completely wouldn’t remind you of Mr. Rose, but this was 1991, and the band was ramping up to hit ubiquitousity in a few months with the Use Your Illusion albums. The guy did complete his work wardrobe with a few cut-up t-shirts of various metal bands, a red bandana, and ripped-up jeans, so I’m sure he would have appreciated the association if I ever would have told him.

Little Axl was always doing dumb shit, and the other lifers at the job were constantly harping on him about it. He was sort of like the hype man for a rap group, except he wasn’t acting like a dumbass to make Chuck D look more butch or anything; he was just legitimately off-kilter in the head. For example, one day he suddenly decided to quit smoking. A noble gesture, yes, but the main reason he quit is not because of cost (cigs were dirt cheap back then) or health (everyone in Indiana smoked, and didn’t worry much about cancer), but because he used to be on the track team back in high school, and in some Al Bundy-fueled nostalgia fit, he wanted to be able to run the mile in under six minutes or whatever the fuck he ran it a half-dozen years before. Part of his non-smoking regimen was that during lunch and at breaks, he’d run laps around the parking lot in his work clothes and steel-toed boots, trying to magically regenerate all of the lung cells he’d tarred up over the last decade. Calling this “running laps” was slightly misleading, though, because he’d manage to run about 20 yards before he’d double over and hyperventilate for a moment or two, trying to catch his breath for another quick dash, while the rest of us sat at the picnic table next to the front entrance and laughed at him. Within two days, the pack of Reds were rolled back in his shirt sleeve, and the smoking ban was long forgotten.

Here’s another story about Little Axl, although it’s also mostly about me. I was dating Lauren back in Bloomington, after hooking up with her over a Memorial Day visit. And because I racked up a $277 long distance bill one month, my parents disconnected our phone to all but local calls, which made the long distance relationship a bit more difficult. But I could get on the computer via a local dialup and send mail and chat with her when she also got online. I didn’t have a computer back then, but she loaned me her old Mac Plus and 2400 BPS external modem. I’d rush home after my shift ended at midnight, and she’d go to one of the 24-hour labs on campus, and we’d “meet” and type across the 250-mile void through the magic of primitive chat programs like bitnet and VAXPhone.

One Friday night, I ran home after work to got ready for my big VAX session, but when I pulled into the driveway, I noticed the house was dark. I walked inside, and found there was a blackout in the whole neighborhood. I suddenly realized that Lauren was probably in a computer lab, wondering where the fuck I was, and if I didn’t log in soon, she was going to get all pissed off and it would all be my fault. I couldn’t call her in the lab (no long distance, this was before the day of cell phones), and I couldn’t drive to school and sit at a computer, since the IUSB campus was 45 minutes away, and probably all locked up. Then it hit me: go back to work with the computer. I piled up the cords and keyboard in a bag, grabbed the Mac Plus by the carrying handle, and drove back to the brass plant.

I don’t know how I figured this would work, but I assumed that a place like a factory had to have some RJ-45 stapled to a baseboard somewhere with a live signal. I checked the lunch room with no luck, and then found a phone jack and a set of power cords in the long hallway that ran from the front door to the guard station and time clock. It wasn’t exactly the most ergo place in the world, but I plopped down all of my stuff on the concrete floor, ran my wires, and within a few minutes, I had dialtone, then a carrier, and I was trying to explain all of this to Lauren over a 2400 BPS connection.

The weird this is, aside from the security guard dude working at the front desk, my buddy Little Axl was also pacing back and forth by the time clock. Why? It turns out a cop was hiding in the bushes right outside of the parking lot, sniping off cars with a radar detector and hoping to peel off a DUI or two. Now that’s pretty much business as usual with the shithole Elkhart cops, but the problem was that Little Axl drove this fucked up truck that was lifted about nine inches, had no exhaust, no front grill, one headlight missing, another headlight pointed 89 degrees into the air, and probably had expired plates and insurance, not to mention that Little Axl had like 27 points on his license, two DUIs, and maybe a warrant or two. So he was freaking out, waiting for the cop to leave, and trying to get someone else to drive out there to see if the coast was clear.

Meanwhile, he found me on the floor, typing away, and was completely astounded at my piece of shit Mac Plus running the Red Ryder terminal program. I don’t think he’d ever seen a computer before, and he stared at me as if I’d set up a Star Trek teleporter room on the floor and was beaming in long-dead celebrities of the 17th century for a polo game. He looked over my shoulder at my bitnet conversation, wondering what video game I was playing, mesmerized not only that someone could run a computer, but that they could also type words into it. I don’t know if he was more astounded that a person with such scientific prestidigitation skills could work at the same factory as him packing boxes, or if I was more amazed that a person who was about my age could know so little about technology. Either way, it was a strange evening.

It’s also worth mentioning that Little Axl also went to the big Guns N’ Roses and Metallica show in Indianapolis that summer to see his namesake, and I think he vaguely invited me down there if I wanted to catch a ride too, but it seemed too weird and I probably was going down to Bloomington that weekend anyway. In retrospect, I wish I would have scraped up the $40 for tickets and went with him, since it would have been a completely fucked up story culminating with him shooting a syringe of Jim Beam into his neck and then beating his trucker-looking girlfriend with the bottle. And this was also like one or two shows before the real Axl started a riot in St. Louis.

When he came back from the show, Little Axl would not shut up about the greatness of the Guns set, and how they played so many new songs. He also got a shirt that he wore to work the next day, but it said something like GUNS AND FUCKING ROSES WILL FUCK YOU UP on the back, and one of the old guys at work got upset and told him he had to turn it inside out or get another shirt because it had the f-word on it, and this was a family factory. He had it inside out for an hour or two, then he had it back, and I wondered if the ACLU had stepped in that quickly or what, until I saw that he cleverly covered the aforementioned f-bombs with a piece of electrical tape. Sneaky.

Little Axl was one of the most interesting people I worked with, although there were others. I worked at a QA bench for a few weeks with a woman that was my parents’ age who worked with my dad at the other plant and was a recovering alcoholic. She told me all of the usual stories recovering addicts tell you, about taking a bunch of drugs, driving through traffic at 110 while fucked up, almost jumping out of windows, being pronounced dead and then coming back, and all of the others. It made the summer go by a little faster, but it still took way too long to get it done, especially since I’d be back in Bloomington in the fall.

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Kentucky McRib

I’m back. All of my clocks are an hour off. I ate a McRib for dinner in the Cincinnati airport, which is actually in Kentucky. I’m mostly unpacked, but I feel like I need to do some mass cleaning in the apartment, except I don’t feel up to it right now.

Indiana was a good getaway. I got to see both of the nephews and all of the other immediate family, and even anti-kid-me has to say that eight-month-old Wesley is pretty damn cute. I borrowed my mom’s car for most of the trip, and drove around all of my old haunts, noticing both the changes and the fact that a lot of stuff is pretty close to the same fifteen years later. It’s weird for me to drive, because all of the routes and trips are so burned into my brain, I just think “I’m going to University Park Mall” and without realizing it, I drive the entire journey from memory.

It’s strange for me to be back. In some sense, it’s sad, to think back to the time I was there, and know that everyone is now gone, changed, moved on and into their own families and not what I remember from high school. It’s not that I want to re-live that time, it’s just it would be nice to run into some people from back then, talk about it, see it again, and the only person that I still know in town is Ray, and he never wants to leave his apartment, aside from going on his weekly comic book run. On the other hand, I find Elkhart to be infinitely more habitable now that I have lived in New York. Everyone I know has a gigantic house with room after room of storage and furniture, usually purchased for the cost of a new car here. I realize I would go batshit insane after living in Elkhart for more than a week, but I really wish I could have a place like that, a car in the garage, a Super Target down the road.

But NO, I do not want to move back to Elkhart.

Okay, I need to crack open the photos I took and get them uploaded.