Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


I just spent five days in Indiana for the pre-Christmas Christmas with my side of the family. It’s a split trip, with this second week in Wisconsin. We flew into Chicago on Monday, then rented a car and drove out to South Bend for the first week.

It’s always weird to be back. The area around University Park Mall was all cornfields when I left in 1995, and now the Grape Road and Main Street strips that run parallel to the mall have exploded with big-box stores, strip malls, and chain restaurants. This time we stayed at at Hilton Home2 that’s roughly by where the old Night Lights all-ages club was in the 80s. (I think that club is a Hooters now, but I don’t remember where it was.) The hotel was built in 2017, on the site of what used to be some anonymous banquet restaurant. Everything around it is new to me. Day Road used to be an empty road through corn fields we’d drive at high speed on the way to the mall. Now it’s full of big boxes of stuff.

* * *

So, various family stuff on Tue-Fri. Ate a family lunch at the Howard Park Public House on the river. I think that used to be a parking lot or empty field when I grew up, and now the entire riverfront has a walk and parks and an ice skating rink, and looks great. South Bend appears to be on the up and up, with all the new spots and the ever-growing Notre Dame. I always regret that I did not spend more time in South Bend as a kid and really learn what was there so I could appreciate what it has become.

It was good to see family, exchange presents, eat too much, and do the usual grip-and-grin photos lined up against a tree or wall. Not into what I look like in the photos, and the food is adding to that. I really need to lean into the “new year new me” coming up shortly, but that’s another discussion.

* * *

I keep saying I am not into nostalgia anymore, or I’m trying to get away from it or whatever, and honestly I am trying. I intended to not even go to Elkhart for this trip. But S had to catch up on work and I had an empty afternoon with nothing to do, so I got in the car, put on my 1990 playlist, and went on the grand nostalgia misery tour.

First stop was IUSB. I pretty much lived in Northside hall in the 1990-1991 school year. I worked in the computer labs in the basement, my first real paying computer job, (occasionally) went to classes, and hung out with Ray endlessly. I had really strong memories of that place, but in a very isolated base way, probably because of my depression level and loneliness at the time. I commuted every day, which meant spending long periods by myself, rolling through the long strip of nothing between Elkhart and South Bend.

I wanted to take some pictures because the street view in the area is pretty lacking. But I wanted to find places that looked exactly like they did 33 years ago, which is tricky with all the additions that have happened. There’s a bridge from Northside across the river to a set of dorms, which is pretty odd compared to my commuter experience. The old education building has been torn down; at least two other big limestone buildings are where a soda bottling plant used to be; a chunk of the mega-parking lot is now a garage. And most of Northside, the main class building on the river, has been completely redone inside.

Walking around the halls, I did find a few things that haven’t changed. The outside structure of NS is the same limestone, the same courtyard with a walkway going across on the second floor. I ducked in a stairwell that I used to climb up and down multiple times a day to get from the sub-basement computer labs to the second-floor computer science classrooms, and they are absolutely identical inside. There’s a long cafeteria, more like a wide corridor with tables where me and Ray would hold court and pretend to study, and it’s still there but completely redecorated now. But I went around the corner to the vending machine alcove, and there’s a set of microwaves that look absolutely identical to 1990. I’m not sure if they’ve been cleaned since then. The area outside the auditorium looked very similar too, with 1961 wood trim and a set of benches where I’d sit and read between classes.

You can take the US-20 bypass to get between Elkhart and South Bend pretty quickly. I guess it’s not called the bypass anymore; it’s just US-20. But that didn’t exist in 1990, so I took Lincolnway east, which is now 933 aka “old 33” aka US-33 back then. That road isn’t quite a highway, and is mostly 35 MPH and winds through Mishawaka, then Osceola and into Elkhart. Like most of these drives, the bones of things are still there; there’s still a McDonalds and Taco Bell in the same place in Twin Branch, and the giant gas station at County Line Road. Signs change, the colors of houses sometimes change, and buildings vanish. But most of the drive is hauntingly familiar.

* * *

I really did not want to do this. But I had to do this.

I went to Concord Mall. The former Concord Mall. They are just started with the big transformation, which is gutting the mall and turning it into seven light industrial spaces. They have painted the vintage brick exterior a generic drab white, and chopped off the signage, awnings, and entrances, sealing things up in anonymous industrial doors. The JC Penney parking lot was full of heavy machinery, pallets of construction material, and various debris and jetsam from the construction work. The exterior entrance of the old McCrory’s was a gaping hole in the brick exterior. The Hobby Lobby, aka my Wards store, remains untouched. The Martin’s grocery, Concord 1 and 2 theater, and USA Fitness buildings are all in various states of disassembly or abandonment.

The front entrance, by what was once Super Sounds and Enzo pizza, was open, but had “no mall walking” signs on it. An optometrist was still operational, so I could go in the entrance. The interior was bleak. A chain-length fence blocked off most of the concourse, with a floor-to-ceiling wall of black plastic running the length of the hallway. I could hear water falling behind the plastic, and assumed they were doing asbestos abatement. Storefronts were all covered in plywood, but I could still see glimpses of the original brick, which was a signature of the mall, and will probably either be chipped out, covered in drywall, or painted an industrial battleship gray soon.

I didn’t stay long. I snapped a few pictures and got out of there. I went to Hobby Lobby to use their restroom and buy nothing, and on the way out, I realized something: they had the same fixtures as Wards, the same shelves and brackets, and they hadn’t been repainted. I painted all of those fixtures in the summer of 1988. It took me like a month to wash every one of them with turpentine, prime them, then roll them with a special shade of Wards-brand oil-based enamel. Examining one of those shelves, now filled with Jesus-based Christmas crap made in China, sort of freaked me out. It was a strange legacy for me to have in this town.

* * *

I did the rest of the tour: my old house in River Manor; the old runway that got turned into a subdivision in the 80s; my old abandoned Taco Bell where I worked my first job in 1987. I drove up main street and through downtown, and some of that strip is utter devastation. I don’t mean to keep shitting on Elkhart; I’ve done enough of that over the years, and it’s somewhat pointless now. But it’s just amazing how far it has fallen. I heard news while I was in town that the last movie theater closed, and the mall closed. The city is apparently buying the failed strip mall that was built when Pierre Moran got de-malled and doing… something with it, or not. There are long stretches of properties that have been abandoned for decades, or razed and left vacant. There are I think two major overpass/viaduct projects starting, and more businesses are closing and houses are being moved or demolished. The only growth industry in town seems to be Superfund sites.

Previously, these trips would give me heavy “you can never go back” vibes. Now, it’s just a big door closing. There’s nothing to be nostalgic about anymore. Everything is gone and done.

* * *

There are many reasons I could never go back to Indiana. And the Indiana I knew is rapidly vanishing. But sometimes I get a strong and strange feeling of deja vu I can’t entirely integrate.

I was walking across a parking lot the other night, and it hit me. There was something about the crisp winter air, the clouds overhead, the look of the sky. I was in the parking lot of a casino, but when I looked out, I saw fields plowed down for winter, and the one row of tall trees a quarter-mile in the distance, the leaves fallen in December, just century-old skeletons reaching into the sky. There’s something about the sparseness, the feel of the atmosphere, that gives me a deep base memory, a sense memory that goes deep into my bones. It reminds me of the holiday breaks of childhood, the feeling of being 16 and driving a beat-up Camaro to a friend’s house on the back country roads. It’s a very entrenched time machine and these memories aren’t about a specific event or person. They’re just a sense, a feeling. Not happy or sad, just a quick flood of memory about everything and nothing.

When I was on the second floor of IUSB, looking out a window across the parking lot, I had an incredibly strong memory of looking out the same window in 1990. It was a Friday, during a shift at the computer lab, in mid-December. The air was the same crisp cold, the clouds heavy, and I could feel in the air that it was going to start snowing. I knew I would mess around on the VAX computer or two or three more hours, go to the McDonald’s on McKinley, and listen to the same Queensrÿche album I listened to every day that school year as I ate my #2 meal on the long drive home. I knew that classes were over, and I’d spend the next two weeks indoors, at my girlfriend’s parents’ house in Ottawa Hills, or at my parents’ house. It was not good or bad or anything else, but that moment is so entrenched in my head, and it’s amazing that it instantly came back 33 years later.

Anyway. It’s Christmas morning and I’m in Milwaukee for the week. I should write about that next, but I have a few thouand calories to eat first.


One response to “Indiana”

  1. I remember back when Day Road was nothing but fields. So weird to think back on that, and I often forget about how much it has actually changed since I witnessed it happening as it did.

    As a side note, the Martin’s in the Concord Mall area is still there, but it just moved around the back of the land segment. It’s a big, very nice store. I remember the JoAnn Fabrics was originally going to move into the old Martin’s building, but instead moved down the street to the Goshen Wal-Mart area.

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