Friday, March 26, 2021

The #Midwessay: Andy Oler, When I Am Gone, Who'll Sing for Me

I think one of the things that I first came to love about Indiana, and particularly about Muncie, was its contradictions. It doesn’t quite know who or what it is, and so it’s a little bit of everything at once.

On any given day, you could walk into Rural King and feel like you’re in farm country, surrounded by men in Carhartts and work boots. A mile away, at the coffee shop right by campus, you can find a group of queer undergrads talking about poetry. Downtown, you’ll get served craft beer by tattooed bartenders with great taste in music, or can catch a drag show at Indiana’s oldest gay bar, which opened the year before the Stonewall riot. You can drive down Kilgore and see the ruins of the BorgWarner plant, empty as long as I’ve lived here, and it feels like Buffalo, like Cleveland, like Detroit, like any rust belt city that’s seen the jobs all leave.

Indiana is somehow all of these things at once: the rural heartland, the economically-decimated rust belt, home to vibrant college towns and one of the largest cities in the country, a state that is both known for cars and concrete and roads and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is also home to Indiana Dunes, the Hoosier National Forest, Brown County. 

This is the place that gave the world Axl Rose, Adam Lambert, and Cole Porter. We’re responsible for both Eugene V. Debs and Mike Pence. (I didn’t say complexity was always good.)

There’s space here. The space to—like the space we create in an essay—embrace complexity, to explore it, to complicate rather than simplify. It feels, sometimes, like the possibilities are endless. —Silas Hansen, Indiana #Midwessay coordinator


When I Am Gone, Who’ll Sing for Me

Andy Oler


I live in Florida now. The weather’s good, mostly. The sun comes up over the river, and there’s a road right next to it. The road floods during rainstorms, and with hurricanes it’s worse, but most of the year it’s pretty nice to walk alongside the river, next to palm trees and the mangroves holding the bank together, past the piles of broken concrete and coquina rock shoring up seawalls. There’s a park about a mile south where the sidewalk curves out next to the river, and I walk past there, headphone in one ear, happy to be out at night.

A couple weeks ago I came across a website playing radio stations from all over the world. You float over a satellite picture of the globe, with all these little green dots below, scattered like a light pollution map. When you click on a dot, you get a choice of the radio stations in that town.

When I first saw that map, I was crossing over Indiana, and I clicked on Richmond. Not all the stations were on there that I remember from growing up nearby, but I did notice WECI, the community station I’d listen to while driving across the county to go to the movies, or the record store, or to see my friend Ty. At first, it felt pretty much the same. The Morning Ramble, a lot of bluegrass and country gospel, some chatter but mostly keeping those mandolin waltzes going.

Then I got sad. WECI isn’t for Florida. It’s for driving on 35, hills up and down just after Williamsburg, passing the little used car dealership there at 38, coming up on the factories on NW 5th Street, hitting all the lights through that stretch, then slowing down when you really get into the backside of Richmond. If you turn where the road becomes a street, you curl around next to an elementary school and head down into the gorge, then cross a little bridge and hook under an old railroad trestle. Go that way, you get to a sandwich place we went to in high school and a decent coffee shop that opened up later. 

Go straight and you pass by a co-op, a gun shop, a liquor store, some donuts. There’s a pizza place with a bus inside. Used to be a muffler shop, discount tobacco. Right now on WECI they’re playing Jesse McReynolds and Charles Whitstein singing “What would you give in exchange for your soul?” It fits right in. A little sad, a remake of a Bill Monroe song, the kind of thing that carries you past those little shops, until you hear the rambler’s call and cross the old bridge that brings you up on the courthouse to another run of green lights out toward Side One or the movies.

Tuned in from a thousand miles south, I can’t do that. The river’s at my back, there are kids moving around, it’s real flat here, and I haven’t been to Indiana in almost two years. It’s been even longer since I drove from Manning Road into the industrial part of Richmond, getting away from my parents’ house for a few hours, but then headed back, not ever wondering, like Jimmy Martin does, “when I am gone, who’ll sing for me.”

Andy Oler grew up on a farm outside Economy, Indiana, and has since been transplanted to the Sunshine State. He is the author of Old-Fashioned Modernism: Rural Masculinity & Midwestern Literature (LSU, 2019) and editor of Pieces of the Heartland: Representing Midwestern Places (Hastings, 2018). He is Outpost Editor at The New Territory, publishing personal essays on the places of Midwestern literature in Literary Landscapes.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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