Indiana: The Crossroads of America
Since 1937, "Crossroads of America" has been the official state motto of Indiana. What does it mean to be a "crossroads"? In a literal sense, several major interstates and highways--most notably I-70 from the east and west and I-65 from the north and south--intersect in Indianapolis, making the city a one-day drive for eighty percent of the U.S. population. We have more interstate highway miles per square mile than any other state. When my dad’s family moved to Indianapolis from England for job opportunities in 1977, they were amazed by the wide roads and open spaces. Because he began selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door the following year, and has ever since, my dad now knows the highways well. Most evenings and often weekends, he’d be “on the van,” traveling around the state for sales. In his office is a huge, detailed map of Indiana that was intimidating to me both before and after I learned to read because of all the intricate roads. How would I ever learn them myself? Late to get my license and afraid of driving on highways until I was twenty-two, I never really did, leaving Indiana after college graduation for Chicago, then Virginia, then New York. Now when I go home and drive, it’s almost as a tourist, finally understanding how sites of my past connect.
My family arrived in Indianapolis in 1994, trading one Midwest city--Chicago--for another, when my dad transitioned from a career in banking to one in baking when he opened his own health-food bakery in Indianapolis that same year. He, too, traveled Indiana’s highways, trucking bread throughout the state to various grocery stores, or picking up specialty ingredients from suppliers. I spent many a day in the passenger seat, watching the cornfields roll past. Having grown up in Indiana, what strikes me now that I’ve lived on both west and east coast’s is the openness--the sheer emptiness of both land and sky, which I experienced, especially in high school, driving to basketball games throughout the state. Even within the city limits, it’s not uncommon to spend 30-40 minutes driving to a friend’s house, to a restaurant, or to some other landmark 30-40 miles away. Hoosiers think nothing of this sort of distance in the car, as Indianapolis is spread out to an impressive degree: The 17th most populous city in the U.S., Indianapolis ranks #9 in regard to land area, and #6 in area compared to the 16 more-populous cities.
So, what does it mean to choose "crossroads" as a state identity? Like the somewhat nonsensical east-coast-centric designation of Indiana and half the country as "Midwest" (I prefer to side with Hoosier bard, Kurt Vonnegut, and call it all "Middle America"), self-defining as a "crossroads" privileges outside far higher than inside, marking the city as a place to pass by or through or over, rather than a place to stay, to live, to put down roots. My grandparents moved to Indianapolis, by way of Chicago and Cincinnati, in the 1970s; my dad grew up on the east side of Indy, near Irvington, before the family moved 11 miles south to the town of Greenwood. When my parents divorced, I grew up in the southwest suburbs with my mother. Chasing his own job, my dad criss-crossed the state as an insurance salesman with a side-gig as a high school basketball and football official. I'd see him on weekends: my mom would drive me--27 miles roundtrip--to his house on Friday nights, and he would bring me back on Sundays. I guess what I'm saying is my family and I have spent countless, countless hours traversing those roads, but for us, they were only rarely crossroads; they were our home roads, intimate and familiar, connecting our lives to each other in intricate ways. Even today, though I live now on the east coast, those roads will always lead to home, and I will always stop and stay, refusing to just pass through.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument rises from the heart of Indianapolis--a 284-foot obelisk within an enormous four-lane traffic circle, flanked by tall buildings and Indy’s skyscrapers. This central pillar is the finest monument in a city that boasts the second most monuments and memorials in the nation, behind Washington D.C. From this monument, Meridian and Market Streets extend out in the four cardinal directions; the city limits extend an average of exactly seven miles out from this circle, the city loosely contained by I-465, which circles Indianapolis--the hub from which America’s highways jut.
Above the city, at the pinnacle of this neoclassical limestone tower, a ten-ton statue of Victory raises her torch, looking to the south. The sides of this tower are decorated with immense stone statues representing the common soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. As a child, I thought the stone soldiers looked ominous, their faces gaunt and malformed upon up-close viewing, their massive hands holding immense cast-bronze weapons, pigeon droppings speckling their hats and outstretched arms.Within the bowels of the monument rests a Civil War Museum, and a staircase with 331 steps rising to an observation room near the top, which is always closed for one reason or another. Large fountain pools stretch to the west and east, and 70-foot-wide staircases lead up to the foundation base, allowing visitors to climb up to the monument from north and south. Bruno Schmitz, a German architect, won a monument design contest, and construction began in 1899. Indiana’s most iconic landmark was completed and dedicated in 1902, celebrated with a ceremony at which Indianapolis-native James Whitcomb Riley read his poem, “The Soldier”--composed for the occasion.
When I think of this monument, I picture it in winter at night: The day after Thanksgiving, 100,000 Hoosiers descend here for an evening holiday party, the event telecast into 50,000 homes, the monument strung with 54 immense garland strands holding 4,784 Christmas lights aloft on six miles of wire, turning the monument into the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree.” The evening ends with Santa and the Indianapolis mayor flipping a switch in tandem to illuminate the city with holiday glow. Many years my family bundled up to brave the Indiana cold and stand outside for hours, enjoying the festivities, stomping our feet and sipping hot cocoa from warm paper cups, waiting for the moment when the crowd gasped in unison as the monument became a luminescent tree, lighting our faces, our circle, our city. In this moment alone each year, as all of Indiana looks up at that monumental tree, I imagine the stolid soldiers glancing up and flashing Hoosier smiles as the multi-colored glow sheens down upon their grinning chiseled mugs.
The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art is a gem of Indianapolis culture. Just over 2,600 feet from Monument Circle, the Eiteljorg houses a sizeable collection of Native American artifacts and art, both traditional and contemporary, as well as work from several well-known Old West artists. The beautiful, Southwestern-style stone building sits on the east end of White River State Park, on land once inhabited by--and stolen away from--native Miami and Lenape tribes. The museum does not shy away from the uglier aspects in the history of the “Land of the Indians;” instead, it is committed toward openly exhibiting and exploring a troubled past largely unacknowledged in the surrounding city and state--only one block south of the museum lies the entrance to Victory Field: a beautiful ballpark with an old-timey feel, which is the home of a Triple-A baseball team named, with no sense of apprehension or irony, the Indianapolis Indians.
I spent nearly every spring break holiday, from elementary school on, at my grandparents' house. I don't remember how the tradition started, exactly, but it lasted even after I went away to college. Inevitably, sometime during our week together we would take the trip from Greenwood into town to visit the Eiteljorg.
For someone who writes personal essays, I actually have a pretty spotty memory. I can picture myself with my grandpa, in the halls of the museum, winding through some of the exhibits, but nothing much stands out in the way of specifics. I know I looked at paintings and artifacts, marveling when he marveled because he was marveling, but I have no mind for visual art, and I couldn't tell you what I saw there beyond the fact that some of the pictures had horses in them.
Actually, I do remember one distinct thing: one of the interactive exhibits (it's a really accessible and educational museum, y'all; you should go if you can) taught me that the Miami tribal name for the Wabash River is "Waapaahsiki Siipiiwi" which I thought was a neat fact because I was a student at Wabash College at the time; later, I even shared that fact with my linguistics teacher, who also thought it was neat. I do also remember my grandfather's general joy at being there with me. He had so many hobbies, each of them all-consuming at some point or another--Boy Scouts, model trains, stamps, coins, books on the American Civil War--and he enjoyed sharing those hobbies with his grandchildren, passing them down as some sort of legacy. He was more successful with some of my cousins and siblings, but I never made it past Cub Scouts and though I tried my hand at coins, I had no patience for numismatics. Instead, my connection with my grandfather came through art, his excitement to teach and my willingness to learn.
My grandfather was a painter, later in life, mostly of the still-life/pastoral variety, and while I won't say his work should be hanging up next to Remington, I have several of his pieces--full of birds and barns and flags--in my small collection to this day; he loved painting, and that love came through in the swaths and strokes, and I love those paintings because he put his love into them. The Eiteljorg was one of his favorite places, and when I was there with him, I wanted to be the kind of boy who loved art and knew what to look for in each painting, who read every plaque--which I did, but again, not much retention.
I haven't been back since he passed in 2004. I've driven by a few times, but inside, I don't know how it might have changed. It seems to still be a popular tourist destination, touting 4.5 stars out of 5 on TripAdvisor.com; however, in a fairly recent one-star (woulda-rated-it-zero-if-I-could!) review, entitled "Reely HORRENDOUS….." (sic), the patron decries being "imposed upon by a Progressive Political Left agenda suggesting how bad white men are and the need to firther (sic) the LGBTQ+ agenda!!" which, honestly, sounds pretty much like my sort of place.
My grandfather never seemed bothered by the messaging, and he was one of the most staunch conservatives I have ever known. It's almost impossible these days for me to talk about home and about family without talking about politics. I'd apologize, but what for? My grandfather had an NRA sticker on his van, sent money every month to the RNP, went to his Baptist church every Sunday morning serving as a deacon, spent every Tuesday night smoking Camels with his bowling buddies, cursing spares.
When I was younger, I always wanted to be like him, though now that I am grown, I realize that I'm nothing like (I imagine) he would have hoped. I wonder how he would have responded to the current political moment, how he would react to me as I've clawed myself away from my family, both further east and further left. I fear that I know the answers already, suspect that, if he were here today, he might not want to go with me to the Eiteljorg anymore. I would take that risk, without hesitation, if I could wish him back alive right now, but I'm also thankful that I get to remember him as the gentle man whispering marvels into my ear while staring together at a painting full of much more than just horses.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Fast cars! Checkered flag! Beer! Engines! You don’t know Indiana until you visit the Motor Speedway during the month of May, ahead of the Indianapolis 500, run annually on Memorial Day Weekend. To get to the track, located in Speedway, 5 miles west of Monument Circle, we’d take I-465 to I-70 to I-65 N, about a third as fast as the cars go at the race. With an average crowd of over 250,000 each year, the 500 is the best-attended event in U.S. sports.
In the early 1900s, Indiana emerged as a leader of the automobile industry. Problem: Indiana roads weren’t durable, and manufacturers had nowhere to test their products. A track was created and soon destroyed because the crushed rock and tar were unsuitable for racing and even caused the death of two drivers. After much discussion, the track visionaries had 3.2 million paving bricks brought in by rail during the fall of 1909, giving the speedway the nickname of “Brickyard.” Over the next decades, those bricks deteriorated, and patches of asphalt were laid over the rougher portions. In 1961, the remaining bricks were covered, except for a three-foot strip the length of the track, at the start/finish line. In 2012, I knelt and kissed those bricks.
To my right were the thirty-two other 500 Festival Princesses, scrunched together side-by-side to fit in the frame of a photograph. Since the program’s founding in 1959, 33 college-aged women born in Indiana and attending Indiana colleges serve as ambassadors for the race, their hometowns, and their schools. My mom told me about the program and I failed the three-step interview my junior year, then succeeded as a senior. I’d never attended the Indianapolis 500 and it was my goal to see it as a princess. Many weekends of my final semester of college, I drove around the state (finally overcoming my fear of highways), to educate elementary school kids about the history of the race, volunteer at the Special Olympics, and more. As a group, we did a flash mob dance at the Speedway; waved from a float at the 500 Festival Parade in black and white gowns; welcomed guests to the Snake Pit Ball; attended Breakfast at the Brickyard and a Memorial Day Service.
On the morning of the race, each of us got to take a lap around the track on the back of a convertible pace car. I waved so much and so hard that the charm bracelet we’d all received as a princess gift from a local jeweler slipped off my scrawny wrist, and I barely caught it in time before it landed on the track. We were staying in dorms at the State Fairgrounds that weekend and after all the togetherness and clouds of hairspray, experiencing the openness of the track alone while sitting on the car, not only gave me the space I needed, but also one of the best memories I have of the twenty-two years I lived in Indiana.
The Pepsi Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds
For me, the highlight of summer was the three weeks in late summer when my Nana and Pa flew up from Florida to split time between our house in Indy and my aunt’s house in Bloomington, 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis. The highlight of this highlight, though, was the day when Pa woke up early, drove to the closest Marsh Supermarket and purchased ten copies of the Indianapolis Star, which, when added to my parent’s subscription, totalled enough copies for each member of my extended family to have one. He’d also bring back a dozen donuts--or “donies,” as he refers to them--and begin clipping the free State Fair tickets from the paper. Once the rest of us awoke and gorged on donuts, we’d drive to the parking lot at the Indiana School for the Deaf, just north of the fairgrounds (a good cause, and the best bargain parking), where we’d meet our family from Bloomington. Pa would distribute the free tickets, and then we’d head through the ticket gates into the fair--an annual tradition costing Pa $27.50 for the papers, plus parking and the box of donuts: an estimated cost savings of $115.50. Two summers ago, I flew to Indy from California to use my $2.50 newspaper ticket from Pa. Had the fair not been cancelled last year due to COVID, I likely would have returned again.
The state fairgrounds are located 4.15 miles northeast of Monument Circle, and 5.27 miles west of I-465.
Each year, our family starts at the Pioneer Village--an homage to early Indiana farming and country folk, replete with tractors, a steam engine husking corn, handcrafts being produced by volunteers in period dress, all to the music of a folk/Americana/bluegrass band playing in a nearby barn. We’ll watch them perform until Pa hops up from his wheelchair and pushes it out onto the 1.15-mile street loop that circles the racetrack at the center of the grounds, forcing the rest of us to catch up. Usually, he’ll buy a bag of kettle corn for the family to pass around. And then we’re off to the Taste of Indiana barn, where vendors hand out free samples of Indiana food products. Now that my cousins have kids, we’ll hit up the petting zoo, watch whichever circus-type show is performing there--last time it was frisbee dogs--and then it’s lunch: always a pork burger at the Indiana Pork Farmers tent, with a side of applesauce, chips, and a drink for $8. Then, we’re off to the barns to watch the animal judging--a return to Pa’s childhood on a farm in rural Illinois, a life that feels distant now for his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, who’ve all grown up in Midwestern cities. After looking in on the show horses, the cows, and the sheep getting sheared, we arrive at Pa’s favorite: the pigs. Always, there’s the world’s largest hog--a behemoth, fed mostly on Oreo cookies and Twinkies, butchered into pepperoni after the fair (Pa found all this out one year when he asked the farmer cleaning out the hog’s cage)--and the sows awarded the best litter, the baby pigs running rampant within their stall, kids petting any that venture within arm’s reach. Then, it’s off to the Dairy Bar for $3 milkshakes, and maybe to the 4-H pavilions next where we’ll see the best and brightest vegetables, crafts, and art from Indiana’s kids.
Then, mid-afternoon, the highlight of the fair day for me, as our feet have tired from all the standing and walking: we’ll head into the air-conditioned shade of the Pepsi Coliseum at the southern end of the fairgrounds--a multi-purpose 6,500-seat stadium constructed in 1939 as a part of FDR’s New Deal WPA. Back in the 1960s-1970s, the Indiana Pacers won three ABA Championships here. Since 1939, a rotating door of professional Indiana hockey teams has called the Coliseum home, as well as roller derby teams, IUPUI’s NCAA basketball team, and most recently, an indoor pro-football team. High school basketball tournaments have been hosted under the domed ceiling, as well as boxing matches, and numerous concerts, including The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, and even The Beatles. Each year, at the beginning of summer, a rotation of Indianapolis high schools host their commencements in the Coliseum, and in winter, the stadium opens as a public skating rink. In winter, when I’ve slipped my way across the ice, I like to picture the history that the stadium has seen, Elvis slip-sliding his way about a stage, just as wobbly-legged as me in skates.
And yet, dwarfing this deep history is the personal history that my family has shared up within the stadium seating--the hours we’ve spent, resting our feet, watching the horse competitions: the stagecoaches, lugged by teams across the dirt floor; the buggies, pulled by pairs; the individual showhorses groomed, galloping, prancing. None of us know anything about horses, but we’ll pretend we do; we’ll pick our top three in each pool, and cheer them on (decorously, of course) as if Paul, John, Ringo, and George were taking the stage. My dad always falls asleep here--his State Fair nap. We don’t have any official prize or anything for the person who picks the most correct; we don’t even keep a tally, really--for the joy is in the guessing, the blind stabbing at what the show judges might possibly be looking for, the vindication of picking a winning horse, before we’re all reset back to zero as the next group of horses canters into the stadium. Eventually, Pa will stand up, ready to move on, and we’ll head back out into the muggy August heat, splitting up for dinner--another pork burger, or a corndog and a ribbon-cut potato, or perhaps Indiana’s famous pork tenderloin. Then, just before evening, before the sun begins to set, we’ll swing north past the midway--it’s lights ablaze in preparation for the evening fairgoers--and push Pa, smiling contentedly in his wheelchair, back to our cars.
RCA Dome/Lucas Oil Stadium
In December 2004, the Indianapolis Colts unveiled their plans for a new stadium, with much fanfare, before a game against the Baltimore Ravens. I was there, sitting beside my dad inside the old stadium, the RCA Dome, as the team brass took us through a soaring CGI tour on the big screens in the end zones. Though the vast majority of those in attendance that day, those clad in royal blue and white, were roaring with excitement at being the first ones to "see" this new development, a sturdy "Boo" could also be heard underneath the buzz, originating from small pockets of black and purple spread throughout the crowd. At least, that's how I remember it: the Baltimore fans expressing their displeasure as the Irsays--the long-time owners of the Colts--stood with a microphone on the horseshoe helmet painted at the center of the field, shouting about the new stadium's plentiful club and suite seating, its state-of-the-art retractable roof and end zone windows that would open out into a view of the Indy skyline.
I also remember feeling a bit…weird about the whole thing. For one, I felt kind of bad that they were making this announcement while standing in the bowels of an old, faithful stadium now slated for death, a small dome--the smallest stadium in the NFL at the time--that had, at first, been lovingly named the Hoosier Dome. I was born in 1983, a year before the Colts were moved to Indianapolis, to young parents who married quickly and divorced within two years. They both remarried eventually and spent much of my earlier days hustling and working paycheck-to-paycheck to support their growing families. By that point, I had spent most of my 21 years living on the southwest outskirts of the city, and except for the rare sporting event--a Colts game at the Dome or a Pacers game at the similarly ill-fated Market Square Arena--my family was only rarely able to venture downtown. A trip into the city was a luxury meant mostly for special occasions--or just excellent deals on tickets--made even more special to me as a son living away from his father for the most part. He worked as a traveling insurance agent, adding in a job as a high school referee--even working down on the very field we were looking at--so on my weekends at his house, I wasn't always guaranteed to see him. The Hoosier Dome had become an exalted place in my mind, and it didn't feel right to so gleefully announce its imminent destruction while under its own roof.
And then, there was also the timing of the announcement itself, in a game against Baltimore. I often wonder if the Irsays made that choice on purpose, a kind of thumbed nose at their old homestead. When the Baltimore Colts left that city for Indianapolis, in 1984, they did so under the cover of night, packed-up and stolen away in moving vans without warning, away from a city balking at their demands for a new stadium, toward one that was building a brand new stadium for no one in particular. I figured that new stadiums might be a sore spot for the older Baltimore faithful.
Plus, there was the fact that to get this even newer stadium built--one which would come to be known, after a $122,000,000 naming investment, as Lucas Oil Stadium--the Irsays and the Colts had more or less held the city of Indianapolis ransom in a similar way, threatening to move to Los Angeles; Indy caved more easily than Baltimore had, though, so the Colts got a new home and had agreed to stay in Indianapolis for at least the next three decades.
Honestly, it all felt a bit gross to me. But, sitting there beside my cheering dad, I did have to admit that the new stadium looked beautiful up on those screens; it would add something special to the Indy skyline, a gleaming brick sports palace just off of I-70, less than 3,500 feet from Monument Circle. Lucas Oil would go on to bring a Super Bowl to Indianapolis in 2012 (one which Tom Brady lost!. More personally, years later, I would go on to officiate alongside my dad on the field turf at Lucas Oil Stadium during a high school football showcase game. I didn't know all of that then; in 2004, I felt somewhat conflicted. But crowds, especially sports crowds, have a way of flattening and simplifying just about any feeling. So, I'm sure, in the moment, I was cheering as loudly as anyone else.
“Everyone close your eyes and turn three times—that’s how the time machine works,” our camp counselor instructed us. When we had blinked again, dazed in the summer heat, she welcomed us to a village representative of Indiana in the 19th century. As incoming second graders, we were young enough to debate amongst ourselves if we had in fact time traveled. It still surprises me that a magical place like Conner Prairie, a live history museum, is only 16 miles northeast of Monument Circle, off I-69 and IN-37 in Fishers. As we visited a one-room schoolhouse, tried lifting a sledgehammer resting on a tree stump, dropped by a pottery shop, and visited the general store, my fascination for pioneer life began. In addition to the village, Conner Prairie’s 800 acres of wooded property also includes a treehouse, Civil War exhibit, hot air balloon, one of the state’s first brick homes, and a working farm.
That unforgettable summer, we played capture-the-flag, complete with differing face paint for opposing teams, as the counselors sat in a shaded pavilion, flirting with each other, and trying to get every line of Don McLean’s “American Pie” correct. We cranked homemade ice cream in wooden barrels and got to eat it then and there, an experience with ice cream that I haven’t topped since. We went on hikes that took us through waist-high water and eye-to-eye with bulls, separated from us by just a metal fence. My brothers and I were the only Indian kids of the lot, and the counselors marveled over the blackness of our hair.
In the early 1800s, William Conner lived in a log home near the White River with his Lenape Indian spouse, Mekinges, and their kids. For income, he bought furs from Indians who trapped in the surrounding forests. When I visited for a “nightlife in Prairietown” event with my family a couple decades later, we lost track of my grandmother. She’d silently slipped away to the spinning wheel in the textile exhibit, and had sat down to spin, no directions needed. She’d used a spinning wheel growing up in India in a rural farming village. A rare harmonious moment of my Indian and Indiana histories.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
I cherish the Children’s Museum I grew up with--before the IMAX Theatre was installed at the southwest corner of the building; before the IMAX Theatre moved out, leaving it’s colossal, rotund space to be filled by a 360 degree Dinosphere experience; before a massive lifesize Alamosaurus stood frozen with her two children, bursting through the museum’s exterior facade (the first thing a child sees when driving up to the museum). The largest children’s museum in the world features five floors of interactive exhibits that would exhaust even the most energetic child.
Located 2.9 miles due north of Monument Circle, and 8.3 miles south of I-465, the museum sits at the northern edge of downtown Indy; if you zoom outward on a map, the museum looks to be positioned at the very center of the I-465 circle. I remember running up and down the central circular ramped stairwell, which seemed endless at the time, brimming with wonder. A bit after my time, Dale Chihuly filled the empty central stairwell space with a blown-glass installation that precisely embodies this wonder, a swirling 43-foot mass of 4,800 blown-glass curlicues, whipping and wending their way higher in a mushroom cloud of color.
I spent many a day looking up at the starry sky in the planetarium, learning about the culture of people living in other countries, and watching the hours change at North America’s largest water clock--a 30-foot stack of clear glass tubes and orb-tanks that slowly filled with blue water until it flushed empty upon the hour, a spectacle that gathers museum-goers every 60 minutes. Level Four--my favorite--contained ScienceWorks, which included a Rube-Goldberg-esque interactive machine, running pool balls throughout a mess of intricate cogs and pulleys in an endless cycle; an eternally flowing miniature waterway allowing kids to experiment with locks and dams, leading to a large sandy floodplain shaped by the whims of the children upstream; a mock construction site with digging tools, arches to be constructed, hardhats and neon vests; and a web of tubes and slides to be explored, one of which opened to a glass pane on the other side of which lived a caged albino raccoon. Also on this floor runs a full-size Dentzel Carousel with a wide variety of jumping animals to be ridden--designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987--complete with merry-go-round music blasting at an ear-shattering-volume from a rare 1919 Wurlitzer Organ.
The Children’s Museum teaches Indiana’s children to learn, to play, to innovate. Back in 1996, the museum ran an exhibition featuring 100 of Calder’s circus-themed mobiles; I’ve cherished Calder’s work ever since. I think fondly, too, of an exhibit on paper airplanes, which encouraged kids to attempt complicated folding patterns, then throw their planes through hula hoops dangling from the ceiling, or off the second floor atrium balcony. Here, kids throwing airplanes became the museum installation, the art within its halls, displayed squealing, running, chasing planes wafting throughout the museum’s central vacuous space.
Above all these museum memories, the one I hold most dear is from my last visit one Christmas, when I was in middle school, feeling a bit too old for most of the museum’s fun. Each December, the Children’s Museum turns the second-floor staircase into a snow slide on which kids race side-by-side on burlap sacks down two white plastic chutes. Each year, just before leaving to head home, I’d race my brother, winning because I’m five years older. But this time, my Nana and Pa--in their late 70s--decided that rather than heading back down the central ramp after Will and I raced, they too would give in to the museum’s wonder. I remember picking up my burlap, grinning at Will who had taken a hard second place, and looking up in surprise to see my 5’2” Nana sailing down the slide next to my Pa, with his bad back and everything--she held Pa’s hand across the central barrier all the way down, her high-pitched laughter rang pure and giddy, filling up the museum lobby. As I helped Nana to her feet, the smile on her face shone with child-like exuberance--a smile I’ll not soon forget.
Deer Creek Music Center
I still call the place Deer Creek but not to be, like, cool or hipster or anything; it's mostly because I can't keep up with its shifting names--Verizon Wireless Music Center, Klipsch Music Center, Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center. But, the 24,000-seat amphitheatre in Noblesville, IN, on the far northside of Indianapolis, was Deer Creek the first time I saw a show there, and that's the easiest to remember.
In fact, Deer Creek Music Center--20 miles northeast of Monument Circle--was one of the first "far" places I was ever allowed to drive by myself. I was 17, and my mother made me drive her the hour up to Noblesville on a practice run before I was able to do the trip solo. I remember that she was worried about how long I’d look over my left shoulder when I was merging my new-old pick-up truck onto I-465, but I think it was a relief for her overall that she wouldn't ever have to drive me up there again herself.
My parents, especially my mom and my stepfather, have always been the greatest influences on my musical taste, largely for the better. I grew up listening to Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole, ELO and .38 Special, Queen and even Styx, and I loved their music and loved music in general, an infatuation that they were happy to indulge as much as they could. That included infrequent but special trips up to Deer Creek. These trips, however, had not always gone the way my mother intended. On my 16th birthday, she drove me and a group of my friends to see the Goo Goo Dolls and Sugar Ray--though I was 100% there for the opener, Fastball--and the show was memorable, for two reasons: for seeing "The Way" and "Fire Escape" live, yes, but also as the first time I ever saw a pair of female breasts in real life, when a fairly inebriated young woman did a striptease on the roof of her car out in the largely lawless Deer Creek parking lot. We were trapped in the long lines waiting to leave the grassy lanes and my mom did her best to act like nothing was happening; my friends had no compunction about staring, but I settled for a furtive side-eye.
Another time, she was driving me there to meet up with my best friend, Jason, and we almost ran out of gas on I-69. You see, at that time, the only things in that part of Noblesville were the music center and a random Amish furniture store, and neither the town nor the highway was really built to handle volumes of people rushing in, so on busy concert nights, I-69 N from Indianapolis would back up for five miles or more leading up to the Noblesville exit. In more recent years, the area has grown and developed like crazy, but at the time, there wasn't even a gas station at that exit. We were running late and also low on gas, which isn't a great combination. As we neared the exit, I opened the window and could hear the high points of the opening act emanating over the flat empty fields. Still, not wanting my mother to be stranded, I chose to forgo seeing John Mayer in favor of heading to the next exit for gas; I still got to see all of Counting Crows.
Over the following years, suburban sprawl has swallowed up the Noblesville farm land--no problem getting gas these days--while more corporate names have swallowed up Deer Creek Music Center. I worked for a security company there when it was called Verizon Wireless Music Center, so I've seen more of the amphitheater than I ever imagined I would, making $9 an hour to wrestle sod-throwers in the lawn during Ozzfest or argue with drunk multimillionaire doctors and lawyers and CEOs who felt they had the absolute right to dance in the aisles of the amphitheater during Clapton and Buffett. I got to see Roger Waters play the entire Dark Side of the Moon album while "guarding" a lighting scaffold at the very back of the venue, but I also missed all of Pearl Jam escorting fence-pissers and freshly post-coital couples out the rear gate.
Here's the thing: no matter what it's called, Deer Creek/Verizon/Klipsch/Ruoff makes Indianapolis into a viable music city for major acts and I'll forever be grateful, even despite getting cursed at by Rob Zombie for pulling down crowd surfers and shoulder-sitters, despite having to stare directly at the ground in pre-show position so as not to make accidental eye-contact with Dave Matthews, despite the struggle of trying over and over to herd the wild spirits at Phish shows back toward their seats, only to have them turn around and help us clean up trash in the lawn afterwards.
Practice Gym (Park Tudor High School)
During high school winter sports season, I’d study in the library until it was dark, and then I’d wander over to the athletic building with my heavy backpack to stand outside the gym, hoping my twin brother’s basketball practice had in fact ended; otherwise I’d have to spend up to an hour lingering in the musty building, the framed pictures of head-banded athletes-past squinting at me with determination. Because my brother played all four years, I became well-acquainted with a plaque on the wall next to the gym: the cast of Hoosiers practiced in the gym.
Hoosiers is a movie based on the true story of a tiny Indiana high school, Milan, that sent a team to the state basketball finals in 1954, before a class system was set up--back when all schools of all sizes competed against each other. Milan, the real town upon which the movie’s Hickory, IN is based, is 70 miles southeast of Monument Circle, and it’s the pictures of athletes on walls at small schools “in the cornfields” like Milan that truly inspire me. With private sports shuttles and as the first school in the state to get a turf football field, my private high school in mostly had students that were going to do well anyways because they usually came from money--we were the school no one else wanted to root for.
Released in 1986, Hoosiers chronicles the attempts of a coach with a questionable past (Gene Hackman), to lead a team of underdogs through an unpredictable season to victory. Yes, we know this sounds formulaic: a gruff guy comes into a school and helps a team that can’t work together work together, the town is against him, there’s cliched dialogue, a budding romance, and the weak player on the team scores two clutch free throws.
However, when Hoosiers came out, those storylines weren’t as familiar. Paralleling the underdog story was the actual shooting of the film, with director David Anspaugh making his feature-film debut. He’d get anxiety attacks working with Hackman, who was convinced the movie would end his career. Instead the movie was nominated for two Academy Awards and has become a cult classic; it was a little team and a little movie with a big impact.
The way people underestimated the movie also reminds me of the way people underestimate Indiana, a flyover state. The straightforward scenes, the real performances that don’t seem flashy: aw shucks, that’s us. We know coming-of-age sports stories are corny, but it’s fitting that Hoosiers would define this a-maizing genre because--lend me your ears--Indiana knows corn, goddamn it.
We met each other by random happenstance, not in Indiana, but in Fairfax, Virginia, when we were each accepted in consecutive years into George Mason University’s Creative Nonfiction MFA program. It was a coincidental but welcome gathering of Hoosier expats, stacked like some sort of Middle-American totem, far away from a shared hometown connected to this new one via I-70.
Now that grad school took me east to Virginia, and now that career has moved me west to California, I look back on my years growing up in Indiana through the lens of family: Indiana is the place I return to every summer and Christmas to gather with those dearest to me. Indiana built the foundation from which I leapt: It’s where I learned to think, to ask questions, to love, to play and watch sports, to eat sweetcorn, to write. Even though home has become California, Indiana remains a home that I return to time and again.
One neat fact about Indiana and Virginia: both have towns called Monticello--the more famous Virginia one boasts the historic estate of President Thomas Jefferson, while the Indiana version is the home to Lake Shafer and the one and only “Indiana Beach,” a small but mighty amusement park that, according to their own earworm jingle, provides definitive proof that "there's more than corn in Indiana.” One more small side note: though there is, in fact, more to Indiana than corn, there is also more and better corn in Indiana than almost anywhere else.
After grad school, I moved to Manhattan and when I’d see a bag of Popcorn Indiana kettle corn in the vending machine at work it would make me feel less alone. Hoosiers tend to stay put and no one else at work was from Indiana. If I had a bad day, I’d look at it to remember if not how far I’d come, that the person who grew the corn at the very least knows of Larry Bird. Last year, I moved four hours north from Manhattan to Ithaca--a place that is like home with its hints of Midwestern friendliness, agriculture, and like Indiana, it even starts with an “I” and ends with an “A.” Though I couldn’t wait to leave Indiana and I don’t think I’ll ever live there again, I have a charm necklace with all the states I’ve lived in and I paid $1 extra for an extra shiny Indiana charm.
After Fairfax, we each have dispersed further--to New York, San Diego, and Reston, VA (okay, some obviously farther than others). If we were to reunite now, the geographic middle meeting point would likely be somewhere in Missouri. To get there, those of us on the east coast would, of course, have to drive through Indiana, and I'm not sure we'd be able to make it all the way through without stopping and staying for a while. So, you know, y'all, let's just meet up there instead.
I loved this!ReplyDelete