I love how this finishes. The ending occurred to me as I was formulating the structure. It was not consciously premeditated; no literary contrivance. An actual “thing” happened and suddenly, my original conclusion was entirely invalidated. I like when that happens. The structural “surprise” is spontaneously natural. Okay. I am exiting italics now. Here I go-o-o-o-o….
On vacation, I become an “Instant Anthropologist.” What is this place I am visiting? What, generically, is it about? Who wants to go sleepwalking through geography? I don’t. So I keep my eyes open, trolling for telltale clues to pin the place I am visiting accurately down.
“Michiana Shores”, where we annually temporarily reside, is located midway (about five miles in both directions) between New Buffalo (Michigan) to the east and Michigan City (Indiana) to the west. Though geographically proximate, the two communities could not possibly be more different.
New Buffalo is comparatively upscale, boasting a small harbor where Chicago-based sailboats are tied up and weekend sailors hop ashore, their cable-knit sweaters knotted sportily around their shoulders. There is a crepes restaurant in New Buffalo, and a market called Local, offering local organically grown meats and produce.
By contrast, Michigan City limps depressingly along, a wounded casualty of changing times. Driving down Michigan City’s “main drag”, I see an open Bridal Gowns store, and that’s it. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much. A lot of the rest of the stops appear permanently shuttered.
This was not always the case. Dr. M informs me of a once great ice cream emporium in town called Scholl’s. Now Scholl’s and many other local businesses, most notably to me, the “Sans-A-Belt” pants factory – elastic waistbands sewn to the tops of Men’s dress pants so when you get fatter it just stretches – are terminally defunct.
Michigan City’s primary job providers today are the “Lighthouse” outlet mall, a floating casino on a barge, and Indiana State Prison, from which John Dillinger once escaped, triggering the subsequent warning sign:
“Please do not pick up hitchhikers.”
Overall, the proximate area provides a comforting sense of safety. (Although a couple of years ago, three inmates did manage to escape from Indiana State Prison. But that was just once.)
My full-time home is in a major metropolis, where the local news is troublingly serious and frequently tragic. To me, Michigan City feels demonstrably different. Not peaceful exactly, but no splatter.
You become keenly aware of that difference perusing the “Police Calls” column in the Michigan City newspaper, the News-Dispatch, whose official “Crime Report” is comparatively benign:
“A loss prevention officer at Kohl’s reported that a man appeared to steal some Nautica Aqua Rush cologne at 9:28 a.m. although the man was stopped and questioned outside the store and did not have cologne on him. None was found in the area either.”
I’m sorry, can you see an actual crime there? Immeasurably worse atrocities occur daily in Los Angeles, many of which do not even make the papers! Here, someone is charged with “Suspicion of stealing cologne” and it’s considered legitimately “newsworthy”? That’s kind of adorable, isn’t it?
Of course, I specifically focus on such stories, ignoring those disputing the perceptual “template.” Still, I did not make it up. That story was in there! (Although the report does not say if the police smelled him. He could have just spritzed himself inside the store.)
Signage is also a telltale “give-away” of a community’s natural ambiance. Michigan City’s included the folksy:
“If you can’t stop, please smile as you go by.”
“Faar Wood $5.”
And the surprisingly satirical.
(Billboard for a local restaurant): “Best Mexican food this side of the Wall.”
Despite its reassuring small-towniness, however, Michigan City is not a “Potential Retirement Alternative”, its prevailing impression being: “Over, and sad.” (I mean, who needs to be reminded?)
Michigan City may have had its day, but that day is long gone, and appears unlikely to be coming back.
Okay, so here’s the “turn.”
As mentioned earlier, we spent the final evening of our vacation at a “Harvest Festival”, a small farm celebrating the end of the season with neighbors, visitors and friends.
At the end of the evening, while waiting for a van to shuttle us back to where our car was located, I struck up a conversation with a young female intern, born in Hammond Indiana, a part of metropolitan Chicago, about forty-five miles away.
If anything, Hammond appears to have suffered even greater economic reversals, its population dropping from a 1960 high of 111, 698 to (as of 2015) 77, 614.
In the course of our conversation, the young woman expressed a vague understanding of her father’s work situation, explaining that part of it involved frequent meetings in Michigan City. When I cautiously pressed for specifics, she replied,
“I’m not sure what he does, but at least he gets to go to Michigan City.”
Her response gave me “perceptual whiplash.” A place I had written off as “Over, and sad” was viewed by a woman who lived someplace over-er and sadder as a salvaging sanctuary.
Conclusion: When it comes to Indiana, my accrued evidence notwithstanding, I live entirely in my imagination.
And probably not just in Indiana.