08 August 2012

life in the bend.


I want to talk to you about South Bend, Indiana. 

Wait! Don't leave! That quadriplegic porn will continue buffering while you read this. It's not as if you have anything better to do than read about a dying industrial town stubbornly impacted—like a cracked, dessicated turd—in the rectum of the American Midwest. (You are on the internet after all. Don't even pretend like you're reading an article on the changing face of Basque separatism at the newyorker.com. Reading crap like this and watching home videos of yuppie creeps dancing down the wedding aisle to Chris Brown are all you ever do here. Admit it.)

I was born in South Bend, a city of roughly 100,000 people located on the banks of the St. Joseph River (which also happens to be a scenic tributary of the South Bend Sewage Treatment Plant runoff tank). As such, I have become somewhat inured to its ugliness and incivility, so much so that when I see a four-hundred-pound woman with an oxygen tank and a Dale Earnhardt Senior tattoo who only uses objective case pronouns and complains loudly that the grocery store doesn't have a motorized scooter big enough for even one of her bicameral ass cheeks, I hardly bat an eyelash. It's just another Tuesday, friends. 

But occasionally—only very occasionally, mind you—I'll find myself somewhere—the bank, the gas station, the feed and grain store—and I'll notice the woeful decrepitude of everyone in my vicinity, as if a curtain were suddenly raised and a play entitled Summertime in Chernobyl were underway. I'll be standing there, within spitting distance of my optimal BMI, with no scoliosis or missing fingers to speak of, and I'll actually feel like the freak among the elderly men whose backs bend in impossible ways, the women whose stomachs dangle under their waistlines like angry toddlers in hammocks, and these extraterrestrial men with bulbous growths and missing patches of hair. (This is why I never drink city water, by the way. Well, this and if you pour yourself a glass, it looks like somebody ejaculated in it.)



But the Nazi genetic experiment side of South Bend isn't its only face—there's also the University of Notre Dame, certainly one of the most famous Catholic universities in the nation which distinguishes itself among institutions of higher learning for its remarkable failure to bring one iota of culture to its surrounding community. (Unless you consider keg stands a major contribution to culture.) But if you love football (even though your team is pathetic and loses all the time) and you plan to major in business, well, have I got a university for you...! 

Recently the University bought up parcels of land surrounding the campus—which had historically been poor and black—and created a Disneyland of quaint restaurants, faux-brownstones, and a thoroughly depressing Urban Outfitters so that the students will never have to do anything so distasteful as drive their mother's BMW through the slums on the way to the local sports bar. Basically, a fake 'town' has been constructed from scratch on the southern edge of the campus as a bulwark against the undomesticated neighborhoods which lie further afield. There's a chocolate shop and a bright, joyless deli and apartment buildings that were designed to look stately, old, and collegiate. 

To say that Notre Dame is important to the city is a bit like saying that your body is important to your physiological health. Some years ago I had the audacity to go grocery shopping during the Notre Dame-USC football game, which predictably outraged my male cashier but he at least made a half-assed attempt to disguise his contempt. Each and every UPC dragged over the scanner might as well have been a chicken having its neck wrung. On game weekends, the area is mobbed with well-scrubbed, monied parents who wear team sweatshirts and last decade's sneakers as if they're attending a schlub masquerade. These mothers, with their color treated hair and their garish jewelry, swill cheap wine at the local Papa Vino's like they're holding court at the Algonquin. Most of them resemble Ann Coulter's homelier sister, with their drawn, sneering faces and the fragile, mantis-like anatomies that come with too much money and too little effort.

There are so many things to say about South Bend, of course, but words are terribly inadequate next to a drive through the southern stretch of the city via the main artery South Michigan Street. If you begin at the south side's valiant but demoralizing attempt at suburbia and drive northward to the vicinity of the old Studebaker plant, you will perhaps (depending on the time of day) pass hookers finishing up their shifts, shut-up businesses, long-abandoned warehouses, dark underpasses, dingy, neglected houses, drug deals, and hardscrabbled pedestrians on who-knows-what-manner of errand. It's a lot like other dying Midwestern cities, actually, so I certainly don't count myself worse off than residents of, say, Gary, Indiana, which will forever be the ne plus ultra of postapocalyptic doom—but I'm troubled by how complacent I am in my contempt for this city. You see, it's a strange comfort to live in a place where everything and everyone is so awful. Your life enjoys the fruits of relativity. The only trouble is that when we get to the end of our lives we aren't likely to appraise it as 'happy' simply because it was better than a homeless schizophrenic's who spends his days standing outside of a check cashing place on South Michigan Street.

20 comments:

  1. does it drive you crazy when people bring up the south bend, indiana reference in the philadelphia story? i apologize because if it does, i just did and am continuing to do so. for some reason, even though jimmy stewart's character doesn't seem to feel it's a place for those with lack of wherewithal, the fact that katherine hepburn reacts to the name by saying, "south bend! it sounds like dancing, doesn't it?" has always made it seem an attractive place. but the picture you've painted doesn't exactly coincide with that image. :)

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    1. Would it surprise you to know that it has never been brought up to me and that I had no idea there was a reference to South Bend in The Philadelphia Story? (I'll have to see it. It's been on my Netflix queue forever.) I do know about the South Bend reference in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury though. South Bend used to be a much nicer city pre-1960s, when Studebaker ceased production. (It was headquartered here.) Whenever I see pictures of downtown from the first half of the century, I always think how cool it looks. And now... this.

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    2. it does surprise me! i got the impression you'd seen all the movies. :P

      jimmy stewart's character is a frustrated writer from south bend and even though he doesn't seem enamoured of the place in the film, one couldn't help speculating that south bend might be riddled with lanky writers with lopsided grins. :)

      will be curious what you think when you see it: i love a lot of the dialogue in the movie, and it's essentially pure farce, very classical in the menander sense. there's a sloshed scene with grant and stewart that i've been given to understand is life imitating art, and i believe it. :)

      i actually prefer the other film i know of based on a philip barry play, george cukor's holiday (1938), again starring hepburn and grant. they play characters i can identify with. i'd recommend a double bill even though the second movie doesn't talk about south bend at all. grant is at his most charming. and the film actually has a point to make about trying to find love and happiness in a world that's progressing so/too quickly, and trying to figure out how to belong in it, without making your life goal heaping up piles of money. plus, lew ayres! and edward everett horton FTW! :)

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  2. The only trouble is that when we get to the end of our lives we aren't likely to appraise it as 'happy' simply because it was better than a homeless schizophrenic's who spends his days standing outside of a check cashing place on South Michigan Street.

    Sure we are. I try to put things into a similar perspective from time to time. Sometimes it's merely cold comfort, but the times when it works are nice.

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    1. That doesn't work me. I can momentarily appreciate that I am not starving or crazy or poor, but by the same token some people who are starving or crazy or poor might actually be happier than I am.

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  3. I'll pit Bakersfield against South Bend in a battle royal for all around suckiness anyday. Quit your whining.

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    1. I can't help it if you decided to live AND RAISE A FAMILY in one of the worst cities in the Western Hemisphere. At the very least, I can pat myself on the back for not spawning in this godforsaken hellhole and forcing another generation to suffer for my complacency and malaise.

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    2. Hey, that's what happens when you marry a Mexican. They actually like their families. It's weird.

      Sometimes I wish that I'd just been born in Omaha or some such far flung craphole. At least then I wouldn't know how shitty my is city because I wouldn't be two hours from L.A. or the ocean.

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    3. I'll pit them both against Manchester, where I grew up. I left a month after graduation.

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  4. "But occasionally—only very occasionally, mind you—I'll find myself somewhere—the bank, the gas station, the feed and grain store—and I'll notice the woeful decrepitude of everyone in my vicinity, as if a curtain were suddenly raised and a play entitled Summertime in Chernobyl were underway. I'll be standing there, within spitting distance of my optimal BMI, with no scoliosis or missing fingers to speak of, and I'll actually feel like the freak among the elderly men whose backs bend in impossible ways, the women whose stomachs dangle under their waistlines like angry toddlers in hammocks, and these extraterrestrial men with bulbous growths and missing patches of hair."

    You've pretty much described the populace of Upstate New York. This is why I generally find it too emotionally taxing to go anywhere. It's like being in that Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder."

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    1. Do you live near Buffalo? I've consistently heard reports about how awful it is there. (Although Buffalo 66 made it dismally picturesque.)

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    2. No, I'm in Albany, which is about 6 hours east of Buffalo, 2.5 hours north of NYC, 40 minutes west of Massachusetts and Vermont.

      By all accounts Buffalo is much worse than Albany. Fortunately, I've never been there. If you've ever been to Philadelphia, you'll know what downtown Albany looks like (i.e., depressed and seedy), except Albany is obviously much smaller.

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  5. Isn't the Jackson family (of Michael, LaToya et al fame) from South Bend. Just a click over to Wikipedia would tell me, but that sounds exhausting.

    Buffalo is much worse than Albany. It's much worse than most places. I'm told by those who know that it bears a striking resemblence to Krakow, circa 1945.

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    1. I think that's the town of Gary you're thinking of (which has always struck me as a weird name for a town).

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    2. Yes, that's Gary. Gary is a city that is kind of unbelievable unless you've actually been there. With all the toxins in the air from the steel mills, I'm not at all surprised Michael turned out so weird.

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  7. I'd suggest getting the hell out of there, but where would you go? Life is a mistake for everyone everywhere.

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    1. Ha. Put that on a t-shirt.

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  8. I am curious as to what keeps you there. I, too, feel pretty locked in to where I am. I've lived in Chicago forever, and while I have the desire to flee, I can't seem to settle on anywhere I actually want to live. But living blocks from Wrigley Field with drunks sleeping at my door step is growing increasingly old (or maybe I'm growing too old).

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    1. The main thing that keeps me here is inertia. But there's also complacency, familiarity, and the pull of the friendships and family I have here.

      I would hate to live in the vicinity of Wrigley Field. (Ugh. It's bad enough just walking through the area when a game is getting out...)

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