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.