Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walking in Suburbia: Indianapolis Steps Out, Slowly

This past summer I took up residence at my parent’s home in the suburbs of Indianapolis so as to put the home up for sale after my father’s recent death and my mother’s failing health from Alzheimer’s. I spent my high school years at their odd wooded two acre residence just off of one of the city’s main east west streets—71st. More of a road than an actual street, it served for years as major throughway for the first suburbs of Indianapolis’ Northeastside along with the many farms that were still very much a part of the landscape when I lived there. But now, some 35 years later, where there were cows and corn, there are mega churches, business ‘centers,’ strip malls, fake lakes, and a proliferation of track housing, and with all of this, of course, more traffic along 71st,, and something else—people walking down the street.  
Churchgoer walking on 71st (literally) 

Almost every day I see them, walking to catch the bus at a stop up the road at a newish business complex, men in briefcases, teens in backpacks staring at their cells, women going to work with their uniforms on, and often a group of boys dribbling basketballs to a court down the street behind a large Methodist Church. One Sunday along with the teams of cyclist who now buzz by in their fluorescent gear, I saw a woman in high heels with her purse and church clothes trying to make it the same church.   

I’m happy to see them but remember from my own days as a teenager before I had a car that 71st wasn’t the safest road to walk or jog on, let alone ride a bike. And it’s no better today, in fact it’s much worse with the high volume of traffic, with half of the people trying to text or talk to someone, not to mention the steady stream of the usual lawn care and service trucks that race around trying to make deadlines.  The street is only 22 feet wide, including berm.  In most stretches there is no berm at all, just a drop off into a grassy pitched culvert (that fills with water and becomes impassible for days after a good rain). Other places, there are fences of thicket that branch almost into the road, forcing walkers to cross to the other side or risk walking in the road. On a bike, I can tell you, it’s a nightmare.  

Woman walking along 71st, notice the complete lack of berm on left.
When I watch the walkers morning and evening, I wonder what it’s going to be like for them during the winter when it will be dark and snow and ice make not only driving hazardous but walking a nightmare.  I marvel how they navigate, though, moving onto the road and then back on to the grass, using drive ways and lawns where they can.  When I see them, I have an image of my mother during that awful period when the slow deterioration of her brain made her feel as if she were lost and desperate, at times convinced she needed to walk home or so angry at losing her independence that she often took off and walked until she was found by the police or my panicked father. I wonder just how close she came from being struck by a car as she drifted along 71st.   

For many reasons, citizens of suburbs are coming around to this problem as are politicians. And 71st is earmarked for a paved path, but the little colored flags come and go and still there are no signs of any backhoes or city workers, and it’s been now a two years. Why? Homeowners are balking, I was told by my late father, who wasn’t so happy about it himself, until he learned it would be on the other side of the road.

There’s still a stigma to walking in the suburbs, if not a subtle discouragement. Oh, they are fine within a set off housing development of curving streets and cul-de-sacs, but not necessarily outside these sealed off zones.  Here, sidewalks invite unwanted outsiders. The word “pedestrian” has a pejorative connotation because of its historical association to those of lower status.  In some wealthy suburbs people are routinely stopped by police and queried about where they’re going and most importantly where they live. Sidewalks cost too much is the usual argument given by politicians and taxpayers alike. Those who live in subdivisions might enjoy them for their children and weekend joggers, but there’s no need to have them for anyone else. A sidewalk is a unifier, a truly public pathway and free space open to all, and for that they are quite radical. 

Indianapolis has an award-winning bike and walking path called the Monon Trail. It stretches some 15 miles, connecting to other trails in the city and then out to an extension in the city of Carmel, as it follows the old Indianapolis-Chicago Monon Rail line.  The trail is wildly successful and has become trendy, as it passes through some of the city’s most sought after neighborhoods from its revitalized down town along the White River out to its northern suburbs. But it wasn’t the case at first, according to its champions like a friend of mine who uses it to cruise to work each day on his bike. The city of Carmel wasn’t all that excited that a trail would run from the city out though its exclusive neighborhoods.  But now the city has a handsome greenway that uses the trail as a commons where people can enjoy recreation, meet friends, have dinner, hang out, or take those last walks with parents before they no longer can remember how to move one foot in front of the other, as I did last year in Carmel with my mother holding on to my arm.

It’s very encouraging, yet for those who don’t live in and around these converted train to trail urban parks, one wonders when and if cities will find the will and funds to offer the same to neighborhoods where not only are trails needed for recreational and social cohesion, but are a necessity for many every day who need to ride a bike or walk to catch a bus to get to and from work or buy food. 
Walkway along 62nd St in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis

Change comes slowly. But a movement is a finally a foot here in the city famous for its sports and high class facilities for athletes, but now, too, for its awareness of the everyday needs of everyday athletes who live in all sectors of the circle city.

Saturday, July 12, 2014



On Watching the World Cup

Last week, sitting in an Ethiopian Café in my Roger’s Park neighborhood, I marveled at the comradery and collective spirit among the Café’s usual regulars from half a dozen capitals of the world.

Glancing about the room at the intent faces fixed on the mounted wide-screen TV, a collage of images came before my mind of past World Cup matches I’ve watched, in places not unlike this café. I recalled the boisterous crowd in Scotland a few years back, relishing with glee the fall of the English; I recalled the faces of my Argentine friends sitting next to me in a Rush Street bar when their countrymen lost; I recalled a man in a Galway pub turning to me as if I were Irish, “Do you think we’ll ever have a team in the finals? Just once?”

But the memory that comes back with most clarity is that first time I stood before a screen amongst fans of the world’s great past time.  

It was 1982 and France was playing Germany as I recall, an historic match, as Germany came back to beat France, winning on penalty kicks. But I can’t remember much of the actual match.  For one, it was a black and white set and not a very big one at that. And, there were a lot of people standing in front of me, scores of heads bobbing and straining to get a glimpse of a static image that rolled almost without stopping throughout the entire match. That was until I stepped up to try to save the day, after all I was there to offer my expertise for projects that benefited the village.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I tried to build latrines, I tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of mud brick stoves for saving firewood, I tried to teach farmers twice my age to grow vegetables during their dry season with temperatures that topped 110 degrees; but I might be best known in my village of Senegalese farmers for my greatest feat: trying to get good reception for the World Cup on a black and white TV by holding the antennae over my head and stretching its cord as far as it would go.

I must admit that initially when I’d learned that the Chief’s brother had decided to rent a TV to watch the World Cup from some relative in the regional capital, I shook my head in disbelief, wondering how they were going to watch a TV in village that had no electricity.

A week later, after returning from seeing my Peace Corps pals, I’d forgotten all about it, until I approached the cluster of huts of the Chief’s compound, and there it was—the familiar bluish light reflecting off the mud brick walls. Give it to the Senegalese, who could get anything to work with a bit of wire and their magical talents with machines. They’d hooked it up to the battery of a truck that I assumed didn’t work because it had not moved an inch since I’d arrived the year before.

I marched on in and went straight to my hut, lit my kerosene lamp, unpacked my bags and refused to be amused despite the crowds of villagers streaming in to take a look—many for the first time—of a broadcast on a TV.   

Blinded, I couldn’t understand what this meant to them, not just the broadcast, but the passion for the game of football.  On the walls of many of the men, there next to their national hero, Leopold Senghor, their first president, and photos of Mecca, were tattered posters of the French National Team. And every day, boys played on the sandy village square before the mosque with a ball made of weeds and rags.

The night of the World Cup, I tried to block out the circus outside my door by reading Solzhenitsyn but an hour before the match an excited voice broke my concentration: “Mustapha, Mustapha, (my Senegalese name) your people, your people, they’re on the TV!”  The Chief’s 10 year-old son, a kid who followed me everywhere and would strangle a poisonous snake to protect me, was heart-broken that I was not only not interested in the World Cup but not even interested in my own people all the way from America on TV.   

I winched and was about to utter some excuse in my broken, baby talk Wolof, when I heard the music.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Not here, I thought, on the other side of the globe, thirty miles from the Gambia River, it couldn’t be them?

But, yes. They were not only my people, they were The Village People, the world’s wonder of the disco age, belting out “YMCA,” with their characteristic exuberance and costumes. 

Looking at the crowds on the TV screen from Brazil and now even in Grant Park, I recognize that same sense of joy I remember seeing on the faces of the Senegalese so many years ago, as they watched a small black and white TV sitting atop two empty barrels, feeling as we do now connected, for a change, to the rest of the world. And that’s indeed worth watching.  


Friday, April 18, 2014

On The Passing of My Father

"Respect the Child.
Wait and see the new product of Nature.
Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions.
Respect the Child.
Be not too much his parent.
Trespass not on his solitude." 
                                                                   Ralph Waldo Emerson
My Mother & Father visit me in Senegal, 1983
A Prayer for My Father
by Robert Bly
                                                                   Your head is still
                                                                     restless, rolling
east and west.
                                                                   That body in you
                                                                   insisting on living
                                                                     is the old hawk
                                                                  for whom the world
                                                                       If I am not
                                                               with you when you die,
                                                                       that is just.

                                                                     It is all right.
                                                             That part of you cleaned
                                                                   my bones more
                                                                   than once. But I
                                                                     will meet you
                                                                  in the young hawk
                                                                      whom I see
                                                                       inside both
                                                                    you and me; he
                                                                        will guide
                                                              you to the Lord of Night,
                                                                  who will give you
                                                                      the tenderness
                                                                   you wanted here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Gardens Around Us

"To live—is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm!"  D.T. Suzuki

I think a lot about my mother these days, as she sits in a wheelchair in an Alzheimer’s unit next to I-69 that leads to the town where I was born over a half a century ago.  If she could see distances, she’d see the new Chase Bank, the LA Fitness, the BP Station, and down the street the Super Target, in the ever-expanding and replicating subtopia that spreads over the farms of central Indiana.

When I visit her, I roll her out of her room and the sterile, homey hallways where women like her roam and wait at the locked doors, hoping someone will let them out.  I take her to the back of the facility, behind the parking lot, where there's a gravel pit of sorts left from road construction. It's surrounded by weeds with tall cotton woods and oak on the other side.  We listen to the birds. We shoot the breeze. We absorb what we can.

My mother had a garden, and I walk in it, circling the paths she's made, as I think about my visit with her before I return to my other life. I watch my father from inside it, as he sits in a lawn chair  on the patio with his oxygen tank as he watches his squirrels.  My mother’s garden is what I’m worried about these days. What is going to happen to it when she's gone?

My mother’s garden is like a lot of gardens in America—not the gardens in the magazines or the ones cared for by teams of Guatemalan men with gas-powered leaf-blowers on their backs. Her garden is the type of garden I like to stop and look at when I walk through neighborhoods of Chicago where I live; one that has defied the cookie cutter landscaper's guide and feels as if someone has spent many years adding to, many years loving it. It sits under a canopy of old American hardwoods, planted there years ago for a farmer's woodlot, before suburbia overtook it in the 60's.  Under the stand of smooth, sexy- barked beech, maples, and fingery-leafed oaks, she has spent 38 years adding creeping ground cover, flowering shrubs, and sticking in whatever would work from the half off rack at the nursery. The soil was terrible though she improved it by mulching and watering.  It grew from a plot that stretched four or five feet out from along the drive way to over-take nearly a half an acre, as she cleared out invasive species and made room for wildflowers, her favorites—like trillium and paint brush and the spring beauties that would blanket the yard in the spring.  She also planted daffodils, scores of them, that over the years turned into hundreds as she separated them and spread them out, bulbs from hers and my father’s mother’s gardens.

Over the years it became a refuge for her and for our family, as the two other neighbors had virtually let their woods completely go and thickets grew so dense that the neighbor’s 1948 Dodge truck disappeared from view.  

My mother gardened until we took her to a dementia unit, that week my father was hospitalized a year and a half ago.  She’d made paths by placing fallen limbs to serve as bordering, and in the last weeks before we had to take her, my sisters and I wandered slowly around those paths with her, helping her to pick up twigs, which was what she did every day in her last months at home. My mother’s garden became a kind of lover, a textured world of sensual pleasures, bird song, shadows, light, variegated color. It held her, as she told me once walking on a beach in Florida, "nature holds us." There she could communicate and be understood; there she was not confused by what was happening to her body and to her mind. It was a sensuous thing to see: her fingering the flowers, kneeling for long moments staring into a patch of pale purple phlox.  

How we relate to the land is the most important subject before our world. Our food, shelter, water, and--yes, the energy that powers most everything we use to sustain our way of life. But, we also need the land, like plants do, to flower. This is not a romantic idea. This is how our skin and other sensual organs work.  We are pollinated, one might say, our brains feed on the nectar of what our perceptions absorb from the world around us.

My mother left us this garden and I’m not so sure what will become of it—become of her wooded sanctuary of spring beauties and trillium and periwinkle and vines of poison ivy. 

This past spring, my father told me that the man, who lived across the street, came over and told him that his wife had died, a woman in her late forties, of diabetes.  And then, he added: “You know, the oddest thing happened before she died. I didn't tell you this, did I? This man came up to the door one morning and said he had a favor to ask. ‘My wife is very sick,’ he said, ‘and I’d like to bring her some of your daffodils, would you mind? We always looked at them from our window. She always liked those daffodils. Could I take a few?’ Well, I told him, you just take as many as you want. I was going to tell him, you know, about mom, but I think, I think he knew.”