Tuesday, February 24, 2009


The event in Evansville took us on a long and winding journey from Chicago to the very southern tip of Indiana.

On the one hand, it was a nostalgic trip for me. Having grown up in northern Indiana and gone to school in Bloomington, I’d made many a trek of this sort before – on what the maps call blue and red highways. They tend to be narrow little roads that pass through what I refer to as 5 minute towns, because that’s how long it takes to traverse them. There’s usually a gas station, a VFW hall, maybe an early 20th or late 19th century City Hall with a steeple that sits on a square. Some of the small business names were hilarious: Frances’ Hairport (next to an airplane hangar), Arab Pest Control. There’s something dear about them.

But, on the other hand, these are the towns where you really see the effects of the economic slowdown. All around those central squares, in town after town, there would be empty storefronts one after the other. The businesses left were the inevitable diner, a few antique stores, the post office. Many of the houses looked weary, slumped. They needed a coat of paint, a new screen door.

In Evansville, the Barnes & Noble was actually buzzing, though our host, Mariana, insisted it was a slow day for them. She explained that they get almost half their clientele from Kentucky, just over the state line, and that the colleges in town, especially Indiana University Southwest, are just booming. When I went to school in nearby Bloomington, Evansville was practically thought of as a drive-in campus, so this was a stunner.

Mariana explained that “Ruins” has been added to the Discover shelf, as befits it being named to the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program (it was on the third shelf down but, as Mariana hosted, M casually re-arranged it on the first … hehe). She also told us it was included with Local Authors, which I found utterly delightful.

Folks were friendly, of course, as you’d expect in Indiana. Two different sets of mom and kids came by because the moms wanted the kids to meet “a living author.” One of the girls – high schoolers both – said she was a big fan of Daniel Steele and J.K. Rowling. The other liked manga. The first one shrugged, rattled off a title she liked. “You do not!” said the second girl. “Well, I like the TV show,” the first one confessed.

And there was the guy who took forever to read the back of the book, then told me all about it. “This is about a guy who wakes up one day and his whole world is topsy turvy,” he said.

“Right,” I said.

“And, see, he just doesn’t know how to cope,” he said.

“Exactly,” I answered.

“Nothing makes sense,” he continued; this went on and on. “I gotta buy this book, but I gotta look around first. Will you save me a copy? I gotta get it signed.” And, needless to say, I never saw him again.

But my favorite was Paul, a twinkly-eyed older gentleman who was already carrying a bag full of bought books.

“Cuba? This book that place in Cuba?” he asked.

“Uh huh,” I said.

“I was in Cuba once, in Guantanamo, although we called it Gitmo.”

“That must have been before the Revolution, right?”

“In 1948. You know, people think there’s a town named Guantanamo, but that’s just the base. The town was called Cay … Cay-something.”

“Caimanera.” I didn’t mention that, in fact, there is a town named Guantanamo. Caimanera, renowned pre-Revolution for its more than 700 brothels (according to Guinness), is the town closest to the base: to this day, it shares a fence. The brothels are long gone, of course, as are the prostitutes. In their places, the town – which is closed off even to non-resident Cubans – is now a place for only most militant, the Cubans who can be trusted not to jump the fence.

“That’s right, Caimanera!” said an excited Paul. “You been there?”

“Yeah,” I said, then tried to steer the conversation back to the book. “The character in ‘Ruins’ is from Caimanera.”

“You don’t say!” said Paul, picking up the book and examining it. Then he leaned in confidentially: “You know, I became a man in Caimanera!”


“Well, they had a lot of places where you could become a man!”

Paul barely let the book go long enough for me to sign it, then came back after he’d paid for it.

“Caimanera!” he exulted. “Caimanera!”

After the book stop was over, M and I decided to do a little antiquing but we didn’t have much luck. We realized we were exhausted though, and that it wasn’t necessarily a great idea to drive back to Chicago that night. We also realized we were awfully close to French Lick, Ind., which I’d told M about – a place that has a certain magic for me. So we decided to head that way and stay at the famous West Baden Springs Hotel.

But don't worry if you’ve never heard of it: The West Baden Springs Hotel is a historic landmark hotel in central Indiana known for its vast domed atrium. Prior to the completion of the Houston Astrodome in 1965, it had the largest free-spanning dome in the United States and was the largest in the world from 1902-1913. It’s part the National Register of Historic Places, a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

When I first went to Bloomington in 1977, my lover Diane took me to see it. She told me that at one point it had been considered the Eighth Wonder of the World! In its heyday, frequent guests included Al Capone and Big Jim Brady. After the crash of 1929, it became a Jesuit monastery, then a business college. It was renovated by the state in the 90s but nobody would buy it until a couple of years back, when the French Lick Resort & Casino – just down the road – took it over and finally opened again to guests in 2007.

Back when I first saw it the 70s, it was completely abandoned, whole walls had crumbled and the gardens were a thicket of scrub. But even then you could see its majesty: The very center of the hotel had a ballroom under that dome – a ballroom that reeked with elegance even as we stepped onto its mildewy floor. I remember looking up from the very center and seeing all the room windows looking out, and imagining myself on one of the terraces. (Somewhere in my storage room, in fact, there’s a photo of me leaning out on one of those precarious railings.) Diane and I wandered around those ruins for an entire day. We danced, of course, to silent waltzes. We climbed into the mossy tubs from the old mineral springs. We walked through the deserted kitchens and dining rooms, envisioning sumptuous banquets.

And we climbed the roof. I think back on it now and realize we were out of our minds, that one bad step and we would have hurled to our deaths. But to this day I’m glad we did it, that we were blessed that reckless day and stood on what seemed like the very top of the world.

When M and I got into French Lick, it was nighttime and we were amused when we passed Michael T’s Motel and saw a No Vacancy sign.

“Maybe it’s broken,” M said about the sign.

We just couldn’t fathom it was really full. After all, it was the middle of February in the middle of Indiana, and nowhere near a major highway.

Because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find West Baden Springs at night, and after so much time (I’d been there once before in the middle of the renovation, about 10 years ago), we stopped at a ma and pa gas station in the center of town (across from “Holiday Liquors”) to ask. “It’s just down the road,” the fellow said, extending his arm in the direction we’d been heading. “But you’re not gonna stay the night, are you?”

“Well, yeah, that was the plan,” I said.

He shook his head. “All full up at the casino,” he said. “You might get a room at West Baden.”

We trudged up the road, and there it was: Even in pitch black, the double arches welcoming us to “West Baden Springs, the Carlsbad of America” were pretty impressive. Just to the side is the old train station that used to bring guests. The driveway is a long straight boulevard that then curls around the palatial building where we were greeted by valets who, we surmise, lifted my reading copy of “Ruins” overnight. (For some reason, this idea makes me very happy.)

We got a room all right – but the very last one looking out at the ballroom. It was on the second floor, with a locked down terrace that arched over the bandstand. Huge king bed, six chocolate covered strawberries before bedtime. It was all pretty terrific.

Before nodding off, we had dinner at a restaurant in the ballroom (nice cocktails) then wandered around to see the pool (wow!), the little shops (all closed – it was too late), the library, all the old photographs. We leaned back in one of the recliners in the lobby and watched the magnificent dome change colors. All I could think about was that Usnavy would have been blown away.

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