Down and Out in Indianapolis
By Raanan Geberer
Back in the early ‘80s, when I accepted a one-year job as an editor at a weekly Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis to get much-needed journalism experience, I didn’t have a place to live when I first got into town. So I thought I’d stay at the local YMCA until I got my bearings and found an apartment. I’d briefly stayed at a YMCA in San Francisco three years beforehand, so I knew what to expect.
The place was on the west side of town, on the fringe of the African-American area. In fact, it was near Crispus Attucks High School, the school that had produced “The Big O,” basketball star Oscar Robertson, in the 1950s. The Y itself was surrounded by empty lots, and there just wasn’t much around there.
There were no cooking facilities, and no supermarkets in the area either – not even a small grocery store. However, there was a convenience store attached to a nearby gas station, so I bought stuff like crackers, cheese, soda and canned sardines. Thank God that there were places to eat lunch near my office – especially Wendy’s which hadn’t yet made inroads back in New York, where I came from. Wendy’s was a step up from Burger King and McDonald’s, I thought, pleased. My newspaper was in an old industrial building in the semi-seedy downtown area –an area surrounded by junk shops-- but even that neighborhood was better than the one near the Y.
There were no laundry facilities near the Y either, so I took to washing my clothes in the sink with powdered detergent, then letting them dry. This gave my clothes a gray, wrinkled appearance. It also made them smell. “Hey, Ron,” Mr. Goldberg, the elderly publisher of the paper, said one day, taking me aside, “people are saying that you stink. You sure you take showers?”Mr. Goldberg, a tough-talking former boxer and Prohibition-era bootlegger, was not known for his sensitivity.
By and by, I got to know the people in the Y’s residence hall. There was a young, blond, long-haired guy who was recovering from meth and alcohol addiction. “You know,” he said in a semi-Midwestern, semi-Southern accent, “I used to sell my blood to get money to get high, but now, I’m really into the Scriptures. I’m really into meditation, too! I just like to sit back and meditate to Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Molly Hatchet!” What ever one thought of those groups, it was very hard to think of them as background music for meditation.
There was also an old guy who would leave the door of his room open and just look straight ahead with a bottle of beer in his hand. “You may think he’s a nice old guy,” Consuela, the middle-aged front-desk clerk said to me one night, “but he used to be a cop! If you met him 20 years ago and he stopped you and asked for your driver’s license, you wouldn’t think he’s so nice!” While there were often allegations of police brutality back in New York, I got the feeling that here in Indianapolis, the cops could get away with doing whatever they wanted – especially if you were Latino, like Phyllis, or black.
One day, walking down the hall in the Y, a tall, thin guy with brown hair and a beard who looked like he was about the same age as me introduced himself. “Hi! I’m Vince Grimaldi,” he said. He invited me into his room. It was filled with heavy-duty radical books – Marx, Trotsky, Kropotkin, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, Thorsten Veblen. “Right now, I’m organizing for the Citizens Party. It’s a new party, founded by Barry Commoner. We need a party that’s not dominated by conglomorate business....”
“Wait a minute,” I objected. “Third parties have always come to failure, at least on the national level. Look at the Populist Party in the 1980s, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, the LaFollette party in 1924...” We had a lively discussion, and I started visiting him every night after work.
We talked a lot about Indianapolis and how conservative it was. I remarked on how all the businessmen I saw downtown wore gray suits. “What if one wore a brown or blue suit?” I asked. “They’d think he was from out of town,” Vince answered. We both laughed.
I wondered what Vince was doing here. One night, he wasn’t there. I opened the door and there he was, passed out on the bed, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. Now I knew what he was doing here.
On the weekends, I started looking for apartments. “Just walk up and down Meridian Street,” one of the secretaries at the newspaper said, referring to the main street of the town. “There are vacant apartments in every building!” I expected these buildings to be full of young, single people, but in Indianapolis, most of the young single people either lived with their parents or in one of the newer condos on the edge of town. “Most of our tenants here are elderly,” the manager of a once-elegant 1920s apartment building told me, looking at me with hostility. “We also have some mental patients who are placed here by a social service agency.” I passed.
As the weeks went on, I began to despair of whether I would ever find a place. “You look homesick,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Why don’t I order you some Hebrew National pastrami, corned beef, salami? We get it air-mailed from Chicago....”
On the fourth Saturday, I found an apartment in an Art-Deco-style apartment building a little further to the north, in a more “respectable” area at 39th Street and North Meridian. The owners, a middle-aged couple, were happy to have me as a tenant and rented it to me at half the price it would have gotten in New York, There was a Chinese restaurant a block away, a bar and a small grocery across the street, and best of all a Laundromat in the building. The next Monday, I talked to Mr. Goldberg, who knew a furniture-store owner who helped me rent some furniture. Now, all I needed was a car. On my last day at the Y, I packed my bags and promised Vince that I’d stay in touch.
Next weekend, I went shopping in the nearest supermarket. Walking down the wide aisles, examining the huge variety of food, it occurred to me that the last time I’d even been in a supermarket was a month and a half ago. After the way I’d been living for the past month, Just being there seemed like an untold luxury to me. Welcome back to the world, I thought.