Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 17, 2005 Indianapolis, Indiana.

In Indianapolis, my camera decided to stop working. I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t take pictures, or actually something about Indianapolis, but every place I looked I saw things I wanted to capture in images. The building of the Indiana History Museum, its sides worked with friezes and sculptures depicting each of the state’s counties. The wonderful downtown canal, a covered-over industrial nightmare that hardly saw daylight, which has been reborn as a lovely downtown park, filled with gardens and fountains and lunching office workers as it weaves its way among buildings and under cross streets. Monument Circle, in the symbolic center of town, where I took a few laps on my bike before heading over to investigate the state house.

I came into Indianapolis in part to have lunch with a couple of coffee geeks at Café@Ray, a fine place at the southern edge of downtown. I’d “met“ them on the forums at coffeegeek.com, a website for those who are very serious about their coffee. BJ is the barista at Café@Ray, and she brews up wonderful macchiatos. She used to pull shots (as the geeks say) at a coffee stand in the

Office worker by the Potomac River, Alexandria Virginia.

Eli Lilly offices nearby, where she met Jim, a pharmaceutical chemist who would rather be applying his skills to roasting coffee and brewing beer than to developing new pharmaceuticals. BJ was in a minor stew because the shop’s coffee roaster, Intelligentia in Chicago, had missed a delivery and she was forced to use beans that had been roasted a full two weeks before. Her customers thought the coffee was sublime, and told her so, but she was embarrassed to be serving such a stale product. Jim brought her a pound of his home roast, and with relief she made our drinks from that.

Coffee beans, Rappahannock Coffee, Arlington Virginia.

Mural, Carrboro North Carolina.

They were interesting folks to meet. BJ has been in the Indianapolis area for a long time. She’s a jolly, friendly woman, who likes talking to people and cares about coffee. She’s a gardener, and travels with her partner to folk and women’s music festivals for fun. Jim is a mounabout Indianapolis - places to go, neighborhoods, what it’s like to live there. And a lot about roasting coffee, and the coffee community. BJ used to enter the barista competitions – who can pull the most perfect espressos and macchiatos, with just the right flavor and beautiful patterns in the crema on top. She gave it up, though. She learned that she couldn’t compete after a night out with her friends, and it sounded like the friends were more important than the competition.

I spent a lot of time biking around Indianapolis. Riding along the Monon rail-trail through an old industrial area, I glided past a long warehouse wall covered with paintings, clearly the work of Indianapolis school children. Some showed parks or farms, lawns and trees and modest houses. One was a night landscape, dark earth and almost as dark blue sky. Another showed a family, old people and youngsters with brown faces and nappy dark braids. There were abstract paintings that looked like something out of the sixties, seascapes, and detailed cityscapes depicting, I suppose, the skyscrapers of downtown Indianapolis. It was the work of a school, I think but I sped past the explanation too quickly to read the details.

Indianapolis is full of sculpture. In one backyard an ethereal angel, larger than life, was constructed of white wire. Larger than human life, I mean; I have no idea how big angels might be. On a pedestrian bridge across the White River a metallic man the color of a fire-engine lifted logs, a reference perhaps to some part of the city’s history. Near the zoo a splendid buffalo was made of dense stratchy spun metal that exactly captured the scraggly texture of his living relatives.

Some of the sculpture left something to be desired. By the imposing monument at the center of the city three geometric figures that looked a bit like gumby toys depicted “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Their heads were black metal spheres, their bodies a cube, a cylinder, and a sphere, their hats a cone, a cylinder, and a cube. They faced the state capital two blocks away. Were they, perhaps, a warning to the legislators inside? It turned out they were by a New York City artist, Tom Otterness, whose works were on display all over Indianapolis in a project of the local arts commission. Hmm. After a bit of exploring on the web I realized I'd seen some of his work in the New York subways, and found it quite amusing. But that wasn't up in such prominent places, and it was competing with subway tunnels rather than monumental downtown buildings.

Tom Otterness, "See no evil"

Jim had suggested that I check out a neighborhood north of town called Broad Ripple. It’s at a bend in one of the rivers that runs through the city, an artsy area of small renovated houses, funky shops, home-brewed beer, and coffee houses. The “ripples” on the river after which it was named were rapids, which led earlier residents to construct a canal for bringing goods to market. The canal and the towpath along it run through Broad Ripple, providing a well-used linear park. I stopped in a health food store and somehow got to talking to the owner, Bob, when he groaned at something he’d heard on public radio. We talked for a long time, about politics, and Indianapolis, and the politics of the different communities we’d lived in. He’d spent his whole life in Broad Ripple, had grown up just a few blocks from his shop. He shared the world of BJ and Jim, the small liberal community that didn’t support the war in Iraq, or the president, and wasn’t part of the Christian right. But they are a small minority in Indiana, trying to keep their heads up in a sea of people who disagree with them. Unlike my experiences, where these views are such an overwhelming majority that we wonder who those people are “out there” who still believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and supported our invasion.

I liked Broad Ripple. I’d planned to leave Indianapolis after just a day, and head north to Ann Arbor to spend a couple of days before going to Grand Rapids for the Vanagon event. But talking to Bob at the health foods store was fun, and I wanted to see more of this town with its canals and bike trails. When I headed north as darkness fell, I decided that if there were a place to sleep within twenty miles – a truck stop, that is – I’d return the next day and spend it biking around the city some more. There was, and I did, wishing for a camera so I could capture my impressions of the place more fully. I surprised BJ by showing up at Café@Ray for another coffee, and surprised Bob when I passed him outside his store the next day. It was nice to have the flexibility to change my plans at the last minute. I think I'm lucky.

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