I’ve always believed in destiny. And I’ve always found mine in Bloomington’s Bryan Park neighborhood a half mile or so south of the IU campus. I started three lives there -- young adult, father and divorcé -- in three Bryan houses within a six-block walk of each other. Each appeared when I needed new life.
For example, after a year-and-a-half in the fraternity house, where I made great friends and gained insights that serve me well to this day, I knew the Greek life wasn’t for me, and I had to get off campus. The Bryan Park fates aligned the first time when two friends found a duplex on the corner of Dunn and Allen, and we moved in in the fall of 1971.
Fittingly enough for that era in Bloomington history, my first adventure in adulthood was a slumlord experience.
It didn’t actually begin that way. When my friend from high school Mike and his buddy Brian found the five-room, cinder-block house toward the end of our sophomore years, they didn’t think it was a dump. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say that for certain, but they were smart guys, and they signed a year’s lease.
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When my future roommates inked the deal on my first rental home in the spring of 1971, I was running for vice president of the Pi Kappa Alpha House, on a lark, arguing that the house should do away with study hours. My platform: Quiet places to study abounded on campus, but one’s own room was the only place to play music loud. I had a lot of friends in the house and got a surprising number of votes, but the election wasn’t close, thankfully. I didn’t want to be vice president.
"The landlord lived in Argentina and had left a local Realtor in charge of his Bryan Park property. "
That was the only time my interest in politics manifested itself in a run for elective office. In retrospect, it seems I was actually making a case for de-activating the next semester, rather than seeking power or prestige. I needed more space for music (and contraband) than the Pike house would ever afford. And while no one would consider that campaign consequential in Pike house history, or even remember it, it could be argued that my platform presaged the Pikes’ destiny.
I was a South Dunn townie by the time the “Mondo” era dominated the halls of the Pike house a year later, but the Mondo behind the Pikes’ version of Animal House was my buddy Dave, a close friend to this day. And when he ran for house president in 1972 against now-NPR Puzzle Master Will Shortz, Dave was one vote up, with he and Will the only brothers who hadn’t voted. Dave cast his ballot for Will. He didn’t want to be president.
While house conservatives did reassert themselves at times throughout the Delta Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha’s history, 29 years later, in October 2001, the university expelled the Pikes for repeated violations of university alcohol policies.
In 2003, a guy I had grown up with in Indianapolis made IU honchos more than a little nervous when he proposed turning the vacant, privately owned Pike house, situated between the crème de la crème sorority houses Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma, into a homeless shelter. IU subsequently purchased the property and bulldozed the house.
The Pikes moved into that house my sophomore year, the fall of 1970. My freshman year, when I was preoccupied with antiwar politics, we were four lots to the west on Third Street in the smallish white house with pillars and black shutters.
One of the oldest buildings on campus, the original Pike house sat next to the Delta Delta Delta sorority and directly across Third Street from Rawles Hall, home of the ROTC and scene of frequent student protests. My second-floor window in the spring of 1970 overlooked the Rawles lawn and could have produced scenes for Getting Straight or The Strawberry Statement, two popular student protest movies of the era. Today, the house at 814 E. Third is home to Air Force ROTC Detachment 215.
Living on Third Street for two years, surrounded by beautiful sorority women, was a definite plus. I went out a couple times with a Pi Phi pledge who lived with her grandma in a stately, historic Bloomington house on North Washington. There was a Kappa my brothers were sure would have been my girl friend, had I pursued her. And there was a brief but memorable affair with an Alpha Phi.
But by the Fall of 1971 I yearned to be a GDI (God Damned Independent) and moved to Bryan Park. My new roommate Brian, a bearded, burly leftist had been pictured in a 1969 IU yearbook photograph. He was scuffling with conservative students who tried to break the picket line he manned outside Ballantine Hall, trying to enforce an antiwar boycott of classes.
The semester we spent at Dunn and Allen could have been a prelude to an infamous column an Indiana Daily Student writer would pen years later about some Bloomington "Scumbelt Properties.” One of our first forays into Bloomington proper was to rent a bush hog to cut the front yard, where small trees had sprouted over the summer. Brian did most of the hogging and said he felt like Paul Bunyan.
"Amorous girlfriends, absentee landlords and frosty winter nights outweighed the convenience of life by the park."
The inside, which consisted of three rooms in front with a small kitchen and bathroom in back, wasn’t much better. Before we could move in, we spent an amphetamine-fueled all-nighter one evening cleaning and painting the place, playing Rod Stewart’s new Every Picture Tells a Story album over and over. We could pass joints over the kitchen wall with the guy who lived in the duplex’s smaller half.
The middle room had been essentially walled off with plywood and was just big enough for Mike’s waterbed. Literally, it was wall-to-wall waterbed -- no furniture, no place to walk. We had couches and mattresses on the floor in the front room for guests, group study and conversation.
Brian and I shared the largest room, which was doorless, an arrangement that was no bargain for him, because of his inconsiderate new roommate and our slumlord.
Brian's roommate problems began in the Jordan Hall lecture room where I first seriously thought about the environment. The class was taught by world-class biologist Tracy M. Sonneborn and was called something like Society, Heredity and the Environment. One of IU’s most prestigious teaching awards today is called the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award.
One afternoon, a cute Jewish girl from Savannah, Ga., with natural blond hair to her waist, sat one row in front of me, one seat to my right, and flirted through the entire class. Despite being an 18-year-old junior who was fluent in five languages, the not-quite-5-footer said she needed help and invited me to a pre-study session at her Forrest Quad dorm room before a study session that evening.
The upshot -- she came home with me that night, and we were inseparable the entire semester. And like I said, our room had no doors.
Brian’s other stroke of bad luck was that the landlord lived in Argentina and had left a local Realtor in charge of his Bryan Park property. She had no interest in fixing the furnace, whose pilot light went out every time the thermostat shut the blower off.
The furnace dilemma initially presented as a challenge to see who could figure out how to relight a pilot. But the annoyance soon evolved into a test of frigid wills, to see who would get up first and relight it. Mike and I both had live-in girlfriends, so Brian became an expert at relighting the pilot.
Needless to say, my first life in Bryan Park was short-lived. Amorous girlfriends, absentee landlords and frosty winter nights outweighed the convenience of life by the park. We broke the lease at semester’s end.
"She already had a boyfriend who, we soon discovered, was a bank robber."
Mike and Brian moved to an isolated country house a few miles north of town on State Road 37. I moved a few blocks north of Bryan Park to an apartment at Second and Grant with a friend from Indy who had gotten out of the Army early with a GI Bill to spend.
The four months in that three-room apartment were a Bizarro-world mirror of the four months on Dunn.
The building manager couldn’t have been more accommodating, or a nicer guy. We knew him as Jim, a ruddy-cheeked, blond-haired, blue-eyed charmer. Years later he would be my supervisor at Bloomington Transit, where I would get to know Jim Williams, a popular political gadfly.
Instead of reveling in the ecstasy of love, as expected, I ended up a heap on the floor. Over Christmas break, the girlfriend’s family put the kibosh on any relationship with a Gentile. And in one of his first classes, my roommate David hooked up with Kathy, the most beautiful girl to ever escape our East Side Indianapolis neighborhood. My room had a door on it. They slept in the living room.
To keep the days and nights lively, she was a junkie who would die from an overdose a few months after she began splitting her time between Foster Quad and our apartment. And she already had a boyfriend who, we soon discovered, was a bank robber. No shit. Boyfriend Gary, two badass brothers I knew of from two years at Arlington High School in Indianapolis and five other guys had pulled a series of bank jobs between Indianapolis and Atlanta.
The night David found out, he came in my room, slammed a clip into his gun and instructed, “If you hear any shit in the living room tonight, don’t come out.” A front-page, sky-piece article in the Indianapolis Star soon thereafter embellished the tale. During one of the first robberies, it noted, a hostage was asphyxiated in the getaway car’s trunk. All but Gary, the story said, had been apprehended. He had knocked on David's mother's door a few days earlier.
Between the devastation of another lost love, a steady flow of hard drugs -- speed for school, downers for escape -- and the attendant drama of a close encounter with a modern day John Dillinger, the spring of 1972 was one I felt lucky to survive. Figuratively and, on at least one occasion, literally.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.