I’ve never spent much time thinking about the future or the past. For better or for worse, I’ve always lived in the moment. Until now. For reasons that I may get into at some point, my focus these days is increasingly directed backward.
One of those reasons, however, is impossible to exclude from this saga, even for a guy who still lives a mile from campus and does laundry at the Third Street laundromat. Indeed, it’s the catalyst for the this dramatic departure from my writing routine: Forty years ago this summer I experienced Kirkwood Avenue for the first time. And it feels like it’s time to write my memoirs, even if it’s unknown whether anyone will care to read them.
For more tales of Bloomington past
- Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir -- Index
Why might someone care? Well, for the last 26 years South-Central Indiana citizens have been reading, reacting to and acting upon the stories I’ve written about their neighbors and the issues we all confront. A search for “by Steven Higgs” on the Herald-Times Online Web site, for example, turns up nearly 2,500 “results.” And that doesn’t include the first three of the 11 years I worked as a staff writer at the Bloomington Herald-Telephone-turned-Herald-Times, from 1985-96.
Thomas Dudley Pogue
A few hundred more articles, from 2002 through today, show up on The Bloomington Alternative Web site. And two years worth of weekly columns called “Public Affairs” in the Bloomington Independent are untallied, since no online archive of them exists.
Then there was my stint as the senior environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management between 1996 and 2000, which I spent traveling the state, on the taxpayers’ dime, chronicling the toxic state of Indiana’s environment in a newspaper called Indiana Environment. The 300 or so stories I wrote and edited were mailed every other month to as many as 40,000 Hoosiers who had expressed interest in state environmental policy.
Plus, I read somewhere that Socrates (maybe it was Aristotle) was the last man in Western History to be familiar with the entirety of his culture. I don’t know if that’s true, and wouldn’t presume to make a claim of that epic proportion, but in these past 40 years, I’ve experienced many sides of Bloomington culture from the perspectives of:
A student, a frat boy, a hippie, a graduate student. A protester, an activist, an environmentalist. A drinker, a partier, a toker. An importer, a woodworker, a camera salesman, a small businessman, a substitute teacher, a city bus driver, a union shop steward. A photographer, a newspaperman, a state employee, a consultant, a lecturer.
A renter, a country dweller, a public housing tenant, a suburban homeowner. A friend, a boy friend, a lover, a husband, an asshole. A mentor, an inspiration. A commuter, a cyclist, a pedestrian, a motorist, a traveler. A plaintiff and a defendant.
A freelance journalist, an author, a publisher. A parent, a father, a grandfather.
And, overarching them all, a citizen.
I have more than a few good stories to tell. And besides, as many of the narratives to come will show, I left my mark on Bloomington and its environs. So here’s for those who just might care.
As a kid absorbing life on the working-class east side of Indianapolis, I grew up a sports fanatic and even played a year-and-a-half on a Top 20 high school basketball team, even though I wasn’t very good. I wanted to wear the black and gold of Purdue University, where guys like Rick Mount and Terry Dischinger shot the pill, as we Marshall Patriots called it. We wore red, white and blue. But the great political dramas of the 1960s increasingly made the spectacle of grown men playing with balls seem inane.
"Portentously enough, my first tactile contact with Bloomington occurred in the spring of 1969 through The Spectator, the town's first alternative newspaper."
My political consciousness was ignited by Bobby Kennedy my junior year in high school, its radical glow enflamed by his assassination in June 1968 and a Poor People’s March that Jesse Jackson led a few months later from an African American church in downtown Indianapolis to the Governor’s Mansion on North Meridian Street. “I may be black, but I am, somebody!” the cluster of ebony faces chanted on the sidewalk, surrounded by the audacious private mansions that surrounded the governor’s. “I may be poor, but I am, somebody!”
From that moment on I have been fascinated with the faces and stories of those who stand up for their rights and take it to the streets, the trails and the jails. And the great social movements of the time -- civil rights, anti-war, women’s liberation and the nascent environmental -- were playing out on the Indiana University campus and the streets of Bloomington. And that’s where I decided I wanted to be in the fall of 1969.
Portentously enough, my first tactile contact with Bloomington occurred in the spring of 1969 through The Spectator, the town’s first alternative newspaper. A buddy and I were hanging out with some hippies on Fall Creek Parkway on Indianapolis’ swanky Northeast side, and an IU student with hair to his shoulders and impassioned political proclamations passed a copy around the circle, along with a joint.
I clearly remember two things about The Spectator: its brazen political attitude and a black-and-white photograph of a blonde ascending the steps of the Indiana Memorial Union, from behind, in the nude. Politics and pretty girls were major factors in my decision to come to Bloomington. And, along with the woods, they were foremost among the reasons I stayed.
The occasion of my first trip down State Road 37, the two-lane serpent of a road that in early summer 1969 wended its way from Indy to Bloomington, was a scouting trip with my buddyMike, who had served as my social bridge from East 34th in Indianapolis to South Dunn Street in Bloomington. He introduced me to the college crowd and the other side of the tracks during our junior and senior years in high school, a transformative lope to the life I’d lead for the next 40 years.
"Rage against the Vietnam War coincided with my first year at IU in 1969 and '70."
And, like every heterosexual guy who has ever stepped on the IU campus, we were overwhelmed by the girls as we tooled around campus in my red ‘62 Chevy Impala with black convertible top. “11 o’clock,”Mike pronounced as I steered around the circle on Indiana by the DG house. “1 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock,” as I changed lanes on Third Street, passing what, unbeknownst to me, would soon be my first home in Bloomington.
For a guy whose culinary tastes had been defined by White Castle and Eastside Indianapolis neighborhood joints like the Auto Burger and Shakey’s Pizza, the climax of that trip was lunch at the Café Pizzeria on Kirkwood. At that time, the historic Bloomington eatery had themed dining rooms. The back one featured Mexican, where I savored my first taco, surrounded by spellbinding conversations. My first Kirkwood experience was made particularly memorable by a gorgeous hippie server who, I can’t say for sure but honestly believe, was Kathy Klawitter, who a couple decades and many lives later I would regard as a soul mate and inspiration.
I wrote a chapter in my 1995 book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana about Kathy’s husband Bob Klawitter and his forest preservation work with the pivotal Indiana environmental group Protect Our Woods. During an interview at their cabin in the Orange County woods, Kathy told me she worked at the Pizzeria in the summer of '69. Her boyfriend at the time owned The Thing Shop on Dunn Street, the city’s legendary first head shop, where I bought my first hash pipe freshman year. Future husband Bob, an IU English professor in the late 1960s, had been The Spectator’s literary editor.
Rage against the Vietnam War coincided with my first year at IU in 1969 and '70, with student boycotts effectively shutting down the campus in the spring. I refused to attend classes, opting instead to rally and march. I was transfixed by Black Panther and Student Body President Keith Parker shouting to “the Nixon pig in Washington“ from a Dunn Meadow stage in the spring of 1970.
But while I identified with and was fascinated by the activists, I wasn’t in their league. I was only the second person in my family to attend college, the first to outlast the first semester. And I grew up in an anti-intellectual environment, in which my friends prided themselves on scholastic failure. The guys I grew up with joined the Army or worked in the nearby factories and warehouses after high school.
In other words, I knew nothing about campus life, let alone how to connect with the New Left. A few weeks after lunching at the Pizzeria, I pledged the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, which occupied one of the campus’s oldest structures on East Third Street, before I even saw the place.
"The Pikes were demonstrably the most progressive Greeks on campus."
I was so green I didn’t know how uncool fraternities were at that time, a lesson made clear when a bohemian chick abruptly ended a promising, post-demonstration conversation at Showalter Fountain one evening when she learned of my frat-boy status. She just stood up and walked away.
In my defense, one of the guys who recruited me – Pike President Thomas Dudley Pogue – was a helluva a role model for a guy like me -- intellectual, political and articulate. And he was from the east side of Indianapolis, albeit one of the older neighborhoods, which had far more class than the cornfield-turned-subdivision I had inhabited since the third grade.
Furthermore, under “Pogo’s” leadership, the Pikes were demonstrably the most progressive Greeks on campus. They were the first to forego the traditional homecoming float in lieu of community service projects, one of which marked my first experience in the southern Indiana woods. My brothers and I cut and hauled firewood from a wooded ravine for poor Bloomington families. No one ever yelled at, paddled or humiliated me. I have only the vaguest recollection of initiation. I never walked an elephant line (for anyone who knows what that is).
Also, I was serious about developing my brain, and PiKA led the Interfraternity Council academically. Among my higher-profile former brothers are New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and former Indiana Congressman Ed Pease, as well as Ross Atkin, a veteran reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and the only Christian Scientist I've ever known.
But not every Pike was as progressive as Pogue or Tom Diaz, an intellectual with radical leanings who made a habit of dropping onto my couch after everyone else had gone to bed, with the latest copies of Rolling Stone magazine and/or Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young LPs.
Among my earliest college memories are a bulky, bellowing former football player from Jasper’s retorts to my political arguments, “Now Gawd dammit, Higgs!” To this day I can hear the voice of another frat brother, the only letterman in the house, as he strutted through the living room and declared there were “more hipp-eyes, yipp-eyes, nig-gars and bag-gars” on campus than there had been the year before. Bag-gars, I presumed, were guys like me who carried their books in bags. I never actually spoke to the guy.
A couple weeks before I shook my dad’s hand and hugged my mom in the PiKA parking lot, I fell in love for the first time with a passionate, whip-smart, red-headed Irish girl in Indianapolis, a senior at a Catholic girls school. She lived in a two-story, white house with pillars on a hill and described herself as politically conservative, which spawned internal conflicts for me.
"I have more than a few good stories to tell."
In addition to antiwar marches and The Spectator, my political views were being shaped at school by Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Freshman year I decided I wanted to go to law school and charted a double major in business and political science, envisioning myself a future Nader’s Raider. Business, considered for my girl friend’s benefit, lasted as long as the relationship -- until the first week of classes, sophomore year. (Law school slipped down my priority list, and psychology eventually took its place as my “practical” major, the one that might get me the job that I knew political science wouldn’t.)
The pol sci concentration led to my first two political connections in Bloomington, both of which will contribute to stories in this memoir.
A bespectacled, first-year professor named Tim Tilton taught the second political science class I took freshman year. Seven years later he co-authored a book titled The Case for the Welfare State: From Social Security to Social Equality. As a reporter for the H-T in the mid-1980s, I covered Tilton’s political career, from his first race for Monroe County Council through his rise to the presidency of the Monroe County Commissioners, when he became the most influential politician in county government.
In another Woodburn Hall class in the fall of 1970, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress named Warren Henegar spoke about his campaign. I’m not sure I could list all the times and ways since then that my path has crossed with Warren’s. Suffice it to say they’ve been political, professional and, I guess, intellectual. The last was in August 2008 for the Bloomington Alternative series “Bloomington recycles: Fact or fiction?” Warren was chair of the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District Board of Directors, which oversees recycling in the county.
I don’t recall what I asked congressional candidate Henegar that autumn day 39 years ago, in what I’d have to say was my first political interview in Bloomington. But I never forgot his response: “What do you think?”
I’ve been pondering that one ever since.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomningtonAlternative.com.