'Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir'
The most insightful observation I've ever heard about the artist's life came from Alice Weaver, the legendary creator/proprietor of the Ferguson House in Nashville and one of the great characters I've known. The catalyst for her proclamation was my wife Judy's reaction to tourists viewing her artwork.
Among many other talents, Judy was an abstract painter. And in the fall of 1977, we opened a shop called Creations in Alice's Antique Alley, where we sold Judy's paintings, weavings and assorted creations, my photographs, our hand-made Colombian imports and a variety of other arts and crafts. Our next-door neighbor was The Paint Box, where saw blades painted with rural scenes sold all day long, day after day after day. The common refrain heard outside our adjoining doors: "Oh hon, look'it the saws!" Inside our shop: "Anybody could do that."
Nashville tourists were a little more accepting of photography as art in the late 1970s, but only marginally so. And despite our grasp of the culture we were involved with, reality was difficult to accept, even if we did get our share of positive reinforcement. Alice swept our bruised egos aside with a wave of her hand. "It doesn't matter whether people love or hate your work," she advised. "It's when they respond to it like it was skimmed milk that you're in trouble."
Moving to the country at age 23 drew me away from my roots and, simultaneously, deeper into them. My immediate family couldn't fathom why anyone would choose to live in an old "shack" on a narrow, twisty "highway" 15 minutes from town. But my first visual memory of rugged, verdant, Indiana topography is gazing upward from the back porch of one of my mother's relatives in the hills and hollers near Clinton. Her cousin was postmaster at Shepardsville for decades.
Besides, my grandma had lived in Brown County before moving to the country 10 miles east of Indianapolis, where she raised my mother and, along with my aunt and uncle, still lived in the fall of 1974. My fondest childhood memories are from the summers I spent there with my cousins picking jaw-stabbing sour apples off the trees (much to Grandma Scott's chagrin -- "Eat 'em off the ground!") and climbing trees and playing army along the trails in the one-acre patch of woods across the street.
My urban upbringing notwithstanding, I felt at home in that rickety little five-room house with a forest edge and trailhead just 30 feet from my kitchen door. When the trees were bare, motorists on State Road 446 caught their first view of Lake Monroe over my tin roof, the same one I saw out my kitchen window. They still do, though the house was replaced by a manufactured home post-Blizzard of '78, after we moved out.
I have a trove of memories from the times I spent with Hilario Martinez in Colombia, the most vivid among them his reaction when I told him of news reports in 1975 that said some Americans were eating dog food. We were in a Chinese restaurant in Bogota, and the image so contradicted Hilario's preconceived notion of America as the land of plenty that he put his hands over his ears and shook his head "No!" while hunched over his plate slurping a spaghetti noodle.
Hilario lived in the Barrio Simon Bolivar in the steaming coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, where I met him a year before and made him a partner in my nascent importing business. He had a wife, Teresa, and six kids, ranging in age from 18 to 7. He drove a 28-year-old bus and earned about 200 pesos a day -- $6 American -- and spent as much time under the bus making repairs as he did in the seat driving, maybe more. Six bucks was nothing, even by mid-1970s economic standards. It was enough to buy two wall hangings, wholesale.
The Martinez home had concrete floors, lawn chairs for furniture and three beds -- the oldest son Marcos had his own, the three girls shared, and mom and dad slept with the two little boys on the other. All of the roads in the barrio were dirt, with ruts in places that resembled four-wheel trails in the Jackson County woods. The windows were shuttered, with no glass or screen. The mosquitoes were god-awful.
My first trip to Colombia was actually pretty ridiculous. Travel was never a priority in my family, and by 1974 I had only been out of the country twice -- camping in Canada and breaking for spring in Negril, Jamaica. The only Spanish my partner Ayres and I knew were leftover snippets from introductory Español in high school and college.
What little I had learned about Colombia didn't recommend it as a travel destination, either. I knew it was desperately poor and hopelessly corrupt. Tony the Dope Dealer had told me that one of his associates had gone there on vacation -- "He wasn't doing any deals." -- and had been thrown in prison and shaken down for thousands of dollars. And I assumed that an importing business from Colombia would raise some authorities' brows, given the country's status as an emerging world drug capital in 1974.
The primary plus I had gleaned about the place was that artisans there hand-wove cotton wall hangings and other arts and crafts that were cheap and marketable to home decorator-type Americans. Another was that Colombia truly was a foreign culture, something I had wanted to experience since I read my first National Geographic. It was Third World, and it did, after all, have the Andes Mountains, not to mention a port on the Amazon River. So, when Ayres told me just days before we were to depart that he had no money, my response was a forceful, "No way. We're going."
Anyone who has ever experienced my photographic journey to the good ol' days knows how the narrative begins with the first four black-and-white, 8X10 images in the black binder: "Sex. Drugs. Sex and drugs. And rock 'n' roll."
The first photo is of a long-haired brunette in her kitchen immediately following an afternoon tryst in her South Grant Street apartment. The second is a pot plant growing under a roommate's window sill. The third is a petite blonde in jeans and a sweater curled up on her bed with a joint. The fourth is a close-up of guitarist Al DiMeola, who's actually a jazzman and not a rock star.
To say the decade between say 1965 and 1975 was a blue-moon time for a young man to come of sexual age would be understatement in the extreme. It was the magical period between the invention of the birth-control pill and the onset of the incurable disease epidemic, a convergence of events that has never been experienced before or after, and never will again. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart once interviewed independent filmmaker John Carpenter about the subject. Carpenter said he lost his virginity the day they discovered the pill. Stewart said he lost his the day they discovered AIDS.
Having grown up in middle-class Indianapolis, I've never been disdainful of the mainstream. My roots are firmly implanted there, and I've benefited enormously from them. But I never aspired to join it. From the time I was a kid, I was always drawn to the "madmen and artists," as Allen Ginsberg called them, even though I had never heard the phrase or his name. Poetry wasn't big in my peer group.
By the time Tony the Dope Dealer cracked my reality, I'd known more than my share of madmen. I have more stories about dying young than anyone I've ever met. But artists? Can't say I'd known a single one growing up. A couple guys from my neighborhood played guitars and sang folk and rock at the Hummingbird Cafe in downtown Indy's Talbot Village. One of them plays Christian rock today, at least I'm pretty sure it's him. But that was it.
Tony was a madman. I knew that the moment I first heard his voice. And while I didn't share his dream of earning a hundred thousand dollars dealing pot, his preoccupation with it intrigued me. "Money, that's what I'm into," he told me in one of our first conversations, "money." He was also an artist, and the money, he said, was a means to an end. He would earn enough dealing to quit and then focus on his art.
Life in Bloomington in the early 1970s was tantamount to that of a Wild West town, without the shootouts (although, eventually, there were some). The place was wide open and oozed wealth generated by a burgeoning hippie economy. And few cared that the boom was fueled by contraband. Too many people made too much money off marijuana. Society accepted it. And the community embraced it.
I can say with unimpeachable confidence that a walk down Kirkwood Avenue and around the Courthouse Square anytime between 1971 and '75 would have passed at least a half dozen businesses whose owners were or had been pot dealers, and probably more. With equal certainty, I can say the first communication a high-powered local attorney shared with three green asses busted cold with five pounds of marijuana in 1974 were: "I've talked to the prosecutor, and he said to tell you not to worry, you're not going to jail."
The Monroe County prosecutor was a Republican named Greg Carter, who would represent the Indiana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) after he left Bloomington. The attorney was John G. Baker, who would eventually be, in turn, Monroe County Judge, Monroe Superior Court Judge, Monroe Circuit Judge and Indiana Court of Appeals Judge. His office in 1974 was located in what is now the Old National Bank building at Kirkwood and Washington.
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.
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.
Editor's note: Due to time constraints, this project has been temporarily suspended. I will return to it when time permits. - sh
Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir is a collection of recollections by Bloomington Alternative publisher and editor Steven Higgs. Some of the names in these tales have been changed to protect the guilty.