“I’m on my way home… I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone/ home is where the hatred is/ home is filled with pain/ and it might not be such a bad idea if I never… never went home again”
Gil Scott-Heron, “Home is Where the Hatred Is”
I drove down to Northwest Indiana from Detroit early Friday afternoon. My high school graduating class was having a 20th anniversary get-together this weekend, and I was planning on attending, meeting and greeting.
The alumni gathering was split into two events—a football game later Friday evening (ostensibly where folks could bring their families), and an ‘adults-only’ pub gathering Saturday evening, in Chicago: Gary and vicinity is roughly 35 miles from the Chicago city limits; the Chi was and apparently still is often the ‘hip’ nightlife destination for residents of Northwest Indiana (frequently referred to by outstate Hoosier folk as simply “the Region.”)
I make it back to Gary and vicinity on average maybe once a year. Sometimes it has been just to visit and catch up. Other times there has been a distinctly upbeat event at hand—a wedding, a graduation, a baby shower. Still yet others have had decidedly downbeat contexts, i.e., funerals—uncles, aunts, and most hauntingly, my father and a brother.
Gary, compared to my adopted home base of Detroit, is much smaller in terms of land mass and population (current Census figures put Gary at about 85,000 residents, way down from a 1950s-era peak of about 250,000), but there were similarities in their histories of development. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city was carved out of the swamps and sand dunes that largely defined the immediate natural environs at the south end of Lake Michigan. Elbert Gary was a steel magnate who decided to open a factory here, U.S. Steel Works. Other steel industrialists followed, as did the largely unskilled masses needed to fill the ranks of labor for the mills. Executives of the company made pitches in European countries to bring people to work there. Eastern Europeans, Greeks and Scots-Irish folk largely made the overseas journey to settle in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago (the latter town named after its ‘cousin’ in Illinois.)
The burgeoning manufacturing also was attractive to American southerners. In particular this demographic included a high number of African-Americans (including my maternal and paternal grandfathers) who during the Great Migration fled the egregiously brutal Jim Crow south to the industrial north and Midwest, where they could find a modicum of social freedom and expanded employment opportunity. To be sure, both de jure and de facto discrimination was rife in the area, but pockets of non-racism could be found.
With the exception of the Jackson family home, there are no major tourist-attraction museums or similar arts/science venues. No movie theaters in the city limits. Sports culture here is joined at the hip with Chicago teams—Da Bulls (including Saint Jordan), Da Bears (the "Superbowl Shuffle" and Sweetness), the White Sox, the Cubs, and provided you give a damn about hockey, the Blackhawks. A side note on baseball- folks from here are flexible to openly root for both teams, while apparently many Chicagoans have a Northside/Southside split on who they’re down for.
Local television and radio, especially at the time, was near-exclusively Chicago-centric. Nowadays I know there are various examples of this throughout the nation, but it was an odd feeling, at the time, growing up watching TV news or listening to the radio, with scarcely a mention of your home community. There was a sense of invisibility that went along with that.
….I brought a camcorder that I bought maybe a year ago during a January clearance, but never used until now. Of course, the standard-size blank DVD discs I have a spindle of are too big for this, so time to divert to Best Buy for likely more expensive smaller-scale discs. Huzzah, it works!
While at the game I took as much footage as the charged battery would allow: The crowd, students, players on the sidelines, the game itself. Booths were selling food and school merchandise. I tried to notice anything new that wasn’t there back in the days. I saw an expanded soccer practice area. At the stadium, there’s a nominal digital-graphics screen, with messages from sponsors. Pop-music excerpts played during the game included Eminem and Poison, from what I recognized. The visiting team was the same team that, in my senior year, prevented us from taking the Regional title, short-circuiting a state title run that local papers said we were good for. I recalled memories of videotaping assorted events for the school, working with a partner, using a 1980s-era RCA VHS camcorder, either slung over my shoulder or sitting on a tripod. We would talk about the game at hand, or the school play, and girls, not necessarily in that order.
The night air became increasingly cold. I looked to the cheerleaders, at the sidelines during the game, take the field during halftime. None of them seemed to be wearing hosiery. I wondered how they managed. There were maybe 12 girls total, in what I presume was the varsity squad. Among them, there was one clearly brown girl who looked Latina. No black girls. I wondered, as I did back when I was going to school here, did any sisters not "make the cut", or did none even bother to try out because the routines were fixed in a 1965-safe-for-parents-and-the-Catholic Bishop-if-he's-visiting zone that was straight corny to anyone from urban culture. Oh, well.
Looking at the crowd, I noticed one set of parents rooting for an African-American boy on the team. Out of a couple hundred students, maybe less than a dozen were African-American, and other minorities were similarly scattershot. With this suburban town being reportedly about 45% African-American now (a major leap from my childhood), I was expecting more of a presence. But I suppose if I was expecting a Friday night high football game to be reflective of this, I was wrong.
Racial Hysteria, Economic Inertia
Gary, like Detroit and several Rust Belt metropolitan areas, had some form of heavy-industry/manufacturing as a keystone industry that led to its prosperity in the early 20th century. Unlike say, a Pittsburgh or a Chicago, Gary has yet to reinvent itself from the collapse of said industries (in particular, steel manufacturing) that was a major catalyst in their economic decline. The local steel mills currently operate at maybe 30 – 40% of their original capacity. My dad worked as a crane operator for 30 years; I’m not sure that a career arc like that is even remotely standard now, regardless of industry, and especially for the unskilled folk looking for an entry-level leg up. That era is basically over. From the 1960s forward, there has been both drastic and gradual disinvestment, by both larger corporations and smaller businesses, which has economically crippled the city of Gary and made the metropolitan area much less prosperous than in the past.
Gary elected one of the first black mayors in Richard Hatcher in 1968, and the civil-rights social tumult of the times permeated the region. Mama Hype was among a group of black students that integrated one of Gary’s high schools in the 1950s just after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and mini-riots were a regular occurrence. Demonstrations led by the NAACP, the Communist Party, and others helped make the region a lightning rod for both activism and reactionaryism. In 1972, Jesse Jackson and other national African-American activists came into town for a convention on a national black agenda: http://www.indianahistory.org/our-collections/collection-guides/national-black-political-convention-collection.pdf
The town of Merrillville incorporated in 1971 from once-unincorporated rural and semi-rural areas to the immediate south of Gary. By default it was almost exclusively white, as Gary was by now overwhelmingly African-American. The narrative of urban disinvestment, white flight, and industrial collapse now came to define Gary’s story from that point forward. The organized-labor allegiances and its nominal relationship with Chicago led Gary and a few nearby communities to be one of the few, if only Democratic strongholds in Indiana. At the state leadership level, three GOP governors in a row led Indiana between 1969 and 1989. Democratic stints held the office from 1989 – 2005, and GOP standard-bearer Mitch Daniels is now the governor there. Going way back to the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had very real political power over much of the state as avowed members were throughout the state legislature and the governor’s office. Even well into this post-civil rights era, when I was coming up urban heads were wary of getting caught "way out" after evening.
Seeing is Disbelieving
In driving through communities south of Gary such as Merrillville, Crown Point, and Schererville, I see newish strip malls, big-box retail stores, apartment/condo complexes and single-family houses where there were once outright cornfields (indeed, some cornfields still stand, providing a seemingly incongruent visual landscape of rustic farm plots interrupted by Buffalo Wild Wings and Great Clips salons.)
When I drive through Gary, a feeling of deep melancholy overtakes me. I see in most areas worn-out/burnt-out storefronts where there used to be bustling department stores and small-business activity. Family Dollar and the like have replaced Montgomery Ward’s and JC Penney’s for popular shopping in Gary boundaries. My elementary schools are out of business. The hospital I was born in is abandoned, with the exception of one wing, sealed off from the rest, which apparently has become a police station.
In a lot of cases I have seen structures that were abandoned when I was a kid still in the same (worse) shape, with nothing to take its place—in others there are just plain empty lots with weeds, with no “coming soon” sign. In the neighborhoods where I lived, I see a lot of homes now where the entire facades have either been stripped or allowed to crumble, haphazardly reclaimed by nature. Some family is still here, making a go of it, though none have encouraged me to come back. I was the youngest out of my siblings and all my first cousins (and due to my 'unexpected' status, really a generation removed from the rest), and I saw nearly all of them leave for good.
Here’s What they Think About You…
I remember it was roughly a few months into sophomore year. I had been given a note of some kind to go and see “Father Quint”, who was the financial officer for the school. At first I really had no idea of why I was being sent down there. I only remember sketches of the conversation, but one of the first things that he said to me was “Mr. Hype, do you like going to school here?”
I was puzzled by the question. Was this just rhetorical? Did he really want to hear what complaints I had, if any?
To be on the safe side, I responded with a nervous yes/sure (something along those lines). As the conversation progressed, and his tone became blunter, it became clear to me that this was about tuition. Apparently my parents were on an installment plan for payment, and the balance due was behind to whatever extent.
I walked away with a “notice”, feeling uneasy and embarrassed. Money was, well, tight. I remember when the school held food-drives every fall. All the homerooms had boxes where students could bring in nonperishable food. I’d bring in some cans of food myself. Of course, you’d overhear chatter from some students about folks on welfare, food stamps, boxed milk, trading it for crack, etc. And a week or so after the drive was over, one of the nuns would privately contact me and provide a box of collected food to take home.
Months later, I figured I’d take a swing at being class treasurer for junior year. I was no financial guru at the age of 15, but I knew math, and I figured this was something interesting to be able to interact more with other students on student council.
I prepared a speech, passed out flyers, put up some posters where allowed, and gave a speech my dad helped me out with. I was then elected. It felt good. I started junior year thinking that I’d actually have some work to do. I approached Fr. Quint’s office, and made myself available in whatever capacity to help look after our class’s finances.
In the conversation that took place, I felt that I was being given a very polite brush-off. Whether this was the intent or not, I took it very personally. Statistically, I was the only African-American class officer.
In the weeks and months that followed, I participated in student council meetings, and occasionally did some perfunctory research on ticket prices for different entertainment events that our class would have wanted to organize. But I never got to look at a financial book nor a receipt during my ‘tenure’ in that position. I came to a rather sobering conclusion that this had amounted to some token nonsense.
Concurrent with all the “atmosphere of Christian instruction” at the school, there was a “reality beneath the reality” for a lot of the minority students. Ignorant remarks and behaviors were not unheard of-- some whispered and subtle, others shouted and blatant; some of the generic jackass kind, others of straight cracker intent; the school administrators and certain teachers who came across as unusually smarmy on a recurring basis. School lunch hours, open assemblies and sports games were frequently self-segregated.
We're Goin' Hoppin'...
The school dances—sock hops, as we tended to call them—were solidly reflective of top-40 tastes in the music played, and of course nothing too naughty. Not that anything was inherently wrong with most of it, but as one could imagine, hip-hop or R&B spins at the dances were minimal, pretty much limited to whoever was the breakout crossover artist of that year—Fresh Prince, Tone-Loc, and the like. I lived for Saturday evenings. Not that I had dates or girlfriends, that never happened. But around freshman year the Chicago radio stations had recently begun their hip-hop centric weekend mix shows. In particular I remember 107.5 WGCI’s Ramone-Ski Love and the ‘Rapdown’, and some years before his syndicated show took off, Tom Joyner had a daily show where he showed hip-hop some love (apparently commuting between there and Dallas regularly.) Listening to these shows introduced me to a lot of the golden-age hip-hop I would come to latch onto for entertainment and guidance. It was an emotional escape, an audial oasis of acceptance where I seemed to find little elsewhere.
When it came to student-to-student conflicts, I managed to make it through without any outright brawls (and thus a likely suspension), though, a few months into senior year, I seriously considered doing grievous harm to some people up there. Around that time, another black student, “Eddie”, had a meltdown of sorts.
Eddie and I both played football. I didn’t have any classes with him that morning. He apparently came to school that day with a pistol. I don’t know if it was loaded or not. He muttered to someone that he had a ‘hit list.’ By lunchtime, he had been arrested by Merrillville police—and summarily expelled. For years I wondered what happened to him, though I suppose it wasn’t hard to guess. He made it to the 10-year reunion. We didn’t talk about the incident, but he seemed to be in a good place (we were, coincidentally, the only black men in our class who bothered to come.)
More Long Island Iced Tea, Vicar?
The evening went faster than I expected. I wore an all-black suit and a black, knitted kufi. Despite my full beard, folks seemed to recognize me right away-- then again, many of us have been on Facebook for several years now. For icebreaking purposes, it helped to have a camera to take some impromptu photos, as well as remembering the eccentric cast of teachers: the bearded, rotund priest who served as the Dean of Boys who some guys made regular visits to; the history teacher that had sweat-rings under his arms even in wintertime; the science teacher with a voice like Ben Stein; the art teacher who had a circa-1975 hi-fi stereo in the classroom, exclusively tuned into a classic-rock station, in the background as students created projects. To this day, I still startle some urban-music-only peeps who wonder how the hell I know all these David Bowie and Rod Stewart records.
Aside from renting out part of the bar, arrangements were made for an open bar for the night. As much as I’m sure it was an incentivizing move to arrange for free drinks (sans shots) for the length of the evening, it also may have led to some folks getting flash-inebriated. I don’t think I had a single conversation last longer than two minutes before people abruptly switched partners or groups. My measured, conservative approach seemed ill-suited to the freewheeling interactions going on around me. Whether by deliberate choice or circumstance, I’ve pretty much always been a minimalist when it came to alcohol. Likely due to my anxieties about inviting disaster following a bender, and lack of exposure to keg-parties as a kid have probably honed my quasi-abstinence. I knew I’d be driving later, so I had a light-beer and cut myself off.
"Hype, you fawkin' rawk, man! You've always been my buddy! This is gonna be an awesome night, I'm tellin' ya..."
By 12:30 a.m. or so, a lot of folks had started catching cabs going back to their hotels (or homes, for those who lived in Chicago now.) My classmate ‘Rick’ was already far-gone somewhere around 10 p.m., going on about the after-party he figured was sure to happen, and the female classmate who he apparently went all the way back to sixth grade with that he was sure was hot for him (oddly enough, more than a few girls that I had crushes on back in the days showed up tonight. Not that I had any intention of telling them after all this time.)
Rick came to the event from Dyer, a suburb to the distant southwest of Gary. I never got the details out of him but apparently he caught the South Shore commuter train into Chicago from Indiana, but the service doesn’t operate past 10 p.m., and he hadn’t rented a hotel (I'd been told that downtown Chicago was solidly booked relating to a Northwestern/Wisconsin college football game.) As folks were heading on their respective way, he was stumbling and wandering. I went to grab him, and offered to take him back home. In a few minutes, we were on our way.
Rick had at this point turned into a bobble-head, but I got to seat-belt him in, and headed back to the Dan Ryan expressway and the I-90 toll road back to Indiana. I’m glad I had an empty storage box handy, because he ended up hurling about 20 minutes into our drive. Getting Rick home was a challenge for a while; making a general arc toward Dyer, it was like pulling teeth trying to get a coherent sentence out of him and he was unresponsive to asking for his driver’s license so I could look up his address before finally mumbling it out. Maybe 15 minutes later, he finally had a fleeting moment of clarity when we made a brief stop at a gas station to ask for directions (and ditch the hurl box). Finally we got to his place: a tony, quiet subdivision, where several houses had their garages wide open, including Rick’s. He thanked me for the solid, and made his way—still uneasy—into his garage. In conversations before tonight, he told me he had been laid off from his accounting job for over a year and had gone into house-painting and temp general-labor work, which he had done as a kid.
If there was a universal undercurrent to the conversations I had, whatever careers folks may have embraced- physician, attorney, schoolteacher, engineer, sales.. Everybody’s feeling the pinch of the ongoing recession. I don’t know. Maybe I missed the point by not getting “white-boy wasted” (Gucci!)
While at the get-together, someone pointed out to me my behavior at graduation. I was senior class vice-president, and thus was on the main stage of the auditorium during commencement. Dressed in our caps and gowns, we had been given notice a few weeks before: on stage, we would not be getting our real diplomas, but instead generic rolls of paper sealed with a ribbon. See, everything but our tassels were rentals. We were not to be given our real diplomas until we went into the girls’ gymnasium (much smaller compared to the main gym) where our homeroom teachers were standing by. Two boxes and a table were sitting in front of them—the boxes were for our cap and gown, respectively, and the table had stacks of our diplomas. When the final announcement was made commencing our class (we were not allowed to toss our caps), I apparently made a beeline for the girls’ gym. I was the first student up in there. Family wondered where I had ducked off to, and were slightly disappointed that they didn’t have the chance to take some after-graduation photographs with me wearing the gown.
I was really trying to get the _____ out: Out of this school, out of Gary, out of Indiana period. My homeroom teacher, who was also my English Lit teacher, reminded me my grades had slipped in the last quarter- I had started giving less and less of a damn about being there, and it showed. I had started halfway looking at school graduation as a form of parole. I was on an Amtrak train for Detroit barely two days later (I had to board from Hammond because by then there was no Amtrak stop in Gary—and there still isn’t.) I had already been coming to Detroit almost every summer to visit relatives; it was as good a place as any to start anew.
I only scarcely realized it at the time, but I had become very embittered by then. My depression managed to contribute to an aborted stint at the University of Michigan before personal issues came to a head and I dropped out. It took me some years to work myself out of it (after a fashion), and so when it comes to events like this, I can go and socialize, reminisce, all that with my peers. But when it comes to the stuff we get in the mail about fundraising, become an alumni donor, all that, I can’t go for it. I’ll skim through it, but then I just chuck it.
Aftermath: Enter Hypestyle
In the years that followed since graduation, I gradually developed a philosophical muse that has alternately unnerved and energized me, and brought me to my contemporary news-media career interests: a long way from my freshman-year dreams of being a comic-book artist-writer.
When our Generation X-crew graduated it was near the tail end of George H. W. Bush’s one-term presidency, officially or unofficially a continuation of the eight-year Reagan revolution that has reverberated into the present day. Our first, 10-year reunion was in July of 2001. None of us had yet hit 30, most were unmarried (unto itself a shift from decades past), and it was barely two months before the events of 9/11: the abrupt, violent deaths of thousands, the sharp veer into Wars on Terror, an escalating War on Drugs, economic recession, threadbare job-security, unprecedented home foreclosure, and lost innocence for generations of young people.
This, our second reunion, was late into the first (and preferably not the last) term of Barack Obama (back then, I don't think I could have seen a black president by now), and the heavily mixed-results of attempting to manage/reconfigure the U.S. policy culture of George W. Bush and his ideological kin. Tonight, for all the careers that folks I talked to have segued into since then—physician, attorney, schoolteacher, salesperson, small-business owner, accountant, and more—married, divorced, with kids or without-- one universal thread came up: everybody was feeling the pinch of the lingering economic downturn. Some folks have changed careers, others are trying to, and degreed folks are doing things plainly unrelated to their ‘official’ skill-set. Everyone’s American dream has manifested differently, and for most if not all, the dreaming continues.
Folks are promising to plan smaller get-togethers every other year now, I suppose before crutches and grandkids come into play. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll wear my fire-truck red suit with the gator shoes; I rarely bring it out.