South Bend, IN

(Written March 29, 2015 as Indiana was being criticized for passing its “gay wedding cake” religious freedom law.)

With Indiana in the news this week, I thought I would share a couple of memories of my time living in the state.  South Bend, Indiana is, of course, famous for the Notre Dame College Football Team, and to a lesser extent the learning institution of the same name.  The respect the locals have for Notre Dame is not immediately apparent – none of them pronounce it properly.  However, I could tell from the amount of team apparel sported that they have a genuine affection for the place.  In the interests of maintaining a cosmopolitan feel to the town, Notre Dame team apparel does not come in flannel, leaving another option for the locals to choose from as they dress each morning.

The team’s nickname is ‘The Fightin’ Irish’.  You can imagine how easy that made it for the locals to understand me for who I was as an individual, armed as they are with such exhaustive knowledge of the Irish people.  By the end of my stay there, I almost enjoyed my Monday morning ritual of having to clarify for my co-workers that no, I did not get into any drunken brawls over the weekend, but thanks for asking! Again!

The town is by no means one-dimensional, as it is also home to the College Football Hall of Fame.  This tourist attraction brings in people from as far away as Elkhart, Indiana.  Day-tripping Elkhartians (go ahead, Google it) are easy to spot as they look around in wonder at the metropolis and marvel at the number of fast food chain restaurants it supports.  But for many, South Bend is just a little too close to Chicago for comfort – the place I felt compelled to spend most of my weekends given all that South Bend has to offer.

I arrived in South Bend in September, 1995 to begin what was meant to be a 12-month stay upgrading the mainframe computer system of a finance company who specialized in ‘sub-prime’ credit.  I learned a lot about sub-prime credit during one of the first tests of the new software when a sample car loan calculated an annual interest rate of 54%.  As the team scuffled to apologize to the client for our obvious error, they reassured us.  “Don’t worry, that sounds about right.”  Their practices were apparently legal. I have to admit, it made me think twice about how harshly I had judged the loan-sharks in mafia movies.  I wondered how my devoutly Christian clients squared away their day jobs with the reaction of Jesus to the money-lenders in the temple?

Putting my quibbles about usury to one side, I prepared for my first winter in Indiana. This involved tasks like topping up my windshield washing reservoir with a fluid that was certified to operate at temperatures as low as -10F.   I remember not being able to fathom such a temperature, and how this seemed like an abundance of caution and over-engineering.  But then again, I had never experienced February in Indiana.  I would later not only fathom such temperatures, but also experience the apprehension of wondering if my windshield washing fluid would be frozen given that it was certified to operate only at temperatures no lower than -10F.

The relentless grey skies of winter brought oodles of lake-effect snow, and also acted like a kind of cling-film, allowing South Bend to retain the aromas from the local ethanol manufacturing plant.  It is difficult to describe the smell exactly, but imagine walking around town holding to your nose a sock you had just retrieved from your laundry basket.  Into which you had placed a piece of blue cheese.  That you had retrieved from your garbage.  A month ago.  Only not quite as pleasant.  To be fair, the smell is probably no worse than the smell of hops that carries across the Phoenix Park from the St. James’ Gate brewery when there’s an east wind in Dublin.  To be equally fair, it is far easier to forgive a stench whose end result is Guinness rather than a solvent.

Anyway, back to the memorable moments.  First there was Christine, my heavily pregnant Malaysian colleague running furiously past me one morning to get to the bathroom in a race against time.  She was well past her morning sickness phase, so this had me confused. All became clear once I got to her cube.  We worked in a single-story office building where Christine had a cube with a window view.  There was just a sidewalk and a narrow grass verge separating her from the parking spaces.  A bright-red Nissan Sentra was parked In front of her window.  The bloody corpse of a deer that one of the locals had bagged that morning straddled the hood of the car.  I cannot recall if the cause of death was automobile impact or opportunistic hunting, but I would imagine it was the latter as a rifle is usually within easy reach of your typical South Bend commuter.  Just another day in Indiana.

Without doubt, my favorite memory of South Bend, one which I have retold on numerous occasions over the last twenty years, centered on an exchange with a local girl over lunch.  Soon after my arrival, Lloyd, a consultant from Australia who had been in town a bit longer than I, recommended that we go to a little restaurant on the main street he quite enjoyed.  Lloyd would not mind me saying that he had lost neither his native accent nor decibel level in the few short months he had been living in Indiana.  We were served by a sweet young girl who had a pleasant but shy nature.  She picked up on Lloyd’s accent as being a bit out of the ordinary (I was Irish and evaded curiosity;after all, we were ten-a-penny in Notre Dame country).  She asked him where he was from.

“AUSTRALIA!”Lloyd boomed as a glow of patriotism colored his cheeks.

“Oh,” replied the hostess, “we had a guy come in here last week, he was from Australia too.”

Really?” Lloyd just about managed to respond.  He was clearly struggling to process this turn of events, confident as he had been in the knowledge that he and his family were the sole explorers from Down Under.

“Oh, hang on,” our hostess clarified, “come to think of it, it wasn’t Australia he was from.  It was Finland.”

I had a real ‘Wonder Years’ moment when I heard that.  It brought home to me how isolated this part of the world was from diversity; how utterly unfamiliar everything was, other than the completely familiar.  I already had the sense from my time on the east coast that America was fairly insular in its perspective, but I had not grasped just how insular, even parochial, its worldview could be.  For this girl, there were just two countries in the world: South Bend, Indiana – and everywhere else.

I can imagine the confusion that Governor Mike Pence is feeling at the moment about the reaction to the law he just signed.  It is totally in keeping with how I think of Indiana: lots of good, simple people who think they are doing the right thing, but without enough exposure to different points of view to know when they are being poorly lead.  So, while it is easy to vilify, I often think back to that dear waitress.  I can imagine how she was probably a supporter of this law.  It would have been sold to her as a necessary step to protect her freedom to practice her religion.  I am trying hard not to blame the players, but to blame the game. And the game continues to be the leaders and politicians deliberately exploiting the very fears within their communities that they themselves have stoked.  They know the benefits of having a community afraid; it makes that community easier to control.

I quit my job in Indiana that first February as the temperatures descended to -14F while the gales swept the lake effect snow into huge drifts.  I moved back to Europe, shaking my head and wondering what the heck I had just been through.  I think of Indiana now only when in need of a butt for a joke.  Hopefully, the national and international spotlight that is shining on their state this week will make her citizens wonder why the world is speaking badly of them.  I hold out optimism that having access to information on the Internet rather than having to rely on the pulpit or the local news channel sound-bites will make a real difference in their understanding of the world.  The Internet was not really around in 1995 when I lived there.  So I am hopeful that this furore will make Hoosiers use that tool with a perspective they have not had before, and that they will emerge with a fuller appreciation of the need to defend the rights of the most vulnerable in their community.

Go ‘Irish.

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