Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Breaking Back Into Bloomington

I think it's annoying that when I tell people around here that I'm going to Bloomington, I have to add "Indiana."

Around these parts when someone says, "Bloomington," they're usually referring to the lame one-- the one in central Illinois that is the home of State Farm Insurance and Beer Nuts.

But where I come from-- and for people who live a scant 45 miles east of here-- Bloomington has a way cooler meaning: the small college town in southern Indiana where the main campus of Indiana University lives.

For six years in the 1990's I called Bloomington home.  I earned two degrees there, worked four different jobs, met dozens of people and collected a lifetime of stories.  I learned, grew, and changed.       


So on a recent nostalgia trip to Bloomington, my girlfriend (and traveling companion) asked me, "Have you ever seen Breaking Away?"

Have I ever seen Breaking Away?!  I'm from Indiana!  I could recite that movie!

 ("Oh, Fellini, get off the table!"  "That's my cat and I named him Jake!  Your name's Jake, not Fellini!  I won't have any eeny in this house!!")

I then decided that we absolutely had to watch the movie while we were there.  Not only was Breaking Away about Bloomington (and won the 1979 Oscar for Best Screenplay), it was filmed entirely in Bloomington, so watching it is a nice time capsule of what the town and university looked like in the late 70's. (If you're not familiar with it, read Roger Ebert's review from 1979:

But the first challenge was to see if we could find a copy of the movie on a Saturday night on Kirkwood Avenue (Bloomington's main drag.) 

View down Kirkwood from the main gates of campus
We stopped at the Tracks record store, where I used to go to all the time to buy cassette tapes, but today mostly sells IU t-shirts and paraphernalia.

They had a bunch of used DVD's in bins outside, but after rifling through them, we couldn't find the movie. I went inside and asked the college kid behind the counter, "Would you be able to tell me if you have a specific DVD?"

"Oh, not really, but what is the title? Maybe I remember seeing it."

I said Breaking Away, and he pointed to the counter in front of me.  A dozen new copies of the movie sat wrapped in cellophane before me.  Duh!  Of course-- this is Bloomington! 

Thirty-four years after it was filmed here, not only could you find new copies it, but they also sold replicas of the white Cutters t-shirts from the movie.

As my gf pointed out, that t-shirt would have a totally different connotation for kids these days.

Watching Breaking Away at our hotel in Bloomington was a nostalgia spiral.  Here I was watching a movie about Bloomington that captured the time before I moved there, seeing places I remember from my own college days, and places I would be walking past the next day.

The movie holds up well.  It does a great job of illustrating sociological issues (i.e. "town vs. gown") through individual perspectives.  As Roger Ebert says, it is "a wonderfully sunny, funny, goofy, intelligent movie that makes you feel about as good as any movie in a long time."  But as an older adult I did notice some plot holes I hadn't seen before.  Like how some random nonathletic kid who wins a new racing bike could suddenly become so successful at bike racing, or why he needs to tape himself to the bike in the last race.  It also struck me that this is basically a xenophobic movie-- all the villains are outsiders: the college kids, the Italian bicyclists, etc.

But these are quibbles.  On the whole, it's still a great movie.  And just like I said in college 20 years ago, if you haven't seen it, you HAVE TO!!


If you were to ask my girlfriend (and traveling companion) about her impressions of Bloomington, she would probably say, "95 degrees, limestone, 95 degrees, some more limestone buildings, and 95 degrees."  They were having a heat wave when we visited, and indeed, there are a lot of limestone buildings.

Indiana limestone is not only ubiquitous and pretty-- it is famous.  It's what the Empire State Building is made of.
True fact: this was built with limestone near Bloomington

That's the problem with taking someone on your own nostalgia trip.  Where I see memories at every turn, she just sees pretty buildings and a scenic campus.  This is where I lived!  This is where I took a class! This is where I walked!  And here's the scenic campus from a different angle! And here's the place where I had lunch!  

When we got to Showalter Fountain, I had to tell the story of a hot summer night, one of those nights when it was humid and 95 degrees at midnight, so my roommates and I decided to go play in the fountain.  We walked all the way across campus at midnight and jumped in the fountain to cool off. When we got there, there were other groups of students also enjoying the fountain that night.  It was an impromptu party.

Showalter Fountain: we partied with the naked fish lady

That seems like the epitome of a college story.  The kind of thing you did before you have jobs and homes and children.

Maybe that's why everyone has a special place in their heart for their college town.  It was the first (possibly only) time in your life you jumped in a fountain at midnight.    

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