After I graduated college and the lease on my tiny studio apartment ran out, I moved back to Indianapolis via what can best be described as total and utter defeat. I spent the summer before traveling and attending an artist workshop in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina; I biked across the entire state of Iowa; I worked at a tiny bookshop, snuck into neighborhood pools, drank cheap beer, and barely made enough money to get by. My meager graduation savings were spent with abandon, and my bank account regularly dropped below hospitable human levels. But I was open and uninhibited and free to do whatever I wanted -- for exactly three months. That’s when, with the swiftness of a single-sentence email, I found out the dream job that would have kept me in Bloomington no longer existed.
A few weeks later, my friends threw a party. Not for me specifically, but it ended up being a true Bloomington sendoff. A bathtub was filled with ice, and, if memory serves me correctly, 90 (!!) cans of beer. I woke up the next morning, sticky with sweat, and not sure how or when I had commandeered my spot on the couch. I tip-toed around the few people left passed out on the floor and walked home to pack up my car with the last of the things from my apartment. I then drove back to Indianapolis and unloaded it all into my childhood bedroom.
I couldn’t ignore the appeal of a larger city
From a certain angle, Indianapolis seems like not much more than clusters of strip malls connected by long, winding highways. Outside of the state, mentions of the city are usually greeted with “Oh, I drove through there once.” I guess you could say coming from the area earns you a certain amount of humility and hunger, a yearning to make up for what your city is perceived to lack. We even struggle with what to call ourselves: "Hoosiers" -- referring to anyone from the state of Indiana -- is too general, and, seriously, very dorky. "Naptowners" is good, but it's too much of a local dialect thing that can only be pulled off by genuinely cool people (or radio DJs). Meanwhile, "Indianapolitans" is just plain unpronounceable. Plus, I don’t think I've ever heard anyone say it out loud.
Our few small claims to fame include being the origin for a few celebrities, some sports teams, and an annual automobile race that I’ve admittedly never attended in spite of 24 years of residency, on and off. Indianapolis is a city gripped with a quiet, Midwestern unpretentiousness. With over 800,000 residents, it's far from a small town. In fact, it's the 13th largest city in the US, but something about it has never quite felt like a city.
I realized growing up there that it seemed to lack an epicenter, a cohesive nucleus that defined what it meant to be from somewhere. Twenty years ago, Downtown Indy was ostensibly barren. Our teenage years were spent driving around aimlessly, hoping for something, anything to do. But as I came of age, I began to notice the city’s personality. Perhaps this lag in understanding is in part due to its proximity to Chicago, the massive metropolis that rules the Midwest. Maybe Hoosiers have developed a sort of inferiority complex because of it. After all, Chicago, being so imposing and vibrant and harsh and loud and cold, hardly ever seemed to embody what I considered that meek, compliant Midwestern-ness. Which is exactly why I currently live here, after spending my entire life in Indiana.
"Indianapolis is a city gripped with a quiet, Midwestern unpretentiousness."
Indianapolis is just a fraction of Chicago’s population of nearly three million, but its breadth spans much wider. While smaller cities feel tight, cramped, and energetic, Indy is scattered, languid, and roaming. The sheer sprawl of the city, coupled with sparse public transit, makes it feel almost unknowable. Some neighborhoods look like ghost towns, while others feel like little islands protected from the possibly destructive lure of tourism.
At its core, it's a city like anywhere else: full of people just living their lives. Outside of it, former residents have the power of anonymity, the ability to create and project their own experience of what it means to be from there. But if I'm being honest, when I'm asked what it means to be from Indianapolis, I never really know what to say. Especially in light of the present political atmosphere (read: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or increased restrictions on reproductive rights), it sometimes feels like the choice to define ourselves has never really been up to us, the residents.
In spite of the support of family and friends, I was floundering
During the two years I spent in Indianapolis after graduation I never quite got my footing. I hopped back and forth between my (very gracious and very accommodating) parents' homes. For a few months I moved into what was more or less a friend’s attic. I slept on more couches than I could count. I cycled through nine different jobs, usually keeping two or three on at a time. I went through bouts of un- and underemployment, much to my (very gracious and very accommodating) mother’s chagrin. Anytime I saved up enough money to get by for a few weeks, I’d break and take a trip to see friends in Cleveland, New York, Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Bloomington, and anywhere else that wasn’t Indianapolis.
"Once I saw the city through adult eyes, I realized Indy never needed a facelift."
I’d spend my days taking the dog for long hikes at the park, going to my favorite taco stand, binge-watching bad TV with my mom, and thrift shopping until my eyes hurt. Tuesday and Friday nights were sacred times reserved for karaoke. Wednesday nights were for spaghetti dinners at my dad’s. Mondays were the days the good pizza place was closed, so they were basically useless. I also started doing stand-up and teaching art classes.
Point is: the longer I stayed, the more comfortable I got. But I never felt settled. I had a small circle of friends, but I couldn’t help but feel the pull from those who had already moved on. Growing up in Indiana, there was always that particular adolescent urgency that we were going to get out someday. As soon as we turned 18, it was let’s go to New York, or California. But never Chicago -- it’s too cold, we'd say. But then 18 got pushed back to 21. Then 21 got pushed back to having jobs and debts and families and kids and relationships.
Time and distance ultimately made me love Indianapolis
As I began to see the city through adult eyes I realized Indianapolis never needed a facelift. Maybe the word we’re really looking for to define it is "overlooked." Not as though the city is some discoverable, up-and-coming town fertile for development; it's just a place filled with people doing cool shit, people who want more buses and grocery stores and affordable homes. People in Indianapolis are already living interesting and happy lives. They create art and music -- and there’s no shortage of really, really good donut shops. Some of the absolute best food in the city is tucked away behind inconspicuous strip mall storefronts, in quietly thriving establishments run by immigrants.
"I couldn’t help but feel the pull from those who had already moved on from the city."
Now I’m 24 and about nine months into my first year in Chicago. I’ve had my wallet stolen, broken two phones, had one job close down, and another one catch on fire. One day when I was really hurting for money, I found an unmarked purse on the ground outside stuffed with over $300 in cash. I think in the end it was cursed or, at the very least, haunted.
By some sort of miracle I’m still here and, to my surprise, paying my rent on time. I often yearn for some things I know I can only get in Indianapolis: watching my friend’s kids get so hyped up on two sips of a milkshake that they nearly explode, the dive bar that used to be a Chinese restaurant, cardboard cutouts of race-car drivers propped up beneath the opulent red and gold ceiling tiles. Take your pick.
I miss the dirty basement clubs where I drank too much and danced until my legs hurt. I miss belting "I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt on a mirrored staircase. I miss the international supermarket down the road from my mom’s house where I got lost in the aisles, picking up cardamom and café bustelo and imported candy. I miss eating greasy chicken fingers at a 24-hour diner, accompanied by the sounds of a loud drag show at the other end of the bar. I miss my family. Like, even my brother. I miss my very bad dog who ate my diploma along with my mom’s prayer journal. I miss the Mexican restaurant where, I kid you not, my dad goes twice weekly, at the very least. I miss the beautiful, weird city that in my heart will always be my home.
But I just had my first jibarito here in Chicago so I think I have to stay.
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