At Indiana University, Kirkwood Avenue was the place, at least when I attended. It didn’t matter who you were, athlete, freshmen, visiting parent, alumni, faculty…any and all celebratory events in Bloomington eventually touched down on Kirkwood Avenue.
The monolithic Sample Gates mark the boundary between school and the street. The gates themselves, providing a natural frame millions of photos of Kirkwood Avenue since 1987, were designed to welcome visitors to campus. They mean the exact opposite to students. After a day of brain beating and speed-walking (try crossing campus in twenty minutes), the Sample Gates provided symbolic decompression. Cross them and school’s out.
I read recently that Kirkwood Avenue’s going to change with plans calling for a more pedestrian-friendly layout. Wider sidewalks, lights controlled by pedestrians and even clearing out the cars completely. It’s not simple renovation coming to Kirkwood Avenue though; it’s gentrification. It’s good for the city, it’s good for businesses and it’s good for visitors, but…is it going to be Kirkwood anymore?
I haven’t been to IU since 2004. I visited regularly until I was twenty-four and, sitting in the monstrous library during my last visit, I looked around and realized that everyone was younger than me. Since then, I’ve relied on old memories rather than new visits. For this article and to mourn the maturation of Kirkwood Avenue, I thought I’d relate a couple of stories during my time as an impoverished IU alum.
One spring afternoon, I walked down Kirkwood with a friend. I had just dyed my hair black. Not goth black, just black, simply because I thought it would be cool. At the time I had hair to my neckline and longer sideburns. Walking down Kirkwood, a homeless man, panhandling for change, set down his cup, pointed at me and and gleefully called out “Hey man, you look JUST like Elvis!”
My friend and I cracked up and I gave the guy a couple dollars. That evening (and no offense to the King) I had my hair cut short, lost the sideburns and never dyed it again. To this day, I wasn’t sure if it had been an insult or a complement.
In 1999, the now-defunct Hoosier Fest shut down Kirkwood and thousands filled the streets for a long day of live music. I stood in the crowded, muggy street with about eight people. A lady in her twenties staggered out of the crowd and stumbled into us, mumbling an apology. Smiling with the empathy of the not-yet inebriated, we parted for the obviously drunk woman, but she again stumbled, right into me this time.
I smoked at the time and had a cigarette tucked between my fingers. She smashed her arm into it, completely stubbing out the cigarette on her skin. “Oh my God, are you okay?!” I said, seeing the ashy black circle on her arm. She stood back and stared at me, looking equal parts confused and annoyed and then disappeared into the crowd. She hadn’t even looked at her arm.
I came back from Christmas break two days early. My dorm room hadn’t even turned on the hot water yet, so I had to endure an ice-cold shower for two minutes (basically a liquid defibrillator). A girl-friend and I (I can’t remember if we were dating at the time or just getting there, so I left in the hyphen) arrived early as well, and we decided to take a walk across campus that evening up Kirkwood Avenue and grab dinner at the Subway on the town square (the same Subway of Jared fame/infamy).
And it was cold with a capital DAMN.
Long strings of lights decorated the square, but that was a Bloomington tradition. Nothing new. The dozen people tromping this way and that in the snow carrying equipment and dour faces was new. Spotlights glared on a man dancing alone off to the side, holding a guitar and smiling like a car salesman. A short and familiar man. DING! “Crap,” I said, “I think that’s John Cougar.” It was.
Later I would find out John Mellencamp had been filming the video for “I’m Not Running Anymore” that night, most likely to avoid the influx of students after the break ended. If you’re interested, here’s a link to the video. Toward the end you’ll see the town square lit up on a chilly winter night.
I have more stories, but to spare myself embarrassment and the illusions of any relatives that might read this, I’ll leave out the details. You can only imagine. I will, however, hint at one story in just three words. If you’ve attended Bloomington or visited for any length of time, you’ll know exactly what these three words mean and you’ll fill in the blanks easier than a game of Mad Libs. If you haven’t, then these three words will mean nothing.
SINK. THE. BIZ.