Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Tiny Kitchen

Of the hundreds of columns and blog entries I’ve written over the past 13 years for various local papers, this is one people still ask me about, so I’m sending it along again this Christmas. It was first published in the old Noblesville Ledger in 1998.

The grandchildren mentioned in the story are nearly all adults now. Sam teaches school in inner-city Washington D.C., Joe is a Junior at UCon, Rachel has graduated from Miami of Ohio and works in Cincinnati, Laura is a high school senior at an American school in Uruguay, Cal is a college senior who will heading to Japan for his last year, Jack is a flourishing journalism student who spent part of last summer traveling and writing in China, the Sally, who was 4 when this was originally written just danced of the Arabian in the Nutcracker and will get her driver’s license soon.

We no longer have Christmas in the house mentioned in this story. The grandparents are already in Florida.

The Tiny Kitchen

At Christmas each year 18 of us - 11 adults and 7 children, converge on a big old house in Bluffton, Indiana with large rooms, tall ceilings and lots of bedrooms. The kitchen there is hopelessly small - perhaps eight by eight with a 12-foot ceiling, as if it were built for incredibly skinny, tall people. Along with the cabinets, stove, sink and refrigerator are three doorways and a little antique table that sits in the middle, leaving a square, narrow path for cooking and socializing.

We like to complain about that kitchen, but quiet enough so the grandparents don’t hear.

There are rooms in that house with comfortable chairs, places to sit and talk, yet, more times than not, complaints aside, we huddle in that tiny kitchen, drawn by nature like bugs to a back porch light. If you want a Coke or milk, either someone must move or you have to crack the refrigerator door just enough to stretch your arm in. If you want to open a cabinet, microwave, stove or rinse a glass in the sink, somebody . . . or somebodies, must move. Still we stay and gab.

It is most like this in late afternoon. There is a roast packed with spices sizzling in the oven, things steaming on the stove and 8 or 10 of us wedged in there elbow to elbow, nibbling on nuts and chips, each of us with a beer or martini. Children push their way through the legs, looking for a mother or father or cookie or cracker, or they push on to the back room where pies and Christmas cookies sit on the washer and dryer, waiting for desert.

There were years when our babies were breast-fed and burped and cradled to sleep in this crowded, hot, tiny kitchen filled with the smells of pine needles, coffee, leg of lamb and boiling potatoes, where middle-aged brothers and sisters catch up on another intervening year. We always hoped and prayed the babies would sleep through dinner. But I think our “baby” years are behinds us all and a couple of those babies who once fell asleep over their mother’s shoulder beside the warm stove are nearly as tall as the shortest of their aunts.

There is something about that cramped, cozy space, something completely at odds with the modern notion of what a kitchen must be like in a new house. There is little counter space, no dishwasher or trash compactor, no commercial-sized stove or water and ice in the frig door. It is a remarkably impractical kitchen. Thumb through an issue of Martha Stewart magazine or watch a few episodes of This Old House - each make it clear that such a kitchen could be best helped with a stick of dynamite.

We like to complain about that tiny kitchen. My wife even rearranged the space a bit this past Thanksgiving, but there’s not a lot you can do with it without a sledgehammer. Still I wonder, would we be drawn there the same if it were a kitchen worthy of praise from Martha Stewart or Architectural Digest? I doubt it. More space, more burners, better lighting and comfy bar stools could not make us enjoy each other’s company more or make the food taste better. If it were large and spacious, if it were the “entertaining/performance space” that architects go on about on This Old House, would we be drawn there the same? I doubt it.

There’s something about close quarters that can free people’s tongues in the nicest way. You can’t design that into a modern kitchen without breaking all the rules.

Everyone here is successful. All are well-educated college graduates who have traveled abroad. One family has been living abroad for years while another comes from Washington where the father has tried cases before the Supreme Court. From Cleveland another shepherds ads we have all seen on TV. One runs his own advertising agency. One has published a book. Everyone here could or does have a finer kitchen in their own homes. But I would guess none of us have had as many loving, memorable moments in our own kitchens as have been had over the Christmases we’ve tolerated, or perhaps reveled in the cramped space and one another’s company in that tiny kitchen.

It makes me wonder about the things we think we need and work so hard to get, especially in this season so over-inflated with consuming and having. The pleasures of Christmas in that tiny kitchen contradict the rest of the year we spend working so hard to buy comfort for ourselves.

Friday, December 17, 2010

In The Shadow of The Courthouse

On one of the last warm days of autumn I’m at the stop light at 8th and Logan when I see him coming up the sidewalk from the county parking lot. He’s maybe 25 with freshly cut shaggy blonde hair, a deep indigo tattoo on his arm and a piercing on his lower lip. There’s a chain from his belt to a black leather wallet tucked in his back pocket. His tight, ill-fitting clothes look borrowed or found in the back of the closet, maybe leftover from graduation or a wedding. He enters the cross walk distracted, alternately and warily eyeing a legal-sized document in his hand and the Judicial Center.

He’s just one in the cast of characters on the courthouse square on any given day. As people head to offices or courtrooms, you never get more than a glimpse at their story or mission.

There is an array of lawyers passing on the sidewalk, some familiar, some unknown. I see two of Noblesville’s well-established attorneys on the same day. Jack Hittle ambles along beneath the shadow of the courthouse, bolt upright wearing a tweed driving cap. He sees my red van and offers a stiff wave as I pass. Steve Holt turns the corner of 10th and Conner in a navy blue suite with a clutch of files under his arm.

At lunchtime a scrum of B-team attorneys wait at the crosswalk. I’ve seen this group in the Hamilton or Asian Grill. A couple dominate the conversation while a young one sits with arms crossed at the edge of the action scanning the room and the faces at his table, looking lost.

You normally don’t see judges. They park underground beneath the Judicial Center. But during the lunch hour Judge Pflegging might round a corner plodding down the sidewalk in running shoes and shorts, jogging his lunch hour away. Sitting with my lunchtime gang at the coffee shop, I’ll often see a magistrate and a judge pass the window headed to Subway.

And the county employees: these are the people popping out of the alleyways at 7:50 each morning waiting for traffic that won’t stop to let them pass, the ones who get chased out of crosswalks by drivers talking on their cell phones, the ones being brow-beaten right now to cut spending, the ones trying to manage your child support payments, your property tax payments, your court date, your farm’s drainage issues, your child’s vaccinations and a thousand other things too numerous to mention.

I know scores of these folks by site, not name. I see them in the coffee shop in the morning, in restaurants at lunch, and passing under the Conner Street Bridge at the end of the day. Some hapless souls stand in the snow, smoking at break time, hugging themselves with a cigarette between two fingers beneath the granite overhang of the Judicial Center. Two of them power walk through Old Town neighborhoods during their lunch hour. And I note the mysterious habit of female workers: they carry multiple bags to and from work – some carrying as many of three shoulder or tote bags.

Comedy relief in this chaotic production comes in the form of the gorilla-marketing dude on the corner of 8th and Conner dancing in his dollar bill costume, carrying a sign that says, “We Buy Gold,” and the elderly man who sometimes sits on a bench with a sign that reads, “Jesus Saved Me From Cigarettes.”

Of all that I see on the courthouse square there’s one thing that sends a cold shadow across my heart: the television news trucks. Their arrival usually signals a moment of warped human perspective. If a hardworking, low-income mother isn’t getting child support payments from her child’s father, the news trucks will not arrive. If a deceased billionaire’s first wife sues his 2nd wife, they will be there with their satellite dishes extended skyward. If a Carmel High School student was being recognized by the County Commissioners for winning the National Science Fair, they won’t be there. If a Carmel High School athlete gives another student an “atomic goose” on the back of a team bus, the cameras will be there for the assault hearing, capturing the earnest words of a reporter’s dispatch from the courthouse lawn.

Look about next time you’re caught at a stoplight downtown. On any given workday you can witness suggested tragedies, hints of law enforcement, glimpses of criminal justice, and the beginning of half-told stories.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Search of A Downtown Theater

It’s summer, 1993. Downtown Noblesville’s last theater, The Diana, has been demolished at the corner of 9th and Clinton. From her family business across the street, then Mayor, Mary Sue Rowland could view the rubble. No one did more to keep the building standing than Rowland. She understood it was a valuable economic asset, but her city council and the local business community didn’t back her up.

If community leaders could go back and undo that event, they would. In fact some folks are trying right now.

The groups trying to reestablish a theater downtown are as far flung as The Belfry Theatre, Noblesville Cultural Arts Commission, the Hamilton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the City of Noblesville. Proposed locations are varied as well. But it’s agreed a live theater as part of a larger civic center is the vital missing element needed to help downtown realize its full potential.

According to Mark Tumey, board president of Noblesville’s Belfry Theatre, "A part of the Belfry's long range planning is the possibility of relocating to downtown Noblesville.” Tumey says that surveys of both their board and their patrons support such a move.

Tumey sees more than Belfry patrons benefiting. “The possibility of a theater with the heritage of the Belfry's located in the historic downtown area, coupled with local retailers and restaurantswould certainly present a pleasant experience to all,” Tumey says.

The Belfry’s plan is just the first of many stars that will have to align if a theater is to be built.

(At right: The old Diana Theater once stood at the corner of 9th and Clinton. Its demolition by Society Bank in 1993 was opposed by then Mayor Mary Sue Rowland, and the Noblesville Preservation Alliance. Pictured here are a group of newspaper boys standing beneath its marquee,circa 1925. The gentleman in the back, far right is John Wise, Noblesville's main newspaper delivery man from the 1890s until the Great Depression.)

Brenda Myers, Executive Director of Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau also sees economic benefit for other players downtown. “Anything that can drive evening activity to downtown is a plus. And a theater is a good way to do it.”

In fact, merchants and restaurant owners get a little giddy when they imagine several hundred Belfry Theatre goers converging on downtown for Friday and Saturday night shows and weekend afternoon matinees.

Myers’s Visitors Bureau, like an increasing number of such organizations has stepped beyond traditional tourism promotion, expanding into the realm of economic development that can bolster tourism. Partnering in the construction of a theater would be a prime example.

But the goal coalescing around a future theater isn’t simply to house the Belfry and enhance retail sales downtown. It’s hoped such a facility could solve other problems as well.

Christy Langley of City of Noblesville’s Economic Development Department notes that the annual Mayor’s Ball, and the recent Chamber of Commerce 75th Anniversary celebration had to be held in Carmel. “Noblesville needs a place for public functions like that,” Langley says.

Brenda Myers agrees, “Noblesville doesn’t have adequate banquet space. A civic center with a theater could do that.”

(below: the Wild Opera House, which once stood a half block south of the courthouse on 9th.)

Mary Sue Rowland’s interest in a downtown theater didn’t end in ‘93 with the demolition of the Diana. Now, as a member of Noblesville’s Common Council and the Cultural Arts Commission, she’s been pushing to keep a proposed theater on the City’s front burner. Working with the Arts Commission, she asked Darren Peterson of Peterson Architecture to re-imagine another Noblesville theater that was demolished decades ago; The Wild Opera House. (see photo at top of entry)

Peterson’s resulting design shows a new civic center theater in the same 9th Street location that once held the Victorian-era opera house, now a city parking lot.

Rowland has presented the plan to various city committees and it was discussed at the common council’s most recent planning retreat, making the final list of projects the council wants to pursue.

Rowland says, “The vision of the Cultural Arts Commission is a facility that could be a meeting space for 400-500 people for events like banquets and the Mayor’s Ball. And the theater might be a convertible space that could also be used as a dance floor, or winter Parks Department classes.”

Christy Langley summed up what most stakeholders in a potential theater agree upon, “We need to avoid a Palladium-styled project,” (referring to Carmel’s opulent and staggeringly expensive new facility), “and do something that’s more appropriate for Noblesville.”

But a simple reality remains; today the former locations of Noblesville’s old theaters are barren asphalt. Rebuilding a theater on one of those sites will require the commitment of many organizations all working toward the same goal.

(below: Another view of the Wild Opera House. Photo thanks to Dave Heighway.)