When I lived in Indianapolis, circa 1999, I used to drive by a house that always grabbed my attention, because I was convinced it must be the house John Mellencamp was thinking about when he wrote Pink Houses. The interstate just shaved that tiny little yard into an even tinier little yard with the brute force of it’s massive concrete pilings. There was a high degree of squalor, despite the constant presence of one healthy goat, always perched on top of his goat hut, overlooking the estate. Also, the house was pink.
I always liked to think these were country folk living their little dream; over the course of time the city encroached, and then the interstate came through and erected itself directly over the better part of their humble acreage. I know, in retrospect, and after a few more years in the world, that these dreamers did not predate the metropolis, but rather found themselves in possession of a ten cent piece of property in the part of town where zoning ordinances are just not high on the priority list of the local authorities. These fine folks were reaching for the agrarian stars despite their circumstance, even if the stars consisted of nothing more than a goat.
Also, John was from Indiana. So I knew I was probably right.
I am sometimes given to fits of delusion when it comes to such brushes with fame. For the better part of my young childhood as Krista Nelson, I was desperately hopeful, and somewhat persuaded by a trouble-making grandfather, that I was a long-lost niece of Willie. I understand that this may or may not be something to rightly be hopeful for, but all I knew of Willie was his tattered yet silky voice coming through the radio out on the water, and the feeling he and his buddies gave me every time they came across the airwaves. There may have also been a vague idea that he was sitting on a small pile of money that might trickle down to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, should I be able to prove my genetic link.
Behold, my pot of gold:
At the time of my pink house drive-bys, I was living in my own sort of first apartment squalor. By 1999, there were three major interstates running through the heart of Indianapolis. Then you also had the beltline, another six-lane interstate that circumnavigated the whole of the city, crossing paths with all those other interstates twice. Our crappy apartment complex of a thousand million units sat alongside a pleasant industrial park. Together, our two campuses populated the single square mile hemmed in by three of those massive highways like a triangle of death. I could chuck a rock up onto at least two of them if I’d had enough coffee. As an added bonus for those who just can’t sleep without the noises of the city, just across the beltline from my happy abode lie the Indianapolis International Airport, in all her glory. On a good night, there were races at the Motor Speedway three miles to the north. On a bad night, the dumpsters burned for entertainment.
I knew what it was to have the ‘interstate runnin’ through [m’]front yard,’ but I still had enough common sense to know that I ran about twelve social and financial strata above the poor black man with the goat. I could never really wrap my head around what it must have been like to live down there where he did, in the neighborhoods I’d only passed over, except that one time we took a very wrong turn. The neighborhoods where the dumpster fires of my neighborhood were commonplace and nothing to get all worked up over. We lived so close, yet so very far away.
Casey Kasem told me yesterday, through the magic of the previously recorded Top 40 Hits of January 28th, 1984 (coincidentally my 7th birthday), that John Cougar Mellencamp wrote Pink Houses after driving home from the Indianapolis airport one day (Neighbor!). As Casey relay’s John’s story, there’s a section along the interstate where it runs about 40′ above the ground for a goodly while, and as he peered over the edge, he saw a poverty-stricken man down there, holding his dog on the porch of his pink house. The interstate literally stole half of his backyard, and yet the man with his pooch didn’t look bothered by it in the least. He wrote Pink Houses about how happiness is relative, how we can sometimes be content with a good friend and half of a yard, and we don’t really need all the rest. Sometimes thinking we’ve got it good is enough.
There are social lessons to be deconstructed here, I’m aware. We could go on about colored neighborhoods, the forgotten realms of the inner city, and Mellencamp’s deep contemplations on the American Dream. Where he is right. How we can’t take his observations too far without losing our connection with our fellow man. It’s a sociologist’s dream. But I don’t have such aspirations tonight.
Tonight, I am simply here to tell you that John Cougar Mellencamp’s pink house of inspiration? It is most definitely the same house that I used to trundle past on my way to work. There is no doubt in my mind.
I’m sure of it.
The DJ on the radio just told me that Bob Seger wrote Turn the Page in a motel room in Eau Claire. I wish I could tell you that I’ve had a premonition of the same since the day I was born, but that would be baloney. I will, however, be scanning the sidelines as I travel the EC streets from now on. Maybe I’ll find his room in one of those sadly decrepit strips, where Tom Bodett’s lights haven’t been left on for anyone for a few decades.
I’ll let you know,