31 Jul In the Heartland

When I drove into the Kansas plains last week, I felt an unexpected relief. The heartland, I realized, offered this comfort: I was out of the wilderness. As much as I love the far West, it’s too far west for me. And, as majestic as the western mountains are, they are frightening too. Our nation’s central plains, with their never-changing grid of roads and their endless horizons of corn and soy, are fundamentally reassuring. Solid folk out here. No surprises. Apparently I’m ready for that as I hone in on home.

My From Animal House to Our House book tour took me through Kansas City, MO, where my friends Ben and Linda treated me to the real-thing Kansas City ribs. Oh, yeah. Kansas City, like so many cities its size (Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, etc.) is taking stock of itself and doing some cool stuff. I did my show at their new library, installed in a glorious old bank building — and, happily, we had a full house. Not far away, the city’s new music center, the silver armadillo-like Kaufman Center, has created a buzz world-wide.

One of the highlights of my trip was my stop in Quincy, Illinois, a Mississippi River town: it has a huge array of Victorian houses. And the houses themselves are huge. Our friends Rick and Charles live in one of them. Cleo did not want to leave their house and their good company. Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, across the river attracts most of the tourist. But, really, they should go to Quincy. I got a grand tour of several way-cool houses. By the way, the meat of choice in the central states is pork. Really thick cuts of it. Oh, and Jello salad is a must on most occasions. Have you forgotten about Jello? With cottage cheese and pineapple bits in it?

Somehow I lost my driver’s license. It should be somewhere in the van but I can’t find it, so I had to make a fake ID — because, in case you haven’t thought about it, you really can’t do business in this country without a driver’s license. As it turned out, I had a scan of my license on my computer. You should know that, if you take a photocopy of your license, a black line will appear down the middle of the photocopy. That’s a security mesaure. You can get rid of the line easily enough (though time-consuming) in Photoshop. Also, your fake license won’t be any good without the other side of the card — it contains the ID scan code. I printed out my doctored fake ID, then had it laminated. And it works! But, honestly, I’m tired of losing things. I left my big tripod at Rick and Charles’ place. And I left the two-prong tip to my power Apple cord in an outlet in Kansas City. And things are falling apart too. My new voice recorder stopped recording, so I’ve reverted to my old voice recorder, which I’ve had to tape together. My new camera, which fell from its tripod in Spokane, I have glued together. My radio, which broke over a month, is irreparable, they tell me. I’m streaming music through my Iphone.

I’ve driven through a lot of small towns and seen a lot of cool old buildings. It occurs to me that, for decades, old buildings have been limited to the following re-uses: antique malls, “old fashioned” sundae shops, and “quaint” restaurants. Such limnited use betrays a fundamental misconception about old buildings. It’s as if, because they are old, these buildings must remain stuck forever in that long-ago past. In other words, those who think an old building is best used as an antique mall understand that building only as an artifact — something aged,even decrepit — not as architecture. When we put an old building to a new use, preservationists call it “adaptive re-use.” Such usage respects — and preserves — the architcture but doesn’t see the building as stuck in time. In most major cities, you can find stunning examples of adaptive re-use. Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo) is a good example: shops, restaurants, book stores, design studios, etc., all housed in restored warehouses. LoDo looks old but enjoys state-of-the-art amenities. The best of both worlds.

High summer, the cicadas scream here in the Mid-west. The corn fields are yellowed from lack of water. And the humidity is oppressive. I’ve escaped the heat for most of the trip but now I’m in the midst of it as I head home. Today I drive into Chicago. But not before I visit somebody in Bloomington, Il., who has converted an old orphanage into a home.

That’s called adaptive re-use.