I was living in Greenwich Village in 1959 when I first heard Joni James sing “Little Things Mean A Lot,” and the title as well as some of the lyrics of the song have stuck with me ever since (“Say I look nice when I’m not. . .”) When I moved back to Indy in 2011 I lived downtown, and I knew no one in the neighborhood. Most of the people in my building were in their twenties, and no one ever spoke to me. They must have thought I was The Ghost of Christmas Past. The Borders Bookstore downtown had just closed and was sitting there empty, which was depressing to look at or to walk by. A city without a bookstore downtown seems like a city without a soul. (When IndyReadsBooks opened a year later on Mass. Ave, I felt a great wave of relief – it was like the Cavalry had arrived (with books) and saved the day.)
I didn’t know any of the local stores or the people who worked in them, but three people who work downtown made me feel at home. They didn’t do it by rolling out a red carpet or performing a song and dance of welcome, but simply by smiling, acting friendly, and being helpful above and beyond the call of duty. (None of them, by the way, said “Have A Good Day,” the rote words that sound as if someone has put a nickel in a machine and got a recording, or even worse, asked me “How Is Your Day?” or “How is Your Morning?” to which I want to answer “None of your business!”
The first crucial person in my downtown Indy re-settlement was Michelle at Marsh Pharmacy. Trying to find my way through the Kafka-like corridors of IU Health, I was relieved and grateful to meet a pharmacist who could answer my medical questions – and actually smile! She even remembered who I was when I returned! When I call to ask her a question on the phone I am never told she can’t talk to me because she’s “In Clinic,” like the doctors at IU Health. (Someday I want to see their “Clinic” – I picture it as a vast laboratory with gurgling test tubes, something like the realm of Dr. Frankenstein.)
Michelle Olin Pettronzio reminds me in spirit of my pharmacist father, whose patron/patients at Harbison’s (later “Wakefield’s) Drugstore at 16th and Central (now obliterated) called him “Doc.” He knew them all by their name and ailments, and treated them with his Southern Gentlemanly courtesy as well as his pharmaceutical knowledge. Though I moved from downtown, I still keep one of my prescriptions at the Marsh on Vermont Street so I will have an excuse to stop by and say hello to Michelle, who is known and appreciated by current and former neighbors who always light up when I mention her name.
In my years of living on Beacon Hill in Boston, I was introduced to the manager of what then was The Shawmut Bank on the corner of Beacon and Charles, Mr. Thomas Trahan, by my publisher, Seymour Lawrence, whose own office was around the corner at 90 Beacon Street. (Talk about an all-service neighborhood!) It was always a pleasure to trade observations and neighborhood gossip with Mr. Trahan, who sometimes at Christmas invited me and Sam Lawrence to ride around the block with him in a limo he rented for the holidays and join him in a glass of champagne. After Mr. Trahan retired, there were a series of great Branch managers, and despite the bank morphing into different Bank names and ownerships, the tradition of friendly service continued – though the limo and champagne at Christmas was retired with Mr. Trahan. Finally, the bank branch itself was retired, another knife in the spirit of the neighborhood before it became a giant pied-a-terre for millionaire/billionaires.
When I moved to Miami, I soon found that anyone hoping to open a bank account was regarded as a criminal. It was understandable, given the city’s history (when federal troops were sent in to try to control the rival drug gangs, Time magazine featured Miami in a 1981 cover story with the words “Paradise Lost.”) Although the drug gangs were at least moved out of the public eye by the ‘nineties, the suspicious attitude of bank employes toward customers never seemed to change.
When I asked a friend to recommend a bank when I moved to Indy, he suggested I try a Credit Union. I first tried the one closest to where I lived, which was The Firefighters Credit Union, but was told I had to be a Firefighter to have an account. While walking around The Circle I noticed The Forum Credit Union. It must have been my lucky day, for when I walked in, the first person I saw behind a desk was Pamela Obegi. She was not only pleasant, but also tolerant of my banking ignorance (I flunked Algebra I at Shortridge, and have never recovered.) Unlike the bank employees I encountered in Miami, she did not seem to suspect me of criminal activities, and was happy to open a checking and savings account for me.
During the time I’ve lived here, Mrs. Obegi has answered all my questions, and even helped me through a computer crisis. I had booked a hotel reservation for Miami to visit my God Daughter, but it turned out there was a hotel with the same name in Bangkok, and of course I had managed to mistakenly make my on-line reservation for Bangkok. I ran to the bank, trusting that Mrs. Obegi could cancel my travel to Thailand and secure my hotel room in Miami. This had nothing to do with my bank accounts (although left to my own devices I would probably have lost the money for a mistaken reservation halfway around the world.) Mrs. Obegi saved me from my computer ineptitude with her calm efficiency and a smile. (Having just saved my day, she did not need to ask me “how my day was going.”)
The least likely place to encounter someone who makes you feel welcome in a new city and neighborhood is the Dry Cleaners. Because it was convenient, I took my cleaning to Tuchman’s, which then was located across the street from my apartment, in the same parking area as the Marsh Grocery Store and Pharmacy. The manager there, Ashley Ballard, made sure my blue jeans were pressed just the way I wanted, and was quietly pleasant to talk with. I learned she had a pre-K daughter and was soon on the way to having another. Since my own God Daughter was now a teenager in Miami, I enjoyed getting little Christmas presents for Ashley’s daughters, which made it seem more like Christmas. When Tuchman’s moved to a less convenient location I faithfully took my cleaning there until Ashley left for a job with the City – a blow to Tuchman’s which I wonder if they can survive.
When I moved to my old neighborhood of Broad Ripple in 2013, not a single one of my childhood haunts remained – Lobraico’s Drugstore, Vonnegut’s Hardware, Gene’s Pure Oil Service Station, The White House record store (for 78rpms, complete with a “listening booth”), Danner’s Dime Store, Von Burg’s Drive-In (best tenderloins in town) – all were gone. The Vogue was still there, but it was no longer a movie theatre, and its entertainment bore no relation to the place where I spent the Saturday afternoons of my childhood watching a newsreel, a serial, a cartoon, and a movie double-feature. What I found just as shocking and no less dis-heartening was that Broad Ripple now called itself a “Village.” When I was growing up, we were satisfied to live in a great neighborhood. I wondered if becoming a “Village” meant that elves had moved in, but I have yet to spot any green-clad little people with pointy shoes dancing on Winthrop, Guilford or Carrollton.
I had moved to my old neighborhood from my downtown apartment to find a place with an extra bedroom for my God Daughter Karina while she lived here and went to Harrison College to become a Veterinary Assistant. I rented one side of a double with two bedrooms only a block or so from the house where I lived from age five to fifteen (it was also a double, and my Grandma Irene-y lived on the other side with my cousin “Junior” (Clayton E. Ridge, Jr.)
Karina needed a part-time job, and one day walking home from the Post Office I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of “A Taste of Havana,” the Cuban sandwich shop on Broad Ripple Avenue. I rushed home and told Karina to hurry down there and apply – as a Cuban-American citizen who is fluent in Spanish, she was surely qualified.
If ever a job was made in heaven, this was it. What were the odds of my God Daughter from Miami finding a job in my old Broad Ripple neighborhood that was owned by a Cuban-American man and his daughter? Best of all, George Mireles and his daughter Diana were wonderful people to work with – and on top of that they make and serve good food! I became a regular diner at “A Taste of Havana,” and although I’ve moved a few miles away in “Sobro,” I walk back there every Friday for the Shrimp and Rice Special, my favorite as a vegetarian – though they also have a veggie sandwich that’s the only one of its kind I’ve tried in the city that actually has a taste. I go on other days for the Borracho (drunken) Pinto Beans soaked in beer, over yellow rice. Sometimes I go there just to feel good. I smile when I read their poster that says “No Wi-Fi. Call your mother. Talk to each other. Pretend it’s 1993!” George takes genuine pleasure in making sure the customers are happy, giving out free shots of Cuban coffee after every meal, claiming its superiority over the Italian brew.
When I want to go out, I now have places for every time of day where I feel at home – Moe and Johnny’s Coffeehouse in the morning, The Red Key Tavern at night, and “A Taste of Havana” for lunch, brunch, or just a break any time for a home-made coconut flan with a cortadito – a cup of the rich Cuban coffee that will warm your heart, along with George’s laugh and Diana’s smile.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Broad Ripple Magazine.