Taste-Less Broad Ripple

With “Taste of Havana” leaving Broad Ripple, the neighborhood loses more than great Cuban sandwiches, food bowls, rice and beans, coconut flan, and rich Cuban coffee; it loses what was left of its soul. When George Chalgub and his daughter Diana Mireles opened their restaurant at 816 Broad Ripple Avenue on August of 2013, I felt a revival of the spirit of the street that was “Main Street when I was growing up at 6129 Winthrop and attending School #80 (now a condo, like nearly all of the former houses on the Monon side of the 6100 block of Winthrop.)

Those were the good old days when “Broad Ripple Avenue” was still 63rd Street and Broad Ripple was a great neighborhood, not yet a “Village.” (It became a “Village” in 1969, around the time that “The Lower East Side” of Manhattan renamed itself “The East Village” to justify raising rents by claiming to be an extension of the original Greenwich Village. They at least had the rationale of proximity for their name-changing rent raise. The so-called “village” of Broad Ripple becomes bigger, more crowded, and less village-like every day (I have yet to see any tepees or leprechauns in the vicinity.)

The reason the Cuban restaurant reminds me of the days when the “Avenue” was simply 63rd Street is that George Chalub, the owner of “Taste of Havana” carries on real conversations with his customers, the kind of friendly and interesting talk that I used to hear at Gene Purcell’s Pure Oil gas station that sat on the corner of 63rd and Winthrop. I used to hang out there after classes were over at School #80 in hopes of hearing talk by the Broad Ripple basketball players who liked to stop in and get peanuts from the penny machine . People who got their gas filled or their oil changed or any kind of repair work done on their car often got out and went in to the “office” to shoot the breeze with Gene or other customers who were usually neighbors.

It’s not just in Broad Ripple, of course, that people now mainly talk to their phones or just stare at them. “Taste of Havana” discourages such behavior, unless it’s for a good cause. One of the signs on the wall expressing George’s philosophy announces: “NO WIFI. Call your mother. Talk to her. Pretend it’s 1996.” Another of George’s suggestions begins “Start with the best coffee around. [It’s been voted Best in Indiana.]” The recommendations for some of the restaurants finest dishes closes with this advice: “Now sip your coffee, enjoy the company and LIFE.”

George likes to talk. He likes to talk to his customers, find out where they’re from and what they like, make sure they enjoyed whatever he served them, making sure they top it off with a shot of the dark, sweet Cuban coffee that comes with every meal and gives a nice boost to your day.

I have a special affection for “Taste of Havana,” because my God Daughter from Miami came to live here with me while she went to Harrison College to study veterinary medicine and she needed a part time job. Just when she was getting on a lot of waiting lists but no jobs, I happened to walk by “A Taste of Havana” and saw a sign in the window that said “Now Hiring.” I ran-jogged huffed and puffed my way back to our half of a double on 61st Street, and breathlessly said to Karina “Get down to this place and speak some Spanish!” She did, and learned that George had gone to Coral Gables High School, the rival of her own Miami Senior High – the job was hers. She became friends with George and his daughter Diana and had an instant Cuban home-away-from-home as well as a part-time job. She made the Dean’s List at Harrison, became certified as a veterinary assistant, and now works at an animal hospital in Miami.

A year ago I was in “Taste of Havana” on a Saturday when a pub crawl of the burgeoning bars in Broad Ripple Avenue was underway. George was fuming.

“They’re always sponsoring events to help the bars” George said – referring to The Broad Ripple Village Association – “never anything to help us.” The bar scene is the scene on Broad Ripple avenue now, especially on Saturday nights and holidays. Early in the morning hours of a 4th of July celebration in 2014, seven people were shot on Broad Ripple avenue, a block from “Taste of Havana” when my God Daughter was working there. Fortunately, she had long been safe at home. I had felt relief when I knew she was coming to live in my old neighborhood for a year, thinking she would be in a safer place than in Miami. I was thinking of the Broad Ripple of my childhood, not the one of 2014 and today.

Broad Ripple boasts that its bars stay open till 3AM, establishing a mecca for partying young people and their teeny-bopper followers who fill up on “Insomnia Cookies” (one of the few stores that’s left) while waiting for the boys to come out of the bars. But the daytimes are no longer populating the Avenue with strollers to windowshop and frequent stores – there are five empty storefronts between Carrolton and College, and last week two more stores closed on the corner of the Avenue and College and just around the corner on College. Between Guilford and College on Broad Ripple Avenue I counted eleven bars last week – and, symbolically enough, the office of the BRVA was right in the middle of them.

George is preparing to take “Taste of Havana” north to 8329 Michigan Road at 86th Street, opening in January. He’ll stay open at the current stand on Broad Ripple Avenue – between Carrolton and Guilford – for the next few months, so it’s a last chance to enjoy the great Cuban bread of the sandwiches, the fresh pork and ham and cheese and steak and turkey that fill them, and the un-matchable Cuban coffee to top off the your feast. It’s also a last chance to shut down your phone and talk to friends while you eat, or sit at the counter and talk to George, who will make sure you’re happy with what he serves you, and talk about anything else that’s on your mind – or his. He brought back the neighborhood spirit of the old Broad Ripple, and for me, he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.

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How an old white guy got woke

From a new piece published this month in Indianapolis Monthly:

Five years ago, a man called me and began with an apology. “I’m sure you get too many of these,” he said. “But I have to call you because I am writing a book on the Emmett Till murder trial, and you are the only one who was at the trial and is still alive.”

That has become my distinction.

The Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation in its 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that “separate but equal” education was not valid and no longer the law of the land. Everyone knew this was a major decision that would have a huge impact on American life. There was a feeling of national apprehension. What would happen? Would the South revolt? Would it be the start of another Civil War? It felt like the country was holding its breath.

Continue reading the longform piece at Indianapolis Monthly

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“Kurt’s Karass: Dan Wakefield” Premiering at Shortridge High School

Tuesday, May 21st, 7:15 pm

This event is free and open to the public. Kurt’s Karass: Dan Wakefield, a 35 minute short documentary about Kurt Vonnegut Jr, will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the star of the film segment, Indiana’s own Dan Wakefield.

In the film, Wakefield reminisces about Kurt, a 1940 graduate of Shortridge and editor of the school’s daily paper, The Echo. Wakefield, also an Echo writer, graduated a decade later. Wakefield traces his friendship with Kurt from his first meeting with Vonnegut in 1963 to the year before Vonnegut died, when Wakefield gave a talk in New York that Vonnegut attended and then warmly took his old friend out to dinner so they could catch up.

Vonnegut reviewed Wakefield’s first novel Going All The Way, in Life magazine, and wrote “Having written this novel, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.” It took about forty years for Wakefield to move back to Indy. Going All The Way was later made as a movie starring Ben Affleck, Rachel Weiss and Rose McGowan. Wakefield’s memoir New York in the Fifties was produced as a documentary film by his friend Betsy Blankenbaker, another Indianapolis native, and is available on Netflix.

Commissioned by the Vonnegut Estate, Wakefield has edited compilations and written introductions to the books Kurt Vonnegut LettersIf This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: The Graduation Speeches, and Kurt Vonnegut Complete Stories, with Jerome Klinkowitz.

Former WFYI radio personality and longtime Indianapolis resident, Travis DiNicola, returns to Indy to emcee the event. DiNicola, founder of Indy Reads Books, is thrilled to return to the stage with Dan Wakefield and host the evening’s panel discussion, “Sitting down and talking with Uncle Dan about writing, and his memories of authors he has known, is one of my favorite things, and perhaps what I miss most about living in Indy. I’m so excited to be given this opportunity to come back to Indy and share a conversation with Dan and the audience.”

After the screening the panel discussion, including Wakefield and emcee Travis DiNicola, will feature Shortridge student Shaun’Tae Swanson, Shortridge teacher Michael Gawdzik, and Max Goller, who conducts courses for teachers who want to use Vonnegut’s work in their classrooms.

The Charles Bruce Foundation, a Pennsylvania based non-profit that supports Writers, Artists and Musicians (WAM!), in conjunction with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has devoted the past three years to interviewing some of the Vonnegut’s dearest friends. The film team – headed by Tim Hashko of Steaming Kettle Films – has produced a series of short documentaries in hopes of preserving fond memories of this American Icon as shared first hand by his closest companions. Earlier productions featured artists Joe Petro III and the infamous Ralph Steadman.

Special thanks to the folks at Shortridge High. None of this would be possible without Shortridge educators, Mike Gadzick – who will be participating in the panel discussion – and Charles Langley who coordinated the event for the high school.

 

Panelist information:

Michael Gawdzik is a language and literature teacher at Shortridge High School. For the last two years, he has strengthened the connection between Shortridge High School and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library by incorporating Kurt Vonnegut focused curriculum at every grade level. His hope for every student at Shortridge is to read at least one book by the beloved Hoosier author.

Max Goller is the Director of Education at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. Goller works with educators across the U.S. promoting classroom teaching of ideas related to Kurt Vonnegut. He retired with 20 years of service from the United States Navy in 2001 having served as an electronics technician, instructor, and recruiter. Max currently teaches 8th grade English at Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate Junior High School in Fishers, Indiana.

Shaun’tae Swanson is an African American girl that has seen the scary side of this world: the side we think is normally hidden from children. She is an artist that seeks to put her trauma to use, painting vivid imagery with her words. She is a poet, writer, but most importantly a reader. Reading is a part of who she is, and has taught her how to become the writer she dreams to be.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield