Voices: College Boy
by Evan West '99
July 10, 2008
You’ve probably seen the movie. A collection of home grown misfits suffers the scorn of transplanted college kids with all the advantages they never had. Against all odds, the ragtag group—led by a fellow townie who has defected to the university and hides his local upbringing with an Italian accent—mount a rickety Roadmaster and repay the privileged college boys for a lifetime of insult by beating them in the Little 500 bicycle race, the big school’s most hallowed campus ritual.
For its national audience, Breaking Away encapsulated the classic tension between the high-falutin’ ways of higher-learning institutions and the perceived provincialism of the small towns and cities in which universities are often located in pop culture, it defines town-versus-gown in much the same way that The Godfather defines organized crime.
Like most fans of underdog sports movies, I’m fond of Breaking Away—and I should have a particularly good reason for identifying with it. I grew up in Bloomington, home of Indiana University, where the movie was shot and set. As a boy, I rode my bike down the real streets of the main character’s fictional middle-class neighborhood, and as a teenager I spent summers swimming in the same limestone quarries made famous in the film. I watched college guys cruise down Kirkwood Avenue with pretty co-eds in the front seat. They were always young and good looking, it seemed, and they always drove nice cars.
Still, for me, the central conflict of Breaking Away always rang false. In the movie, for example, townies were known—often disparagingly—as "cutters" because limestone artisans and tradesmen once accounted for much of the local work force. And yet, in all my years in Bloomington, I never met a single stonecutter or the son or daughter of a stonecutting family, and I can’t recall ever having heard someone called a "cutter." My parents both attended IU, and my mom, though not a Bloomington native, moved back there with me from Indianapolis after they divorced because she remembered her time there so fondly. Most of her friends in Bloomington, the people
I grew up around, went to IU, as did most of my friends’ parents. My mom and I lived a few blocks from campus, and I used to walk the halls of the music school at night to hear students rehearse on their instruments. I didn’t resent college students—I looked up to them. In my later teen years, I fell in with a bohemian set of IU kids who sat around in a rundown off-campus rental, talking about books and listening to independent records. For a local high schooler, going to their house parties was like getting into an exclusive private club—one I was eager to join. The university was where the townies I knew went for sports, arts and culture. It employed half the city and was the lifeblood of many of its businesses. It wasn’t just in the town—it was town.
I have often said that if I had grown up anywhere but Bloomington, I would probably have enrolled at IU. As it was, like many a restless 17-year-old preparing for college, I sought out an experience as different as possible from what I’d grown up with. That turned out to be Wabash, a school as small as IU was large, and arguably as isolated from its local environs as IU was enmeshed in its. And it was partly the fact that my parents had once been townies in Crawfordsville, of all places, that helped get me there.
My dad grew up on a farm in rural west-central Indiana, and Crawfordsville was the nearest "big" city. When he returned home from the military, he took a factory job there, at R.R. Donnelley. It was in Crawfordsville that he met my mom, who had followed a friend there for a change of scenery after a brief stint at Ball State in Muncie. Though college age at the time, my parents were working people in Crawfordsville. They lived in an apartment building behind the FIJI house—where, as luck would have it, I would live some 30 years later—and virtually their only contact with Wabash was a couple of students who lived in the building with whom they became friendly. Those students made a good enough impression on my mom that she spoke of them over the years when talk turned to my own college schooling, and she always encouraged me to at least give Wabash a look.
If town-versus-gown was a foreign concept to me in Blooming-ton, it became very real in Crawfordsville. As a freshman, I soon learned that there were few, if any, businesses in town that catered to students, and my fraternity brothers and I found our recreation almost exclusively on campus. We spent long hours sunning and
sipping beer on the broad front porch of the FIJI house, and cars full of young men from around the town would drive by—often multiple times in the same evening—and shout taunts and obscenities at us, which we gamely returned. On at least one occasion that I recall, the animosity erupted into a physical altercation in the front yard of the fraternity.
Probably because of where I’d grown up, and having grown accustomed to the local university playing a vital role in the life of the community, I was always uncomfortable with the idea of being cloistered away from town life in my new Crawfordsville home. And whether or not we realized it at the time, I think it was that discomfort, in part, that led some friends and I, in our later college years, to move off campus and seek out an off-campus hangout. I had always heard grave warnings from "wiser" upperclassmen to avoid most local bars, which were variously described as biker hangouts or redneck dives, where Wallies were greeted with sneers at best, fisticuffs at worst. I began to suspect that the stories were campus legend, passed down from class to class, and—like medieval folklore about werewolves who prowled the dark forest beyond the village limits—were believed and retold without verification.
My friends and I ended up in the Green Street Tavern, which was dark indeed, but, it turned out, didn’t have a burly biker or snarling redneck in sight. And we were greeted not with sneers, but with a kind of friendly surprise—surprise because, as a kindly bartender later explained, no other students ever ventured in. We had such a good time that first night, making friends among the locals who frequented the place, that we came back—and kept coming back. Before long, we were laughing, back-slapping regulars, part of the fabric of the place—the resident Wabash guys. It got to be that when we walked in, we would find our preferred brand of beer sitting on the bar without having to order. My friends and I still chuckle when we recall the night when our fraternity brother engaged one of the stout female bartenders in a pitched bout of "leg-wrestling"—a rare cousin of arm-wrestling—on the floor of the place. I like to think that when we weren’t around, regulars at the Green Street Tavern smiled over their beers and said, "You know, those college boys are all right."
The notion that I might be a townie at heart didn’t truly hit home, however, until graduation day. My mom and dad were there, themselves small-town products who, before being the first in either of their families to go on to college, had worked jobs in Crawfordsville while more privileged neighbors pursued expensive educations at Wabash. Also in attendance was my grandfather, a lifelong farmer and construction worker who spent most of his life within a half-hour drive of campus, but for whom Wabash was always a faraway place—an exclusive academy for the sons of the well-to-do. It was the first time he had ever attended one of my school functions, and while he wasn’t the kind of man who verbalized such things, I suspect that, for him, my graduation was a kind of American Dream moment: After generations of hard, honest work, the gates of opportunity had opened for a West son.
But not all of my fond memories from that day are so high-flown. My housemates and I had invited the ladies who worked at the Green Street Tavern to our graduation party that night, and, to our surprise and satisfaction, they showed up. It was the first time they’d been invited to a Wabash party, and in the spirit of the festivities, one of them—a coarse but kind-hearted woman—showed her gratitude by repeating a crude ritual we’d observed at the bar on more than one occasion: With a quick move and a hearty cackle, she lifted her shirt and exposed herself to the proud—and astonished—members of the Class of 1999 who were there assembled.
Looking back, I think I understand what the gesture was: a thank you for coming down from the ivory tower and bending an elbow with the villagers.
It might not have been my finest graduation gift, but it was certainly one I won’t forget.*