In March, New Orleans–based author James A. Reeves spent four weeks in Indianapolis working on a Dada-esque performance-art piece called The Bureau of Manufactured History that will soon be a book. Here, he reflects on the upside of Indy’s low profile.
“I’m going to Indianapolis,” he told his associates before setting off, and they flashed a look of happy recognition, because of course they had heard of Indianapolis. It’s the 13th-largest city in the nation, after all, so they must have known a thing or two about it. Yet their faces jammed up in an unpleasant way while they struggled to find the touchstones that define other big box-office cities. Does Indianapolis have high finance, a beach, celebrities, or recognizable skyscrapers? Is it known for terrifying crime, ailing industries, or historical flashpoints burned into national memory? Drawing a blank, his companions shrugged and mumbled something about car racing before telling him to have a good time.
And he had a wonderful time in Indianapolis because everything was so unexpected. Most major cities loomed large in his mind like the Grand Canyon, familiar spectacles that had been drilled into his head via posters, fine-art photography, inspirational calendars, and situation comedies until they became icons. When our traveler finally drove into the desert to see the Grand Canyon for himself, he discovered a pale version of the postcard he’d been carrying in his head for decades. After seeing its image so many times, he felt as if it were somehow failing him now that he stood before it.
Without a well-worn national stereotype, Indianapolis left our visitor free to focus on what makes a city tick: the people who live there. He thought of the cafe owner who greeted him by name each morning, the woman who happily gave him a tour of the limestone catacombs beneath the City Market, the elderly couple who told him to call anytime, day or night, if he ran into trouble. Sure, there were a few grouchy people. But he did not assign their behavior to the fashionable rudeness that is often associated with other cities that have reputations to uphold.
Best of all, when joining a conversation, he felt no urgent need to earn “standing” by living there a certain number of years until he became a true Indianapoli—you see, they didn’t even really have a word for it. The guidelines seemed simple: show up, do a good job, and play nice. Perhaps this natural sense of comfort stemmed from the romanticized notion of Midwestern humility, but he sensed it had more to do with being in a city that had escaped the cheap shorthand that emerges once it is pegged to a particular industry, demographic, or social phenomenon. A word kept coming to his mind: genuine.
That’s a loaded term, of course, an unfortunate advertising word for furniture and beer. Yet it’s worth digging into its roots. First appearing in 1590, genuine is commonly defined as “innate, not acquired,” and it derives from the Latin genuinus, meaning “native, natural,” which may be related to “kin.” Some etymologists believe genuine originally meant “placed on the knee,” which stems from genu, the Latin term for knee. In ancient Rome, the story goes, a father legally claimed his newborn child by gathering his family together and setting the child on his knee.
Without the caricatures beneath which other cities labor, Indianapolis seemed free to create its own story, one that is innate and authentic. As our traveler stood by White River one night, he was reminded of a book he had read decades ago, the tale of Siddhartha, a truth-seeker tormented by questions of self and suffering until he paused by a river to watch the water flow and discovered that “the river is everywhere at the same time, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.” Our traveler sat on the tended grass along the river and watched the water shimmer beneath the city lights. He remembered his conversation with his associates before departing and imagined it differently:
“I’m going to Indianapolis,” he said.
“Ah, yes,” they replied. “I’ve heard there is much to learn along its river, that you are no longer caught in the past or worried about the future, that it is a place that teaches you how to simply be.”
He smiled at this thought. Sure, it was sentimental, but his business often took him into conference rooms where bureaucrats and city boosters spoke of marketing their town in terms of a specific industry, to which he often muttered about their low standards in an age that needs more miracles and sanctuaries. He usually was not invited to the next meeting. And so he sat along White River, thinking of that word, genuine, and how at odds it was with any sort of reputation or public image. There are a thousand endings to “Indianapolis is …,” he thought, and this is how it should be.
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue.