Friday, June 8, 2007

Return to Little Zagreb

I spent last weekend, with my wife and my son, in Bloomington, Indiana, where we attended the wedding of one of my wife’s longtime friends. For me, it was the first time I had been in Bloomington since I had spent a week at Indiana University in 1992 (or maybe it was 1988--all I know for sure is that I remember watching the summer Olympics on TV in my motel room that week) attending a writing workshop run by the editor Gordon Lish.

Lish’s class was a little strange. For example, though the class ran for six hours, he allowed no breaks. In his comments to us at the start of class, he seemed to equate the stamina and willpower needed to go six hours without pissing with the heroic effort required of the true artist. “You may, I suppose, go to the bathroom, if you must,” he would say, before adding, “But observe Gordon! Does he?”

That use of the third person was classic Lish. We heard a lot of it that week.

Lish projected the sort of bizarre, self-obsessed charisma that attracts acolytes. The class was full of Lish-ies starving for a minute of his attention and a few approving words. Even the few of us who weren’t completely sold on the program were caught up in the competitive, hyperambitious dynamic. Me, too. I wanted badly to publish some of my short stories, and I remember how excited I was when I sent Lish a batch, and he sent back a note that said, “Show me more.”

That remains the most encouraging note I ever received from Gordon Lish.

After class, my friend M., who had come down from Chicago with me to take the class, and I would walk around campus or downtown Bloomington, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Teacher. One night we found our way to a place called Janko’s Little Zagreb, where we had dinner and got drunk, which was our other usual post-class objective. What I remember about the restaurant was that it was decorated with a ridiculous number of photographic portraits of Bobby Knight. But here’s what, for M. and me, really matters: As we were leaving the place, I dropped my car keys to the ground and they came within a few inches of falling down a storm sewer drain. To M. and me, drunk as we were, that seemed like the most hilarious and outrageous of events, and even after we had sobered up, the night lived on in our re-tellings as “that night we got drunk after Lish’s class and Santella dropped his keys in the sewer drain.” There is no saying how many people—dates, mostly—we bored with the re-telling of that story. And now you, reader, can now also consider yourself bored.

But last week, in Bloomington with my family for that wedding, it for some reason seemed important to me to find Janko’s Little Zagreb again--if it was still there--and to see if it still looked at all the way I remembered it. And I wanted, of course, to see if I could locate that storm sewer drain.

So on Saturday afternoon, while my wife and the rest of the women in the wedding party were doing wedding things, I took my boy A.J. for a walk down Sixth Street in Bloomington. And before I could even really start looking for Janko’s, there it was. The place was not yet open, so I couldn’t get a look inside to see if the Bobby Knight photo gallery survived. But everything else about the outside of the place looked vaguely familiar. And there at the corner of Sixth and Morton was a storm sewer drain that must have been the very storm sewer drain of legend. It had to be. And so I stood there for a minute, thinking about the years that had passed since the last time I had stood there, and thinking about all the ways the world had changed and I had changed, and thinking mostly that I had really better not drop my car keys this time.

And then A.J. said, “C’mon, Daddy, let’s go somewhere else.”

Which is when I decided to try to explain to A.J. why I had come looking for this place and why I wanted to stand there for a moment in quiet contemplation. And so I told my son about the night, many years ago, I had almost dropped the car keys down the drain outside Janko’s Little Zagreb.

And I can tell you that of all the people I’ve told that story to, of all the people whose eyes I’ve seen glaze over in boredom, never have I seen anyone so uninterested in that story as my own son.

Smart kid.

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