INDIANAPOLIS -- Many stories are bolstered by a strong sense of place. Locations can affect and shape the motivations and actions of the humans that move within them, so much so that they become characters themselves.
I don't know how many stories out there contain three-and-a-half star airport hotels, establishments that lost half a star because the airport moved away. It's difficult to pinpoint how all of this fits into a narrative about basketball. It's hard to say what kind of character the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport is in this story, a block building full of dark oiled wood, wall-to-wall oriental rugs and Scandinavian furniture. It does offer a perpetual weary exhale, and it also seems to have vague sorts of stately feminine features. I can't tell if it's a sad place or a defiant place, only that its obsolescence is the only reason we can afford to stay here. And that there is what's written here and what is penned in other places, and that readers can tell the difference. We've spent a total of 22 nights at the CPIA during calendar year 2009, including the last seven, consecutive and inclusive. As the week went by, the foot traffic in the lobby went from its normal sputtering stream to a trickle, and finally to nothing. On the 23rd, the Wednesday, the only folks who were around to enjoy the elaborate Christmas lights and the showy stacks of empty wrapped presents were the workers at the front desk and a few airline pilots. They closed The Landing restaurant early, on account of lack of interest. They also didn't bother turning on the player piano in the second floor Gallery, where Guido the stuffed piano man had been playing Christmas carols every night of December.
When I stay at the CPIA, I try to stay on as many different floors, in as many different floors as possible. One a one-week stand like this, for instance, I might break the stay up into reservations of two or three nights each, so I can spend some time overlooking the city skyline, scowling at Sports Bubble Stadium. Then I might have a day or two with a view of the whole interior courtyard spread out behind the windows. It's one the advantage a place like this has over home -- it never gets stale or boring (and there are nice people who really, really want to make sure you have clean linens).
I have standard line when I go to the front desk to switch out the room. Their setup goes like this: "How was your stay, Mr. Whelliston?"
"Soooo good," I always reply, channelling Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. "Ya know, I think I'm just going to go ahead and check right back in again."
The morning crew, who knows me by name, has heard the line enough times now, but they still pretend to laugh anyway.
On Thursday, Christmas Eve, I switched out again.
"Well, it looks like you'll be in 227, Mr. Whelliston," the nice white-haired lady said.
Now, I know full well what 227 means at the CPIA. It's the two-room suite on the second floor, right next to the bank of elevators, across from the McCarran conference room, directly above the main entrance. As I initialed and signed the check-in papers, the lady gave me a sad, purse-lipped smile. She had upgraded me, for free, out of sympathy.
She had upgraded me because I was the only guest at the hotel on Christmas night.
In the late afternoon, as the darkness of a too-early evening descended on southwest Indianapolis, I sat on a wide red couch in an accommodation with nearly as much square-footage as my apartment in Rhode Island. I thought about going back there, how I had to drive the car back down the Nashville airport (300 miles), then fly back to Providence. I thought about how being back there for four days would make me soft and unfocused until I hit the basketball road again on Tuesday. I gave myself a list of jobs to do, to occupy my time.
All the while, calls from friends and relatives came in. I let them all go to the tape. I read the half-drunk Google Voice transcriptions, and they were all variations on the same theme -- I know you're alone this holiday season, and _____ and I are thinking of you. Give us a call. Merry Christmas.
I didn't call anyone back. What would my role in those conversations be, what would we talk about? How sorry they felt for me? Would I have to lie about how "tough" my divorce was, then throw a pity-party for myself about my ever-shrinking family? How depressing. I turned the phone off, pulled on a pair of shorts, then took the stairs down to the fitness center. I turned the treadmill to maximum incline, and ran uphill until I was red-faced and out of breath.
Afterwards, as I thought about cleaning up, I realized that I had forgotten my toiletry bag when I checked out of 248 earlier, and a call to the front desk confirmed that it was gone. The housekeeping crew had all gone home for Christmas. And I learned that the worst time in the world to need a decent razor is at 7:30 pm local time on December 24. To rebuild my toiletry bag, I had to enter the beast's belly and withstand its terrible acidic juices. I had to make it to Wal-Mart before it closed.
Two miles away, up on Washington Road, the scene was rife with simmering unrest, ready to catch a fuse-fire and and explode into an unchecked riot. Last-minute shoppers rattled and jostled carts, playing bumper cars as they charged towards the small appliance section. Strangers yelled at each other. Couples yelled at each other. Babies cried, their screams approaching the frequencies of white static. The cash register lines stretched back into the girls' apparel section. Every few minutes, a harried female voice shouted over the loudspeakers.
"Please. Please make your final purchases at this time. We are closing at 8 p.m., and we will be locking the doors at 8 p.m.. Please. We are trying to get home to our families."
I put my handful of Q-Tips, razor blades and toothpaste near a display of Twilight books and walked out. The nervous energy in the store was enveloping me as well, and I was tense and shaking. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I retreated back to the hotel, with a fuzzy face and teeth, realizing that loneliness was different, and far superior, to that kind of joylessness.
There's a lot of contemplation at this time of year about the "true meaning of Christmas." The story at its foundation, of course, is the most divisive and controversial tale in the history of all recorded literature. Its multiple interpretations define cultural disagreements, and have served as the seeds of nearly every major armed conflict between contemporary civilizations for the last 2000 years. That's a story with true, real power.
In modern America circa now, Christmas is a complicated series of rituals and symbols meant to provide comfort against the cold, as well as consistency across the years. It's an opportunity to celebrate the birth of a savior who was actually born in the springtime, an orgy of commerce, and an obligation-filled family gathering time -- a sort of Thanksgiving 2: Electric Boogaloo.
The pieces are so disconnected, scattered and convoluted now. When Linus recites Luke 2:10-14 from memory and then says, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown," it's still such a jarring, out-of-context, WTF moment for me. The monologue inspires the lead character to smile and take action, but it's never fully explained why.
There are two books in my two-room suite at the CPIA: the Indianapolis Yellow Pages and a Gideon Bible. I went back and reread Luke 2 in its entirety, not just the narrative fragment from the Christmas special.
The story of the birth of Jesus is about being far from home, isolated. It's about being misunderstood in the face of a powerful force, but being adamant about fulfilling one's destiny as an instrument of truth. It's about doing great things despite adverse circumstances. It's a reminder that the movement that transformed the world sprung from perfect humility and smallness. It's the greatest story ever told, partially because it's the greatest underdog story ever told. That shouldn't have been a surprise at all, considering that the family bloodline stretches back to the greatest slingshot slinger of all time.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
How we got from there to Mannheim Steamroller, passive-aggressive fruitcake and Tickle Me Elmo is anybody's guess. Now, instead of no room at the inn, the inn is completely empty, and dumping off deluxe rooms for $39 a night.
Just like Charlie Brown did, I smiled, took a deep breath, and felt new blood in my heart. I left my oversized compartment, bounded down the stairs into the high-celiinged lobby. The atrium was dead-silent save for the bubbling coin-fountain, and not a creature was stirring except for the cute auburn-haired girl at the front desk. She was out of uniform, in an orange blouse instead of the standard grey CPIA staff jacket. She looked bitterly unhappy about being there.
But she's always put on dour airs, and she has a sarcastic streak that makes her all the more attractive. Maybe she's from New York, or has relatives there. Back in September, when Guido was missing from his bench for a week, I asked her where he'd gone. "Hopefully, stuffed in a closet," she replied dryly. (It turned out he was on vacation, at the cleaners.)
I approached the front desk. "I know there's nobody here," I said. "But could you please turn on the piano?"
She shot me a look from a three-quarters angle. This was someone who was not only stuck at work, but totally holiday'd out.
"C'mon, it's Christmas," I pleaded. Then I launched into an impromptu, tin-eared turn on the "looo-looo-looo" version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
It caught her off guard, and quite literally cracked her up. She smiled (the first time I'd ever seen that from her) and then tried to hide it with a hand, and blurted out a soft giggle. She looked so beautiful.
Five minutes later, Guido was in a festive yet stiff-limbed state, playing his distinctively woozy Christmas carols off a player-piano CD. Bally sat in the lighted tree like a big orange ornament, with his big cartoon happy face smiling. Me, I sat on a nearby leather couch with a glass of house cabernet from the Outer Marker Lounge, making up goofy lyrics.
Joyful all Hoops Nation rise, Valley, A-Sun, and Big Sky, When this Christmas madness ends, We will be back with you again.
Happy holidays from all of us here at The Mid-Majority. We will resume our normal posting schedule on Tuesday, December 29.