Before naming the center of my world I will first say where it is not. It’s not in Niger, West Africa where I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s not Israel, despite my ethnic affinity and my love for the Hebrew language. It is not Paris, France which has had an outsized influence—if places can have such an influence—on what I read and what I write. It’s not New York City where I was born (in the same hospital where Andy Warhol died!). It is not Chicago, Illinois which I love for its spectacular downtown and the Loop and its drop-dead museums but where I haven’t, sad to say, spent a whole hell of a lot of time. No. The center of my world is in none of these places.
If my central place has anything to do with where I’ve spent the most time in my life, then it must be located in Indianapolis, Indiana. If I have to narrow it down further, I must pinpoint Nora Plaza Shopping Center on the Northeast side of the city. Soon after my family moved to Indianapolis in 1977, I bought my first mass market paperback—Star Wars by George Lucas—in a gift shop located there. Next door to the now-defunct gift shop was a place called Bagel Fair that sold bagels on a cash-only basis and that my family patronized frequently. (Bagel Fair is still selling bagels on a cash only basis, as of January 2014.)
Adjacent to Nora Plaza are several apartment complexes, two of which I lived in, on and off, from the years 1995 to 2003. (In the early 2000s I lived there with my former wife Katya Kirianova but this is another story altogether). And in the strip mall directly east of Nora Plaza, Nora Corners, there’s a Goodwill Store where I started working in March, 2012.
Adjacent to Nora Goodwill , there’s a nail salon. The same strip mall also houses a Food King, a Chinese takeout place, where I’ve spent a fair amount of time on my lunch breaks. There’s also a Marsh Supermarket, a nail salon, a dry cleaner, and a National Guard recruitment office with windows made opaque by a giant wrap advert on the window featuring the image of a bulked up chest of a National Guard soldier with text reading “Heroes Don’t Wear Capes, they wear Dog tags.”
The country that these heroes keep safe has become a much more diverse place since my family moved to Indianapolis. This new diversity is reflected in the languages I overhear at work in Goodwill. I’ve heard Russian, French, Chinese, Lithuanian, Arabic, Thai, Hindi, Serb-Croat, a fistful of African languages and Spanish—what I hear most often, other than English. The owner of the nail salon next door is Vietnamese. The management of Food King are, of it almost goes without saying, Chinese, and the cooks behind the counter speak in an odd assortment of Mandarin dialects. I’ve even encountered some Hebrew-speaking Israeli dudes in my Goodwill store.
The store’s assistant manager, Hyacinthe Ouedraogo, was born in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and came to the United States with his American wife ten years ago. We’ve become friends and I often practice my French with him. One of our employees is a young Moroccan woman in her early twenties. Another female employee, around the same age, is Burmese.
When I was ten years old, I used to dream that I was Luke Skywalker, travelling through Hyperspace to different worlds. Later in life, I dreamed of traveling to other countries and succeeded in living out some of those dreams as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now I’m not able to travel so freely, because of financial and family burdens.
But I look around and see that I really don’t have to travel at all to see the world.
The world has come to me.
Photo by Håkan Henriksson (Narking) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.