Personal, Stories Told

Brant’s and South Bend’s Miami Village

In the early 1980s I was a teenager living with my family on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. I lived in a real neighborhood, with plenty of shops and other businesses within walking distance. My favorite of them was Brant’s. In days gone by, Brant’s was known as a five and 10 cent store, or a five and dime store, or just a dime store. These were the dollar stores of their day — everything was a nickel or a dime. But their day had largely passed by the 1980s, and stores like Brant’s were more commonly called variety stores. The only thing you might still get for a nickel or a dime in them was a piece of candy. But nothing Brant’s carried was particularly expensive. It was a fine store to visit when you were on a tight budget.

Brant’s centerpiece was its gleaming stainless-steel soda fountain and counter with six stools. You could get a light lunch there, a hot dog or a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cup of soup. I did that from time to time, always the grilled cheese and bean-bacon soup with a Coke. They still made Cokes by squirting syrup in the bottom of the glass, filling it the rest of the way with soda water, and stirring. That was a throwback even then. They also made Green River sodas, a sweet lime drink. But for me, the soda fountain’s crowning glory was the milkshakes, hand dipped and mixed. I drank dozens of them over the years. Make mine chocolate, with extra malt.

I often went with my brother, who loved root beer. One day at the counter he asked if it were possible to make root beer double strength, that is, to use twice the syrup. “Of course,” was the answer, and they made him one. After that, he ordered one every time we went in. He became so well known for his double-strength root beer that every time we visited, while he shopped they’d make him one and leave it on the counter for whenever he was ready for it.

Like all five-and-dimes, Brant’s carried all kinds of miscellaneous stuff in its handful of aisles. For example, Brant’s was the only store on the south side that carried photo corners. They are little black paper pockets, backed with lick-and-stick adhesive. You place one, moistened, on each of a photo’s four corners and then press the corners onto paper. Regular photo albums were crazy expensive on my meager allowance. But at Brant’s I could make affordable photo albums out of three-fastener cardboard report covers, three-hole notebook paper, and photo corners.

Brant’s also had a postal station inside. I had pen pals in other countries, and we used to make mix tapes for each other. I packaged them up and took them over to Brant’s, where owner Ray Brant always took care of me. He’d weigh the package, look up the rate, take my money, affix the postage, and make sure the letter carrier picked it up.

That was another thing about Brant’s: it was a family business. His daughters and I’m pretty sure even his wife (who drew the image at the top of this post) all worked there. The whole family came to know the many kids who came in. They tolerated all of us kids very well. My brother and I were good kids who never caused trouble. Sometimes they’d chat with us briefly at the soda fountain — once Mr. Brant shared his snack of string cheese with me — and they always let us linger over our browsing well beyond the time we needed.

I loved going to Brant’s and headed there anytime I had a little money. A Coke was just 35 cents, so it didn’t take long to save up for a trip. I even had my first date at Brant’s, at age 13, taking a sweet girl to the soda fountain for lunch. But even as long ago as the early 1980s, stepping inside Brant’s was like stepping into 1965. It was clear to me even at that age that Brant’s was a holdover from a different time.

Brant’s was part of a larger community of businesses known as Miami Village, named for the street they were all on. Here’s a photo with Brant’s in it, next to a barber shop and what I remember being a little bar. Judging by the cars, this photo was taken in the 1980s.

The History Museum (South Bend) photo

Miami Village was just a mile from my house, a short bike ride or a long walk away. This composite photo from about 1975 was taken just north of Brant’s in the same block, on Brant’s side of the street, looking south on Miami Street.

Composite of two The History Museum (South Bend) photos

Miami Village offered bars and restaurants, banks, dry cleaners, gas stations, a dairy store (a convenience store before anyone coined the term), a public library branch, a hobby store (where I bought the plastic model cars I put together in those days), and more. In this north-facing photo from abut 1975, the gas tower looms over the village. It stored coal gas used to heat homes, and was a South Bend landmark for 60 years.

The History Muesum (South Bend) photo

The south end of Miami Village was anchored by Buschbaum’s Pharmacy. I used to go in there to buy MAD Magazine and candy. This photo is from the Blizzard of 1978.

Sourced from a South Bend group on Facebook

Miami Village started to slowly decline after I moved away from South Bend in 1985. For years it seemed like every time I went home to visit, more businesses had closed along this strip. Brant’s held on for a long time, through the late 1990s or early 2000s if memory serves. By then Mr. Brant was ready to retire, and he couldn’t find someone interested in continuing his business.

Today, the only Miami Village businesses still operating since the 1980s are a pub and, of all things, a lamp shop. The library branch is still open, too. Other businesses have moved into the old spaces. I hate to say it, but they’re not of the same caliber as the businesses they replaced. A wig store has operated out of the Brant’s building for many years, one of its plate glass windows replaced with an ugly piece of particle board.

At least Miami Village was still great at a time when I’d earned enough autonomy and had a little money, and could enjoy it.

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Too many books

I’ve been a reader as far back as I can remember — more nonfiction than fiction, and more short works than long books. But I love to read.

A book about me

I used to keep every book I read. That way, there was a lasting physical connection to the feelings and thoughts each book stirred in me.

Additionally, from my mid-20s until about my mid-30s I edited books, for a while as my main job and later as a side gig. Publishers sent me a copy of every book I edited. They were like my babies; how could I let any of them go?

I had shelves and shelves full of books, and more in closets, and some in boxes in the garage.

And then my first marriage ended. Nearly broke, I downsized into a 300-square-foot apartment. There was no room for most of my stuff, let alone my books.

As I sorted through them, I realized I had read only tiny fraction of them more than once. It finally struck me that keeping them was just wasting space. I sold or gave away all but a short stack of books that represented a cherished memory or that affected me deeply.

I took to borrowing books from the library, and later buying them for my Kindle. The cloud can store far more books than my house can! And when it’s time to move to a new house, the Kindle is far lighter than a whole library of books.

This was part of a larger change in the way I looked at stuff. I had tons of it, and to fit in my tiny home I could keep almost none of it. So I got rid of it — and then I felt free owning so little. It shocked me how good it felt.

I eventually bought a house again, but did not return to my accumulating ways. I furnished the place and I bought things I needed to function there. But periodically, and especially when I sold the place a couple years ago, I went through my stuff and got rid of things I didn’t use regularly.

In recent years my hobbies have led me to buy paper books again. I own a couple dozen books related to transportation history, which I use to research my road trips. They are all long out of print and not available electronically.

I started buying books of photographs a few years ago. It’s lovely to see photographs printed, rather than always on screens. I own a book of Polaroids made by Ansel Adams, one of 1930s New York scenes by Berenice Abbott, a collection of Edward Weston images, and a lovely book about making photographs around one’s home by Andrew Sanderson. I’ve learned a lot studying these works of accomplished photographers. I also own a couple dozen zines, chapbooks, and Blurb books published by other photo bloggers. I’m a sucker for those. If you make one, I’ll probably buy it.

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Ending my caffeine fast

My caffeine fast reached its intended three-month mark over the weekend. I was disappointed not to get the sleep benefits I hoped for.

When food writer Michael Pollan tried a three-month caffeine fast and said that by the end he was “sleeping like a teenager,” I wanted in. My sleep has been poor for years.

The first three weeks were challenging as I went through withdrawal. I had a mild headache most mornings and I wanted …something. A salty snack? A stiff drink? A long walk? My body was confused. Obviously I wanted caffeine, but I didn’t specifically crave a hit like a heroin addict.

Drink Coffee Do Work

I switched to herbal tea so I’d still have a warm morning drink. Orange spice tea satisfied me best. But after about six weeks I realized I very much missed the taste of coffee. This made me happy — I worried before the fast that I drank coffee not because I liked it, but because it delivered caffeine into my addicted body. But in truth, I like coffee.

By this time we were on stay-at-home orders thanks to COVID-19. Adapting was hard for the first few weeks. Some of our kids lost their jobs in the pandemic and, struggling, made some choices that caused family stress. I was also leading a critical tight-deadline project at work that drained me dry most days.

With all of this stress I said to hell with it and started making a half pot of decaf every morning. I am delighted that quality decaf tastes very good today. The last time I drank much decaf was at least 25 years ago, and it was all crap then.

Strictly speaking, this ended my caffeine fast as a 12-ounce mug of decaf has about 10 mg caffeine in it. This is still very little caffeine compared to regular coffee, which delivers at least 140 mg caffeine in 12 ounces. It’s even not much caffeine compared to my favorite soda, Diet Dr Pepper, at 41 mg caffeine in 12 ounces. However, before the fast I drank six mugs of coffee every day. That’s a whopping 1,680 mg caffeine! The 30-40 mg caffeine in my daily decaf is a 98% reduction in caffeine intake.

One surprising challenge of quitting coffee was that my digestion … how can I say this delicately … immediately had trouble working its way to its expected end. I was uncomfortable a lot. This resolved entirely when I started drinking decaf.

But quitting caffeine didn’t help my sleep one bit. I’ve never slept easily, and when I’m under stress I wake up at 3 am and can’t go back to sleep. The enormous amount of caffeine I was consuming had to be making it worse. But after eliminating caffeine I still woke up a lot in the middle of the night. Even when I didn’t I frequently woke up not feeling rested. Who knows whether this would have been any different had COVID-19 and the big work project not happened.

It hurts that my alcohol intake has increased during the pandemic. I know alcohol makes my sleep less restful. The stressful work project ended, and when it did I decided to go on the wagon for a while. We will see whether sleep improves.

Now that this is over, I intend to keep limiting caffeine. I haven’t had a cup of regular coffee yet and I’m in no hurry to. I’ll keep brewing decaf at home. I’ll let caffeinated diet sodas back into my life at the couple-a-week rate I drank them before.

Perhaps a good cup of regular coffee can become a tool, something I use occasionally for caffeine’s boost. Perhaps I will approach regular coffee like I approach a good cocktail: I go out for one once in a while, to a place that makes them very well.

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Briefly back on the “radio”

I got to be on the “radio” briefly recently.

My alma mater’s radio station, WMHD, gave up its broadcast license several years ago. But it continued streaming online, fully automated, with a skeleton crew.

On WMHD in 1989

In the last couple years a new generation of students realized they could make something much more of their online stream. They’ve revitalized the online “station” with new studios and office space. It’s down the hall from the original space. The original studios and office have been removed and that space repurposed. The school also repainted the entire floor, which means the giant WMHD logo I painted on the wall in 1988 is finally gone.

About a year ago, current General Manager Katana Colledge found my posts about WMHD here and reached out via my contact form. We’ve corresponded ever since, me telling my old WMHD stories and Katana telling me all the great stuff the station is working on.

They’ve continued their stream, but have improved the software that runs it for better sound quality. They have also returned to having some DJs, but rather than them being live as back in my day they all prerecord their shows and queue them up in the stream for the right time. They also upload those shows to Mixcloud; see them here. You’ll also find several shows from the old days there, including all of my shows that I recorded.

WMHD has also added a podcast recording room, offers guitar lessons, and holds jam sessions for students, staff, and faculty. They also bring their DJ equipment to campus events and provide music. Or at least they did before COVID-19 paused it all; they’re finding creative ways to stay connected with students online now.

As Katana told me all about it, I could feel the same level of excitement and commitment as students had in my time. That energy has waxed and waned over the years. It’s great to see it back.

The station put together a show to relaunch WMHD, and asked a few alumni to choose three songs and introduce them. I was one of those alumni! Here is the entire launch show. My intro and three songs begin a few seconds before the 40 minute mark.

Go here to read my alma mater’s news story about the relaunch, in which I’m quoted!

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Essay, Personal

When your wife divorces you

I read a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Masculinist, written for Christian men living in the modern world. Its author, Aaron Renn, has some very well-reasoned positions on men in the church and in living the Christian life. He does a great job of explaining and building upon his positions in his newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

In his most recent newsletter, he offers advice for men whose wives decide to divorce them. He points out that women file for 70% of all US divorces, and it is therefore wise as married men to think about how it will affect us should it happen to us. He then offers solid advice and perspective. Read it here.

His advice really resonated with me. My first wife divorced me. I won’t tell the story as I’m sure my ex wouldn’t like me telling stories on her, as I don’t appreciate her telling stories on me. But she was the one who decided the marriage was over, and filed.

At that time I got two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with Renn’s perspective. The first one came from an unlikely source: my attorney. He told me to find five trusted men who would take my call and who would pray with me. Many of us men don’t have five male friends, especially ones not married to our wives’ friends. If I couldn’t find five men, find as many as I could. My attorney warned me that they would probably not be able to offer me any real counsel or help, and I should let them know I understand that. Their purpose was simply to listen when I needed to talk, and to pray with me and for me.

My young sons on the suspension bridge at Turkey Run State Park. It was 2005, after the separation but before the divorce was final.

Second, do not date for three years. My mother gave me this advice. You are a mess, she said, and need time to recover and figure out who you are again. If you date now, you will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess for her own reasons. Either way, it won’t lead to a healthy relationship. That will be bad for you. But more importantly, you do not need to be that distracted from your sons, who are also hurting and need you.

I took both pieces of advice. The trusted male friends (and family members) I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me and with me. True to my lawyer’s counsel, they seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came. It was a long, dragged-out mess — after filing, my ex flatly refused to negotiate, our judge refused to order mediation, and we went to trial in a badly backlogged court. It was more than a year before we stood before the judge.

The second piece of advice was wicked hard at first. I was so starved for attention and affection! But not dating helped me keep my head in the right game: raising my two sons, with the time the court granted me to have with them. Three years became seven, with my sons in high school, before I dated at all. At ten years, I met the woman who would become my wife. Even then, we delayed until my youngest son was out of high school. We agreed that it made no sense to upend his life as he knew it with me, with a new house and stepsiblings, when he was so close to the finish line.

The stability I provided for my sons in my home became foundational for them — the oldest has acknowledged this openly without my prompting — as their mom went on to marry two more times, moving our sons with them each time.

The other thing that I did on my own was double down on my faith. I was furious with God for the failure of my marriage. I’d prayed daily, on my knees and in tears, that he intervene and save us. I felt that God had not kept his promises to me, the ones I felt he had made all through his Word. I could have easily walked away at that point.

But there was something in me that insisted on holding God to his promises, and I let him know it in no uncertain terms. I spent a lot of time searching the Scriptures like a lawyer poring over legal texts trying to find where God had made those promises. Instead, through this study I learned how my understanding of God’s nature was thin and inaccurate. I came to understand him far better — and built a feeling of closeness with him that I didn’t know was possible.

Even though the divorce has been final for 14 years, recalling it still brings up residual pain. That’s the other piece of advice I wish I had been given: this is a very serious loss, and you will find a new normal, a new peace, and hopefully a new happiness. You will eventually no longer think about your loss every day. But it will remain a sad, difficult memory for the rest of your life.

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Sign up for my monthly email

I’m going to start sending out a monthly email, and I hope you’ll sign up to receive it. It’ll be an insider view of things I’m working on, plus thoughts and ideas on the kinds of things I write about here.

I publish here all the time, but what you see is always finished product. I’m always working on things in advance. I’d like to let you in on what’s coming — cameras and films I’m trying, places I’ve been, experiences I want to share.

I’ve also enjoyed dashing off my COVID-19 thoughts. I write them quickly, and publish them same day. I have other thoughts I’d like to share, and this monthly email is a way I can do that.

I’ll write once a month for sure. But you might get a second email once in a while, whenever I have something to announce.

I’ll send my first monthly email in June. I’d be pleased if you sign up to receive it!