Thank you, Travis DiNicola
Writer / Dan Wakefield
When I first moved back to Indianapolis in November 2011, the Borders bookstore downtown was closed and empty. Walking by it was like walking by a ghost – maybe The Ghost of Christmas Past. I felt like a city without a bookstore in its vital center was like a city without a soul. It seemed especially sad for Indianapolis, capital of a state known for its tradition of literary riches – names that enhance Indiana history like Lew Wallace, Jean Stratton Porter, Tarkington, Riley, Janet Flanner, Lockridge, Vonnegut, all the way to John Green.
The following summer brought the good news that a new bookstore was opening on Mass Ave. called IndyReadsBooks. It was the brainchild of Travis diNicola, director of the Indiana literacy program, Indy Reads.
The bookstore brought more vitality downtown and became a center and home for writers, readers, readings, talks and sometimes even music and films. The announcement of the opening in The Indianapolis Star was like a jolt of energy to me, and I volunteered at once to give a reading. I was welcomed by Travis who became a good and trusted friend, a bright light in my return to home. He’s one of those special people who seems to exude energy and radiate good will, good times, new possibilities and hope.
A year ago, he took the bookstore to a new dimension by publishing its own book – a collection of stories, essays and poems by local authors called IndyWritesBooks. I do not know of any other bookstore in the U.S. that published – on its own initiative and with its own resources – a book of the works of writers in its own community. When someone imagines an act that has never been done before, an innovation that enhances and enlivens the community it serves, that is a vision. Making the vision a reality is an act of faith, courage and enterprise.
All that was in the public arena, and in a personal way, Travis became the rare kind of friend who I felt I’d known forever and who I knew I could count on. Though I’m several decades older, it was natural to talk about anything and know I was understood. We never really talked about deeply personal matters, yet our conversations always seemed meaningful, more important than the words exchanged. Travis is one of the great listeners – you know he really hears you, he “gets it,” not only what is said but what is unsaid, what doesn’t need to be said.
For a book I wrote called “Expect a Miracle,” I interviewed a woman Rabbi who had a powerful weekly healing service in San Francisco. I asked what it was she did that made her seemingly simple service seem so special, that made the people who volunteered to speak of their fears and challenges feel understood and uplifted. She said she practiced what she called “the ministry of presence” – the act of being fully present to another human being.
Usually, when we talk to someone, we are thinking at the same time of what we want to have for dinner or whether we need a haircut or when the rent is due. We know the same thing is happening when we tell our concerns or our plans to someone else – their mind is probably elsewhere as they smile, nod and glance at their cellphone or listen to its ring or whistle. Travis is one of those rare people who makes himself fully present when you talk with him and pays you the compliment of really listening as if what you say matters.
We talked and drank at The Crossroads and The Red Key, and every Friday morning for many months, we talked over coffee at Moe and Johnny’s. As the phrase goes, I knew “he had my back.” The news that he was leaving – returning with his brilliant wife Michelle, who I also count as a friend, to their own home ground in Pennsylvania – hit me like a meteor. Hard as it is to admit, I felt unprotected. Vulnerable. It felt like a cold wind was blowing. My thoughts turned to loss.
A few weeks ago, I was honored by having a park in my old neighborhood named for me. Travis, of course, was one of the prime movers of that honor and the master of ceremonies at the event. A week or so before it took place, he asked me, “Dan, how do feel about this whole park thing?” I said it made me think of a favorite line from an obscure novel: “If you live long enough, everything will happen to you.”
Sometimes, if you’re wildly lucky, honors come your way. Inevitably, losses come, especially after you’ve hit your 80s. Sometimes, people move away. Sometimes, they pass away. I’m lucky that a group of friends from my Shortridge High School Class of ‘50 are still around to have dinners every few months, though from the original five guys in our group (our senior year, we had named ourselves “The High Quintruneral”), only Don “Moto” Morris and I are left. Happily, all three of the girls are still here, as well as Cece Burton, the wife (I don’t like the word “widow”) of our great friend Jerry.
I think about Ted Steeg who served as the inspiration for the character “Gunner” in my novel “Going All The Way” every time I go to The Red Key Tavern. We met there during Christmas vacation of ‘54 and became friends when we roomed together in New York. He left this earth and his old apartment in The Village two years ago where I stayed whenever I returned to the city. We always made a fire in the fireplace, ordered out for Chinese food and drank a bottle of red while we listened to Greatest Hits of the ‘40s. I haven’t been back to New York since he left, and I have no desire to return.
When I first moved back here that winter of 2011, I had dinner every week with Jane Rulon who’d become a great friend when she was head of The Indiana Film Commission, and I was back for the filming of the movie of my novel, “Going All The Way.” The movie was made in the early summer of 1997, and Jane had been told that she might be out of a job in six months. The bad news bearers were right – that’s when Mitch Daniels became governor.
As predicted, one of the first things he did was abolish The Indiana Film Commission. I assume it was a “cost-cutting measure.” So Jane lost her job, and Indiana lost the money that was made here when film crews and casts stayed in Indy hotels, ate at our restaurants, rented our cars and trucks and took cabs.
Local artists and film production people were hired for jobs that are otherwise scarce. We spend millions to lure Super Bowl publicity for the city but lose the money and publicity for movies not filmed here, movies that were made in Indiana when it had a Film Commission, like “Rudy,” “Eight Men Out,” “Hoosiers,” “Breaking Away” – and, oh yes, “Going All The Way.”
I remember when the producer and director of “Going All The Way” called me after their first trip to Indianapolis and said, “Jane Rulon is the key to everything – without her help, we couldn’t do it.” She opened all the doors, cleared the way and worked with the cast and crew to make it all happen. She worked day and night, always with a smile.
When I came back in 2011 and started having weekly dinners with Jane, she complained of different aches and pains and finally went to a free clinic the following March to learn she had cancer. She was a great spirit and always upbeat, despite the obstacles and frustrations of a woman over 50 trying to find a job worthy of her talents. She would always be in the final two or three applicants for the good jobs, but the other finalists were always younger.
But she took whatever she could get and never stopped working until she went to hospice. She never stopped smiling either or looking stylish and chic. She lifted the spirits of those around her. I can see her now and hear her voice. I know “she’s up in heaven now,” as Vonnegut, the Humanist and “Christ-loving atheist,” said of his publisher, Sam Lawrence, “who saved me from smithereens,” along with his wife Jane and his friend Isaac Azimov.
But hey, Travis is only going to Pennsylvania! One of my first selfish reactions to the news of his leaving was that I’d never have a Christmas dinner again like the one last year when he cooked a gourmet meal with a main course of quail. But I have already wangled an invitation to Christmas dinner this year with Travis and Michelle at her mother’s beautiful farm in the Pennsylvania countryside. I assume there must be wild game over there, and I expect Travis to shoot the quail instead of having to get it on special order. I’ve graciously told him that if quail are not to be found in that part of Pennsylvania, pheasant will do just as well.