One morning I drive past a young man perilously perched on a unicycle. That same afternoon I drive by a man pedaling a recumbent bicycle. “Hmmm,” I think. “Must be one of those ride-your-bike-to-work days.”
As I head from the parking lot to work, a couple speaking what sounds to be Mandarin Chinese waits with me for the walk light, while shrieks can be heard from the playground of a nearby day-care center. Later that afternoon, a co-worker shows slides of his recent trip to Africa while another recommends a new restaurant that specializes in Jamaican cuisine.
No, it is not New York or L.A. or even Hoboken. It’s not even my hometown. It’s a place, as the PR material likes to stress, that is only 90 miles from Chicago. It’s my Notre Dame.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” an exercise classmate says to me at one of our monthly post-workout dinners. I give her a questioning look. “Well,” she says, “you just seem more like someone who grew up in a big city.”
“You’ve spent a lot of time here,” a new administrator says to me at a get-to-know-you session. I give him a questioning look. “Well,” he says, “do you feel that your horizons are too limited?”
Somewhere between what I took as a compliment and what I took as a put-down is where I feel at home. Only a wink from South Bend, a family-friendly, rust-belt Indiana city still trying to find its identity; only 90 miles from Chicago.
Dell, a reporter in a small city where I once worked, had a favorite story. While at a conference in Texas, she would say, a rather haughty woman asked her where she was from. “Fort Wayne,” Dell told her proudly. “I love Fort Worth,” the woman gushed. “No, no,” Dell corrected her. “Fort Wayne—Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
The woman sniffed. “Oh,” she said. “One doesn’t get to Fort Wayne very often, does one?”
But one does get to Notre Dame, just 90 miles from Fort Wayne. Kofi Annan, U2, the liberal Michael Moore and the conservative P.J. O’Rourke, presidents and poets, economists and ethicists, physicists and football fans. Even Regis Philbin and Julia Roberts. And for the ones not flying over, Notre Dame does offer something in return. I’ve been to poetry slams, Chinese spring festivals, contentious political debates, cutting-edge movies and plays, jazz fests and beer busts and lectures either eye-opening or boring. I can hear languages I can’t even identify — Czech? Yemeni? — when I go to lunch at Greenfields and eavesdrop on two people arguing over the financial soundness of the Euro.
After earning her doctorate at Notre Dame, my friend Margo returned to her northern California home. “I was standing in the middle of a grocery store here,” she told me, “and I just burst into tears.” For on the shelves she found the food she’d been missing—the food not normally stocked by South Bend grocers. She also found the stunning ocean scenery and the breathtaking mountain backdrops that soothe her soul.
Yes, at Notre Dame, I won’t find the latest in fashion or food or yoga classes. And I won’t see the lush green acres I saw in New Zealand, or, for that matter, the nude beach. And at Notre Dame, I won’t find the 24/7 bustle of Manhattan or the energetic young men who sing for their supper during intermission at Broadway shows. And I certainly won’t find the plaques so ubiquitous in London that tell me a famous personage stood here in 1432.
But thanks to a living wage from Notre Dame, I can hop on a plane and visit those places. Or I can take a 30-minute drive north and revel in the vastness of Lake Michigan, or I can drive 90 miles to Chicago and party on Rush Street or see the newest exhibit at any number of museums, from stodgy to scintillating.
Notre Dame can be like the museums. The guidance of the Congregation of Holy Cross keeps it steady; the four-year turnover of high-spirited students keeps it fluid. Society here, like most, has a definite class structure, and the culture can be a bit whitebread. Professors don’t often socialize with staff, students don’t hang with townies and almost no one is into hip-hop.
It’s not all here for the taking. But what is here, in this small town of 12,000 — give or take a homesick freshman or two — is what I can make of it. It becomes, as much as I want it to, my town.
When the father of one of my dearest friends committed suicide in a faraway state, there was no funeral service for me to attend. And so, for him and for my friend and for me, I went to the University’s grotto and lit a candle. As I bowed my head, crying quietly, I felt comforted. That’s my Notre Dame, only 90 miles from Chicago.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of this magazine.