A history of later 20th-century decor, in a cottage at the Indiana Dunes.
On July 14 I join the hordes ignoring the 55 mph speed limit on southbound I-94. Three hours down the pike is Michiana, the land of dunes pushed there, there being the far tip of Lake Michigan. When I reach my rental home (one week and it ain’t cheap) on the sandy shores, I’ll be able, after sunset, to see the lights of Chicago on the opposite shore. Not that I want to. Not really.
For me, these seven days without any social media devices mean freedom. In my one bag is E.L. Doctorow’s City of God, purchased second-hand for $6.95, at Boswell in Milwaukee. On Obama’s stimulus-fueled and greatly expanded multi-lane highway (signs say it is being “rehabilitated”), my wheels are challenged by those on a hugely huge Waggner Trucking rig from Billings, Montana, followed by the big black F-150. We’ve already passed the Mars Cheese Castle and the Great Lakes Dragaway, plus a Wal-Mart. Here comes the first of several toll booths. $2.80. Last year it gave me passage for $1.50.
I guess I should at least mention Gary, Indiana (Gary Indiana, Gary Indi-ANA), if only for the creepy elegance of the miles and miles of steel mills and buildings owned and currently operated by U.S. Steel. At one time, the area I’m headed for was a bedroom community for people employed by Bethlehem Steel. Now it’s primarily summer homes for tourists like me. The town once upon a time manufactured Smith Brothers Cough Drops, and if you’re really up on your Michiana history, the wild golf clothing sported by the late Johnny Carson was manufactured there. I’m just saying.
I’ve arrived, so let me tour you through the rooms of the structure set high on a dune with steep steps leading directly down to a sweep of beach. An enormous deck, built around two towering Larch trees, fronts the house. It’s where I intend to loll in a hammock and watch hummingbirds at the feeder jet skiers whipping up froth. And yes, Chicago’s skyline will be visible come sundown. Everything is furnished with the rental. The owner forgot to stockpile toilet paper, but the place does have three coffee pots. Never mind, I brought my own stash of Folger’s Dark Roast and my French press pot, the two cupper, so I don’t overdose on caffeine.
Each of the three bedrooms is rooted in a different era. This is clearly not an intended decorating effect, but the result of a bit of this and a bit of that handed down over decades. I’ve chosen to sleep (I’ll do quite a bit of sleeping) in the “Agressively Paneled Room,” as I’ve named it.
At the bed’s head is a large round made-of-fake- fur image of a schooner, wrought in shades of beige and brown. Another wall has a 1977 oil painting, The Impossible Dream, by one Mr. Alan Carter. It depicts a turquoise and white powerboat ripping through blue waves under a puffed cloud sky. I smile when I think of all the bad art I’ve reviewed in my career. To that list I now add a monochromatic (think Motel Art) scene of a beige boat beached on a beige dune. The entire room (indeed most of the interior) is paneled. It takes me a week to realize that most everything is in shades of beige, all the better to blend with the dunes beyond. At the foot of the bed a Magnavox console television waits near a row of VHS tapes: Porky Pig, Stepford Wives, Octopussy, etc. Just in case. I try a white Sony radio on the bedside table. Rush Limbaugh rants forth. Oh yeah, this is Limbaugh land.
I need to mention that four other persons are living in the rental. Two are entombed in a room I’ve christened the “Pink Poodle Room.”
A white 50s confection cobbled from white (yes, white!) paneling and furnished with battered but eternally beautiful blonde mid-century modern. A pink fuzzy poodle doo-dad hangs from a mirror beneath a ceiling light encased in white 50s wicker. I’ve saved the silliest room for last: “The Elvis Bathroom.” Ah yes, even though it’s small, it seems to have endured every mid 60s decorating horror, the worst of which has got to be a plastic sink shaped like a shell. The fake marble has been swirled with brown, giving it the appearance of being drenched in Hershey’s syrup. The toilet seat is wood, and above the garish tile walls someone has hung fleur-de-lis wallpaper. There is no bad art in this room. The room is itself bad art.
At the end of the week, I decided to explore more of Doctorow’s splendid writing. I leave feeling refreshed and ready to write this for you. No riptides ripped me, but I’m still wondering what was behind the locked door in the dining room. A boldly lettered sign on the door said PRIVATE. At night I could see a beam of light escaping….