The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Terre Haute Cuisine in Eugene Debs’ Home Town

March 18, 2008
Terre Haute, IN

Already they?re talking about disqualifying the Vigo County library from competing in Terre Haute?s annual Tablescapes competition, since they won last year for their Gatsby-themed Big Read table, and again this for the stupendous Falcon entry adjacent. Each place setting this year had crystal stemware and black plate bearing an appetizing prop, such as a pair of brass knuckles or a gun. Photo by David Kipen.

Thank heaven for site-visit reports, because my twice-a-week blogging regimen can't half cover all the places I go. So when I get back from, say, Terre Haute, Ind., and last week's eminently postworthy WPA conference takes up the space where I'd otherwise recap my Indiana adventures, I still have a site-visit report where I can write up my impressions. Right there on the form, Uncle Sam asks me to "[p]rovide a brief summary of your overall impression of the implementation of the project?"

In the case of Terre Haute, it's hard to do this without resorting to superlatives. I fetched up in the Terre Haute Hilton Garden at the "Crossroads of America," where the old highways 40 and 41 meet, only to find a detectives' notebook in my room. Airport security later obliged me to relocate this witty spiral-bound notebook somewhere I probably won't find it until my next trip, but I remember it held all manner of putative clues to the Maltese Falcon's whereabouts. Appointments with famous no-shows from literature and film abounded in its pages, including one rendezvous apiece with everyone from George Kaplan -- the nonentity Cary Grant is mistaken for at the beginning of North by Northwest -- to Godot himself. (Perhaps Kaplan got waylaid north of town, where I'm assured Hitchcock filmed that picture's famous cropduster sequence.)

Next up, the site-visit report form requires me to "[i]nclude any issues you feel may need to be addressed." Frankly, the only issue that comes to mind is the regrettable brevity of my stay. I adjourned from the hotel to Terre Haute's main library, where the resourceful librarian who'd ginned up the notebook proceeded to keep an all-ages ESL pizza party spellbound with her storytelling. Afterward we all went out for some convivial, beef-intensive Terre Haute cuisine at a converted stable (!), and next morning I breakfasted with assorted local arts dignitaries, who regaled me with lore of native sons Eugene V. Debs and James Jones, and had me contemplating a return visit at my earliest opportunity.

"Include any appropriate future actions you feel will benefit the organization," goes the next item on the report form, and the one thing I can think of might be to hold all keynote speakers to an hour. I must've talked for two, easy, at my SRO lecture that afternoon. Folks seemed receptive, though, especially to my chaffing of the Mayor for not having read the book yet.

The last injunction on the site-visit form is, " If you have answered NO to any compliance question above, please explain further." That refers to the part above where it asks, "Did the organization comply with the stipulations of the agreement?" Well, the main stipulations are 1) to round up strong partners, which in this case included one of very few all-volunteer theaters nationwide whose budget reaches seven figures, 2) to involve the media, which in this case included the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, where my beloved quondam San Francisco Chronicle colleague Stephanie Salter gave us a nice write-up and promptly, alas, skipped town, and 3) to use The Maltese Falcon to get people reading like it's going out of style. Which, with enough Big Reads like this one, it may just not be.