urbana’s a cool town

we walk into the independent media center in urbana where my friend carly has been working on a number of projects. the IMC is a testament to what can be done when americorp volunteers and locals work together to enrich their community. the center is located in the town’s old post office. black peep holes dot the walls and a black strip along the top appears to be paint but really is an empty space allowing the post office managers to spy on their employees. the first thing to catch my eye (besides carly’s cute puff of brown fro) was a lefty library of social theory, critiques of capitalism and cybernetic theory.

in every direction and every corner pieces of art decorate the walls and floor. i’m especially taken by a scene of statues called collateral damage: a twisted boxy soldier covered in flags stands menacing over a mother clutching a child painted with camouflage, oddly reminiscent of the nativity scene. we meet the artist later at the Blues, Brews and BBQ festival just starting on the streets of urbana. a skinny self-effacing man who appreciates my compliments while shrugging them off as undeserved. a man who looked like he would be uncomfortable in any situation but the one he was in.

carly takes us on a tour, pointing out artist’s studios and maker spaces. she giggles at the costume closet/bathroom where people can borrow costumes, learn to sew or pinch a loaf. dresses with protest messages hang in the stairwell. carly tells us that “these girls were sick of going to protests and having their signs taken away so they painted them on their clothing. Take that away!”

she takes us into the bike project where volunteers make and repair bikes for people in the community, give them a workshop to work on their own or lead classes on bike repair. it’s in the old mail sorting room and a conveyor comes down from above with a green sticker at the bottom showing a sad little man with a crutch and the text “an accident happened here.” a heavy red fire door four feet up on the back wall serves as the portal for bikes and bike parts to shuttle to the parking lot where the most degraded lean against the brick wall in a haphazard pile of rusty parts and frames.

the odd music room focuses on instrument creation and playing with music theory. a small bookshelf holds essays on Beethoven, sheet music from broadway and a copy of ginsberg’s howl. the tonal plexus sits under the window, an electronic monster of a new take on a piano. an electronic keyboard with each key broken up into a row of small push buttons, further subdividing each piano key eighteen more times, with a rainbow of cables coming out of the soddered control center of the instrument. carly plays us a tune on the utterbot – a bottle with a rubber glove attached to the bottom filled with water. as you blow across the top of the bottle, you can change the tone by squeezing the rubber glove to raise the water level.

finally, carly gets to show us her passion: WRFU – radio free urbana, a 100 watt FM community station. LPFM was opened up by the FCC to empower community radio even though the application process is still long and torturous. it took them four years to get their license and another two to erect the sixty foot tower that reaches urbana and the majority of champaign. she’s a passionate supporter of community radio and is moving to cambridge soon to be a producer on car talk.  carly maintains the station automator that plays local music and syndicated podcasts, little league games, a program on native american issues, and ten hours a week of spanish programming.

leah tells us about a man who worked with her at a diner who had a degree in immigration law. he took a waiter job there just so he could get in touch with latino kitchen workers and help them change their immigration status. “he did it just to help and he still had to take shit off the management. there were a lot of good characters in that place. i read in the paper later that the ancient greek lady who ran it got arrested when she tried to hire someone to kill her husband.”

carly’s house sits in the middle of a park with the county fairgrounds just across the stream. a sweet small little place surrounded by trees and wildflowers. a compost toilet sits in the middle of a bamboo patch, a sedate place to pass your waste except for the mosquitoes. the house is spare and zen. a piano in the music room. bookshelves filling the living rooms and bedrooms. it houses the lectures, correspondence, and library of Herbert Brun, a pioneer of electronic and computer music.

we sit on my bedroll on her wood floor and look through a box of family trinkets carly just got from her grandmother. an immense array of small items that drive me crazy. there’s a story behind every chicago livery medallion and delicate porcelain rabbit and i want to know them all. she shows us a pewter arabian teapot that belonged to her grandmother’s great great grandma and a small golden apple that hides a tweezer inside for snuff? cocaine? we can only imagine.

leah and carly go the farmer’s market while i catch up on sleep in the dark basement on the raised concrete bed, a perfect slumber spot for me. at the market among the fruit stands, political activists and arts and crafts, she saw an old man doing a one man band with drums tied to his legs, shakers to his feet and a rake to scrape on the ground. he smiled around the words through his yellowed tobacco stained beard. a little girl with her first purse was entranced by him and kept removing one dollar bills from her purse to put in his cup. she would have given him all her money had her dad not said that’s enough honey.

we head through rural illinois with leah hating the unending flatness. we take a detour at st louis to take a scenic byway, the great river road that runs under the yellowed bluffs where the mississippi and missouri join forces. the textured bluffs resemble bricks and leah imagines them being built by an ancient civilization “still waiting and hiding in these hills” she declares with the characteristic passion and adorable grin of her crazy ideas.

low floods bring the water close to the road and finally cover it in the town of grafton, halting our progress. we get out to wade in the water over the road and watch the jetskis chug slowly between the houses with a foot of water in their basement. shirtless men drink beer and fish out of truck beds while logs looking alligators float down the big muddy.

we drive slowly through the town of elsah, one of the only communities to be placed en masse on the national register of historic places. a town of beautiful stone homes, removed one hundred years in history. we cross numerous one lane bridges and point out cute houses to each other excitedly or to a stone wall with a stove built into it. we stop at a garage sale that’s just ending and buy a nice sleeping bag for leah for five bucks. we conclude this detour finished and head back for the highway, driving late into the night to reach harrison arkansas and redneck activities with my buddy nat.

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Lex Pelger

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