14 A Hotel Lobby

The weekend after visiting Muskegon, I took another four-hour drive, this time south.

I woke up in Indianapolis in a highway motel and partook of the free continental breakfast in the lobby. The tiny room was bisected by a Formica-covered reception desk, with thin industrial carpet laid over the hard floor. One humming fluorescent tube in the middle of the ceiling threw light that grew dim by the time it reached the concrete wall slathered with white latex paint. There stood a table of food. Tiny fruit flies swirled around bananas in a bowl next to plastic-wrapped Danishes, coffee maker, orange juice pitcher, and cereal dispensed from a retired lemonade churner.

This was hardly the kind of hotel lobby I came to Indianapolis to find. But then, the one I came to find was in the Hopper painting Hotel Lobby that hung in the Indianapolis museum.

That lobby was spacious, with wood trim, thick carpet, and tasteful furniture. In it, an elderly man stands by a seated older woman. In an early sketch, the man's hand touched the woman. In the final painting, Hopper separated the two. Across the lobby from them lolls a young blond reading alone. This was painted in 1943: most men her age were overseas fighting. A bellboy behind the counter is all but invisible.

Indianapolis is one of only two towns west of Washington D.C. to have more than one Hopper painting in its art museum. Beside Hotel Lobby in the museum hung New York, New Haven, and Hartford, named for the rail line that ran past Hopper's Cape Cod house. (Hopper sent the museum a note stating, "If any serious objection arises regarding the title, it can easily be changed.")
Dawn light broadsides a house on a bluff above railroad tracks, making the hillside grass and trees burn at their fringes. The scene resembles the farmhouses, fields, and sky I drove through to reach Indianapolis from Chicago.

As I pondered the paintings, over waddled a man in jeans with a large shoulder bag slung over his starched shirt. The graying, rust-colored beard covering his chubby cheeks made him look like an aging red squirrel. I asked him about Indianapolis's Hoppers and isolation.

"Ooh, boy." He shook his head, so I switched to an easier question.

"How long have you lived here?"

"Almost 35 years," he chuckled flamboyantly. "I've been through the times when you wanted to be from Indianapolis; you didn't want to be in Indianapolis. People were all moving to the suburbs. And really there was no downtown any more. Now that's all changed, and the downtown is very active. Musicians and artists are moving to the Fountain Square neighborhood. Not quite New York, but at least they're characters that give a city flavor."

He wrinkled his brow. "Now, ask your original question again."

"Do you feel that people in Indianapolis are isolated like Hopper's characters?"

"I don't think so. This community is quite cohesive. Unlike in Hopper's other paintings, I feel like those two in Hotel Lobby are talking to each other. In this city, everybody talks. 'Hoosier Hospitality' is something we're known for."

"Do you know any lobbies like that in town?" I asked.

"Not those typical small twenties- and thirties-type places. Those kinds of intimate places still may be left in New York and Chicago. But I think intimate spaces here are gone."

He continued his viewing, and I was left thinking that the characters in the hotel lobby that he considered "intimate" were anything but.

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