Sunday, March 15, 2015

4th & Walnut

How to Spend a Quality Afternoon in Louisville, Kentucky

I spent last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky at the North American Handbuilt Bike Show (NAHBS) – a gathering of folks who are absolutely obsessive about their bicycles and all the parts and pieces that go into making a truly unique ride. In addition to the incredible bikes, oddball accessories, and perfect products being produced by companies like Boyd and Silca, the show has become a bi-annual chance for me and my dad to unplug from our daily worlds, catch up, and remind ourselves about this shared love of bicycles. I flew into Louisville from Chicago on Friday afternoon, my dad drove from Cincinnati, bringing a bike that he built (from tubes) over the winter which I rode along the carpeted halls of the hotel later that evening.

On the way into town from the airport, I noticed that we passed “Thomas Merton Square” and I remembered the story about Thomas Merton – I first read about it in Fr. Greg Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart” – at the the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville in 1958, in the middle of March. Merton was trappist monk at nearby Gethsemani abbey, running afternoon errands in the city on a normal day when he was interrupted with a revelation about the nature of the people surrounding him. To paraphrase, without doing justice to the nuance and depth of Merton’s own words, Merton was allowed to see a vision of people that removed much of superficial clutter that acts to divide us and more plainly recognize his unity with others. It must have hit him like a bolt; he wrote about it later in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander with a clarity that allowed it resonate: a profound moment on a simple afternoon that went on to affect a lot of people. Today it’s memorialized with a plaque.

After we spent about five hours at the bike show – remember the bike show? – I took a walk over to 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali Drive) to see if I could find what Merton had encountered at that corner and snap a few photos. I read the plaque and I stood there for three or four minutes trying to find the angle in the surrounding architecture that unlocked the revelation for Merton.

As I walked away, back through Louisville’s revitalized entertainment district, a woman paused and politely asked if I wanted my picture taken against the backdrop of the buildings. She saw the camera in my hand. And, this thought hit me:

Some places are, indeed, special. You can’t drop a nickel on the floor of Sun Studio in Memphis – where Elvis made his first record – and have the clink sound anything but perfect. 4th and Walnut was no different.

And, while these kind of places might sit directly beneath perfectly aligned stars, they don’t get to be truly remarkable without first being imbued with a sense of purpose. That’s what has happened at 4th and Walnut and, also, might happen at an intersection near you. Today, if you stop and reflect at Thomas Merton Square in Louisville you won't only validate Merton’s experience; you'll get to validate the goodwill of countless folks who have stopped to consider an improved existence since.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

*N.B. I've used the historic reference to "4th and Walnut" rather than the current intersection ("4th and Muhammad Ali Drive") out of respect for Merton's original text, though I acknowledge that Muhammad Ali was the greatest.