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In remembrance of Neon Cactus - A Grand Prix Story

The Piano Man, the cups, the dance floor - Neon Cactus has given us as many stories as it’s made us forget.

A Purdue institution has fallen today.

Neon Cactus, famous for cheap drinks, a big dance floor, and Bruce Barker the Piano Man, will close its doors for good effective immediately.

Treasures are not always shiny. Sometimes they aren’t pure or safe for children. Sometimes they take away as memories as they provide. But for anyone that lived in or around West Lafayette, who was a fan of the school, or an enemy, the one place where you knew you could get all the debauchery and fun of a college party experience, you had to go to the Neon Cactus.

You filled up your plastic mug, found a place to stand in Barker’s piano room, and you sang together. You threw money at your fight songs, and stopped your rivals. You laughed, you kissed, you drank, and for those brief moments, the world of troubles and uncertainties left you. This is alcohol induced, surely, but also more. As we’ve learned throughout these last trying months, bringing people together - no matter the cause - is as human and beautiful as anything else.

And the Neon Cactus brought people together.

A special thanks for the Cochrans who ran the place and Bruce Barker who offered his community something new, something exciting, every weekend.

This article was initially published in April of 2016. It has been edited and reworked and re-released today because the Neon Cactus is now gone and that makes us sad.

He staggers, feet tripping up, clothes disheveled, eyes glossy, a low growl coming from his throat. Behind him, three young ladies, a cautious laughter to their lips as they keep a safe but curious distance from this strange creature. He clutches an off-white bag in his left hand. Grease darkens the bottom.

”Is that his house?” one of the girls says to the other two, more giggles. He stumbles towards steps of a house as if it is his house but just as he makes the bottom step, he darts left, quickly, without aim and continues down Fowler just right of the sidewalk towards Northwestern.

The zombies have come to campus. Farther down Fowler Avenue, right from there on N. River Rd. and another left you find yourself at the Levee. The parking lot has undergone a transformation. That morning around 5 am, students started lining up in front of the doors. What they left behind at noon was a scene of apocalypse. Literal piles of garbage lie around the building, in the parking lot, with more was being created by a staffer whose shovel scoops up the debris of debauchery and empty bottles and makes more piles.

Neon Cactus, the host of this bedlam, has never been the purest of places. The club/piano bar/martini lounge is often a mess of messy people, but even for them this seems indecent. There is a darkness hanging over the place, a loose drunkenness that combines with the heavy fog of sleep-deprived twenty-something year-olds to create a general foreboding like you’d find in the silence of a horror movie.

It sounds like EDM music when the doors open.


Jimmy Simpson has now won 4 of the 59 Grand Prix’s at Purdue. This will probably be the only time I write his name. The only time you’ll ever read it. If you weren’t at the track or didn’t watch online, it’ll mean nothing to you. It shouldn’t mean anything to you. Glorified Go-Kart racing is hardly a sport that draws much publicity or attention. (The kids enjoy it. The families, wholesome fun, the bitterness is off-note. The chain-link fence surrounding the track is important, but it also feels cheap. We are so caged off.)

However, if you were there, you’ll probably not ever forget his name.

I don’t know anything about racing. I have never driven a go kart. I don’t know if that’s the proper name of what they’re driving. I can’t drive a stick. I’m grossly under qualified to provide any analysis. (Why am I here?)

I enter the gates dismissive, a little drunk, totally underwhelmed. The race takes forever. Racing takes forever. Lap after lap. Nascar, Indy 500, whatever lessened version of those things this is, all of it meant to appeal to a muscle I let atrophy a long time ago, if I ever had it all. I don’t like Budweiser. This isn’t for me. ‘Merica.

Something is happening. A strange sensation. I move along the track, I can see more here. I can see him, gaining speed, cutting hard, braking, then accelerating again. I can’t parallel park without having to go back and forth, cutting my tires, then pulling out to start again at a better angle.

I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m transfixed on this thing. The revving and rotors, the burn of petrol and pavement; I grip the chain link fence and pull closer.

I don’t know any truth about myself at this moment.

What I do know is that greatness does not need explanation or introduction. Michael Jordan walked onto a basketball court and everyone in the building knew he was the best player on the court.

Here’s where you worry that I’m gonna go on a tirade about Jimmy Simpson being the Micheal Jordan of whatever this is, but I won’t. What I’m going to say is that what makes sports not just beautiful but transcendent, are these tiny moments of glory and greatness. Moments that cannot be captured in trophy cases. Moments that do not equate to moments on stat sheets. But they do exist, it turns out, on tiny race tracks in West Lafayette. I already knew they existed on basketball courts during pick-up games, and on mounds in little-league games when the kid you’ve been coaching for four years finally pulls the string of the ball just right on his curve and the ball snaps to the ground avoiding bat and finding glove.

I didn’t expect it here with all these machines.

If you’ve played sports, chances are you’ve experienced this phenomenon. It comes together on a perfectly executed step-back jumper. It exists there as you recognize the spin on a baseball and wait for that breaking ball to fall right into your sweet spot. It erupts from your arm as you toss that perfectly placed go route to your receiver. It settles into your fingertips as you place the perfect chip shot.

Today, if you were at the race track, you saw it as Jimmy Simpson perfectly braked going into a turn before exploding around it with just the right timing and oomph. In those moments, anything was possible. The power with which his machinery moved, the synergy with which his muscles moved the metal, all of it seemed to lead to something else, something greater in the horizon not just for him, but for everyone there watching, the kids and families eating Subway six inchers, the students cheering their drivers on with oil stains and engineering futures spilled all over their shirts, and for those laps we were all on board, watching something transcend us beyond.

Is this the need for speed? Or am I just...


It’s an hour walk back from the track to the Neon Cactus. The clouds have lifted. The uneasy quiet gone. Ackerman’s laid out before me, bare, being reanimated, too. She is still carved up, showing bones and work lines, but between all that is hills and green and beautiful views. She’ll breath again, too, for the better. I was struck then by an urge to walk in the middle of her and just lay there, stretching out, breathing and being. A strange sensation, particularly so, considering the alcohol I managed to consume on my earlier stroll had worn off after the two hour race.

I checked my wrist. 18,000 steps. A few thousand more and I would cross that imaginary line where the party would start again. There would be large houses, with old ancient letters and ridiculously tall chairs, and there would be music bouncing out windows. Footballs would be tossed. Slip n Slides would be stretched to their limits. Two people will kiss for the first time.

I will walk home and write this. I’ll feel as if despite my now attending ‘Grand Prix’ for the first time, that most of the periphery has passed me by. Maybe I’m too old. Maybe I’m too isolated. Maybe it’s just not my thing.

But I’ll remember Jimmy. I’ll remember believing or not believing, existing or not existing, whatever it is you call it when you are transported somewhere truly remarkable. I’ll remember thinking that it must be incredible to know exactly how to brake, where to turn, and where it all ends. Life isn’t like that for many people.

These are the moments that will stick with me after everything has been written.