The sudden and unexpected death of Matthew Alan Elliott on the early morning of Oct. 27 rattled through Broad Ripple like an earthquake. Friends, family and acquaintances felt its tremors in Oklahoma City, Madison, Wisc., New York, Los Angeles and all throughout the Hoosier State.
That he had only just turned 43 was tragic in itself. That preliminary findings suggest he suffered a massive cerebral aneurism jolted his crew of gracefully aging Gen-Xers as a violent aftershock.
Matt graduated with the tightest of friends from Broad Ripple High School in 1987, and the self-dubbed "Old Dog Crew" or "ODC" would make significant impact on their neighborhood. ODC guys have a hand in brewing at Broad Ripple Brewpub and running Brugge Brasserie and Twenty Tap. In somewhat rare form, they have remained close into adulthood, often sojourning up to Ludington, Mich., to camp and fish.
As a young man, fresh from attending Indiana University and travels to London and Prague, Matt wanted to start his own business. In 1998, ODC buddies Kevin Matalucci, Tim Micheli, Joe Walters and Matt transformed a vacant store on 54th and College into a thriving neighborhood gathering place. Originally named Northside News, the newsstand rivaled any big box bookseller in the sheer eclectic selection of popular and specialty titles. An extensive array of smokes matched the diverse news offerings in addition to candy and sundries.
When the ovens at Broad Ripple Pie Company next door went cold, the guys expanded and set up a sandwich shop in 2004. Now known as the News Café, the little restaurant offered pressed sandwiches named after the newspapers and periodicals sold next door. Most notably, the self-proclaimed "Best Cuban in Town," the Miami Herald Cuban, actually resulted from Matt's diligent experimentation, perfecting the best mix of authenticity with affordable, fresh ingredients.
Both the café and the sandwich were a big hit.
The menu boasted a wide selection of sandwiches, customized for taste. Customers could make it a spicy Cuban with Sriracha sauce and pepper jack cheese or opt for a Rachel (on pumpernickel with Cole slaw and turkey) instead of the crisp Reuben.
The hidden treasure might well have been the revolving selection of house made soups, like the fasolada or vegetarian chili.
But beyond the menu, the real appeal of the News Café was the proprietor himself. Tousled red hair topped a round face with bright eyes and that wonderful Van Dyke mustache.
Matt's personality fit perfectly with the smart clientele who sauntered in to peruse McSweeney's and nosh on a stromboli. He was a raconteur who could riff on just about any topic. "I always knew I was in for a good conversation when I stopped by Northside News and Matt was there," remarked Mary Margaret Giannini.
Matt's encyclopedic knowledge was boundless and often surprising even to those who knew him best: art, cars, Hoosier and Indianapolis history, Prague, you name it. In the occasions when his knowledge of a topic was scant, Matt would listen and absorb.
Lisa Wilmoth, who worked at the News Café, characterized Matt as "our lovable curmudgeon. His passions ran deep, and he was steadfast in his convictions. Never one to back down, he was always fair and judicious. He could always take as well as he gave, with a twinkle in his eyes. He was ornery. He was supportive and loyal to me, and to so many others."
The bankruptcy of a magazine distributor and the cessation of distribution to mom and pops doomed the newsstand side. The guys rolled with the punches, gutting the original side and renovating it into a dining area.
Sometimes stubbornly, Matt would respond to sound requests. The Café hosted local bands and hiphop nights. During the 2009 NFL season, Matt would keep "the shop" open for Colts night games, serving up his own concoction of Coney dogs. Barack Obama's historic Inauguration brought the neighborhood crowding into the shop.
Matt had his own style, way beyond the trademark facial hair. When the News Café obtained a two-way liquor license, Matt insisted on serving tall pub cans poured into Ball jars.
Eventually, the economy and the stresses incumbent on many small businesses led to the closing of the Café in May 2010. Matt immediately sought out his next endeavor. Eventually, and recently, he lobbied his buddy Ted Miller to learn the craft of brewing for Brugge Brasserie. He took to it like a cold Miller High Life.
Kevin Bacon has nothing on Matt in this town. Here, there are now three degrees between anyone in Indianapolis and Matt Elliott. Classifying Matt as an only child is a misnomer. He had hundreds of brothers and sisters who all now mourn the full life curtailed.
Testifying to that, the throng that filled the huge tent at the Brickyard Crossing Pavilion to standing room only on Nov. 1 might well have tallied close to 500. It's an appropriate number for someone who enjoyed events at the track so thoroughly that he would often bring friends who had never seen the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The celebration of his life became a spectacle in and of itself. Indy jazz fixtures Steve Allee and Rob Dixon welcomed the crowd with music and accompanied a slide show of his life. His mother, Elaine, his father, Roger, and his "aunt," Joni Chenoweth, spoke fondly.
Zan Aufderheide recalled, "No one else could get me to go camping in northern Michigan in January, which led to an epic trip including Canada and giraffes. We took great pics, got back to show Elaine, and realized there was no film in the camera!"
Hip-hop showman, DJ and VJ Rusty Redenbacher freestyled fond and poignant thoughts and love for his longtime friend.
Actor Abraham Benrubi, who flew in from L.A., captured Matt particularly well:
"One thing about Matt is he was a Libra and that means balance. For every fault there is an equally stellar quality.
"For example, he was provincial with a deep knowledge of Indianapolis and Indiana, yet he was also worldly with a vast knowledge of Prague and Eastern Europe, especially. He was stubborn yet open to coming around to another side if the argument was strong enough. He was fashionless, yet he had a shit-ton of clothes. Mostly heaped in piles, but he saved all the coat hangers empty in a closet.
"Eccentric and esoteric yet practical and simple. Low brow enough to drink Miller High Life yet high brow enough to know the intricate distilling methods of various Caribbean rums, especially Barbancourt. He loved food and restaurants of every exotic kind, yet he was very picky about what he ate at each one."
A one-man Urban Spoon, Matt could direct and recommend anyone to the best little restaurants. As Ted Miller eulogized, Matt knew a little farmer's market where you could get the best Slovenian nut roll. "I doubt Slovenians in Haughville or Avon had a favorite Slovenian nut roll."
In fact, I was honored to speak about Matt at his memorial. "Matt was not my best friend," I said. "He was our best friend."
Matt most effectively coerced me into his various social circles. At the podium of his memorial, I directed these disparate converging well-wishers to introduce those sitting next to each other if they were strangers and give that neighbor a big hug if they were already friends. "Best flash mob ever," I found myself ad-libbing.
This week, I have created a new classification of friends on Facebook. I have begun assembling them into an amalgam with a label reads "Matt's Circle." It's large to be sure.
And I sure wouldn't have known any of them if it weren't for Matt. I'm so grateful to Matt Elliott for that.
I can think of no better way to honor our friend than to take time and tell your friends and family how much you love them. Do it often.