A sad sort of nostalgia haunts me as I stand outside my old elementary school. As a kid, I used to get this schizophrenic notion that certain places only existed when I was present there to observe them. How could you ever actually prove otherwise? Summerfield was one such place. The idea that my school still retained its tangibility even in the thin hours of night when no one was around seemed foreign and distant; as foreign and distant as the concept of death.
Of course, I believed a lot of things back then. I believed that if I could manage to stay awake until midnight, I’d be able to hear the bells of Big Ben chiming all the way from London. I believed that one day I might just be able to bend the laws of physics and learn how to fly. A notoriously weird kid, from the time I could first talk I didn’t just tell everyone that I was from Neptune, I believed it.
As the teacher read passages from Superfudge, the school staffers would hover ominously in the back of the classroom. With the sweeping efficiency of Auschwitz guards, they’d begin plucking us two at a time from our Indian-seated semi-circle and escort us to an office down the hall to be checked for head lice. As the minutes passed, the classroom became a tension-filled terrarium of sweaty palms, worried looks and nervous farts. The self-esteem of every single kid in the room dangled precariously over a razor’s edge of judgment and lifelong stigmatization.
If you failed a head lice check, they sent you back to the classroom where, in front of everyone, you were to gather your things before heading directly to the office to wait with all the other lepers until your parents could come get you.
Jim was one such kid. He’d been a popular, peacock of a kid; a dodge ball standout with broad shoulders and nice white teeth. But having the word contaminated stamped across his forehead had shorn him of his plumage. In a span of just five minutes, he’d gone from playground hero to withdrawn loner. Years later, I would encounter Jim at a band show at the Capitol Theater. As we stood out on the sidewalk talking and catching up, I still couldn’t keep from glancing up at his hair.
They flash in my mind like faded celluloid images; the faces and the names of those kids who’ve long since evaporated from my life. With the exception of a handful that I’ve kept in touch with, the others seem just whispers from the long ago; the faded remnants of a dream. Phantoms left to wander the eternal corridors of my memory, their faces frozen forever as children.
Steve Miller’s Take the Money and Run floats from the radio as we head south on Ballenger. We’re both in need of coffee. We hit a Speedway on Miller Road before heading cross-town.
Slow down. See it? Look closer.
As we drive along Fenton Road’s chipped and rusted corridor, a woman lurches out of the darkness and waves us down. Easing to a stop, we watch as she inches toward the curb.
“What’s going on?” she says, squinting to get a better look at us.
“Not much. You okay?”
“Can you give me a ride to Court Street?”
“I’m not going that way, sorry.”
She points north. “It’s just up the road,” she says although her expression makes it obvious that she’s just playing along. She’s played this verbal chess game before, no doubt drawing from her past contacts with law enforcement. Before she’ll go any further, before she makes the offer, she needs to feel us out; navigate a legal loophole for herself in case we turn out to be cops, which is ironic. And speaking of cops, I’m afraid that a passing one might mistake our intentions so I switch on my hazard lights and remain stationary in the middle of the road, careful to limit my proximity to her.
She asks what it is we’re out doing and we tell her. She says her name is Robin. She’s dressed in high tops and skinny jeans and has pimples like smashed cherries. She speaks guardedly, still careful not to make any overt admissions. Once it becomes clear that we’re not taking what she’s offering, she rolls her eyes and walks away.
Insomnia’s a bitch, and there’s an apparent epidemic of it along W. Myrtle. A dozen or so young men have congregated in the parking lot of a Jamaican flag-colored party store. A black Dodge Charger parked in the lot pumps bass loud enough to rattle my tooth fillings as members of the group openly pass a joint among themselves. They all glare at us as we roll past, proving once again that sleeplessness will make you crabby.
Signs posted high on the telephone poles remind us that it’s a designated drug area and that it’s illegal to loiter here, but you can’t help but wonder if there’s even anyone to arrest you if you do. Entire sections of neighborhoods have begun to be reclaimed by nature. A dilapidated shack of a house sits back in a jungle of overgrowth. Nocturnal animal eyes reflect our headlights from behind curbside heaps of trash. Some houses have been phenomenally maintained, their prideful owners refusing to surrender to the gradual disintegration of the neighborhoods that surround them. These are the well-lit homes framed in the safe glow of yard lighting, handsomely landscaped with lawns like putting greens. But they’re all just dentures in a mouth full of rotted teeth. On this scale-level post-apocalyptic movie set, these are the production assistants who screw up the takes.
Heading east on Sonny Street, we’re nearly t-boned by a gray Cutlass traveling southbound on Donnelly. The driver never even touches his brakes as he floats through the stop sign at high speed, swerving slightly around the front of our car to avoid us while continuing southbound. Turning to look north on Donnelly from where he came, we spot the distant cluster of more headlights, their beams winking in and out as people walk in front of them. Lingering in the intersection, we hear a single gunshot, followed by three more in rapid succession. Car doors slam shut and engines gun. Unholstering my gun, I accelerate fast toward Dupont, glancing back in the rearview just in time to see two cars come screaming into the intersection. One turns right onto Sonny while the other keeps going straight.
“I want to report shots fired,” I tell the 911 dispatcher. I tell her where we’re at.
“Has anyone been shot?”
“I can’t tell…I don’t know.” I give my name and my phone number and mention the gray Cutlass that almost hit us.
“We’ll send someone out there,” she promises. “I’ll have the officers give you a call if they need anything more from you. Thank you.”
We make our way east to Dort Highway where we eventually come to land in a parking lot overlooking acres of junked cars. A dull rose blushes the east sky as we quietly sip our coffee—the third one of the night for each of us. Tired and bleary-eyed, we watch the sun crest into a new day.
Matt and I take a few minutes to catch up on our notes. We decide to get out and stretch our legs and take a quick rejuvenating walk up the block and back. Along the way, we encounter a pitbull combing through a discarded fast food bag. It keeps a wary eye on us as we approach until, deciding that we’ve come close enough, it gallops skittishly away down the street.
Nothing beats the smell of rotting fish in the morning air. We’re down behind Atwood Stadium standing on the banks of the Flint River. As Matt smokes a cigarette, I grab my fishing pole and throw some casts out. I love fishing, I’m just not very good at it. For a good thirty minutes I watch repeatedly as my lure sails through the air and plops into the turd-brown water. I figure if there’s anyplace a fish wouldn’t be so choosy about its food, it’d be the Flint River. But never underestimate the weltschmerz of an American fish, particularly one whose life is limited to a waterway that’s too murky to see in while belonging to a species whose name is an anagram for crap.
It’s strange seeing day turn to night and then day again. Everything seems stripped bare. My brain feels like it’s going to jiggle loose. Someone’s poured hot sauce in my eyes. We drive around aimlessly, dazed and Cotard’s-deluded.
No better time to hit the shooting range!
Our paper targets feature a guy that looks like Dennis Franz pointing a gun at us. Once the firing line is clear, we head downrange and thumbtack them to the target board. Having never fired a pistol before, I go over the basics with Matt. Keep the muzzle pointed downrange. Focus on the front site. Squeeze the trigger.
After some practice, it becomes apparent that my partner’s a natural. From 25 yards, he gets them all into the scoring circle. At 50 yards, he does respectably well.
“It’s like a form of meditation,” he says; an apt enough way of putting it.
As members of the line head downrange again to put up new targets, I notice that one guy is working out a malfunction with his pistol. He cycles rounds through his 9mm while still pointing the barrel of the gun downrange. Dressed in a pair of camouflage fatigue pants, he’d be impossible to spot if not for his exposed butt crack.
I watch him work the slide of his pistol, cycling rounds through it while keeping the barrel pointed downrange. I politely ask him if he wouldn’t mind holding off on doing that so that we won’t be walking in front of him. An obvious member of the gun folk, he grows instantly defensive.
“I know guns,” he snaps. “I’m not going to shoot while everyone’s downrange.”
“I don’t expect you would, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. It’s just safe practice not to handle your gun while you have people downrange. Besides, I see your pistol is malfunctioning. All the more reason to just wait until the line clears out.”
“Go ahead,” he says, shaking his head and setting the weapon down.
Thunder booms from down at the long-gun range. After a breakfast of stale McDonald’s fries and Diet Coke, we make our way back to the range store, passing along the way a shimmering gallery of AK’s and AR’s and M14’s. The smell of cordite hangs in the air, mixed seductively with the meaty, waxy fragrance of men. Sworn enemies of wimp culture, these are men. A stray wife or two stands off in the background, knowing better than to interfere in this summit of lumbersexuals. Men with faces etched like road maps. Bushy-bearded men in unbuttoned flannel shirts. Wheelbarrow-bellied men in denim jeans. Men. I try convincing Matt that now would be a good time to pretend we’re a gay couple but some people just have to be a wet blanket.
On the dot.
In 1990, she bunny-bludgeoned her way into our hearts in exploitative film producer Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me. Our love affair with her continued in 1992 with the follow-up film, Pets or Meat. Before Kim Kardashian, before Jennifer Aniston, there was Rhonda Britton. Also known as the “Rabbit Lady”, she’s proof positive that the Flint dream and entrepreneurial spirit was alive and kicking…unlike the rabbits that had the misfortune of ending up in her cages.
She still lives in the same Lippincott Road home that she did back in 1990; a dingy, white matchbook efficiency of a place besieged with a collection of lawn ornaments and unicorn artifacts. A battered blue van sits parked in the driveway, flat-tired and missing a license plate. We knock on the front door but get no answer. We walk around the back to find a sagging garage. Behind the garage are the rabbit cages, although the only thing they’re housing these days are spiders and dead moths.
Shown graphically in both films, Britton demonstrated her method of harvesting rabbit pelts by stringing them upside down to a tree branch and clobbering them over the head with a wooden club. With the animal still twitching, the Jonestown-looking femme fatale would strip the fur from the animal then gut it. In the time it took that dim-witted mush-mouth Elmer Fudd to dilly-dally with a single pain-in-the-ass rabbit, Britton could have made you a fur hat and a bowl of rabbit stew.
This self-described “animal lover” made an estimated $10.00 – $15.00 a week off her bunny empire, which by 1990 standards equates to $10.00 – $15.00 a week. Following Roger and Me’s release, Britton had a problem with scofflaws showing up and liberating the rabbits from their cages (of which at least one incident I may or may not know something about).
“She aint home,” shouts a neighbor. “She’s out of town for the weekend.”
I confirm with him that Britton still lives here. I give my name as Burt Sirloin with the Detroit Free Press, and tell him that I’m doing a “Roger and Me: Where are they now?” piece. He introduces himself as Fred Black.
“Yep, Rhonda’s still living here.”
“Is that a good thing?”
Black, who’s white, seems eager to respond. “Oh yeah. She aint a bad person. Funny lady.”
“No. funny lady. She don’t do that no more.”
I remark on her collection of unicorn kitsch and ask if she’s graduated to slaughtering unicorns for extra income.”
“No,” he says, not getting the joke, “she’s going to school now, I guess.”
“How has Rhonda’s life changed because of her success?”
He seems unsure of how to answer. Finally, he asks if we want to leave our names. He’ll let her know that we stopped by.
Before leaving, we ask if Britton still gets visitors related to the film.
Black shakes his head. Puffing his cheeks he recalls how there was some minor “hoopla” in the months immediately following both films’ release but that the attention has long since died down. “Everything’s been back to normal for a long time. It’s a nice place to live.”
It’s fitting that they brew coffee with something called grounds for the stuff we’ve gotten from an Admiral station tastes as if it’s been filtered through soil.
There’s been no news about the shooting on Sonny from the night before. Neither the Flint Journal website, nor any of the local news websites have any mention of it. It’s possible we hallucinated the whole thing.
A talented artist, Matt once won a contest back in 1983 to have a (non-working) prototype of a “Vehicle from the Future” built based on his own design. The prototype was housed in Flint’s Sloan Museum. Located in Flint’s “Cultural Center”, near East Village, the museum shares a Smithsonian-like campus with other institutions such as the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint Institute of Music, Longway Planetarium, Flint Youth Theater, and the Whiting (formerly Whiting Auditorium). It’s the part of Flint you never hear about.
We’re disappointed to discover that the prototype’s been long gone from the museum and that none of the staff have even heard of it.
Also known as “Vehicle City”, you can pretty much expect any museum within the city limits of Flint to have an overwhelming, salt-in-the-wounds focus on the automobile industry. It is, after all, what it owes to its past and distant success. But it’s more than intriguing to become reacquainted with some of the old names I learned as a kid; names that were integral to Flint’s backward path from its current ruin: William Durant. Louis Chevrolet. David Dunbar Buick and Edwin Atwood. The city was founded as a trading post in 1819 by trader Jacob Smith who, it was said, had been on friendly terms with the Ojibwa tribe who occupied the land at the time. Smith, amassing a name for himself as a fur trader (sure, when Jake did it, everyone thought it was cool, but when Rhonda Britton did it, everyone went all Greenpeace ‘n shit), eventually became a highly regarded land negotiator and mediator for both the Ojibwa tribe and the U.S. government.
The museum, billed as the second largest in the state of Michigan, also features some impressive exhibits and activities for kids as well as a scale-model Sesame Street set and interactive science displays.
We’re in the home stretch.
Back in 1996, a friend of mine hosted a radio show on WFBE called Take no Prisoners which was run from a radio station in the basement of Central High School.
The show came on every Saturday night and played everything from Political Silence and Smiling Sacrifice to Mondo Cane and Jimmy McGriff. With its Studio 54-like feel, the studio hosted a variety of names from the Flint Underground Music scene. We’d have our esoteric social gatherings. I once performed Dude Without a Thang (the ballad of a transgendered factory worker) live on the piano.
In 1997, they changed the station’s format, transforming it, thank God, into yet another country music station. The station had its own entrance, an unassuming brown painted door on the school’s west side. But like everything else, the school was eventually shuttered with the radio station following suit a short time later.
The year was 1991.
Jack Kevorkian was pedaling death in a Volkswagen. Aileen Wuornos shattered serial killing’s glass ceiling, and moody grunge rock band Nirvana released their first album, Nevermind. It was also the year I graduated from high school.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than an urban legend:
An administrator from my high school embezzles money that was supposed to go toward the production of our senior class yearbook. There’s no way to verify the veracity of the claim. All I know is that on the library shelf, there’s a conspicuous gap in the chronology; 1990 – 1992.
So, I’ll have to settle with the yearbook from my junior year. That was the year I gained the epiphany that I needed to get rid of the mullet. For reasons long since forgotten, I have a wet and slippery look in the photo, as if I’d just had a bucket of water splashed over my head.
Behind the smile and the wet palm-pressed hair was a kid with zero self-esteem and loads of anger. My dream of becoming a professional wrestler had begun to wane and I’d never given any consideration at all to going to college. At my job at Kessel’s Food Mart, I was a virtuoso at grocery bagging, so I guess I could try working my way up to a cashier. But an incident involving a forklift and a pallet full of 2-liter bottles of soda would cut that career ambition short.
The problem, I was beginning to realize, was my rebelliousness. If everyone else liked something, I was careful not to like it. If everyone else accepted what was being said and taught, I made sure to challenge it. I had a disdain for authority. Conformity repulsed me. I stubbornly perceived the slightest disagreement as a challenge. I thought that everyone else’s likes and interests were petty. All in all, I was too stupid to see what an ass I had been making out of myself and too ignorant to understand I had a serious lack of direction.
It’s the only time I can remember when my grandfather raised his voice to me. Following a suspension from school for fighting, he sat me down and told me to shut-up and listen.
“You’re going to end up in prison,” he said. “I think the world of you, John, but one of these days you’re going to do something that’s going to make you throw your life away.” I was smarter than that, he’d said. And most of all, I was better than that.
By my senior year, my grades had improved. My self-esteem had slowly begun to bloom. By the end of my senior year, I was ready to leave the old days behind and take a new path. I pared myself down. I no longer had to play the Antichrist. I still abhorred conformity, but I had learned to exchange the tired old would-be hoodlum mentality for something more self-preserving and innovative.
Against the odds, I was ready to try to get into college. I was given a clean slate. The day I received my letter of acceptance to Michigan State University was the happiest day of my life. When I made the Dean’s list, I was euphoric.
At a coney island on Ballenger near Miller, we try going over our notes but it’s impossible to focus on anything other than how much we’re both looking forward to some sleep.
Our waitress turns out to be a girl I went to school with named Theresa. During the bus rides home, she always sat in the back. She smiled and laughed but hardly ever spoke. She didn’t have a lot of friends but one girl who knew her told me that Theresa had a crush on me.
She remembers me and smiles broadly. I stand up and give her a hug. She turns our coffee mugs and starts to fill them but I can’t drink another drop. She asks what I’ve been doing since high school and I tell her I’m living in Lansing. I’m a father now. Turns out she’s the single mom of a boy named Aiden. She says her son is the light of her life and that she’s “making it happen”. She comments on how nice it is outside and says she doesn’t feel like being at work. There’s a brightness in her eyes as she stares out at the blue sky, although the same sadness she wore as a child still remains.
The factories closed decades ago, but the fumes still linger. The specters of shop rats still mill out of the factories at quittin’ time. The slabs of empty concrete that dot the city look like the ravaged backs of cancer patients. The skyline now seems nothing more than a self-flattering attempt to remain relevant.
Despite the allure of a safe, comfy-looking parking lot and an on-going struggle to stay awake, we never cheated. I wonder what it’s going to feel like when I take off my shoes.
In any event, we understand better now. We get the point. Society is full of contrasts, although the needle will always fall this side of savageness. I’m ready to go home and deadbolt myself from the world.
The city of Flint is like an annoying relative; I can say whatever I want about it but you better not. This is Pripyat. This is Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. This is every sagging barn and withered field and abandoned station and ghost town in America. It’s mythical and it’s tragic. It’s success and failure. It’s everything and it’s nothing.
But to me, it’ll always be home.