Thursday, April 2, 2015

An Absence of Unicorns by Megan Crane

When I tell people that I voluntarily chose to move to Flint, I am usually greeted with looks ranging from confused to appalled. Flint, Michigan, a rough-shod blue-collar town gracelessly eroding at its seams, crumbling into its eponymous river as more and more people flee. The town has been described by author Ben Hamper as “greaseball Mecca” and by noted journalist Gordon Young as a “city that continually challenged the national media to come up with new and creative ways to describe just how horrible things were.” Flint has a well-deserved reputation for toughness, and Michael Moore’s documentary Roger & Me depicted the gritty reality of post-GM Flint accurately, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is one of the most violent and crime-ridden towns in the United States. It is also roughly two hundred miles south of my hometown. However, despite growing up in rural northern Michigan, Flint has been a part of my life for as far back as my memory reaches. In an indirect manner, it has helped to shape my adult personality, and that leaves me owing it a spiritual debt, as we all owe the things that create us.

My father was part of the Flint diaspora of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. He left the city with the hopes that he could find peace and a quiet life up north, and that his offspring would be spared the dangers of a childhood like his, shielding us from the crime, pollution, and general decline of his hometown. Interestingly, Flint still remained nearly a day-to-day topic of conversation in our home. Lee Iacocca and Roger Smith were names I recognized and could identify by face by age five. Michael Moore was someone to be mocked as being “not-from-Flint,” a fact which irritated my father for some unknown reason, as was Moore’s removal from my great-aunt’s bookstore at the hands of my grandfather, who did not approve of the filmmaker’s use of profanity in the presence of ladies.

We made frequent trips south to visit my grandparents and uncle, who remained residents of Genesee County. I would compare Cross Village, Michigan, population 200, where I spent my childhood, to Flint, with rather unfavorable results. Flint had large libraries, museums, a mall, a planetarium, and so many, many things to do. Cross Village, on the other hand, boasted a post office, a tiny general store/gas station, a bar that we were strictly forbidden to enter, and a one-room schoolhouse that educated children in kindergarten through sixth grade until it closed shortly after I entered third grade in 1990. Sturgeon Bay, one of the upper reaches of Lake Michigan, was directly across the street from our front yard, but I had little appreciation of this fact as a child, focusing more on the injustice of the lack of pizza delivery and door-to-door mail service. I felt cheated by the lack of other children to play with and would plead with my parents to move south. My father would attempt to deflect my efforts with what were meant to be cautionary stories of narrow escapes from shadowy-faced hooligans or tragedies that would have never occurred in a suburban setting. However, I was a precocious child, an early reader with a sense of adventure who preferred the reality of Unsolved Mysteries and Reader’s Digest to the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys, and I developed the ghost of resentment against my parents for depriving me of what I saw as my birthright to eat at Halo Burger and shop at the Genesee Valley Mall.

As I slouched my way through my teen years and into my early twenties, I developed into something of a gypsy, managing to live in several of the small scattered towns north of the forty-fifth parallel without staying more than three or four months in each. Eventually, I settled in Petoskey for a few years, continuing to work as a cook as I had done throughout high school, and always dreaming of escape from what I viewed as a restricted small-town existence. After all, small towns limit opportunities, and the tradition of going off to the city to make a name for one’s self is time-honored for a reason. I still harbored thoughts of Flint in the back of my head, often getting on to look at housing costs, searching Flint’s craigslist for cooking jobs, and reading a wonderful blog for former Flint residents, However, while most of the blog’s followers read it for its trips down memory lane and to keep abreast with new developments in their old hometown, I used it rather more as one would use a Spanish dictionary while vacationing in Mexico. Finally, I began to piece together a bigger and more accurate view of Flint than the one garnered from family stories and childhood visits, seeing the city without the rose-colored glasses of childhood fantasy. Flint was dangerous. Flint was dirty. However, it still had colleges and museums, still had history oozing through every pockmark left by an abandoned house, seeping through the wizened and blackened stumps of the burnouts. It invaded my life — most of my friends in Petoskey were either originally from Flint or had ties through their parents to the benighted city. Flint still called to me.

In 2011, I moved 1,800 miles south of Flint to Austin, Texas, searching for year-round employment as a chef. I found a job easily and climbed the ladder rather quickly, ascending from lower-rung prep cook to sous chef, or second-in-charge of the kitchen, in less than two months. Things were going rather well throughout 2012, and I had just been offered the chance to run my own restaurant, an offer I was getting ready to formally accept when my mother suffered a massive heart attack. Six weeks later, I had sold everything I owned that did not fit into two messenger bags and a carry-on suitcase and was on the Amtrak from Austin to Chicago. Two days after leaving Austin, I installed myself at the Super 8 Motel on Miller Road and began looking for a job and a place to live in Flint. I have been living in Genesee County ever since.

My gypsy ways had left me familiar with the adjustment period following every move. Transitioning to a new city means new slang, new eateries, new traditions and routines and habits. My prior familiarity with Flint did not make the transition easier, though. Rather, I felt as though my dad was always walking a couple steps behind me. At the public library, I could almost see the shape of my father, age fifteen, slouched over a notebook and scribbling away. As time passed, I began to see certain traits inherent in my father’s personality explained by the daily reality of living in a factory town like Flint. I began to notice the way that hometowns shape people’s personalities. I am a small-town girl in my heart. I believe in helping the neighbors out and in always trying to believe that people operate with the best of intentions. My sister and I refer to this as “keeping our unicorns,” a sort of stretched metaphor meant to represent the naivetĂ© necessary to believe that the crushed syringe on the ground at the bus stop was dropped by a frazzled diabetic, or that the elderly couple missing for a week simply ran off to Vegas to renew their vows. I like my unicorn; I have grown quite fond of it and have managed to hold onto it for over thirty-two years. Many of my friends “back home” still have theirs too: when your neighbors were once your parents’ neighbors, when your mailman is the fourth cousin of your first grade teacher, and when the cashier greets you by name not because you are a regular, but because you were friends with his older sister in middle school, it is fairly effortless to maintain some level of faith in humankind.

My unicorn, however, has always kept close company with a healthy dose of cynicism. This might sound contradictory, however, my native intelligence led to some rather ferocious bullying when I was a child, which then led to the anxiety issues I still suffer from. After moving to Flint, I began to notice a profound absence of unicorns. People were cynical. People were harsh. So many people felt trapped by the city and dreamed of escape. Meanwhile, Flint kept suffering. The people who fled were the people with education, with fighting spirit and a desire for change, the people still capable of dreaming of better things. It seemed to me that this was one of the roots of Flint’s troubles — all of the people who could help turn the city around and make it better had left or were preparing to do so.

Did I have a right to feel this way? I, too, had fled my hometown, even going so far as to relocate across the country. My travels had shown me, clearly, that where one grows up shapes the person one becomes. In much the way a parent shapes their child’s character, for better or worse, the place where childhood shades into adulthood also dictates several basic parts of personality, such as cynicism, political leanings, slang and its delivery, and often, even choice of career. Had I not grown up in Emmet County, it is impossible to say what I would be like today. My rural upbringing left me with a healthy concern for the environment that focuses more on conservation rather than repair, a love of tree climbing and kayaking and swimming, and a love of animals, especially strays. Since my overall “up North” vibe was one of the things that initially attracted my fiancĂ© to me (he is also an up north boy), I cannot say with any certainty that my marriage in July 2015 would be taking place.

I was starting to feel somewhat guilty for leaving Petoskey and Cross Village until it struck me: those towns were not dying. Cross Village was not the town of my youth. Real estate developers had discovered it in the mid-1990’s and proceeded to blanket it with soulless mansions that saw their inhabitants for three weeks per year. Cross Village, as far as I was concerned, had reincarnated. Petoskey is and has almost always been a resort town, dependent on tourists for the bulk of its economy. It holds a location nearly in the center of the three surrounding ski resorts and has a wildly popular casino and a small but quaint downtown. The residents are well-accustomed to the sudden influx of people in the summer months, and for the first month of “ski season,” and many working-class families augment their household income in the off-season by hunting, fishing, raking leaves and shoveling snow, and other odd jobs. Petoskey would survive without me and others of my kind, dreamers with a passion for a good fight and the smarts to recognize that the road ahead would not be easy.

My curiosity satisfied on that account, I turned to Flint. I had chosen to move here from Austin, rather than back to Petoskey, where my parents now live. On the surface, I rationalized my decision by claiming that it was far easier for me to find a job and affordable housing in Flint, rather than go back to the layoffs and crazy in-season insanity of the tourist towns up north. After all, it was better to be only four hours south rather than a seven hour flight plus a two hour drive away. Now, however, I removed myself from that equation and realized that, in fact, my primary motivation underneath my adult-sounding claims of economic stability was a five-year-old girl in pigtails looking up from her Encyclopedia Britannica and saying “We can finally move to Flint?”

Did I owe Flint a debt, being one generation removed from the right to call it my hometown? Had it truly exerted enough influence over me from two hundred miles away that I could claim any part of it? People who left Flint for greener pastures were referred to as Flint expatriates; what would the term be for someone like me, a gypsy returning to settle in the land of her father? Had Flint born any responsibility for shaping me as a person?

As I stated earlier, I carry a healthy dose of cynicism nestled next to my unicorn. Some blame for that can be laid for the ferocious bullying I endured for four years, which led to a sort of nervous breakdown and a school transfer the next fall. However, a large portion of it I picked up attempting to emulate my father, and his was learned naturally on the streets of south Flint. I felt that my father’s toughness — and to me as a child, my father was the toughest man in the universe — would make me stronger than my tormentors, and indeed, I was disciplined a few times for losing my temper and fighting.

I believe that attempting to model myself after my father lent far more “Flint” to my personality than what I would have naturally inherited, based on examination of the differences between my siblings and myself, and taking our differing basic personalities into account. There are some common threads that mark us as having a somewhat-different upbringing than many of our schoolmates, such as our dark and slightly warped sense of humor, and our political leanings, which are far too liberal for ultra-conservative Emmet County.
All of this intense self-examination had tired me out. I stood and brushed the seat of my Goodwill jeans off and decided to make a run to Angelo’s for a couple coney dogs. It hit me, then: maybe the bits of Flint in me were enough to count. I grew up craving coneys and Halo Burger as equally as I did Mackinaw Island fudge and fry bread. Flint and Petoskey and Cross Village had struck an even balance in me, my hometowns and the home of my father and my father’s family. Both had come together to shape me into the woman I am now. I am fairly fond of myself as a person, for the most part, a geek bearing battle scars from intensive physical labor, the girl who will fight a person for hurting an animal while crying for the animal the entire time. This dichotomy showed me, finally, that yes, I did owe Flint in the same way I owed the towns of my youth. It had already been established that Cross Village was beyond recognition and that Petoskey had never needed me. That left Flint.

I needed my homemade mythos of Flint as a child. It represented all the large dreams of a city that my child’s brain could create. It gave me a focus point while I struggled through the long days of school, watching over my back for my tormentors, getting in fights on the playground, that there was a place out there where I would be able to get through one day unnoticed, with no one calling me a freak. As I grew older and started to make my way in the world as a chef, my vision of Flint shifted to that of a place that would not scorn my working-class upbringing, where the economy was troubled but there were still opportunities available, where everyone got a chance if they were just willing to work for it. 

Sitting on my sofa, tonight, in the living room of my little house in Atherton Park, I see that my vision remains largely unchanged, merely more concrete.
Flint helped shape me as a person on a number of different levels. Most importantly, it gave me a touchpoint. This crumbling town was a beacon of hope for me as a teenager, and it is difficult to let go of the illusions cherished at that age. As an adult, Flint represented myself to me, in a way. Battered and torn down by the establishment, it struggles and has been struggling for years to come back from the ashes of the burnouts and the devastation left in GM’s wake, finally attempting to recreate itself as a college town. I spent years struggling to overcome crippling low self-esteem and horrible attacks of free-floating anxiety after being ostracized and hurt, finally recreating myself as a loud, brash, cocky chef. It has only been over the last eighteen months that I have been able to let my original geeky book-obsessed self out of hiding. Flint has a reputation for being hard, dirty, crime-ridden and poverty-stricken, yet underneath that reputation lies good people, amazing cultural sites, and a wealth of experiences and history one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. People who grow up in Flint are resilient. They are survivors, able to roll with whatever life throws at them, for the most part. They share a sense of community and nostalgia that keeps them coming back for visits, keeps them busy on their computers googling “Safetyville” and “Hamady sack” and “coney dog Flint-style” when they get homesick. In towns with a large population of Flint expatriates, they tend to find each other almost as though drawn to one another. They share almost a unique love-hate relationship with the city of their birth. None of these characteristics would be present in these people to this degree had they not grown up here. Flint has shaped them — and to a lesser extent, me — in ways no other city could manage.

We — each of us who walk and breathe and eat — owe our parents a spiritual debt for spawning us, raising us, teaching us who we should — or should not — be. In much the same way, where we come from shapes who we are. I am a second-generation Flintoid, a northern Michigan girl raised by an expatriate with the Flint worldview, a Flint repatriate. I came home because of my mother, because I owe it to her to be close while she recovers. I choose to live in Flint for the same reason, because I owe it to aid it in its resurrection. As I was able to rebuild myself into a stronger, better person, albeit one with visible scars from my past, so too can my adopted home rise again, rebuild, secure in its new status as a college town and wiser for its years of struggle. It just needs our help.