Thursday, March 29, 2012


or, how to deal with all your friends moving to the coasts and Chicago.

“My ol’ friends are so far away” –Red Tail Ring

In the fall of 2010, some friends and I decided to go on what was, for us, no less than an Epic Cycle Trip. Thirty-five miles or so each way, it began at the co-op where many of them lived and ended at Friends Lake, where the groundskeeper had graciously offered us camping in exchange for some invasive species removal (Quaker murmur of approval, anyone?). As none of us had ever biked this distance, much less with tents strapped to our racks, and one in the company was a completely inexperienced cyclist riding a borrowed single-gear contraption, it was impossible to say how it would turn out. Would we be eaten by the perils of lower Michigan traffic? Collapse of exhaustion along North Territorial? Arrive only to find that the groundskeeper was really a mad scientist searching for guinea pig victims, cleverly disguised as a Quaker?

No. Here’s what we encountered: cows. Railroad tracks. Hills that took it all out of us. About a billion people honking at Joel’s state flag, asking us if we were doing a trans-Michigan trip, if we were running for office, if we were crazy, etc. Apples and doughnuts at Jennie’s Farm Market. Exclusive communities along gorgeous country roads that we scoffed at in the most hooliganish, dirty liberal cyclist way we could manage. Belting out “John Brown's body lies a moulderin’ in the grave” to the passing cars. Tire swings and a sauna we figured out how to fire up and a peaceful lake. Chirping crickets from inside tents at night.

Things like this happen in other places. But maybe in not quite the same way. In this mitten, buffered from other parts of the country by really big lakes and bigger rifts in culture, we’re something else. Nowhere I’ve been is there quite the same combination of stubbornness, openness, tradition and spontaneity. Every time I go to some more cosmopolitan place I realize that something is missing. There’s this peculiar Midwestern warmth that makes me try to strike up conversations on the streets on New York City. My friends from the City, by the way, are still not convinced that I’m actually in the same time zone as them (“Good lord! With all those wild boars and Paul Bunyans roaming about!”).

Since that legendary bike trip, I’ve taken a couple jaunts around the state and collected more reasons to adore my home state. In the UP there is, you know, a roadside steel sculpture park called Lakenenland whose owner has been fighting with the local government to remain for years. When my fellow traveler and I arrived, there was an impromptu bluegrass concert taking place on the constructed stage. A man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turned around, nodded, and drawled, “Have a seat. Or if you play something, get on up there.”
Maybe that’s the Michigan style.

I can’t blame my friends for moving to the coasts, or even for moving to Chicago or Milwaukee. I’m well acquainted with the need to make a living, and the mitten’s not the hottest spot for that these days. In addition, we lack two big things that most of my peers find important: functional public transit, and the freedom to marry who you’d like. So go, friends! Go off to New York City and San Francisco, to places where people actually share your values and lifestyle, where there’s money to be had and maybe nice weather to be enjoyed. In fact, maybe someday I’ll join you.

But for now, I’m quite content to be a Michigander. There are times when I’ve had it to my eyelids with the close-minded comments, but then these crazy Michigan people turn right back around and surprise me with the most lucid expressions of acceptance and humanity. And this summer, the bike trips will be unbeatable.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Inevitable Transit Piece!

Of course I’m going to write some stuff about transit. And so here I go.

Folks, I can’t help it. Public transit is my life at the moment. Not possessing a car (partially for economic reasons, but more accurately for lifestyle choices), I am one of those souls who patronizes the AATA multiple times daily in order to get to work and pay my rent. It changes things. Homeless guys I meet at cafes tell me they see me around all the time. (Oh, that’s cool. I’m glad my poofy blue coat has become a standard Ann Arbor sight). I’ve started to be more—punctual. I was always pretty timely, but it’s gotten out of hand recently. I notice minutes. Because if the bus stops on Plymouth at 7:18 and I dash over at 7:19, it’s done. Half-hour late for work, at least. This leads to awkward interactions with the students with whom I live, who operate on more flexible schedules. At the breakfast I cut people off in the middle of conversations about the meaning of existence. (Excuse me—I don’t know why I exist, but I have to leave right now). I’ve learned that the hour between 2 and 3 is not to be scheduled for anything. It is specifically earmarked as transit time.

But what’s the worry? Plenty of folks take hour-long hikes to work every day over endless suburban freeway. It’s kind of the norm. That's fine, because we spend time to gain things that are valuable to us. For some, it’s a large and fancy house on an isolated lake. For me, it’s living in a cooperative community and commuting in an efficient, respectful manner.

People, in this country particularly, tend to believe that unlimited choice is the highest value, one to which we should quickly sacrifice everything else. Certainly choice is an important part of our culture. But I've found that the limits public transit places on me add to my life in ways I wouldn't want to give up. They make me part of a rhythm, the dance of the daily urban world, and in doing so connect me to hundreds of others who are moving to the same beat. Not to say that the AATA buses are as chatty coffee shops. As in any public space, people tend to keep to themselves and mind their own affairs. But there are the moments—sometimes, the only moments of a hard workday that jolt me back to humanity. Asking the nine-year-old girl why she’s crying (her brother pinched her). Talking to the man in front of me about the key chain he’s weaving out of colorful string. Greeting the same bus drivers every day and knowing that if I’m out sick, they and all the regulars will wonder, where’s the perky redhead in the blue coat? For me, this is what it means to live in a city.