Listen To Article
I’ve been reading Gordon Young’s Teardown, his memoir about growing up in, escaping from, and returning to Flint, Michigan. Flint is Detroit without the charm of the professional sports teams – 70,000 jobs at General Motors plants have disappeared and the public school system enrollment has gone from a peak of over 46,000 students to around 14,000. Flint’s problems are a complicated stew of economics, race, crime and apathy. Like Gordon Young, I too am from Flint, and have my own Flint stories to tell.
My church, First Presbyterian, still stands downtown on Saginaw Street, across from Kewpies (technically Halo Burger), where I would get in line as a twelve-year-old to order a burger and Vernor’s amid the lost souls of the city who sat inside on cold winter days waiting for the cops to kick them out. In the summer we’d go a half-block further from Halo Burger to the A&W where they’d hook your tray to your car window, guaranteeing the obscenities coming from the guys across the street in the county jail would stream in your open windows.
In the summer of 1978 all the male members of my family worked for General Motors. My most vivid memories of that time include being there when a woman’s thumb was cut off by a metal press and watching a guy sleep on a pallet of cardboard every night. I guarantee the guy sleeping was making more money than me. And furthermore in the twisted irony of the place department: I remember our quality control inspector would yell needed corrections I couldn’t hear because of my ear plugs and the noise the presses made. Plus he was an immigrant with a very heavy accent, so what I could hear I couldn’t understand. What killed GM? Stuff like that, a million times over.
The auto plants filled the city with people who had different ideas about life than my family. A girl in my junior high married our gym teacher. Not later. When she was in 9th grade. Another girl in my junior high, an 8th grader, eloped with a man in his 40s.
On the first day of Driver’s Education the teacher divided us into groups based on how long we’d been driving. I was put in level three (there was no level four) because I’d never been behind the wheel of a car. One of the kids in my Driver’s Education class drove his own car . . . to Driver’s Ed. When I was entering 7th grade and feeling intimidated about gym class, a 9th grader named JW was assigned to our class to help us along. JW punched me the first day and told me I had to give him my lunch money. I didn’t have lunch money, I had milk money. Three cents. JW took it. I wish I was making that up.
One day in high school I was waiting for Mr. Wilson to come into class and another kid came in and said, “I don’t know who’s teaching today, but it ain’t Mr. Wilson. He’s in jail.” I wish I was making that up, too.
The first time I drank a beer it was purchased by the Chief of Police’s son using a fake ID. His dad went on to become mayor.
Flint’s decline was famously chronicled by Michael Moore (“pets or meat”), and after that notoriety I used to feel a bit of shame and was reluctant to tell my sanctified West Michigan neighbors where I was from. I’m over that now. Hell yes I’m from Flint. You got a problem with that? Flint was authentic. There were a thousand ways to get your ass kicked (Why does thinking about Flint suddenly make me start swearing?), but that was part of the charm of the place. I miss the US 23 Drive In and Angelo’s Coney Island and the Pipe. I miss the Southwestern Colts and Denny McLain playing the organ at the Shorthorn Steakhouse. Not that I ever went to the Shorthorn Steakhouse and hung out with Denny and his mob friends, but I knew it was there.
Yesterday, there was a short blurb in our church bulletin saying that a group of junior high kids from my old church, First Presbyterian, were being hosted by our church as they came to town to do a summer service project. What is wrong with that picture? Maybe nothing at all, but it raised a question in my mind – I wonder how come I have never heard my West Michigan friends and neighbors talk about feeling any obligation or responsibility or burden or calling to help Flint. Maybe Flint’s problems are none of our business, but I wonder about all our churches sending people and money to developing nations while Flint has tanked. I wonder if a united effort of hundreds of churches could actually help turn a declining city around. I’m sure I’m naïve to think churches could unite like that. Still, I wonder if any folks on the west side of the state think of Flint as our neighbor. There is an east – west divide in Michigan. The attitude I sense here is the east side of the state has made its bed – the east side is unionized and Democratic and generally darker and they are reaping what they have sewn. I know that is horribly unfair, but it’s what I sense.
I am, like Gordon Young and Michael Moore, a Flintoid at heart, and I can’t help but think about the old days and dream of better days for my hometown.