Out beyond nowhere

Posted by jdg | Thursday, March 01, 2007 | , , ,

One of the softest spots in my heart belongs to failing small businesses. On Friday and Saturday nights in San Francisco, most young professional couples dine at the city's hot spots, putting their names on lists and being seen before being seated. But on most weekend nights, you would not have found Wood or I among them. If you had a penchant for staring into empty restaurants in unhip neighborhoods, you might have seen us dining at the Korean place where no one but us seemed to eat, extending exaggerated compliments to the wait staff, or perhaps getting take out from the Thai place down the street that sat two or three tables a night. I can't stand seeing a stranger stumble under the weight of a small-business loan, open his doors to the public, stand by eagerly by waiting for everyone to walk in and make his dreams come true, and then have far fewer souls walk through those doors than he ever thought possible. At one point a Chinese guy opened up an Italian restaurant around the corner from us. He called it "Happy Chef." The place was decorated with dull color photographs taken in his kitchen of his whole overambitious menu: gray "osso bucco," a lot of misspelled clam-based pasta dishes, and a very questionable-looking "cioppino." The first week "Happy Chef" opened, a thief smashed the front window and broke into their cash register. So we started eating there all the time. We are pity-based consumers. I like my money to stand against a tide of failure rather than line some dickhead's already-flush coffers.

So Detroit can be hard on a guy like me. The city itself is like an empty restaurant.

Yesterday, Juniper, Wendell, and I left Detroit to go thrifting in Sanilac County. Here in the lower peninsula of Michigan we have maps in the flattened palm of our right hands. This is particularly true when referring to small towns, whose locations can be communicated by pointing to their general vicinity outside the bottom thumb-knuckle of Detroit. Yesterday we headed straight up into the heart of the thumb.

The problem with living in the city of Detroit is that you have to drive 30 miles in any direction to get out of the suburbs. People blame the dilapidated and abandoned state of Detroit on a downturn in the auto industry and poor economic conditions, but when I drive through the ring of suburbs around Detroit, all I see is a robust economy based on Best Buys, Home Depots, Wal-Marts, Outback Steak Houses, Olive Gardens, et al. The money is here, it's just not here. There is not a single big-box store in the city of Detroit: not because the city wouldn't love to have one, but because no big-box retailers have any interest in this community or its consumers. Instead, retail in Detroit is mostly a hodgepodge of Um-and-Abu dollar stores, beauty supply shops, chain drug stores, and small grocery and liquor stores. In that way, Detroit resembles a dimmed shadow of what it must have been like before this chain-and-franchise retail age: a lot of individual people slugging it out against the odds to scrape together a living under economic conditions no retailer based in Connecticut or Delaware would have the sack to touch.

Still, driving north, once you get out into the true country where changing economies have created shrinking towns, things start to look like Detroit again: abandoned buildings, a startling lack of chain and franchised restaurants and stores (at least in the towns themselves), and many of the kinds of businesses that find their way into that soft spot in my heart. I love the guy hawking jerkies from a shack on the side of the road near Almont, the hairstylist in Marlette who sells tombstones to the bereaved of Sanilac County from his barber shop. But most of all I love the junk shop entrepreneurs, the people who collect the detritus of our discarding society and try to slip it back into the stream of commerce: exersaucers that were on Wal-Mart's shelves last winter; Sylvania tube televisions; Paul McCobb credenzas hauled away from some dead lady's living room. A guy named Charlie in Marlette was reading a 20-year-old paperback called something like How to Get Rich by Being Cheap when I walked into his thrift store.

This was my kind of guy.

Everything in the store was well-tagged and reasonably priced. He entered each of my purchases into a form on his laptop and then printed me a receipt on an old Lexmark ink jet. I filled the car with chairs to re-upholster and bags of 1970s plastic dish ware, forcing Wendell to sit next to Juniper's car seat, which was to his benefit, he realized, after the first piece of Pirate's Booty slipped from her grasp.

On the way home, I remembered how much I love driving through the country. I used to do this all the time, I thought. In college and law school, Wood and I would just head off in one direction or another, stop at antique shops and greasy spoons, drive past old brick farmhouses and imagine a life raising kids in the country. Living in San Francisco, I retained this Rome rus optas attitude. I would imagine settling with Juniper in a small town, a place where one day we might actually be able to make some kind of impact, either become one of those pathetic small town business types ourselves or at least shovel our money into their sieves. We drove past Victorian mansions, rustic barns, and the general vernacular architecture of the road. We drove through the suburbs and then back into the struggling town where we live.