Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We took a field trip to the Michigan state capitol when I was ten, stopping at the Potter Park Zoo in the afternoon. This was what one might consider a major formative experience of my provincial youth. I can distinctly remember staring out at what seemed like the hustle and bustle of downtown Lansing and thinking I am destined for bigger and better things. Just like this. I was listening to Starship's Knee Deep In The Hoopla on my generic walkman, and staring out the schoolbus window at the impressive skyline from I-496 I turned up the volume for "We Built This City" and thought: yes indeed, this city was built on rock and roll.

Ten years later, cue The Verve Pipe. For the life of me, I cannot forget a winter night spent at a house on the Lansing River. My friend was back from graduate school so a bunch of us met up there and drank a few cans of beer and after midnight we decided to take his dogs for a walk. On that walk a few of us crossed the river and hopped the fence at the Potter Park Zoo, where we ran around laughing at the stupid animals at night. Then I noticed my old roommate's brother had jumped over a moat into one of the habitats and found himself staring down an Eastern Black Rhinoceros, wide-awake. Time may have graced this memory with some embellishment, but I can still picture him standing there on a rock, taunting the beast like a bold matador might mock a wounded bull. The next day's headline ticked across my vision: Rhino's Revenge! Local Man Gored at Zoo, and I knew right then I was going to be explaining this incident to potential employers for the rest of my life. You'd think we were drunk or on PCP or something, but the fact that we'd had but a couple beers only shows what kind of total degenerates we actually were.

I knew I didn't want to get arrested better than I knew the guy on the rock, so I made a beeline for the fence. In my peripheral vision, I saw him casually hop back over the moat, laughing, with a can of beer still in his hands. In my haste, the blue jeans I was wearing caught on the barbed wire and when we met back up with the dog walkers I was the one who looked like he got away by the skin of his teeth.

* * * * *

People often ask why we chose to move back to Michigan after "escaping," and I try to give an honest answer. I'm just a Midwestern guy, and I got tired of pretending I wasn't. And truthfully, I have an affection for many of the things I was supposed to want to escape. I like being back here, even if it means occasionally running full-bore into memories that make me wish we'd chosen instead to move somewhere where we had no history. Like Mumbai.

But sometimes those memories are just the spark I need to keep ordinary events interesting. Like taking the kids to the Potter Park Zoo and laughing at that stupid, lazy rhino who didn't gut my friend. Or walking in Ann Arbor past that bar where I literally got kicked out on my face by a bouncer.

Ann Arbor always held an even greater appeal than Lansing to this ambitious hayseed. When I was sixteen, my Coogi-sweater-and-Birkenstock-clad German teacher took our class to Ann Arbor as part of his program to expose us to what actual culture looked like. He let us explore the city for a few hours before meeting up at a dimly-lit German restaurant that was the pretense for the whole trip. If he had let us run freely around Detroit, of course, he would have promptly been fired. But Ann Arbor was safe enough for such adventures. Book stores outside of a shopping mall! Clever panhandlers honest enough to just ask for beer money! Record stores staffed by snooty bass players! Risque t-shirts! Here we discovered actual New Yorkers: PhDs like Roman patricians governing some dreary provincial capitol, with a cadre of shopkeepers, merchants, and artists catering to their elevated tastes and vying for their coin. Look, we whispered in amazement walking down Liberty Street: I think that was an actual Jew!

A few years later, I moved to Ann Arbor for law school and met plenty of actual Jews. And actual coastal WASPs who'd gone to Philips Exeter, and actual Chinese-American cello virtuosos. I encountered a whole host of other fancy people rolled out like Vaudeville stereotypes with bloated resumes and ivy league pedigrees. To my great disappointment, however, most of these people behaved much differently than they do in books or movies. They didn't sit around discussing great literature over cognac. Ann Arbor, I feared, while elevating me to a stratosphere I'd once only dreamed about, was making all these fine people drink watery American lager and watch football in public. Often in sweatpants. Every few weeks, the law school rented out an undergraduate bar where (for $5) you could drink unlimited pitchers of lite beer, and with a Dutchman's respect for the deal I always partook. First let me dispel any notion that this scene was anything like those parties they showed in that Facebook movie, with hand-picked hotties grinding up against brilliant young men from the Michael-Cera-school of nerdiness. It was always much, much sadder than that, with a lot of DMX songs and bad lighting. Second, if you were to tell me that elite parties in Cambridge or New Haven aren't really like the ones in the Facebook movie either I'm putting my fingers in my ears and hollering lest I regret this new plan to spend the next fifteen years raising my children using the ancient techniques of Chinese mothers.

One of those bar nights was held at a tavern with referees etched on the windows and a dozen televisions tuned to multiple iterations of ESPN. It was called Fumbles or Interceptions or something like that. I was standing on these steps inside listening to a Korean girl from San Francisco prattle on about how the food in Ann Arbor is terrible and don't they know about wasabi peas in Michigan? Just as I was probably asking her, So: what's up with kimchi? some barback in a referee shirt was rolling a keg of lite beer by me on a dolly and he bashed my leg HARD and I gave him a look that was the eyebrow-scrunching equivalent of what the fuck, you uncouth motherfucker. A minute later, as this hayseed was digging himself out of a hole for ever questioning the deliciousness of fermented cabbage you have to dig out of a hole, he found himself surrounded by two heavyset gents in referee shirts and the barback he'd just given the stinkeye. "That's him, alright," the latter said, and the two bouncers lifted me by the arms and dragged me to the door. Surely among my colleagues, many of whom had professed a sincere intention to devote their lives to protecting the innocent against the tyranny of the unjust, one of them would come to my aid! I looked to my roommate, who just shrugged and kept talking to the weasel-faced girl he would end up bringing home. And with a quick kick to his ass, this hayseed found himself out on a cold Ann Arbor sidewalk where he'd once walked in awe as a child.

I stood out there waiting for someone to go in so I could ask the bouncers for my coat (with my house keys) that was still inside. They ignored me for several minutes, until inspired by the lager I retreated to that great refuge for scoundrels of my ilk. Shivering, I threatened to sue: You can't throw somebody out for a dirty look, I slurred. That's against the fourteenth amendment. What's your name, pal, I'll need it for my lawsuit. Eventually someone emerged with my coat. As I walked away, I heard one say to the other, "God, I hate law students."