I just returned from the first hometown visit with my boyfriend. Carl gets a rose, meshing with my family in myriad ways, from drinking a beer with my stepdad Jim while being treated to a tour of his gun racks, to marveling over the details of my dad’s train layout, to running a 5K (his first!) with my dad at the crack of dawn.
He’s a keeper.
But I already knew that. What I didn’t know is how other parts of the trip would burrow under my skin like swimmer’s itch throughout our few days in Southwestern Michigan.
With a flash thunderstorm quashing a beach glass hunt, we had some time to kill. Under grey skies, I asked Carl if he wanted to see the house where I spent my teenage years with mom and Aunt Vikki, her “business partner.” I’m writing a memoir about what when on inside the house, and that’s a story for another day. But outside the house offers its own tragic tale.
Driving over the Bicentennial Bridge, the bustling Caucasian streets of St. Joseph quickly gave way to a quiet, foreboding landscape. I became monosyllabic, retreating to my internal crawl space. As I drove towards 709 Colfax over uneven streets cracked, rutted, and neglected, Carl’s mouth dropped.
“Holy shit,” he said. Then, every minute or so, he would ask me to slow down. My inclination was to speed up and get the hell out of there. It’s the same instinct that sent me fleeing, car doors locked, as soon as I graduated from high school.
I lived in a ghetto. People don’t believe me, thinking I’m prone to hyperbole when describing the area of Benton Harbor where I grew up. With wide eyes and two words, Carl validated my entire adolescent experience. Holy shit.
I lived in fear from 12 to 18. Thirty years later, Carl saw exactly the same bleak dystopian vision I accelerated through.
709 Colfax itself is still in pretty good shape for its surroundings. There’s no junk around it, paint isn’t peeling, it looks lived in. But neighboring houses tell a different story. My junior high was just blocks away, but to get there meant traveling over pavement with weeds sprouting through the cracks, past houses boarded up, burnt down, or with black windows and little apparent life. Mom drove me those few short blocks every morning. After school, I boarded Dial-a-Ride, a bright red short bus that broadcast my shame to my classmates. During recess, teachers doubled as guards as we set up yellow metal barriers on either end of the street so we could play four square without interruption. The red ball might have sometimes hit outside our squares but it never bounced past those barriers. We ran like the dickens to grab them before we jeopardized our safety beyond this makeshift fence.
My spidey sense was finely tuned by the age of 12. I’ll never know the fear and anxiety that African-Americans deal with on a daily basis, but I do know how it feels to be a lone 12-year-old white girl in a plaid uniform skirt in a predominantly black neighborhood.
For better or worse, I carry that frozen little girl inside me still.
Driving at a snail’s pace, I drove beyond St. John’s church until I hit Pipestone Road. Here, Carl gasped at a once-grand Craftsman, roof caved in and burnt beyond repair. A majestic Victorian with a carriage house tucked behind it lay fallow, as if waiting for someone to arrive who could grow new life on the grounds. The one well-maintained house had a chain-link fence surrounding the property.
“I can’t believe these abandoned houses are still here,” he said. “There’s no money to tear them down or fix them up,” I replied. My stepmother explained later that the city received a grant to raze the houses and turn them into empty lots but that only 80 had been removed to date and time on the grant was running out.
Benton Harbor’s “arts district,” just across the river from vacation haven St. Joe, now features a handful of charming pubs and shops in refurbished brick buildings that harken back to a once-prosperous era. The Livery contains an elevator that used to raise and lower wagons and horses; how nifty is that? There was no such hipster hangout when I was a teenager. Instead, I worked in the children’s department at the public library. It is located a stone’s throw away from this gentrifying area. Even though it was across the street from the police station, I always walked to my car with another employee, my key-cum-shank poking out through tense fingers.
That old fear was still palpable as Carl and I drove, doors locked, through the sorry streets. We’d occasionally see signs of life, such as it was, dark faces staring blankly above inert bodies sweating in the post-storm humidity.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks how I imagine New Orleans looks,” Carl said, adding, “Post-Katrina” for clarification.
I got it loud and clear. The town, named worst place to live in the US by Money magazine in 1989, looks like the universe took an eraser to it but got distracted by another worthwhile project. Some houses have been rubbed out but detritus has been left behind.
Gripping the steering wheel of our rental car, I became overwrought, holding back tears as the man I plan to grow old with saw for himself why I’ve always felt so ancient. He got me on a profound level. Living behind locked doors wears on the soul, slowly eroding it like waves lapping against sand. Writing my memoir has been fruitful at times but it’s never been easy or joyous. As I dip into my memories, I also tap into a well of feeling. I am tethered to this neglected city, even as I’ve flown upwards and away. Driving down Britain and Catalpa, Pipestone and Colfax, I Benjamin Buttoned myself back to 16. All that angsty energy and emotionality bubbled to the surface. Home may be the same, but I’m not. Now, I’m using self-awareness and acceptance, not fear, to propel me forward. I’m not running away, I’m absorbing the power of this place to take me to a new place where I can truly soar.
There’s no place like home—and maybe that’s a good thing.