Anna Clark brings us the beauty of storytelling, memoir, history, and poignant realization. This is the magic of creative non-fiction from a small town-turned-big city gal.
By Anna Clark
There is a place in Lake Michigan: south of the St. Joseph River’s mouth, a little ways offshore. You wade into the rushing lake, burrow your toes into the sand, and you can see the fireworks of a dozen small towns alighting along the curve of the freshwater coast. A deep blowout sand dune on your left wears a crown of spindly trees, which eases down the side and thickens into old woods. Summer wind fills your lungs and ears, and it is warm and laughs at you a little. Sometimes it slows and sips your skin, careful tastes, like it’s trying to make sure you should be there. The water shivers with the wind. Whitecaps crack sharp. When I remember this place, everything is colored blue and black, except white fringe on the waves, and white sand piled in dunes. White stars, hushed and watching, like you. Then, as if there were a god to conduct them, the little towns send their first shot of fire into the sky. Curving trails of flame, sparking reds and greens and golds, over and over and over. The fireworks boom and echo. They shine at points following the ragged line of the coast, getting smaller farther north, until the fireworks from the last town are only brief blinks of shocking color. All of you, all of us from this corner of Michigan, were facing the same way, our chins tilted up.
Let me sing a song of where I come from.
Where the river meets Lake Michigan – really, an inland sea – in the southwest corner of the state, there is St. Joseph, the town were I lived until I was nineteen. I’ve come to realize that it’s not like other small towns. The expansiveness of what locals like to call “the sunset coast” shaped me differently than if my home had been crowded around the edges by other towns that looked like ours. Instead, my town had a vast opening-out that brought spaciousness to my young sensibilities. We walked down to the beach after my rained-out sixteenth birthday party to play in tremendous waves. I jogged along the coast, leaping into the water when I was done. The lake shone through between the houses and trees on the bus ride to school.
It is the water, the sand dunes, the public beaches, the collective awe and looking-outward that permeated that place, that I miss most.
St. Joseph is a tourist town, a summer beach vacation for Chicagoans, which our economy depended upon and pandered to in ways that my letters-to-the-editor to The Herald-Palladium did not appear to diminish—evident in, for example, the recent attempt of putting a martini bar in downtown St. Joe, a neighborhood most shaped by the public library and a general store that everybody still call’s Murphy’s, even though it’s name officially changed about twenty years ago. Something painful comes from this: feeling your hometown orient itself to the visitors rather than those who love it best. We called the tourists FIPs – Fucking Illinois People – and in the haze of summer days, when there was not much else to do, we’d go FIP hunting, spying them by their shining accessories, their high heels, their lattes, their asking of the way to Main Street. They are different than us, and while we were on the poor end of the class analysis here, we scrabbled our way toward claiming a moral high ground: We were the ones who lived here.
One of my earliest jobs was at the Whitcomb, once famed as a resort hotel with sulfur spring baths on the lakeshore bluff. It boasts that it brought the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, and Marian Anderson to “the Saratoga of the Midwest.” According to the Whitcomb’s story, it was undone by the rise of “motor hotels, or motels” in the 1950s. These days, it is a retirement home that gestures at a gracious past. They still call the lobby the ballroom. There is a sun deck. It hosts weddings, and not just for seniors.
I was a waitress, and wore a thin navy dress that went below my knees, with a white collar and white-capped sleeves. It was a replica of the uniform worn by the hotel waitresses, I’d heard. I folded pink cloth napkins to put at their assigned seats in the dining rooms tables divided into sections called Holiday and Gardenview. The other waitresses were nearly all black, while the residents were all white, which, uncomfortably, made me a default favorite of some residents. Under the dining room’s chandeliers, I served limp food: pale string beans, mashed potatoes served with an ice cream scooper that were never hot enough, and—the most popular item—butter pecan ice cream. One man named Franz had been an animator for Disney films. One woman, a former dancer, gripped my arm and complained loudly about there being too many old people here. I was there long enough to see her chair, and many others, go empty. Near the end of my time at the Whitcomb, one half of an adorable couple fell, or jumped, from his seventh floor window into the alley between the Whitcomb and, as it happened, where my aunt ran a salon and I’d once swept hair.
In St. Joseph, tall old oak trees are as thoughtful as aging queens. Summers split open with smacking flip-flops and slamming screen doors. We slid on saucers down the same two or three hills in Kiwanis Park each winter. Third-graders walked to the cemetery to make grave rubbings. It’s not uncommon for 5,000 people, in a town of 10,000, to show up for the high school’s football games. Teenagers went to the breaker rocks and had bonfires. We fished, or jumped, off the pier. In early June, alewives – an invasive species – die, and litter the beaches with their little bodies, dull silver skin leafing off in ribbons and making seagulls sing. Going to the city meant a visit to South Bend or Kalamazoo. On the first weekend in May, on the brick street where I grew up (patchy rooftops, old women, renters, children), my sister and brother and I fed the horses that were due to march in the Blossomtime parade along Main Street.
If you turn down one way from St. Joseph, you’ll find fields of corn and soy, Dale Nye’s apple orchards and vineyards that sweeten the late September skies. If you turn the other way, you cross the river into Benton Harbor, laughably called St. Joe’s twin city: Benton Harbor is disproportionately African American and impoverished. (It’s become nationally known for its tenure under Michigan’s emergency manager law.) Later, when I went to college in Ann Arbor, my classmates would attend lectures about where I grew up and read Alex Kotlowitz’s book about the racial tension between the two towns, featuring the parents of my classmates and the river as a perpetual metaphor. I struggled with this, that I might learn things about a place I knew so well after I went elsewhere.
I spent a long time thinking of myself as a small town soul, only on hiatus in the city. But it occurred to me, after many years, that I’d chosen cities again. After Ann Arbor, Boston. After Boston, Detroit. After Detroit, Nairobi. And after Nairobi, I’ve come back to Detroit. Not a small town soul after all, I had mistaken my love of where I come from with the idea that I belong there, or someplace like it, as an adult.
I love Detroit as a city in the making, a strange and creative community haunted with stories, a place where people are threading powerful new narratives into the idea of what it means to live an urban life. I want to live my life as a creator and a storyteller. This is the place for me.
But I notice again and again how much of what resonates with me about the cities I’ve chosen for myself echoes what I love about where I come from. Friendliness. Open-hearted community. An ethic of hard work. A laid-back attitude. Love of the natural world. Just the other night, I fell in love with the thumbprint moon in Detroit’s thousand-blue sky, kissed by the steeples of old-world skyscrapers, buildings like windowed candles, tall wishes standing solid and ghosts of old-time wishers streaming through. There is stillness and there is simultaneity and then there is me, chin tilted up, feet far low on the street, missing the people I never knew, missing the things I never knew, eyes wide as moons, my heart as full as a moon.
Anna Clark is an independent journalist living in Detroit. She writes reported news features, longform nonfiction, and book reviews, and she has an omnivorous range: she often covers literature (especially international literature), health, prisons, sports, and media. Her writing is a “notable” pick in Best American Sports Writing 2012. She’s contributed stories to The Guardian, Grantland, The American Prospect, Salon, The Nation, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Review, and other publications. She was a Fulbright fellow in Kenya, focusing on creative writing, and she has also been a fellow with the Peter Jennings Center for Journalists and the Constitution. She writes the literary blog Isak (www.annaclark.net). Anna is a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project and facilitates a theater workshop at a prison in Macomb County, Michigan. She graduated from the University of Michigan and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, where she practiced (and practiced…) fiction.