Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

I am from Flint, Michigan.

I was born and raised in a crappy little city perched on the edge of a dying industry. The ominous creaking sounds coming from below sounded like a pretty clear warning, so I got the hell out. I graduated from a halfway-decent suburban high school in a district that my parents fought like hell to keep me in, renting claptrap houses on the edge of the boundary line. I left with a few AP credits, a 1986 Chevy Nova, and a seriously fucked up attitude. Being from Flint was important to me. I thought it conveyed important information to the outside world, information about my work ethic, my disappointments, my belief in the higher power of Buick Automotive.

Flint had helped win the War. My grandpa dropped out of school to help design the M18 Hellcat Tank for Buick, trading in a career as an architect for the promise of a pension and a world free of Nazis.

Flint had started the labor movement. My dad was a proud union representative, joining generations of men and women inspired by the Great Sitdown Strike to restore the power balance between owner and worker. He would sing Woody Guthrie’s song down the echoing hallway during tense negotiations. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union. I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.

My family stayed. Flint crumbled. Everyone who could afford to moved away. My suburban school district installed metal detectors. I went to graduate school and met people who had never heard of a carbureted engine. I’d come back home for holidays, dragging bemused boyfriends and waving around my new words, new ideas, big opinions. I’d come home to re-hear the stories that had defined me. Funny stories of disasters too big not to laugh at. People doomed by their own stupidity. Companies collapsing from their own greed. Fights at basketball games. People shooting out the lights on cop cars. Things falling off of trucks. Apocalyptic decisions made by people entrusted with our public good. Flint stories.

Recently, one of my neighbors wrote a book filled with his own Flint stories. Gordon Young lives a few blocks away in my new hometown of San Francisco. Oddly, we have never met. He went to the other suburban school district – those southside swine that were always beating us at quiz bowl – and left about ten years before I did. He’s been writing a blog called Flint Expatriates, and a few years ago he did this weird thing. He tried to go home.

The book is called Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Gordon writes about life in Flint and San Francisco, often through a lens of real estate. He has gone through the process of trying to buy houses in both cities, a testament to his tenacity and possibly some kind of undiagnosed brain injury. Anyway, you should read it because it’s awesome and it says many of the things that should be said about Flint. The ending is really strong, and I found myself saying “hell yes” out loud a few times. Leaving Flint seems to have given him the perspective he needed to make some peace with the goddamned place.

You may have noticed, I’m still searching.

Thoughts on 37

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According to the calendar and math, I just turned 37 years old. This meets most definitions of adulthood. I’m a parent, and a wife. I have a professional portfolio with 15 years worth of stuff in it. I’m employable and pretty much have my shit together. Of course, none of this means a thing. I’m the same dumbass I was in college.

As I’m constantly reminding my daughter (who is 2 and concerned with such things) we get a little bigger every day until we grow up. For her, that’s enough. For me, growing up is an ongoing campaign.

After childhood, an extensive support network surrounding the products we buy encourages us to spend our energy trying to look and act like the people we briefly were in our early 20s. The desire to grow up is subsumed by a need to stop growing or changing.

I started dying my hair to cover up grey when I was 24. My fair skin and fear of the sun got me a brief reprieve from wrinkles. General immaturity and bad impulse control made me seem younger than my age. Postponing motherhood helped as well. I put myself on pause.

When I became pregnant, I stopped dying my hair. Weight gain and bloat changed my face, and I was too damned tired to indulge in any silly nonsense. Everything hurt and I aged ten years in a few months. I was still the same dumbass, but without the honors and privileges awarded to youth. There was some mitigating churn around “oh look a pregnant lady how sweet” but it didn’t kick in for six months and was offset by vomiting and crippling depression.

Some time has passed, and I’m suddenly 37. Parenthood has reshaped my priorities. I have become Erica’s Earning Potential, Erica’s Ability to Absorb Interruption, Erica’s Immune System, and Erica’s Ability to Feed Her Family.

Endless undignified tasks arise when you’ve chosen to subsume personal ambition to create an environment where a potentially decent interesting child can grow and exist. There are no awards, there is no press coverage, and everyone involved forgets the details.

This isn’t the narcissism of Midwestern modesty (“Oh it’s nothing, here let me get that. Well maybe someday when I’m rich.”) or a perversion of patriarchal beauty standards. My sudden need for mid-afternoon naps and my enduring relationship with Ibuprofen and the heating pad argue against anything so energetic. Being punk rock is a lot of work. This is different. This is mom jeans and uncombed hair.

This is some organic freerange not-giving-a-shit.

I don’t try to look younger unless it assists the new priorities which are focused around people other than myself. I clean up ok, and I’ll do the thing where I get into lady drag when I go to job interviews or meetings with people who aren’t my work bros. I brush my teeth so my husband will kiss me, and I continue to fool him into thinking I’m pinup-hot.

But seriously? That food stain on my shirt is going to stay there. And I’m going to look right at you and talk anyway. I’m going to have opinions and expect a response even though I’m not wearing a particularly coordinated outfit because that’s what I’ve gained by becoming my own age. I’m not on pause anymore, and I didn’t lose anything of value.

I’m still the same dumbass I was in college, so why shouldn’t I claim the column of space around my body and fill it with something useful? I’m not here to be decorative. I don’t have to be, and neither do you.

So here’s to 37 and the freedom it brings. Here’s to being alive for no particular reason and not mattering much. Here’s to reeling around doing your best. And here’s to writing about it, because questioning that urge doesn’t help much either.

Good to be here, everyone. Hope you are well.

Me-mail

I got this email from Erin this morning. I’m all ego-y now. Once in a while I get a letter like this, an occurrence which pretty much defies reality and constructs a nice illusion of me as some sort of e-persona, which I suppose I could be if I worked on the website once in awhile instead of staying up until 4am reading “Sewer, Gas & Electric” by Matt Ruff. Dangit. Curse you Matt Ruff and your seductive prose!

Erin writes:

at the YMCA tonight I saw…

an awesome girl in a “librarian avengers” t-shirt.

I was like, “Aw na, hell na– that’s awesome! Erica Olsen is like my best friend in the world.”

she was studying to become a librarian and generally thinks of you as an extraordinary genius.

I am beaming with pride!