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.

Escape from Flint, MI

77028410v1_240x240_Back.jpgI returned to work this morning and jumped straight into an application QA test. It was one of those 10 emails a minute, every-tester-pointing-out-the-same-bug days. It was great. We got tons of feedback, and our application didn’t explode and leak metadata all over the desk.

In other news, there is an inch of mold in the bottom of my tea stein.

Hope you all had a good Labor day break. Here are my photos of Flint, for your morbid pleasure.

Labor Day

I’m going to Flint tomorrow. I’ll be in town through Tuesday.

I hope to visit my mom’s library on Friday, assuming I don’t expire from the cold I have developed.
For your envy and amusement, my itinerary: I’m getting up at 4am so I can leave Ithaca at 4:30am so I can get to the Syracuse airport at 5:30am so I can fly at 6:30am so I can tranfer in DC at 8am so I can arrive in Detroit at 9:30am.

All to get to Flint.
Has mankind ever made such efforts?
Has anyone ever had to work so hard to get to Flint?

Maysan Haydar is Cool

My friend Maysan Haydar has always been cool. She introduced me to Bratmobile and Swing dancing back when such things were hip. She got a tongue ring before everyone else. She was the first person I knew to dye her hair purple.

She escaped from Flint, majored in Linguistics and moved to NYC to write for The Nation. Now she’s a social worker. Oh. And she wears the hijab. Here’s an excerpt from an article she wrote for the book Body Outlaws about why she wears the veil, and what it’s been like.

Flintstyle

Friends, we need to have a little talk. Judging from some of your emails, many of you are Woefully Ignorant of one of the most important debates going on the world today. I refer to the fight between Flint-style coneys and Detroit-style coneys. Apparently there is a place claiming to be “Angelo’s” located in shiny Ann Arbor (a yuppie Detroit suburb with delusions of grandeur) selling some vile mockery of a coney dog. I’m here to tell you that this is WRONG. Coneys belong to Flint. Flint invented coneys. Specifically, coneys belong to a little place called Angelo’s.

CUE NOSTALGIC MUSIC

From the 1970’s on, Flint’s Angelo’s Coney Island restaurant was a meeting-place of cultures. On a given night you could see rich old women in furs, bikers, prostitutes, gang members, suburb punk rockers (the quasi-urban angst!), and the mayor eating side-by side in its red vinyl benches. The waitresses coughed a lot and if you were really nice, you might get a tobacco-stained smile. They were open 24 hours, every day except Christmas, until the health department made them close for an hour every night to clean. There were fights in the parking lot. You could get fries with gravy. The signs, menu and prices hadn’t changed for 30 years.

What was the attraction? The unchanging ambiance and the coneys. Ah, the coneys. A coney dog, dear reader who wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in Flint, is a Koegel’s hot dog (made with real innards!) with a dry spicy meat sauce, finely chopped raw onions, and mustard. Eat it. It’s good. Get two, you might as well.

There are two genres of Coney dogs: Flint-style and Detroit-style. Detroit-style is all runny and nasty, just a dog with chili on top. Flint-style on the other hand, is coney perfection. These days, the original ones can be found at Tom Z’s coney island downtown. Accept no substitutes.

When GM has a strike, Flint women cook up sauce in a crock pot, chop up onions, and deliver coneys to the picket line. Flint kids go to Angelo’s before prom, carefully lifting their ballgowns off the floor.

A few years ago, Angelo’s was sold. The new owners fired the coughing waitresses, dressed up the new ones in “Angelo’s” t-shirts, took down the old yellow menus, raised prices, franchised the place, changed the food, and generally fucked everything up.

Fortunately, the Angelo’s-shaped hole in the universe has ushered in a new era. During my last visit, I saw dozens of new coney places that had opened up. Flint coneys are everywhere now. I remain hopeful.

Thus endeth the tale of the Vastly Superior Flintstyle coney. Anybody has anything different to say about the quality of the Flinttown dog, then come on up here and say it. I’ll fight ya. Come on. You. Right now. Flint!

Escape from Flint

Last night I drove back to Ithaca from my hometown of Flint, MI. I had Great Expectations on tape, and Dickens’ verbosity helped get me through the nine-hour drive without plowing into someone out of sheer boredom. Flint was unexpectedly fun. I got to see my favorite old gang, and their cute new kids. Downtown’s been sexed up a bit, with some lighted arches and a cobblestone overhaul. The best thing downtown is Flint City T-Shirts, my friend Matt’s new shop. I got an “I heart MI” shirt, and Erin got one that says “Flint: Baddest town around since 1855.”

Things I missed while I was in Flint (Good)

  • Snoop Dogg asking Cornellians “Can U Control Yo Hoe?” (more on misogyny in hip hop)
  • Slope day snowfences
  • Cat barfing

Things I missed while I was in Flint (Bad)

  • Beezoo and Lexie delivering brownies at work
  • Tulips blooming in spite of the damn deer (curse you deer!)
  • International dance festival (opa!)

Things I did while in Flint

  • Ate assloads of coneys. Pretty much literally.
  • Went to Wal-mart twice with parents. Bought nothing. Washed off corporate slime afterward.
  • Gave driving tour of expensive public works projects that were going to “save Flint”
  • Tamale night at Erin’s grandma’s
  • Mourned the death of Angelo’s. The walls are bare. They have wheat toast. The waitress called my friend “sir.” It’s over.
  • Three-hour gossip session with everyone’s favorite Joel
  • Got asked out by skeevy Australian waiter while at Olive garden with mom.
  • Introduced parents to veggi burger. Ate chicken in exchange.

In other news, Wendy at Poundy describes the Seattle Public Library most aptly.
Store Wars should tip you over your monthly bandwidth quota nicely. Headphones required. Organic and work-safe.

Hey! Look! More Snow!

Hey! Look! More Snow!

I’ve been back at work for a while, but have been too exhausted from my vacation to write about everything. Here’s a little recap. But first, this:

Cell phone use was apparently a problem at some point here in the library. I can’t imagine why, since the giant slabs of asbestos prevent anything resembling decent reception. Anyway, the main stairway has been designated a “Cell Phone Zone” where, supposedly, students and staff are to stand enjoying echo-y conversations amplified and overheard by six floors of potential eavesdroppers. Today on the way upstairs I noticed a bit of graffiti above the cell phone zone sign. In grand geeky college tradition, someone has designated the stairway the “Self-Hone Zone.”

Which would be great, of course. There should be more of this. The library could establish a whole suite of self-improvement locations. Meditation rooms built off of the lunchroom, consciousness-raising areas outside of circulation, friendly councilors scattered throughout the stacks. The self-hone zone is only a beginning.

Right. Anyway. So over the break, I drove the eight hours to Flint, spent a restless night in my drafty old high school bedroom surrounded by the ham radio equipment and computer magazines that have taken my place, then flew down to Austin, TX for xmas with my boyfriend’s parents, who are majorly sweet. I met him on his layover in the Detroit airport and we flew down together. Apparently the flu had struck him in the airport shuttle, and by the time we met up, he was a tired, feverish pile of carry-on bags. Christmas was spent in the Austin Emergency clinic, waiting for an antibiotic prescription.

I was felled a few hours later, and most of my stay in lovely lovely warm not-snowy-at-all-Austin was spent in a darkened room drinking tea and comparing thermometer readings. We did make it to San Antonio on our last day, and ate at a famous Mexican restaurant where the entrees consisted almost entirely of lard. At the San Antonio zoo, I met the Giant Anteater and spent almost an hour hanging around outside his habitat, which was probably the most ant-free spot in Texas, watching him sniff around with his giant ant-sniffing nose. He came up and sniffed me a couple of times, which pretty much made my week.

After Austin, I flew back to Michigan and hung out with my parents for a while. My friend Erin was in town from San Francisco, and not wanting to get hit in the crossfire of a Flinttown New Years Eve, we hopped in my car and drove to downtown Chicago, where we were much safer. I spent two solid days at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which you may think is a bit excessive, but I do not. On both days, I was pecked by an ostrich. Or rather, the glass that I was standing in front of was pecked by an ostrich. The ostrich would walk by, see us standing there watching him, come over and peck the glass in an irritated way, then walk off. This happened several times. After awhile I realized that the ostrich, having a rather short bird-memory, probably thought that each time it pecked at us was the first. He was trapped in an endless loop of “La de da, here I am, walking, HEY! Get out of here! HA! Take That! La de da…”

Hey, for any of you designers out there, the American Ostrich Association (AOA) really needs a new website.

Anyway, after Chicago, Erin and I drove back to the Crater that is Flint, spent some more family time, and I drove home.

New Year’s resolutions include:

Getting to work earlier. Which, of course, means leaving work earlier. It was getting pretty depressing leaving at six and six thirty. I’ve started coming in at 7:30 with the secretaries, and I think I’m getting more work done in the quiet.

Gym getting-to. This too has been quite successful. My friend Kim and I have a pact. We go every day at lunch rain or shine. We’ve had to miss two days due to dangerously cold windchill (-25F! Come to Ithaca!), but other than that we’ve been faithful. I’ve felt really great doing this. It’s like having recess in the middle of the day. And it is much more memorable than curling up with a book in the lunchroom.

More cooking, less of the conveniently located Indian restaurant. Say no more. Mmm, saag paneer…

Ivy

First, I would like to officially apologize to Peter for talking his friendly Minnesotan ear off at the I.T. thing yesterday. Low blood sugar almost inevitably leads to leftist political rants. I’m sure I read this somewhere in the New England Medical Journal.

The window ledge skateboarders have not returned today.

Someone once pulled a gun on my friend Erin and demanded her skateboard. This was back in Flint, MI. She ran away, and now runs marathons in San Francisco.

At this point I would like to emphasize the Not-Flintness of Ithaca, NY. I feel confident that my library window skateboard boys are back in middle school today, snapping bra straps and setting off stink bombs.

I’ve been reading this book:

This fine place so far from home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class

Speaking of which, there sure is a lot of ivy in the Ivy League. It all turned red over the weekend, and it looks just glorious. Ivy can cover a great number of architectural flaws. Someone might consider planting some around Olin Library