Friday, October 10, 2014

Letter To An Old Friend:
St.Clair Shores in the 1970s


A model of Gordon Elementary School as seen looking north to south,

 built using an old (1959) Skyline Set.

Gordon Elementary, as see on from the north side, ca. 1976.

A couple of years ago, I found an old elementary school classmate of mine on Facebook. We had been classmates through elementary school at Gordon, until she moved out in fifth grade; we remained 'pen pals' through the end of high school. Then we went our separate ways, married, had children, pursued our careers.... and then, ah, Facebook.

After some reflection, I've decided to publish the letters I sent her describing our childhoods together as there may be others who remember old Detroit, and St.-Clair-Shores-That-Was. Actually, it's also St.-Clair-Shores-that-Still-Is. The place has changed almost precisely not at all in 40 years....

Some of you may be able to identify my friend from the context of this letter. I've tried to shield her identity but ... there it is.

My dear old friend:

Let me begin by saying that seeing your picture on Facebook last Sunday was like Proust's lemon madeleine–opening the door unexpectedly to a flood of memory of events long past.

Can you imagine that I have (off and on) known you for, what? Forty years?

I should tell you that your family, and your name, still carry great cachet in our family.... we still can identify you without bothering with last names.  You are remembered.

You should also know that the city of St. Clair Shores has changed not at all since the late 1960s. It was a suburb to which much of white working-class Detroit relocated from what we now refer, euphemistically, as "south of Eight Mile [Road]." They built an image of the original residential Detroit in south Macomb County, hunkered down, and decided not to change a thing (and by God not let the blacks in! Alas).

And it hasn't. St. Clair Shores has not perceptably changed since 1966, when we moved there when I was five years old. Your old home on Martin Road is, as far as I can tell, identical to how it looked when you were in residence. My old house – 28300 Gladstone – is on only its second owner since my parents moved out in 1983.

The local demographics remain set in concrete. White, mostly Eastern European and Italian, very unwelcoming to outsiders and, in particular, black people. My graduating class from Lakeview High School in 1980 was integrated: his name was Ed. As far as I know that was the last African American ever to graduate there.

The population between Metro Parkway and 32 Mile Road (the northern border of Macomb County) has exploded. A belt of rich suburbs are followed by a belt of even richer suburbs the further north you go. Many, many immigrants. Lots of business signs in Spanish, even more in SerboCroatian, Polish, Arabic, Farsi.

But in the Shire, between 8 and 16 Mile Road? All remains encased in cultural amber, a Jurassic Park of the 1970s. If you ever visit you won't need that (hopefully mythical) USAF-developed time machine to go back in time.  Almost nothing has changed.

You came into my life in 1969 or so. I was a first grader at Gordon School. Our teacher was Mrs. Anderson. Do you remember? Room Two, in the Northwest Wing. There was this enormous oak tree just outside the back door where we went out for recess. A baseball field with an 800' right field fence. The usual monkey bars, swings, slide, teeter-totter, etc. (And enclosed outdoor spaces which were eventually fenced off when the local stoners found them a convenient spot to smoke a doobie.)

I stood out like a sore thumb in that school–the vast majority of my classmates were the children of auto folk. Their interests, considered 40 years later, seem very, very conventional today. In elementary school? Pure Steven Spielberg suburbia. Everything was about the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Lions, listening to TOP 40 music on CKLW, watching the old Batman and Saturday morning cartoons on television, playing with Mattel toys for Christmas, drinking Tang and eating Space Food Sticks, playing little league baseball and T-ball, going to Cub Scouts, teasing each other with ancient children's chants ("Jack and Jill-ly SIT-tin' in a TREE! K-I-S-S-I-N-G!" )... etc etc.  (And as time passed: smoking dope, drinking beer, driving around in muscle cars, trying to pick up girls...but that was later.)

My family never fit that melieu. Remember that my family was, shall we say, a bit eccentric. Our subsequent careers have reflected that. We were an intellectually diverse but intense and (competitive!) bunch, you can agree, and as you can also imagine, a very intellectually challenging environment in which to grow up. We liked TV of course, but as my mother always said, "Books Are Our Friends."

But you can imagine that meant that I didn't exactly fit in with the Batman crowd in first grade.

My earliest memory of you? Tall, of course. Blonde. A slightly different, non-Michigander way of speaking–not an accent, quite, but rather a different rhythm of speech, reflecting traces of your immigrant background. A dignified air, even as a little girl.

But most importantly, you were smart. Smarter than anyone in our class. Smarter, indeed, than almost anyone I have ever met or am likely to meet in my almost 50 years. And so was your whole family.

I mentioned that your name sometimes comes up in family conversation, even today. My last visit to my mom was in 2010; we spoke of you. She was immobile and almost blind and deaf, but she still remembered, and she told stories. And she spoke of how she remembered first meeting you.

One day–it must have been in the spring of, what? 1969? 1970?–she was digging in the garden in our back yard, as she did in those days. Suddenly, coming up the driveway and around the corner, I brought you, your mother, and your litter sister in to meet her. (I was, what? Seven? Not exactly of an age to call ahead on a cel phone and say I'm bringing guests!). Your sister was in a stroller; she must have been about two. I said, "Mom, this is _______, my new classmate. And this is her mom and this is [her sister]." My mom said that your mom and she talked for about an hour before your mom took you and your sister back home.

I can remember flashes, bits and pieces of those days. I remember that (and I mean this in the best sense possible) that you were the ultimate Good Girl. By which I meant, you never got in trouble at school or anywhere else. Always polite, always at home in adult company, never any trouble.  Unlike me--misbehaving, loudmouthed, always getting into fights and always being beaten up by the some of the boys in the neighborhood.

I remember in third grade (Mrs. Campbell! Room three, across the hall from Mrs. Anderson's) we were supposed to turn in a book report a week. I was proud of myself because I always did my book report, unlike most of our classmates. You would turn in three! Or more! In fourth grade (Miss Hensel! Room twelve), we (you and I and J_____ M_____, do you remember him? He's a CPA now) were put in a special accelerated math class–which I promptly flunked out of because while I have math talent I don't have much math interest.

It's funny. Forty years later, I see or hear some things and I am reminded of you and yours, and smile. As I drive home every day, I pass a warehouse for a transshipment firm, The Mayflower Moving Company. I get a flash of memory of the inside of your house, which was filled with moving boxes from Mayflower, which had moved you in. Or: there's a grand old lawyer in my law office who uses a lot of Yiddishisms; he is wont to call people that he likes "a real mensch." And every time I hear him say so I can clearly hear an echo in my mind of your mom saying something like "Och, mensch, will you stop that!" to one of you kids (or me).

I can remember going to Metro Beach with your mom, dad and family on a couple of occasions. I can remember many, many times we went to the library together at Eleven Mile and Jefferson. (My St. Clair Shores library card remains my most cherished possession.) I can remember your mom washing out your sister's cloth diapers, by hand no less. I remember playing board games with you and your brother in your upstairs play area, and usually losing.

Other kids played Monopoly or Battleship or Milton Bradly's The Game of Life (remember that? "I am Art Linkletter and I heartily endorse this game!" You either wound up in the Poor Farm or in Millionaire Acres. Nobody ever ended up in a cemetery!)

But not you. Your family played different games, requiring smarts. One was a card game with road patterns, you had to make a ring of roads with the cards. Another was a deductive reasoning game involving colored pegs. You used to win at that all the time, too. But I didn't mind. (Much!)

I remember thinking it being Unutterably Cool that your family were immigrants. I remember being delighted to find out that my family is German too, on my mom's side, and must have babbled on about it for weeks.

I remember that, for a lot of very complicated reasons I may yet explain later, you were the only real playmate and friend I had in elementary school. And when you moved away at the end of fourth grade, I truly mourned your loss.

It was about this time that I was delighted to find your old next door neighbor still had your then-new address in Chicago. I must have been about eleven or twelve.

I still have your letters somewhere in my archives, assuming I haven't lost them in some move. But I'm pretty sure I still have them. But that is a different story. I'm afraid the next chapter of my remembrance of things past will have to await digging them out, and given the amount of junk in the storage facility, that'll be an all day job. Stay tuned.

Just some quick comments....

You asked me, when did I figure out my natural calling was lawyer? It isn't, really. My natural calling, I thought, was writing and politics. I studied international relations with the explicit expectation that one fine day I'd be in the 'center of things' politically. Which I was for a long time...

Anyway, I went into the law because (a) you have to do something to eat when not politicking and (b) my previous profession of electronics technical translator (Russian-English) went away when we won the Cold War. Besides, while I may not be a particularly talented lawyer, I am a very talented advocate. I don't like seeing people getting the, er, spit kicked out of them--probably a hangover from my experience as a kid. Hence immigration law. The INS/DHS in Detroit are particularly anti-constitutional and fighting them in the name of poor people can be gratifying. If you win.  (Sometimes I do. Sometimes the tanks are unimpressed and drive on over me regardless.)

There's no doubt however that your family influenced me in the direction of being an immigration lawyer.  Folks like you and yours are why we built the Statue of Liberty.

As for the trouble I kept getting into.... well, the trouble I had (and it got worse in jr high and high school) was a blessing in (very heavy) disguise, it helped me become a strong person.

As for my memories, it helps that I live here. But I've made a point of remembering, of note taking. My secondary calling is that of writer/novelist; I've already completed one (rather crappy) novel about growing up in St. Clair Shores) in my 20s.....

But. Growing up here, I always felt like a fish out of water.... or worse. Fish aren't aware of water; I was no fish. An octopoid perhaps. Or sea urchin. or perhaps a zebra mussel. But the fact that I was not, er, one of the 'school' made me an observer. But you cannot be observer and observed at the same time.

Anyway. A delight to find you again, dear friend.



(First posted on May 25, 2012)

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