I moved to California from Detroit in the mid – eighties, shortly after I graduated from Wayne State University. When people asked where I was from, I joyously told them, “Detroit. . .it’s a good place to be from!” Meaning, of course, I was no longer there. . . and that was good.
I succeeded in Southern California. I became a police officer, which was my main reason for moving here. When that career ended due to a drunk driver arrest gone bad, I made the choice to go to law school and start a new career as a prosecutor. I succeeded there, as well. After my stint as a prosecutor, I opened a successful solo practice.
In the interim between then and now, I met and married my wife. We had two beautiful children who proudly exclaim they are Southern California natives, born and bred in Southern California, just like their mother. Dad, on the other hand, is an alien, having been born on Planet Michigan.
Both my children experienced their first snowfalls around the age of eight- years -old. Cloudy days are an anomaly, rain is a rarity, and sweaters and jackets come out of the closet when the temperature drops to the low seventies.
We live, as the crow flies, less than ten miles from the Pacific Ocean and all its beaches. We go to the beach maybe twice a year. We have the Zoo, Sea World, Lego Land, Water Parks, and other attractions that yearly draw thousands of out-of-towners to our fair area.
We, ourselves, rarely visit these places. Don’t get me wrong, we have visited them. But prices continue to rise, the crowds are large, and after a few visits, these attractions lose their luster. We have had beach parties, hiked the back country, visited theme parks and museums, and spent Christmas Day in the pool under the hot sun. We’ve water and jet skied on the Bay, boated on the ocean, and visited Mexico when it was dangerous and when it wasn’t.
But it’s thirty years after my move, and my heart is pulling me back to Michigan. At the end of December of 2012, I took my wife and kids to Michigan to visit family and friends. We were fortunate to experience an early Michigan snowfall in late December. This allowed us to ride snowmobiles on Houghton Lake trails, to ski, snowboard, and inner-tube (for the less daring) down a Michigan hill the natives call a mountain. My kids even shoveled some snow, so they could experience a little of how I made money when I was growing up in the Midwest winters.
My children and I enjoyed our first snow ball fight together, and they got to experience temperatures in the teens for the first time. My wife looked stunning in her faux-fur lined, hooded Artic winter coat and gloves. We took a picture under the sign delineating the town of Beverly Hills, Michigan, while standing in a foot of snow. Not the Beverly Hills we were familiar with, for sure.
We ate Coney Island chili dogs, Oberweis ice cream (several times), and Jet’s Pizza, but didn’t take the opportunity to visit Greektown or eat Polish food. We explored a little, discussing briefly the possibility of moving to Michigan while we visited some lovely neighborhoods in Farmington Hills and the surrounding areas.
We talked about a less stressful life, staying home with the kids, less expensive housing, open land, lakes and rivers, and the changing of the seasons.
I told stories of a canoe race on the Clinton River (as we drove past it) I was in during my freshman year at Finney High School. This was shortly after my father died. A teacher saw me struggling with being a new student with no friends, dealing with racial tensions I had never experienced before, and took me under his mentorship. I believe he saved my life by distracting me from those issues. He gave me direction and purpose where I had none. I wish I remembered his name.
I drove the family by the locations of all three of the high schools I went to, all of which are now closed. I drove them through my old neighborhood, and saw the decay and destruction caused by time, apathy, and neglect.
We drove through the Wayne State University Campus, where I did my undergraduate work, and where I showed them my old apartment building on Cass Avenue. Rebirth was evident in new businesses and new buildings.
We drove through downtown Detroit, where I pointed out landmarks such as the old Renaissance Center, where I spent a summer working on the Detroit Grand Prix, the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival, and the Freedom Festival. I took them down Woodward Avenue, showing them the route of the Thanksgiving Day Parade I worked on one year. I showed them the Bonstelle Theater, where I spent many a late night rehearsing and performing college theater.
They were soon bored, because we were in a car and the drive was long. But I wasn’t. This was my history. This was where I was seasoned, and where events transpired to make me the person I am today. Everywhere I went, a memory surfaced. There was the movie theater I worked at; there was the mall I hung out in; this is the freeway where I spun out one winter, doing multiple 360’s before coming to rest on the side of the road; there’s the pizza joint I went to; there’s the 7-11 I had the gun pointed at me.
I wanted to take them to the cemetery where my father and brother are buried, but was warned against it due to how dangerous the neighborhood had become since they were buried. I thought of venturing there myself, but didn’t want to risk it after the severe warnings we received. It is one regret of the trip.
I thought the whole trip was successful, if not a little long. Everyone said they had a good time. The kids indicated they wanted to return some day. We were all fatigued by the time we left, and were grateful to get home. But Michigan lingered in my soul. It is a beautiful state. Even Detroit, with all its problems, has an attraction created by its danger, mystery, and now, opportunity.
I had spent a great deal of time researching and planning our trip. I had been reading the Detroit area newspapers for years. I had been exploring on the internet areas of Michigan I didn’t even know existed when I lived there. Using the internet, I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks National Park, Muskegon, the Mackinac Bridge, the Cherry Festival, the western coastline beaches, and other areas, that I wanted to explore in person.
Thomas Wolfe said, “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”
I realized that, while living there for many years, through high school and college, I rarely ventured out of the Detroit area. Visiting Houghton Lake was the farthest north I had ever been in Michigan. I don’t recall ever being farther west than Ann Arbor, except when I drove through to Chicago to visit friends. I knew I had to return and visit other parts of Michigan, to finally see it. And I did return, in the summer of 2013, just me and Da Boyz-skis (my sons).
And I learned that you can never go home again. Because not only did home change, but so have I.
But that’s a story for another time.