I grew up north of Detroit in a suburb of wide, maple-shaded streets with names like Sunnydale, Morningview, Hupp Cross and—still my favorite—Indian Mound. My own street was called Tuckahoe, a near-profanity that even now puts a stupid juvenile smile on my face.
Our neighborhood was technically an independent “village” within a sprawling chartered township and in deference to a few elderly residents a surprising number of us, even the children, referred to our neighbors as “Villagers.” One of my fellow Villagers was the crime and western writer Elmore Leonard, who lived in a boxy beige colonial revival four blocks from my middle school. Leonard was, is a prolific and brilliant writer whose work, down to the meanest (in every sense of the word) story, is shot through with that ineffable quality that fame and profit-minded writers of contemporary fiction slaver over: filmability. The je ne sais quoi genius of Leonard’s work translates exceptionally well to TV and the big screen. Of his books and stories, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, “3:10 to Yuma”, Rum Punch and 52 Pick-Up have been made into popular films (All five films are good-to-great, but I’m partial to Pick-Up, a criminally overlooked, black-as-pitch thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, whose only misstep was moving the damn thing from Detroit to LA.)
I bring up Mr. Leonard and my idyllic, life’s-a-Village childhood because 1) the early weeks of autumn send me into fits of nostalgia and longing (this particular nostalgia, focused as it is on the upper Midwest, reeks of cinnamon and woodsmoke) and 2) years ago, in response to an interviewer’s snide remark, Leonard fired off four words that I will never forget.
The interviewer, whom I see in my mind’s eye as a rat-faced Steve Buschemi-type, asked Leonard why stayed on Michigan, rather than moving to LA or New York. You know, somewhere interesting.
“All my stuff’s here,” Leonard said. What a line! No wonder Leonard’s sold about a jillion books.
Now, when I tell you that I’ve thought about these four words at least once a week for ten years keep in mind that Leonard wasn’t just talking about the Midwest, or Michigan, he was talking about my neighborhood, the Village. That’s why I remember Leonard’s answer every time I swoon over the smell of hot spiced cider or catch myself daydreaming of a tidy life in Michigan, me and a little lady paying taxes, buying groceries, walking the tree-lined lanes of some suburban canton (there’s an actual Canton 16 miles south of my hometown, I swear to God) or tucked away amidst the birches and big oaks in a cedar-shingle cabin Up North. I haven’t lived in the Michigan for years and my love for the West, my adopted home, is deep and abiding, but in a very real sense Michigan and the Midwest are “where my stuff is, ”emotional stuff, physical stuff, all of it. The very stuff that makes our childhoods such fertile ground for fiction (or poetry or painting or whatever).
October’s the thick, sticky middle of my stuff season. I long to see the leaves flaming and falling on the Leelanau Peninsula; In the mornings I want sour cherry preserves on my toast and in the evening, after dinner and a walk in the brisk, fragrant airs, I want donuts from the Franklin Mill. Now that I don’t own a car (when you grow up in the Motor Capital, cars take on a vast, sprawling significance; by the age of 18 your average Detroiter has a definite opinion, either he loves or he hates cars) I find myself fantasizing about a particular stretch of I-75, a corridor that begins north of Wolverine and runs 30 or so miles to the southern anchorage of the Mackinac Bridge, the largest steel suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, a cobalt-and-cream behemoth, every bit as lovely as the Golden Gate. Give me a Detroit-made Corvette ZR-1 and I could tear that road to shreds.
The trick, I know, is to hold up and examine this nostalgic ache, this homeward yearning, like a jewel suspended in the mind’s pure ether. It is a mood to be observed, logged, and brooded over, but never acted upon. Any move to realize a nostalgia l0nging—buying a plane ticket, or a cup of cider for that matter (not to mention a ZR-1!)—invites disaster. Thomas Wolfe was right, of course, you really can’t go home again, but you can always return to the pretty paper house of memory. A great artist (think of Proust!) can spend her whole career picking through memories of home, sorting and resorting the essential stuff.
In the spirit of the season, this melancholic mood, and all my memories of home, I humbly offer up 5 essential Michigan pleasures.
1. See Hemingway’s “Last Good Country.” Emmet and Charlevoix Counties make up the northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (hold your right hand palm up and it’s roughly the tip of your ring finger). Buy a copy of Papa Bear’s Nick Adams Stories and spent a quick weekend watching the clouds roll over Walloon Lake.
2. Catch a Tiger’s game at Comerica. Once every ten years or so the Tiger’s play a game in October. Don’t miss it.
3. Cinnamon donuts and hot pressed cider from the Franklin Mill. Nuff said.
4. Drive across the Mackinac Bridge. Confusingly, the Mackinac Bridge connects St. Ignace in the north to Mackinaw in the south, rising a couple hundred feet above the steely waters of the straights.
5. Chop some wood. Seriously! Buy a Collins Two-In-One hand axe, bundle up and get to work. A dedicated amateur can work her way through half a cord in 4 hours. You’ll be sore tomorrow but every time you stoke the fire you’ll feel a little thrill zip up your spine.