I grew up on a one way, one block street called Hamilton Place, in the middle of downtown Ann Arbor. There were few families with children, but it was a student rooming house neighborhood, so sometimes we played with the hippies who lived in the co-ops. The public library was across the street, the YMCA was in the next block. We attended the old German Congregational Church on Fifth Avenue, that we reached by walking through the driveways and backyards on our block and crossing the street. The University of Michigan main campus was five blocks east. My father taught tai qi at Regent’s Plaza on campus, and my brother and sisters and I would leap along the concrete barriers or sit with our noses pressed against the windows of the U of M administration building watching the elevators open and close. Or we might dip our feet in the fountain by the student union while our parents did the tai qi form. From the fountain I could see the gothic details of the Law Quadrangle buildings, fascinating and elegant.
Bach Elementary School was nine blocks west in the quiet Old West Side, with its streets full of tall trees. Nine blocks down a big hill, over railroad tracks and past an auto parts factory seemed impossibly long and scary when I first started walking them at the age of seven. Slauson Junior High School (Grades 7-9 in those days) might have been a mile from the house, in the same direction. Dad was often willing to give me a ride to junior high school.
In high school, most of my time was spent in less than a square mile. Community High School was seven blocks north, across from Kerrytown Market. The blocks weren’t as long and scary as the ones to Bach, but they could be cold and windy in the winter, carrying my viola case, with no gloves. For a few years my father had a restaurant in Braun Court, on the other side of Kerrytown from the high school. I worked there on weekends and some evenings, and I could run over and get pot stickers at lunch, if I wanted. I usually didn’t want to though. It was the age when I was separating myself from my family by rejecting potstickers in favor of sour dough rolls or bagels, and studying aikido instead of my father’s tai qi. The aikido school was two blocks from the restaurant.
I moved away gradually, spending a little time away in high school, coming home every spring, summer and winter from college on the East Coast to stay in the house on Hamilton Place. The family restaurant didn’t survive my high school years, so when I came home I worked at Zingerman’s deli, which was next to the high school parking lot. A lot of the Commie kids worked there. Eventually my brother and both of my sisters worked there too. My brother met his wife when they both worked behind the sandwich counter at Zingerman’s. My youngest sister, after a brief seasonal job at the deli, started working at the flower shop in Kerrytown.
After college I lived for a year in a rental house near the athletic campus (perhaps a whole mile from the house on Hamilton), then for two years in Ypsilanti, while I commuted to Detroit for work. In law school I moved back to Hamilton, with my sisters, who had graduated from college and high school respectively. We called ourselves the International House of Babes. One sister worked as a cook at Zingerman’s, the younger was still in the flower business. I walked to classes on the gothic campus that had so fascinated me as a child. My aikido school relocated and I helped move it to a new location on Fourth Avenue, two blocks from the house on Hamilton.
When the time came to start my career, I moved with considerable reluctance three hours away, to Cleveland, and found myself coming back once a month. After five years I mused to an acquaintance that perhaps I was preventing myself from putting down roots in Cleveland. His immediate and unvarnished agreement wasn’t gracious, but he knew enough about me to know why.
In 2004 I married my husband in the church around the block from the house where I grew up. My sister and two partners had purchased the flower shop she worked during high school and she did the flowers. The rehearsal dinner was at Cottage Inn, the campus pizza restaurant that had expanded from a hole in the wall to a city wide franchise. The reception was at a now-defunct restaurant on Liberty Street, not far from Bach Elementary. When I was in junior high, it had been a fancy French restaurant. My French class had an end of year field trip there.
In 2006 I moved across the country, finally far enough away that I couldn’t get back easily. I still made it back once a year. My mother sold the house on Hamilton Place and moved to a house next door to Zingerman’s. My sister’s flower shop was on the first floor and if I ordered a bagel from the deli, I could take the plate with me, eat it in her kitchen and take it back to the bus bucket in the deli. Condos sprang up all over downtown, including in the auto parts factory. The old Victorian clap board rooming houses on the back of our block were torn down and apartments went up over the short cut to church. I lost my job about three years ago and over two years went by before I went back to Ann Arbor. It was the longest I had been away since moving there when I was three months old.
When I went back briefly last year, I took my children to some of my old haunts: The Natural History Museum, Nickels Arcade. I found myself focusing on what had changed. The campus keeps ballooning out of its confines and absorbing more of the surrounding blocks, including parts of Division Street, the next street over from Hamilton. The student flop house neighborhood where I grew up looks bedraggled and worn rather than just bohemian, while everything else downtown is shinier and fancier. The YMCA where I took dance classes and learned to be terrified of swimming is a parking lot and the new YMCA is built a few blocks farther west, where an old factory building once stood, housing the Performance Network community theater and the Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce operation. In the parking lot of the credit union that went up on William Street when I was a kid, the asphalt is heaved, faded, and battered. Forty years of my life crowded into my head as I walked the streets. The ghosts of what had been in each spot before layered on top of each building and street corner. A little of what I saw comes through in this piece I wrote for Public Streets.
This year I went back again, for a few days longer, with one of my children. We shopped at Kerrytown, we bought bagels and scones from Zingerman’s, which has expanded yet again. I took my child to the Natural History Museum, where she sat on the puma statues out front and gawked at the same mastodon skeleton that I visited as a child. We admired the ceramic animals at Caravan in Nickel’s Arcade, although the store is smaller than it once was. We got Chinese take out from TK Wu, whose head chef once worked with my dad at the restaurant in Braun Court. The bulletin board at my sister’s flower shop has a flier advertising the tai qi school where one of my father’s last students now teaches.
One of my nieces goes to Community High School. She has an even shorter walk than I did, a grueling commute across the parking lot. Another of my nieces is still at Bach Elementary. I went to the year-end ice cream social. There was Little Caesar’s pizza (not Cottage Inn, but still a Michigan-based chain) and ice cream from Washtenaw Dairy. I saw an old friend, who has fifth and third graders at Bach. We took a picture of our youngest children together and noted that it had been over twenty years since I attended her wedding, and nearly twelve since she attended mine. The acquaintance who had once commented slightingly on my attachment to my home town was there as well. Bach is his two children’s elementary school. I even bumped into a woman who I went to third and fourth grade with. Her children are at Bach now. We stood together for a moment on our elementary school playground, with our young children clinging to our legs, stared at the new addition on the back of the auditorium, and agreed that it was very strange.
Perhaps strangest of all was the band. They didn’t have ice cream socials or bands at Bach when I was there, but there’s a rock and roll school in town now and the proprietor is a townie. I went to high school with him, in fact. He was a bit of big man on campus when I started at Commie High (if a school like Commie could have BMOCs, they were 80s rocker boys, with their hair and guitars). In 1986 I heard him and his band play, at Performance Network, in the old factory on Washington. So there I was, hanging out at my elementary school, watching that same fellow rock out with his electric guitar. His hair is still long and splendid, if grayer. The other musicians are 10 and 12 year olds instead of 18 year olds. I told my oldest niece that thirty years ago, when I was just about exactly her age, I heard him play, and while she didn’t have to believe me, he was very beautiful to look upon, back in the day. She and her boyfriend gave me a funny look.
This time it was the little things I remembered, hidden among all the new are the bits and pieces of my childhood. I took my kid to Peaceable Kingdom on Main Street and she rummaged in the long table of wind up toys and figurines while I ogled the earrings. The antique wooden counter is still there. When we walked to the Museum, we passed the brick houses I used to walk past on the way to high school. I drove her past the house on Hamilton and told her it was the house I lived in when I was her age. She asked, “That one? The one with the gray shingles?” And they are indeed the same gray shingles, although the giant cutout of Prince in the front window is new.
Over the years the urge to seek out old connections when I go to Ann Arbor has gradually faded. I don’t have quite the same desire to stare the past in the face and prove that I am prospering, that my children are lovely, or my life is something to be proud of. Except for my family and the people I met by chance, I sought out only one old friend. We had lunch at Jerusalem Garden (new location, but still a block from the house on Hamilton), compared notes on our fates, and revisited threads of conversation we have had over the course of 21+ years of often challenging connection.
I have often noticed that other people don’t look backwards so much on their lives as I do. I’m basically a psychic hoarder, remembering the places where my friends lived in 1987 or 1992, noting what I ate where, who I was with, whose birthday it was. I wonder if I should look over my shoulders less, be less wound up in my memories. But this time I felt like I got it right. I could remember who I was and the places that made me, without being pulled too far back into longing for what came before. A hard friendship pays off in long understanding. The places of my childhood and youth were nourishing and familiar, but they are not my only home.