September 20, 2010
It was like one of those clear cylinders filled with cold cash that you shoot off to the bank teller, yes, that’s how I drove from Chicago to Flint, Mich. over the weekend. The CD player was serving up John Prine’s “Taking a Walk,” but I drove fast.
You see things clearer from a distance.
The mood became more haunting the closer I got to Flint. A cool mist and dark skies made it seem more like November than mid-September. My summer had been masked and now autum was being robbed.
Whitey Morgan of the Flint hard honky tonk band Whitey Morgan & the ’78s told me about a great jukebox at the Torch Bar & Grill in a dark alley in downtown Flint. The Torch has been around since the 1950s and Morgan, the third generation of loyal GM workers, went there as a kid. I found the Torch but first I found a young woman weaving down the alley in the rain. She asked if she could use my cell phone. It was in my car. I went into the dimly lit Torch and it was filled mostly with hardscrabble men watching a college football game on a small television above the bar. I asked about the
Its been broken for years.
I’m enamored by Flint and the hopeful heartbeats that are mending its wounds. I picked up a copy of The Flint Journal and noticed that columnist Andrew Heller wrote about Michigan’s serious 13.1 unemployment rate in August. He then cited a report that said corporate profits in general are up 40 per cent. It is like one of those clear cylinders filled with cold cash that you shoot off to the bank teller, yes it is.
Just before I embarked on the 212 mile drive back to Chicago (in the same day) I found Witherbee’s Market & Deli, 601 Martin Luther King Avenue a mile north of downtown. It is the first grocery store to open in downtown Flint in 30 years. This is not one of those funky Michigan “Party Stores.” Witherbee’s is a beautiful and serene place, named after a Flint entrepreneur of the 1860s. The 8,000-square foot store was built in the early 1940s as a Goodyear tire store. It most recently was a women and men’s hat store and salon featuring “Hats by Jake.”
Since Witherbee’s opened in June Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has dropped in to pick up some bananas in the former food desert. Earlier this year Witherbee’s won the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. Six awards are given throughout the state of Michigan.
The store interior is finished in a bright yellow motif and yellow and black checkerboard floors. The logo is a bumblebee that reminded me of Chicago’s late great Busy Bee diner. The logo was designed by students from Baker College of Flint. There’s upscale magazines like “Oprah” (or is it “O”?) and “Martha Stewart Living” and foods from the fine Flint Farmer’s Market. I picked up a bottle of water, tuscany bean salad and a plastic spoon for the drive home.
I returned to my car and just sat there. I turned off the radio. I looked at the row of bright yellow mums in the steel planters that lined the mostly empty parking lot. It was about 6 o’ clock on a Saturday night and people all over America had somewhere to go, a place to make their deposit. But I felt the hope that had been planted in this foresaken city. I got misty eyed. Maybe it was me. Or the long drive on a gloomy day. You see tomorrow in the strangest places.