This is the final part of an unreliable memoir of early travels in the USA from an unreliable author. The events below all happened a long time ago and my memory of them is partial and uneven. In fact, it's probably best to not pay any attention to it at all. Any names used are false and any similarity to real life is purely accidental. The first parts of this series can be found here on bebee.com although reading in chronological order is hardly essential.
After spending several weeks messing about in and around Detroit, Alice and I packed our collective bags and headed for East Lansing and her degree course at Michigan State University. This was my first experience of an American college town and the change of scene was dramatic. From desperate, urban, working class city to leafy, middle class, academic enclave in just a two hour drive along the I-96. East Lansing had handsome public buildings, parkland and a small river running through the campus as well as a notable lack of drive-by shootings. The main street was tidy and full of locally owned businesses. The whole place had a cheerful, sunniness to it that had been notably absent from the motor city further East. In contrast to Trenton, East Lansing has been home to several of America’s movers and shakers. Larry Page, co-founder of Google hails from there as does Jim Cash, the writer of Top gun, Anaconda and Legal Eagles as well as pro tennis player Todd Martin, but for a politics and sports nerd like me the biggest name is that of Nate Silver the statistician behind the Fivethirtyeight.com website. Yep. I know. Beyond sad but there you go.
In previous years Alice had lived in dormitory accommodation on campus but now had taken a room in a student housing co-op near the town centre. Howland House was messy, mixed and affordable. The house stood at 415 MAC Avenue, named after the Michigan Agricultural College which was a previous name for the university from 1909. H2, as it was affectionately known definitely stood out in its environment. Many of the other buildings on this end of the street were pristine villas used as private residences or belonged to Fraternity and Sorority organisations. These were all picture perfect houses with external contractors to care for the maintenance and gardening. The Howland residents by contrast were expected to put in a number of hours every term on cleaning and upkeep of the building. The exterior colour often depended on which paints were going cheap at the local hardware store and the gardening usually came down to chopping everything and hoping for the best.
It had quite a remarkable collection of humanity in residence. Students here were paying their own way through school, were on a pretty limited subsistence allowance or just looking for an alternative to the preppy lifestyle. We had science geeks, social reform evangelists, future politicians and present day con men, well con man. One guy was the subject of an early morning police visit. Although known to his peers as a student and part time limo driver he had also been moonlighting as a doctor in practice and taking money for private treatment. One of his erstwhile patients had grown suspicious enough to report him to the police who conducted only the briefest investigation before his arrest and incarceration. Apart from the Americans in residence we had one guy from Singapore and a small group of Chinese students. Some years later I would be sitting in the same house with a different group of Chinese students as we watched the Chinese army attack and kill protestors in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. God alone knows how they felt at that point. I certainly couldn’t begin to guess what effect that moment in history had on their lives.
It was, without doubt one of the most interesting places I have ever lived. Presumably this kind of housing is available in the vicinity of most American universities but it was all new to me. If “The Big Lebowski” had been shot in Lansing then Howland house is where The Dude would choose to stay.
Earning my keep.
Pleasant though the location was it was becoming more urgent that I seek a source of income in this strange and wondrous land. I had stepped off the plane with less than two hundred dollars in my pocket and a couple of hundred bucks certainly didn’t translate into a life of decadent leisure even at the low cost of living compared to home. Obviously, there were problems with this, not least my lack of a working visa or green card but somehow, I just always assumed that I would get by. Things, I was certain, would work out in some, as yet undefined manner.
Blind optimism just doesn’t begin to describe it.
The instant solution to my financial needs was to be found at the local plasma donor centre. Officially the rules were that donors had to be resident in the country, could only give so many times, had to have ID and proof of address and so on. Unofficially I just rocked up one morning with my passport and an air of eager cleanliness and the whoosh of the rules being burned could be heard two states away. After my first visit I was given a donor card and no further questions were asked. I quickly realised that there was a schedule that would allow me to maximise my income. Donating a couple of times in the same week meant receiving a bonus for the second visit. The next step was to wait for a letter inviting me back later in the month and offering yet another bonus for multiple visits. Managing this well, meant that I could add up the bonuses and score well over two hundred dollars in any given month. Of course, one body only contains a finite amount of blood and being a human pincushion had the odd drawback but it certainly allowed me to avoid an immediate financial crunch.
The somewhat more sensible, medium term option was suggested to me after I had been jogging around the town one morning. I loved to get up early and run. It let me combine fitness with learning the geography of the local area. On more than one occasion I passed buildings that were absolutely littered with the debris of late night parties. Bottles, cans and glasses and when I commented on this someone pointed out that in Michigan most drink containers had a ten cent redemption value. Gathering up the empties from the various parties around the neighbourhood kept me in funds until I was ready for the departure lounge.
I would set off very late each night from Thursday to Sunday and put in a serious shift until around sunrise. Sometimes it would be slim pickings and I would gather around twenty or thirty dollars. On the busy nights though, when there were multiple house parties the only limiting factor was how fast I could get the empties to storage and get back out on the streets. On one very memorable day I spent hours wheeling empties in a shopping trolley between Howland house and the local stores. The handy, neighbourhood 7/11 ran out of space and eventually, so did the Kroger’s in East Lansing which meant dragging the rest of them to another, more distant Kroger’s in Lansing. The total for the night came to almost a hundred and fifty dollars. A veritable kings ransom given my low level of living expenses.
What made the logistics of this effort possible was the near proximity of the fraternity and sorority houses in our neighbourhood. I made contact with some and became a regular fixture in their social calendar. The more organised would arrange for the empties to all go into large boxes that I provided. The less organised just let me rummage and cart away whatever I could find. I would stockpile cans and bottles in the H2 bike shed until morning and so didn’t waste prime collecting time having to go to stores and wait for empties to be counted. As a way of earning regular money without infringing the law this was pretty much ideal and it kept the streets clean as a side benefit.
Now that I was solvent I was able to enjoy the town itself a bit more. We went canoeing in rented boats on the Red Cedar River, indulged in several of the many ice cream and frozen yoghurt flavours on offer in Melting Moments and I sometimes bought a book in the excellent Jocundrys bookstore, which is alas, long gone. Mostly though I just spent my days learning about the country, hanging out and watching the world go by. The coffee shop on the square became a favourite haunt as they sold coffee in large pint glasses. These took ages to cool down enough to easily be held and didn’t cost very much so I could sit and read the paper for hours without looking too much like a vagrant seeking shelter. This was where I ate my first bagel. From sheer bloody-minded stupidity, I insisted on ignoring the advice of friends and I ate it untoasted. It tasted like a stale dog toy but I was too stubborn to admit that my first call may have been wrong and insisted on eating untoasted bagels for the next couple of weeks before capitulating to reason and joining the queue at the toaster.
From East Lansing I would hitchhike around the area and explore the state. I went to Saginaw just because Paul Simon wrote about it and thought that if it had taken me four days to hitchhike here I would be seriously unimpressed. I spent about seven hours rooted to the spot at a freeway junction near a place called Gaylord in northern Michigan. When I finally got a lift, it became clear why it had taken so long. There were several signs along the freeway that said “Prison area. Do not stop for hitchhikers”. I was told that there were three major state prisons in the region and breakouts are not that uncommon historically. Ah well, the things you learn.
At one point I set off to live in a coastal town just outside Seattle called Edmonds. The journey across country was an adventure in itself. So many small but vivid memories stand out still. Dancing on the toilet roof at a rest area in Minnesota I could see forever and felt like the tallest person on Earth. Hearing the radio fade to static as I drove across the middle of nowhere beyond the reach of even the Classic hits and Christian radio stations. Crossing the Mississippi, detouring to Yellowstone park, catching sight of distant mountaintops in Montana, and so on, and so on, and so on.
The journey West was the end of the beginning. Life was different, my focus was different and as is the way with young men or overgrown boys I neglected the person left behind and concentrated on the experiences in front of my face.
The time I spent in Michigan was an absolute joy. It wasn’t always a barrel load of laughs but I was young and in love with a smart and interesting woman who also cared for me. We did lots of small things which made a big impact. Life was exciting and full of possibility. Every single day taught me something and I gained an appreciation for the country which has never left me. I was made welcome by many members of Alice’s extended family and friends and by many of the people who crossed my path.
For the three years following my arrival my life was lived more in the US than in Scotland but our relationship suffered when I moved to Seattle and she stayed in Michigan. I couldn’t bring myself to write letters and, in the end, my time on the west coast though enjoyable, was really not as fulfilling as it had promised to be.
One day, long after I had first stepped off a plane in Pittsburgh, I was sitting on another plane. This time in SeaTac airport. As it taxied out to the runway destined for Prestwick airport. I realised that something had come to an end and that it needn’t have. As the plane took off, at least one passenger was screaming inside and wishing he was back on the ground. There have been few decisions I have regretted more than the one that put me on that plane.
I barely spoke to or heard from Alice for years and then, when she visited me briefly in Glasgow where I was studying, I acted like a complete dick. I still don’t know why.
After university we got back in touch and things were great again. Somehow. I went back out to Michigan for Christmas and this time when I came back she followed me over. We got married later that year and worked in Scotland, Germany and then Scotland again. It didn’t however work out any better in the long run and after some years we separated again, this time for good. She ended up back in the states and I took a temporary, seasonal instructors’ job at a watersports centre in Ireland for a change of scene and a pause before moving on.
Twenty years later the pause continues and perhaps without this backstory I would never have come here; would never have met my wife and probably wouldn’t be putting my daughter to bed at night as I did this evening, in our cottage in the Wicklow countryside.
It is possible that everything happens for a reason but whether you subscribe to this view or not, it has been the case for me that lots of things certainly did happen when I allowed them to and I regularly put myself in the way of “the exciting possible”. By rarely opting for the safe choice my life has been many things at times. More chaotic, less comfortable and financially less rewarding but all of the negatives are more than balanced by the richness inherent in such an existence, the joy of humanity and the exhilaration of the experience. I have been rescued by the kindness of strangers and uplifted by vast landscapes, big skies and nights in the desert. This place and the life I led here left me a different person. When I moved on I knew that however bad things might get, there would be a way out, a way to survive and a way to grow. Some lessons and their learning are truly invaluable.
America: Thank you.
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