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Home > Magazine > Towns > Heart and Soul in Lansing

Heart and Soul in Lansing
January 05, 2002

Lansing and surroundings is a bland, faceless area almost totally dominated by golfers and insurance salesmen. At least the public face of the area is. You can see their values ruling all.

It's a flat area devoid of natural beauty highlights. Its basis is cars, roads, pavement and minimalls. Nothing fancier can be built today than a polebarn of some type or other. You know how it goes. We have the most gray days of any place in the US. We beat Seattle hands-down (they get 4th place).

Then there's the plague of mobility striking as hard here as anywhere. We've lived here 7 years (after coming back after my leaving after growing up across the woods across the street). In 7 years nearly every house between our house and my parents house has gone up for sale. It's more like they're all rental units now with the bank as landlord. Including the posh new cornfield estates. Of the twelve spec mansions built in the lot near us lately, one has already been sold again. Pick a mansion any mansion. But all the regular housing is more so, like a merry-go-round. Know your neighbor? Are you kidding? I know members of my internet hobby groups better. I don't even SEE my neighbors before they move. No one goes outside.

The other face of mobility is that everyone works about 50 miles away from where they live. The people who live around me thus have nothing to do with me or where I live, which is here. Follow?

It makes for a nearly perfect wasteland. Martha and I have it to ourselves. We make our own fun. Another trademark of Lansing.

But what's great is that despite all that you get these flashpoints, these bright lights that occasionally smack you upside the head with world class quality.

It's not the capitol at all that does it. You never get a whiff of that place. Not in a good sense anyway. What kind of a effect can a committee have on anything? They're black holes, null sets, avoidance devices, death warmed over.

It's not the autoworkers, university or farmers either: but they are involved, as you will see.

And as I said it's not our natural highlights. But, nature isn't only about highlights. A real important element here is lowlights. Life between the cracks. Drainage ditches are vital to our area---not many people know that. Our beauty is between the stretches of parking lot. In the back lots behind the mall. In the sideyards of subdivisions where no one ever goes (they don't even go into their yards except to mow, wearing protective gear and walkmans). Everything you see in this area exists for image value only. Lowgrade status. It's what you don't see that counts. What no one cares about. The vacant areas where life and freedom flourishes.

Like, right in downtown East Lansing behind some apartments, in front of a new subdivision and alongside a railroad is STILL an area of some 100 acres surrounded by forest, full of trashy old trails and party spots plus totally wild fields of berries and desolate mature woodlots. It's an abandoned place. Saved by reputation, I think: everyone I've asked as to whether the area still exists says "Oh no, it's gone, it's been developed." But the crowning thing is the skinny dipping pond. A big gorgeous pond in there complete with beach. I hiked in and checked: it's all still there. It was the superhot day after the 4th of July, midday, midweek, so no one was hanging out. But I saw sign of some care and grooming of the area. It probably used to be more active. We used to go there in summers and there'd be suntents set up, bonfire, lots of loungechairs, dozens of friendly folk, many out in the water lolling on huge floating logs: those were the water toys. I saw logs out there still. Someone used to rake the beach. There was etiquette and code. The newspaper covered it even that one summer I went most: it must've been its most popular. The scene was cool though: cops and landowners alike left us all alone for some reason. Tradition. It had always been a well-behaved place. Such an upright scene somehow got a force-field around it. [It was so nice that I eventually got to feeling odd indeed to go swimming elsewhere wearing trunks: what, get my clothes wet? Ugh, the clingy trunks. Who would swim in clothes?] But I think it's close to abandoned now. But maybe that's what whoever still thrives out there wants us all to think. I looks clear that you could build a cabin and live off the land on just that one lush lot. I wonder how many have done that. It is always such a delightful relief to ride a bike along the busiest road in town, cut back behind those apartments and start hiking back into quiet and quieter until you're in another world. That hike itself is such a lovely thing and a fine transition.

But our local 2 rivers are ugly. People avoid them. By reputation. But even they have good points. Nice areas between the bad. Places that will pop your eyes out. The bad reputation keeps them lonely. An osprey flew by with a big carp the last time we were there. Everyone knows there's no ospreys around here. These are interstitial areas where nature takes over again. Where anyone you meet is by surprise and they're usually exceptional folk.

Some people around here grew up on these bad rivers and the drainage ditches. Playing in them, catching muddy crayfish. Storm drains are hideous to most folks. We explore them. These folk gravitate to each other serendipitously and help each other out without request. This is what creates the people who are worldclass here. You can put them up against the best anywhere. They go out and kick butt in the world and then they come back.

Take our folk music scene. It's just about the best in the world. Its only rival is Boston, I hear. But Boston is snotty. Folkies in Lansing are just plain folks. Geeky nerds with roots. Friendly, no attitude. Newbies are welcome. Just come on down and dance in the gym with us. Everything is just as plain as always for around here, but the soul of the folk thing is just way high. So there's that. And a person gets to see sparks of it rubbing off on other aspects of life every now and then, too. A good thing is never alone.

So you see Sally Potter (no relation), who runs a palsy secondhand sports shop when she isn't folking around, put her hand to reviving the City Farmer's Market, which had been taken over by venal elements and degraded into oblivion in minimall fashion as of late. Sally is sturdy, forthright and has been around helping folks for a long time. No fool. Unspoken integrity to beat the band. No flash, just a baseball hat. So sure enough the Farmer's Market takes back off again. It had no other choice once it was wired back into real people again. A year later bureaucratic mafia-of-the-minimall types have it back under stress again. Sally knows a dead duck when she sees it, but she demonstrated that an ounce of plain folk honor goes a long way quick before tossing in the towel. So there's that.

Every now and then we get an owner-operated restaurant pop up also that seems run by someone actually interested in food and hospitality in a non-marketing sense. These places flourish, but you can count them on one hand. The dead zone tribe typically has standing room only for the factory food the zombies have been baited into calling food. The corpo trick has worked: if it doesn't have a national logo on it, the herd gets nervous. Stll, even the real places serve mainly the golf sweater crowd. They have to. Who else is there? What other way?

But thru it all there runs a vein that just won't quit. Almost decades ago now I started going to a few related hangouts and noticing the vibe that really ran to the root of it all. It happened about when I started reading The Michigan Voice---Michael Moore's old tabloid he ran with Ben Hamper before they got famous. Better than the Village Voice. They changed things in the state. Starting with Flint they reached far and wide. Michigan is big and diverse but whole somehow. We're Michiganders. Your interest up north there is not foreign to mine. They stayed small. Stuck with Michigan. Which is a cosmos of its own. Big, in other words. If you can make a change anywhere, you're really doing something.

I started going to the distinctive Mexican restaurant El Azteco in downtown East Lansing. One guy making it like he likes it. Art Santa Cruz, a guy with handlebar mustache who actually sits outside on the sidewalk napping up against his building in a big almost sombrero. It is different from any other restaurant. Some of the best nachos and margaritas. Unique anyway. An atmosphere, a style. Several other unique dishes. The same menu for 20 years now. I've been going since they opened. Their first 15 years were underground in the weirdest restaurant grotto imaginable. I applied to work there a few times. I wished I would've. But I've done my part.

Next door was a bar that had cheap beer and no cover music. Small gritty bands playing on a tiny corner stage. It stayed open late. Even though it was ostensibly just a deli. People built up around it. This was during the punk-skate revolution. We had a glorious time rolling the bar's piano outside after closing hours, down to a widish corner area. I as audience. Folkies or bluesies as music. That bar rocked VERY hard and sweaty. Black leather folks up against the upright bass fiddle folks. For years. And that street corner rocked. And bluegrassed. Until the wee hours. We outlasted the punks. Other folks who had bands in the area would pull up and haul stuff out and join in. Reggae world beat white kids. Joining in with the folkies...joining in with the heroin bluesers. All hardcore musicians at the top of their anonymous forms. No attitude toward each other or anyone interested. The world did not exist. Sure some of these folks ended up touring. The bands mixed and remixed. But a certain attitude stayed. The bar closed.

A new radio station started, Classic Rock WMMQ, the first of a wave of course. The first revival against the glam bands. All the backrooms of the bike shops in town played it. I bet every machine shop played it.

But about that time, via one of the bands, I heard of another bar, the Green Door, in downtown Lansing. Monday nights were the word. The Blue Avenue Delegates. I checked it out. Then started going every Monday for a long time. This bar had Harleys and biker club warnings posted. And it rocked. You had to get there early on Monday to get a table. To get standing room. This R&B band just wailed. The same songs. The same players. Well, actually, they came and went slowly. Many players dropped in on their way between Detroit and Chicago. They played standards. This was rock'n'roll with the fine rough edge. Played like jazz greats. You work the standards. Give it all you got. Change it up. Take the solo. That dance floor was packed. With zero attitude. Many people drank only water to stay together. You could dance with anyone. There was much respect. This was an autoworker bar. No one had anything against anyone...who was there. The world did not exist. A wheelchair guy came and rotated out dancing with the babes every week. My bike wrench pals came after the shop closed. People were all ages. The 50's crowd was there. I never saw a fight. It was hot and sweaty. I picked the most beautiful gals and ladies and danced with them all I liked, never turned down.

I bet it's still hot'n'sweaty down there. Same gang on Mondays. Well, same but different I'm sure. Nothing against new blood.

But I'm sure it's still happening. Coz last night, on a rare bachelor's night out while Martha was away with Henry, I went to El Az and there was a free concert out front in the parking lot. The same coke-bottle-glasses drummer, only looking in his 60's now. New frontmen, only the same. Here are folks who don't move away; here's the best sign that something about Lansing persists. So you have your tall beefy bland latino bassist (I thought he was a cop when they were setting up). A geek lead guitar. Pasty white weasly hideous glasses. Obviously liked his name Frog. No one fit their role visually; it was to laugh. But they wailed that threesome did on their little low board stage between the parked cars. That guitar SANG. The drummer sang, too, high, sweet and fevered, like he meant it. Even the same old song I heard every week back in the old days at the Door: Domino. Come to life every time. All the folks, mostly in their 40's and 50's, those getting near the end of their hitch down at GM, jammed out front there in their lawnchairs. I don't know why no one danced. Still light out? But those lawnchairs were rockin'. I saw some of the pastiest palest Lansing clerk geeks just rockin' their chairs. An accountant who has seen the Lansing light, who has found the Green Door. I saw a dancer couple I recognized from the old Door days standing together, wearing black tight cotton good for dancing in, they couldn't not move, they were grinding. Still grinding after all these years. Hard working dancers. Neighborly crowd. No one cared what anyone thought, what the ugly minimall surroundings thought, what the cars roaring by next to them thought, what the metal kids crowding all pierced to go into their bar down the way thought, coz our Lansing guys were WAILIN'.

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