I grew up here. My father grew up here. My grandfather grew up here. My great grandfather bootlegged spirits in the marshes and sold it down to Chicago. I pause to appreciate the sulfur, iron air of the foundries. The smell of algae and water. The shape of familiar ceiling stains in old restaurants. I love the fried perch at Morrow’s which, let’s face it, hasn’t been renovated since 1972. I love the rusted cars with fishing poles bent and crammed in the back next to a child seat.
The smell of river and basement mildew reminds me of the house my great grandfather built; the smell the Swisher Sweets my grandfather smoked and the nicotine stains on his calloused hands as he’d come to give me a hug, then play the concertina and sing something in some language, I’m not sure what. Maybe he made it up. The beach sand squeaks under our feet on a hot summer day. The high and wide fog horn from the pier sings into our summer night window. The smell of alcohol from a father’s breath.
Senses are switches for the mind, triggering memories. And they don’t neatly correlate: good senses to good memories, bad to bad.
The sense of place is a given. It is in the air. It’s ambient.
We are a sum of a messy whole. Whether we like it or not.
A bullet was found in a child’s mattress today from another shootout in Muskegon. Not far from there a promising young man was shot dead in his yard.
That’s a part of us.
It’s part of what Muskegonites call home. Poverty and pot-holed city streets reverted to gray gravel. Ragged tarps on the moss covered rooftops. Cars burning oil in blue plumes. Yellowed newspaper windows on cracked glass. Jagged red iron in overgrown lots of green where children play. At 10:23 AM a frail man with a bottle in his hand woozed and collapsed while crossing the recently graveled street, and two men rushed to help him up. Dusted him off. Escorted him back to his home stoop, nearby. I watched it unfold from a distance as I drove slowly toward them. Did the fallen man feel the warm hands of his neighbors lifting him up?
This is our city.
It’s who we are. These are the ugly parts and the beautiful parts, and the parts that sit uncomfortably between the two.
Too often we try to project ideas of Home with imagery that we imagine other people will understand. We substitute for the sense of beautify a stand-in or proxy that is understood to mean [a good thing]: a flower, a sunset, a smiling child in his mother’s arms.
But home is more complex than that. More complex than “good”. More challenging and textured, more troubled, more in need of attention and far more beautiful and strange than a facsimile.
This is Muskegon, where children dive into the chilling waves of the Big Lake in May. Where thunderstorms draw a pilgrimage of people down to the waters to watch waves batter the rocky pier.