It was my first day in Jackson, Michigan, 25 years ago. As my taxi passed the sign, “Prison Area. Do not pick up hitchhikers,” I hesitated at my decision to accept my first feature writing job at The Jackson Citizen-Patriot, instead of an equally good offer in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I rented an apartment in a big pine green house in a lovely residential neighborhood, and I’d barely started unpacking my duffel bags, when an upstairs neighbor knocked on my door with an apple pie. He confessed it was Mrs. Smiths, and he’d put it on a plate for a homespun effect, but it felt very Mayberry nonetheless. In New York, you’re taught as a child to never accept edibles from a stranger; they could be masking rat poison, arsenic, even razor blades. But somehow, I knew this dessert came in peace.
Still, I was young and believed I was some breed of superior being, having hailed from The Big Apple. So while I was secretly tickled at the surprise gift, I called home full of jokes that Aunt Bea just brought me a pie.
I had a foot out the door from the minute I landed in Michigan. I was going to get my newspaper experience in this podunk town, then land a feature writing job with my dream paper, The Chicago Tribune. I’d fallen in love with Chicago during graduate school, and believed that was where the more civilized midwesterners lived. Meanwhile, I’d have to endure life with Andy, Barney, Gomer and the gang. God help me.
Those first weeks, I gave bank tellers and cashiers the evil eye for wasting my valuable time while they leisurely chatted up customers ahead of me in line. I lamented the inability to buy pizza by the slice or have Chinese food delivered to my door.
“Dear God,” I thought. “I’m in hell.”
But a funny thing happened on my way to the big time. I fell in love with the conventions of small town life. I’ll never forget my first power walk around my neighborhood. A passerby said hello and I actually turned around to see if he was addressing someone behind me. But the hello was for me. I was being greeted by a complete stranger. Nothing like that ever happened in New York. You weren’t even supposed to make eye contact on an elevator.
This kept happening … in the park … at the gas station … on hikes through the pine forests and prairie of a local nature preserve.
Soon I was saying hello to complete strangers before they greeted me. This place was friendly. And I liked it! And, despite popular belief out east, I never met one person who walked around chewing hay.
Then one Saturday night, I awoke to the sound of a bat flapping around my bedroom. Sure it had a three-foot wingspan and would lay eggs in my hair, before giving me rabies, I frantically leaped out of bed screaming. I managed to trap the hideous creature in my bedroom, grabbed a towel to wrap around my waist and made a quick escape through the kitchen door in my T-shirt and underwear. Running barefoot across the driveway, I maniacally shouted my landlord’s name and rapped on his back door.
“Help! Sam! Help!” I shouted, sure a pack of these things would soon be swarming above, like something out of a Hitchcock movie.
Poor Sam thought I was being raped or robbed. But he heroically darted into my apartment in his pajamas, with a tennis racquet to save the day. Just try waking a neighbor to help you kill a roach at 2 a.m. in Manhattan!
Here I was in this amazingly welcoming place where neighbors cared about each other. People I’d never met smiled at me. The bagel shop owner toasted my “everything” with light vegetable cream cheese and handed me a Diet Coke, before I even reached the counter. And before I knew it, I was making friends at the grocery store and skipping drive-thrus in lieu of leisurely chatting with bank tellers, too.
There was a time you could have rearranged Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, and I’d have been none the wiser. Now I realize my most valuable education came from a town I never knew existed on the map.
In that small town in Michigan, I met my husband and learned what it meant to be part of a community. When my husband went out to plow during a big snowstorm, I knew I wouldn’t see him for a couple of hours, because he’d inevitably plow the walkways of our elderly neighbors … or anyone else who needed a little extra help. When he was away on a business, and I was home with an infant, neighbors did the same for me.
Before I knew it, when someone new moved into the neighborhood, I was ringing their doorbell with baked goods. Expecting a baby? You could count on me to deliver a lasagna that first week home.
After almost 15 years in Michigan, returning to the New York area was the hardest thing I ever did. We had to relocate so that my husband could take a job with a large New York-based department store chain. We moved to New Jersey, and I cried every day for six months. There I was again, back in the land of every man for himself … surrounded by people, but feeling so alone.
And they were impatient people. If you didn’t slam your foot on the gas pedal within one second of a light change, they’d honk at you and flip you the bird. I actually considered legally changing my name to “Hey, Asshole!” so at least once a day, I’d feel like I was being addressed personally. Still, I was told I was lucky to be back in the land of culture and opportunity. A relative even said to me, “What did you have in Jackson? You had nothing.”
But I beg to differ. I had the raspberry lady at the farmer’s market, who always noticed when I wasn’t there. I had Chad at the bagel shop, who served up more than a sandwich, but a beam of light in my day … who always greeted my daughter with, “Hey, Smiley” and palmed a quarter into her hand for a gumball.
I had Susie, behind the service desk at CP Federal, who let my daughter color while I did my banking, then sent her off with a hug and a chocolate kiss. And I had a small town holiday parade that I’d take over the Macy’s Thanksgiving extravaganza any day of the week. You just don’t get it until you’ve stood on the side of “Main Street,” watching the local high school band march in front of a utility truck with lights on it, as a molting, anorexic Big Bird works the crowd.
In Michigan, I had a community that was there for me when I awakened from knee surgery only to be told I could not put weight on my leg for six weeks … the day after my husband moved to New York, while I stayed behind to sell our house. I had friends who understood the panic of facing a six-year-old and a two-story house alone … who brought me meals and shuttled me to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy. They spent the night until I felt okay on my own, came early in the morning to help my daughter get ready for school and late at night to tuck her in. They scrubbed my floors for real estate open houses, plowed my driveway when it snowed and pushed me through the mud in a wheelchair, so I wouldn’t miss my little one’s first soccer game.
In Michigan, I learned what it meant to have neighbors and what it was like to be a neighbor. I learned that life needn’t be a rat race; it can be an enjoyable stroll.
I still miss meeting friends at dawn to watch hot air balloons paint the sky during the annual Hot Air Jubilee. And I miss drinking homemade sarsaparilla on the hill while watching the yearly Civil War reenactment at the Cascades park and proudly letting everyone know I was a personal friend of General Grant and his wife, Julia!
I miss cheering on my rubber duck as it floated down a man-made waterfall at the Ducky Derby. And I miss the All A Merry Can Christmas Show, where you could get an evening of entertainment for a can of garbanzo beans.
In the dozen years since my family left “The Mitten,” I’ve never stopped wanting to go home.
Rodgers and Hart once coined the phrase, “I’ll Take Manhattan.”
But truth be told …
I’d take Podunk any day of the week!
The photos used in this story were generously provided by photographer and Jackson native. Mo Dedrick, Balloonmeister and Pilot Chair for my all-time favorite yearly Jackson event, the Jackson Hot Air Jubilee. Thank you so much, Mo, for providing the images for this post! Hugs from Tampa!
Portions of this story originally appeared in the April 2003 edition of Jackson Magazine.