Monday, August 29, 2011

Ann Arbor

I went to an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed burlesque show in Hamtramck, Michigan with my friends from Ann Arbor. It was in a towering, abandoned factory, remade into a performance space. We took a freight elevator to the fifth floor. The hallways up there were as wide as my living room, lined with dust-clouded windows.

“Listen,” my friend said, pointing down the hall. “The train is coming.”

It came barreling around the corner, a motorized engine trailing three passenger cars, something children would ride at an amusement park. It zigzagged across the broad hallway like a startled cockroach, passing us by fifteen feet, breaking, driving backwards until it landed right in front of us.

“Get on! Quick! Everyone get on!” yelled the conductor, as throngs of giddy hipsters threw themselves aboard for the ride down the long hallway, around the corner, and to the doors of the giant production floor that would serve as the theater.

Inside there was a full band, sounding ready to play back-up for Tom Waits, while a tall, stately chanteuse purred songs about Alice, tea parties, things growing curiouser and curiouser. A Bettie Page look-alike pranced around the stage, dropping successive articles of baby blue clothing in her wake as she encountered the juggling Cheshire cat, the break-dancing playing cards, the Mad Hatter and March Hair suspended from the ceiling by hooks stuck under their skin.

In Oakland, where I live, or in San Francisco, this all never would have happened. Okay, maybe it would have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened in a hulking factory. And if it did, you would have missed it amidst the throng of culturally enriching activities happening every single night. And if you did go, your friend wouldn’t be dating the bass player and your other friend wouldn’t have slept with the singer. The performers would be part of a specialized scene, and they would have spent years cultivating the appearance, style, clothing, mannerisms, and jargon of that scene. You might be able to get into the scene, but it wouldn’t be easy.

The thing the local weekly newspapers always said about Detroit is: cultural isolation breeds creativity. It sounds condescending until you go to Detroit, which is like going to another planet where everything is backwards. Downtown neighborhoods look like abandoned farms, there are more boarded-over storefronts than populated ones, twenty-three year olds own giant houses, ethnic enclaves are the fanciest and safest places to live. It’s an incredibly beautiful, surreal place, a place that feels outside America, a place where anything is possible.

And so in Detroit, and in the cities that surround it, people create their own scenes and ways of making art. There’s not much to be daunted by: you just start, and people show up, because they probably know you from work or high school or the bar, and anyway there aren’t all that many things to do on a given night.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor, it reminded me of my hometown, Palo Alto. Not modern, Facebook-era Palo Alto, but the pre-dot-com Palo Alto of my youth. It was a quirky college town, affluent but not wealthy, smug about its own artsiness. The main difference was, when young people in Palo Alto wanted to go somewhere, we got on the train to San Francisco or Berkeley where we could sit in grungy coffee shops, have picnics in the park, buy ourselves used books and CDs and absurd clothing, wander past the street vendors and the real beggers and the other beggars who were kids just like us, only dirtier.

Ann Arbor is an hour from Detroit, but there’s no train. This is a car town, people told me. Why would the rich people in the suburbs vote for a train? They don’t want to take a train, they don’t want to go to Detroit, and they sure as hell don’t want poor people from Detroit taking a train into their town.

You can drive an hour to Detroit, but then there’s the question of what to do when you get there. There are lots of amazing things to do: there are great bars and music venues, museums, historical sites. But Detroit isn’t the kind of place you can just wander around. You’ve got to have a plan, a course of action, a series of places to go. Every trip I ever took to Detroit was like this: exit freeway, drive straight to destination, park in front (there will be plenty of parking) go in. If there is a second destination in mind, get back in car, get back on freeway, drive to second destination, go in. Repeat as needed. Try to sober up for the long drive home down dark country highways.

But like the Detroit Metro Times was always saying: the lack of ready-to-wear, easily consumable culture spurred people to create this culture for themselves. I never met so many people doing creative things as in Ann Arbor. Even a simple act like getting dressed was an artistic project. In California, when you wanted bizarre, interesting clothes, there were a million stores ready to sell them to you. In Ann Arbor, the clothing stores catered to practical Midwestern adults and preppy Midwestern teenagers, and if you did find something good, four of your friends would have the same one. I learned the art of customization from people in Ann Arbor: making legwarmers out of socks, decorating shirts and hats with colored sharpies, ripping the sleeves and necks and ankles off of things to make them cooler and better.

Anyone could found an institution in Ann Arbor. Every wildly popular thing was created by someone we knew, often someone in their twenties. We all knew the guy who started the karaoke night at the local club, and the three kids who ran the mixed-tape dance party, the women who organized the Totally Kickball tournament and the Burly Girly mud wrestling. And if you grew up in Ann Arbor, you would also know every family who had owned the barn where the wrestling was held and every kid who had lived in that barn when his or her parents kicked him or her out of the house. The odds were that if something interesting was going on, you would know the person doing it.

The last time I visited Ann Arbor, my friends had started a burlesque troupe. The house where they prepare and rehearse seemed familiar, and then I remembered I had been to a few parties there. Houses in Ann Arbor are like people; you seem to keep running into the same ones over and over. At one of the parties, people had spun flame-tipped chains in circles in the back yard. But most of the parties had been normal, just lots of drunk people getting drunker and dancing at 3 a.m., after the bars closed. Now the house is filled with drawers of glitter and lace and construction paper and the basement is a rehearsal hall filled with wrestling mats and trapezes. The performers make all their costumes and props out of cardboard and paint and things they find at the Salvation Army Store.

Their performances are pure Ann Arbor aesthetics: everything is rough and homespun and nerdy and badass. Unicorns prance to disco music, girls in pasties wash themselves in bathtubs filled with sparkling shards of broken glass, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock strip off their uniforms accompanied by the spoken words of William Shatner. I watched them rehearse—I would be back in California by the date of the performance—and thought about how I loved my adopted hometown, the place where I spent my mid-twenties writing a dissertation and trying to pretend I wasn’t a graduate student.

I can’t believe I am wasting my youth in the Midwest, I used to think sometimes, as I made the reverse-commute back home to California every winter vacation, just as all the other young people were leaving San Francisco to visit their families in the boring middle states. But now I think that there was no better place to be young, where the world was a canvas begging to be painted and anything you could imagine was possible.

This illustration depicts the lovely and talented Annie Thing of Ann Arbor's Tickled Fancy Burlesque Company. Check out their videos, especially the ones about Star Trek and unicorns.