Monday, September 21, 2009

Midwestern Melancholy

Midwestern Melancholy
Whirlwind around Lake Michigan
The Outs
The Noise
October 2009
Ellen Jo Roberts

10 days, 3 states, 2 time zones. We managed to spend time with all of our immediate relatives (including the newest family member, a very handsome month-old nephew). We traveled by car, plane, train, trolley, limo, city bus, and foot. We shared space with 5 dogs, 12 cats, 3 ferrets, 2 guinea pigs, and a rabbit. Towards the end of this epic Midwestern adventure I found myself anxious to get back to my Arizona. A lost girl in a big metropolis no longer familiar-- my suitcase smelling funky, full of smoothly polished beach stones, sand, and dog-eared postcards, my cameras exhausted of film, and my chihuahua lonely for his pals back home.

There is something fundamentally forever in the marrow of your bones that comes from the place where you were born. I grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes. Back in my young and dreamier days I whiled away many hours along the beaches of Lake Michigan, imagining my escape to the future. The more years away, the less easy it is to slip back into that world, like a coat that no longer fits, or a radio station on the fritz. I feel less and less like myself. All of my family is back there, and every time I visit I get a little twisted up inside. A pang of longing, for the birthdays, baseball games, and barbecues-- all of the small things I miss out on by being so far away. In my mind everything has stayed the exact same as I left it—so it’s always a surprise to find out that life has gone on without me. My brother and his friends aren’t forever 21, as I imagine them. They’re all married up now, dads, with jobs, car payments and mortgages.

My brother Jim, and his wife, Carla, have a brand new son, freshly born this summer. About 5 weeks old when we met him, he was at the age where he can only focus about 18 inches from his face, and almost starting to learn what they call a “social smile”, smiling on purpose, not just as a symptom of gas. He is awful cute. Jim’s taken to calling “Party Man” and “Shmutzie” for no apparent reason. They’re very good with the baby, and it made me proud to see the family continuing into a new generation with this wee one. My Mom made a big fuss for our visit, making homemade cookies, and other favorite treats. She gathered up some six packs of regional micro-brews for us to enjoy, and took days off of work to go on adventures and spend time with us. Jim and Carla were prepared, with all of their high-tech foldable space age baby gear, to join us for some small day trips around northern Illinois, skirting along corn fields, waiting at stop lights.

The weather in September is green, sunny and cool. Illinois is a breadbasket state. With rich soil and good rainfall, it’s full of farms growing corn and soybeans, all framing the urban and suburban “Chicagoland” metropolis in giant squares of green. DeKalb is about 65 miles west of Chicago, and home to the famous DeKalb corn, the birthplace of barbed wire, and Northern Illinois University. The art degree that hangs on the wall in my Arizona home is from Northern Illinois University. It’s where I met the man I married, as well as some of my favorite life long pals.

Took a stroll with the family around the campus lagoon, lush with willows, and Canada Geese, after a sundae at Ollie’s, “DeKalb County’s Best Custard Stand” (though any NIU student, current or former, would venture to say that it’s best of the whole state).

On the topic of alma maters, somehow, my 20th high school reunion happened to fall right during the time of our vacation. Naturally we had no choice but to attend. Lane Technical High School, Chicago, Class of 1989. With a student body averaging about 4,000 kids, there were about 1,000 students in my graduating class 20 years ago. Lane is a giant powerhouse of a public school, anchoring down the entire north side of the city. Back before the Information Age, when everything was still done by hand, the school was renowned for its technical programs: print shop, metal shop, machine shop, electric shop, drafting, commercial art. For many years we were the only high school in the U.S. that printed our own yearbooks. An education at Lane could fast track a graduate right into a trade. Nowadays, the shop programs have all been eliminated, and they no longer print their own yearbooks.

“Despite your bursts of creative thought, you are a wonderful person. Take care of yourself, be kind to small animals, and above all wear your seat belt. Live long and prosper. I’ll see you in 20 years.”- written in my senior yearbook by an art class buddy.

I liked high school. I earned a lot of skills, and friends that are all still valid to my life. One of the things that made Lane Tech such a great school was its huge population—a kind of microcosm of the city around us, with every nationality, attitude, and personality. There wasn’t just one “in-crowd”—everyone had their own in-crowd, and cross-referenced with every other group, like the ultimate mix-‘n-match. So, despite the $95 ticket price (!), I was excited about the reunion all summer. I bought a new party dress, and new party shoes and made a new necklace just for the reunion. As it turns out, I don’t know what I’d been so excited for! Because the reunion wasn’t really any good! I do not regret attending, but it was a disappointment. Only about 10% of my graduating class managed to attend. So, while there were some favorites and surprises, there were many more notably absent. Like my art class buddy who practically promised he’d be there via his yearbook inscription in 1989. Damn him.

Also, the DJ was terrible, playing loud-ass contemporary crunk, forsaking all headbanger, hippie, house, new wave, and old skool hip-hop folk in the crowd. The only thing of “our era” he managed to mix in was an endless stream of Michael Jackson, since the reunion happened to fall on the late Virgo’s 51st birthday. (Especially ironic, since Jehovah Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays).

Some favorite friends and delightfully surreal moments made it worth all the hassle and distance we went through to get there, but overall the interaction with fellow graduates was superficial, shouted over loud music, and not very fulfilling. Everyone looked pretty good—a little taller, a little bigger. The women either got rounder, or more angular.

Some arty pals had the right idea and cleverly crashed the party at 10:00pm, just in time for the group photo, and some free drinks. Why hadn’t we thought of that? We did manage to make a good time of it - knocking back some gin & tonics, and dancing to Michael Jackson. Late, tired, baffled by misty rain and confusing streets, we got lost trying to get out of there, completely flummoxed by the web of cloverleafs, and parking lots, with Chad trying to find our way by the moon, Arizona style, and having no luck.

While family, and reunion could be considered recurring themes of this trip, another would be trains. Chicago is well known as a major rail location, with intersecting lines connecting all over the United States, and almost every where you look. The Fox Valley Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois, is home to a collection of vintage rail cars from the Chicago Transit Authority and South Shore Line, and a 1902 trolley that is the oldest “intra-urban” still in use. We’d passed this place, on historic Route 31, along the Fox River, many times, and figured it was a good easy day trip for the Shmutzie gang. Baby’s first train ride! One of the things that fascinates me most in Midwest is rust. It’s almost cute when I see it, since it’s so foreign to Arizona. Rust is everywhere in Illinois- it’s like its own world, language, planet of rust. I could wander that museum yard and take photos of the faded patina and jagged rust decorating the old rail cars for hours.

With the infrastructure of the city, public transportation and help of family and friends, we were able to save some bucks and get around without renting a car. A train from Chicago took us towards where Chad’s family lives, in Southwestern Michigan. The South Shore Line was a famous holiday route during the golden age of rail travel, to take vacationers from Chicago to the beaches of Southwestern Michigan. It still runs daily, mainly as a commuter route between downtown Chicago and northwestern Indiana, miraculously allowing pets aboard, provided they are sequestered in a travel carrier.

For $7.00 each, we were on the 10:10am departure from Chicago’s downtown Millennium Station, with Floyd snoozing in his airplane case, headed east to Beverly Shores, Indiana. Chad’s folks drove down from South Haven, Michigan to collect us on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Beverly Shores was a summer vacation destination concocted by a real estate developers, Frederick and Robert Bartlett in the 1920s and ‘30s. The development never panned out much, but the town does have the most adorable 1929-built depot ever. I was in love with the depot and its stylish neon sign long before I ever even saw it in real life. When the train dropped us off there it was like meeting a movie star, since I’d admired it from afar for so long. From the tracks to the beach, it’s a ½ mile walk. We trekked down the road, dragging our tightly packed luggage to the shore like an episode of “The Amazing Race”.

Beverly Shores is famous for one thing other than the delightful Mediterranean Revival train depot. After Chicago’s 1933-34 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, Robert Bartlett had several buildings from the “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibit barged across Lake Michigan and dumped unceremoniously on the dunes of Beverly Shores. Bartlett thought they’d make a good gimmick to attract vacationers. However, the display homes, which weren’t built to last, soon fell into disrepair and many decades of neglect.

It wasn’t until the National Park Service took over control of the homes, that they were placed on the Register of Historic Places in 1986. In a program implemented in partnership with the State of Indiana, and its Historic Landmarks Foundation, stabilization and restoration of the homes began. Featuring 1930s visions of the future-- cultured stone, enamel paneling that could slide in and out and change the color of your home, a place for an airplane hangar underneath the kitchen (since everyone in the future would be having their own airplane, naturally!)—each home was an idealistic pre-fabricated vision of a tomorrow that never happened. Of the original 16 Century of Progress homes, 5 still survive at Beverly Shores—each in varying stages of restoration. The program is a success due to private individuals who applied and were awarded the opportunity to restore the homes in exchange for 30-year leases. After 30 years, the homes revert occupancy to the National Park Service. Each October there is a tour of all 5 homes: the Florida House, the Armco-Ferro House, the Cypress Cabin, the Wieboldt-Rostone House, and The House of To-Morrow.

The rural dune lands around Lake Michigan are glorious--steep sand dunes anchored by beach grasses, with birch trees flickering in the wind like Arizona cottonwoods and aspens. Chad’s Mom is a rock hound, gathering up smooth stones and lake-flattened rocks until her pockets are full and dragging towards the ground. Southwestern Michigan is peaceful-- one can see why it would be a respite from Chicago’s hustle and bustle. For me, it’s full of memories from summer camp days, perfect sunsets, and times long ago.

Our Roberts nieces and nephews are age 9, 10, and 11, old enough to toss around in the surf, and tell horror stories around the campfire. They live in a big old frame home on a typically leafy South Haven street. Their life is full of bikes, scooters, games, craft projects, a trampoline, a tree fort, and myriad critters—guinea pigs, cats, dogs, ferrets, and a rabbit. If I were a child I’d love to grow up in that house with them. They also have a chihuahua named Snooky, and had planned to marry her off to Floyd when we arrived. (When spooky Snooky didn’t show the least bit of interest in fearless Floyd we figured the wedding was probably a bad idea).

Chad’s parents live a short walk from the beach, and we walked down to the pale sands of the shore to see the sunset every day.

Michigan’s Van Buren Dunes State Park is a nice place to spend an afternoon, enjoying a picnic of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and soda (they call it “pop”). We spent a day running up and down dunes, hanging out on sandbars in the cold lake water, collecting rocks, and soaking up the last moments of Michigan summer. Labor Day in the Midwest is something a bit melancholy-- the end of summer and return of colder seasons. For us in Arizona it is precisely the opposite---joyous at the thought of cooler days, and the end of summer’s heat. Throughout this trip I couldn’t help but compare and contrast my Arizona life with this Great Lakes life I’d left behind, wondering how I’d be different had I stayed. Would I talk faster? Walk faster? Be more serious or more silly? Would I look older or younger? Rounder or more angular? What kind of career might I be in? I’d certainly drive a newer car, because that’s what people do there in the Rust Belt.

After several days in Michigan we headed back to Chicago via train, and spent an evening with a high school pal, Heather and her fiance, Mike. They are both tri-athletes, in preparation for an upcoming “half-Ironman”, both very fit and driven. Heather and Mike live in a hip north side neighborhood called “Roscoe Village”. When we were kids we just called it “Grama and Grampa’s neighborhood” because that’s where my grandparents lived. There was no glamour back then, just elderly folk pushing shopping baskets to the local corner stores. Now it’s full of boutique shops, young families, and fancy cafes.

My Chicago friends have so many places to choose for breakfast that they’re sometimes completely incapacitated by the abundant selections. They sit there, thinking of all the too many options. “We don’t have this problem where we live,” I joke, but nobody laughs. They’re so wrapped up in their city lifestyles they have absolutely no interest in what exactly it is we do in Arizona. It is the very end of the trip, and at this moment I feel like such a total foreigner, fresh off the boat in my weird skirt, and cameras slung around my neck. I look at my cluttered suitcase, think of the Karmann Ghia waiting for us at Sky Harbor, and the road home through the desert night.

Why is it that I always look my best in my own bathroom mirror?
Maybe it’s simply proof that “you can never go home again.” Doesn’t stop me from trying, because many of the people I love most in the world are back there. Maybe it is a symptom of Arizona living. This is my home now. I feel most like myself most here, more than anyplace else. The air, the sky, the elements in the dirt. They are in the marrow of my bones now, too.

For more information:

Fox Valley Trolley Museum
Ollie’s Frozen Custard
Lane Technical High School
South Shore Line
Century of Progress Homes

Ellen Jo Roberts was born in Cook County, Illinois in the spring of 1972. She lives in a 95 year old house in Clarkdale Arizona, with a 37 year old husband, a 9 year old cat, a 6 year old chihuahua, 5 year old Boston Terrier and an assortment of vintage Volkswagens that remain well-preserved in the dry desert climes. You can read all about it at

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