It takes a Silver Mine to make a Gold Mine.

Mexican Proverb

Lenawee Street, Lansing

Circumstances dropped me in downtown Lansing Tuesday morning with an hour to waste. I used the opportunity to take a few pictures, one or two of which I rather liked. In the process I was wandering around and thinking about another time I’d wandered downtown Lansing.

I moved to the Lansing area in October of 1977; I’d accepted a State job and needed a cheap place to live until I understood my new budget. So I took a bus from Kalamazoo, picked up a copy of the paper, and walked around downtown looking at inexpensive rooms. Most of ’em were dumps. I settled on one down by the river on Lenawee Street; I’ll talk about that a bit further down the page.

What I remember about that day, besides the sorry rooms, was downtown Lansing. It was hard not to notice that Washington Mall, which was (is) the central business district (but mostly no longer a mall), had far too many empty storefronts. I noted the still-in-business Knapps department store and the Gladmer theater, and stared at the historical paintings gallery in Ma Bell’s windows. I noticed a few downtown restaurants (including Jim’s Tiffany Place, which was obviously beyond my means), Marshall Music, and Pirelli’s barber shop. I could live here, I thought.

The Capitol building (and its Mutual Building annex) were familiar territory; I’d visited each several times while working political campaigns. The pretty churches around the Capitol complex I’d noticed before. On the other hand, the state governmental complex buildings “behind” the Capitol were suddenly more interesting to me; these relatively new Large Office Buildings were evidence of the then-recent expansion of state government, which had comfortably worked mainly out of the Capitol and Cass buildings for several decades. (My new job was in another, sprawling, State office complex off the edge of the metropolitan area.)

These buildings, and the extensive (unpaved mud) parking lots which served them, had clearly knocked out an entire neighborhood. I wondered a bit about that, as we’d come to understand that “urban renewal” has victims.

North of the Capitol was mostly inexpensive housing, and was where I mostly looked at rooms. None really appealed to me. Directly south of the complex, it was more interesting; a mix of old houses, some converted to (mostly law) offices, and larger buildings, most of which housed organizational headquarters which doubled as lobbying operations. I’d not, to that point, given much thought to lobbying as a physical presence; it was a bit of a surprise to discover that some lobbying firms justified such edifices. Naive, I suppose; these buildings were a reminder that not everyone approaches politics as a public obligation.

So how’s the downtown changed? Washington Avenue’s a street again, and the central business district recovered; the shops mostly cater to government workers’ lunch breaks. Jim’s is long gone, but I managed to eat there once or twice, and enjoyed. The government complex has added three large buildings, two of which are Works of Art. My job regularly required me to attend downtown meetings, so I grew pretty familiar with one of the (now) older Large Office Buildings and a couple other places. The parking’s been paved. And there are more lobbying firms with buildings south of the complex. It’s a better place, on the whole, but on the whole it’s really much the same.

I ended up living in the house pictured at the top of this page for five months. The place is east of the central business district, a block or so from the State Journal‘s newsroom. It wasn’t a bad place, but everyone was pretty poor and the police tended to keep the neighborhood under surveillance. The Grand River’s just a block away, and I’d wander along the waterfront park when I needed to get out of the house. Downtown’s a couple blocks the other direction, and bad as that was I could easily find a meal or a bookstore, which met my needs.

I lived in that upstairs porch, which was pretty cold but reasonably comfortable when the other tenants were civil. There were, I think, five upstairs rooms and a shared kitchen; I had perhaps ten roomies over the course of the five months. Only two tenants stand out in my memory: A probably-gay night-shift accountant who doubled as a taxi driver, and a mid-teens girl who was essentially a runaway but seemed to be coping fairly well. I hope things worked out for her.

The immediate neighborhood’s changed completely. This house is the only structure remaining on either side of the block; gone are maybe a half-dozen houses and The Lansing Center for the Arts. Why this building survives is a mystery. It was a Bed & Breakfast for a time, and those owners fixed it up nicely, but it’s since reverted to its 1977 condition. Cooley Law School and Davenport University have both expanded into the neighborhood, which is more gain than loss for the city’s downtown.

One last, soap opera, memory. One morning I was wakened by one of the neighbors, who was waving a shotgun outside our front door and raving at my landlord, whom he accused of sleeping with his wife (well, he used some other words, which you can probably guess). The cops came, and calmed things down. Turned out the neighbor was right; within a few days the wife had moved into our house. A couple weeks later my landlord and his girl abandoned the place to his wife, who’d been living elsewhere and was a bit mystified by these developments. I found myself an apartment, paid off my rent, and moved away.

Mom & Dad had this neat desk. I’m not sure how they acquired it–probably a wedding present–but it’s been part of our lives for as long as any of us “kids” remember. At heart it’s a small executive desk, but it’s unusually well-made and has one unexpected feature–it folds out to become a dining room table. For my entire life it was the fanciest piece of furniture my parents owned.

It’s also nearly six decades old. A piece of furniture gets pretty battered if you use it every day for 57 years. Even if it cost a fortune, and even if it’s made of oak.

Mom passed away a couple years ago, and basically left everything to everyone. The desk was one of the easy pieces to settle: Debbie wanted to preserve it, while Richard and I had/have no interest in it whatever. We both recognize the quality, but it won’t fit well in our offices, it needs to be refinished, and the emotional connection’s pretty weak. Debbie’s office needs are different (she’s a preacher-in-training), and she’s clearly more attached to the desk than we are. That’s fine.

All this came up last weekend as Joan and I were helping Debbie move. Debbie still can’t believe I don’t want the desk….

Spring 1974: Mom & Dad were about to leave on vacation–New Orleans, I think–when Mom handed me a couple twenties and said I should get my bike working while they were gone. Not sure what provoked the assignment, but it’s fair to say it changed my life….

The bike in question was a Schwinn Varsity. Dad had purchased it for me in 1968, for my use as transportation around St. Paul during my sophomore year at Macalester. The bike had served me well over the years, but had deteriorated to the point I couldn’t ride it any more.

The first task was simple repair. Didn’t know anything about maintaining bikes, then, so I hied off to the bookstore and collected a couple bicycle repair manuals. With their assistance I was able to get the bike apart, cleaned, lubed (with STP!), reassembled, and back on the road. It was immediately clear that the rear derailleur–a (Schwinn Approved) Huret Alvit–was past any hope of repair, and the rear wheel was similarly hopeless. Not knowing what it would cost to replace these parts, I started calling bicycle shops and describing my problem.

By far the most helpful responses came from Bernie (Baisch) Stevenson, one of the owners at Alfred E. Bike, who seconded one of my books’ recommendation that SunTour made the best shifters, reassured me that the changer would work on my bike, and quoted me a far better price than any other shop. So I found my way to the shop and spent most of the 40 bucks, came back, and had things working when Mom got back to Kalamazoo.

For the next couple years, the Varsity became my main transportation. I was working on political campaigns for most of ’74; in ’75 I became active in the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club–succeeding to President when John Busack graduated from college and moved away. Another time’s story….

Late in 1975 this bike was stolen, and the new Assenmacher replaced it as my main transportation. Can’t say I missed the old bike, but it was a trusty and reliable old friend for many years.

My family was active in a Kalamazoo area political action group called Action Now. A fairly careful web search found only one mention of the organization. So I’m following up on that site’s mention today.

I don’t think I knew Brian Dana Akers in the 1970s, but since I was working closely with his brother and knew his parents socially it’s pretty likely I met him once or twice. Anyway, he’s grown up to write science fiction and has a lengthy online autobiography on his personal website. About a quarter of the way down the page is a word portrait of his father, Owen, which includes Action Now in a long list of organizations Owen participated in. Brian’s father was as remarkable as the portrait suggests. What I think the portrait misses is that Owen’s heavy workload was fairly seamless; I had contacts with him in several of his roles and he was always the same person, working on the same causes, and finding reinforcement from his friends and colleagues as he moved from meeting to meeting. A strenuous life, yes, and not everyone loved Owen Akers, but many did.

Brian’s summation is all too true:

When someone like this dies, it’s like standing on the rim of a huge crater. Only as the crater recedes into the past do the survivors comprehend the size of the hole in their lives, appreciate the death’s force of impact, and realize all that was vaporized.

More, though. Owen was an inspiration to his friends, and to some of his opponents. That did not end when he perished.

I spent years doing political organizing. Brians’ brother, David, was one of my colleagues in those efforts–he was the key voter registration and get out the vote organizer whose activities complemented our voter contact efforts in the early 1970s. That I had his respect was always a source of satisfaction, for Dave’s commitment to the work was far greater than mine. David Akers was a formidable organizer, bringing talent and passion to everything he touched. David was quite different from his father, but equally committed to his father’s causes.

We lost contact when I moved to Lansing. I’m saddened to learn that he died fairly young.

Postscript: While I was working on this essay, iTunes delivered Rhonda Vincent’s performance of Carl Story‘s If You Don’t Love God:

If you say you love Him while you hate your neighbor
then you don’t have religion. You just told a lie.


McNair joined our Basic Combat Training platoon a couple weeks into the cycle. Most BCT Recycles are flawed; they’re injury victims, have attitude issues, or show other problems. This guy was, just, well, different. McNair was damn near perfect; a wonderful physical specimen, and obviously the best soldier in the company.

Sargeant Solden explained: Ours was McNair’s fourth cycle. Three times he’d gone through Basic at Fort Knox, and three times he’d vanished during the last week of training. Each time Uncle Sam had tracked him down, locked him in the brig for a time, and sent him back to training. This time, Charley Tucker promised, things would be different.

Yeah, sure. On even-numbered days McNair was the best soldier in the camp; on odd-numbered days he was the worst soldier in the camp. It wasn’t an attitude thing, exactly–that was always bad, in a sullen sort of way–but it certainly was predictable. On practice day at the rifle range he missed a couple targets; a week later he hit a couple targets when the scores counted. I had the bad fortune to go up against him in Pugil Stick practice; he beat me to a pulp in 30 seconds. The stronger soldiers who followed me into the circle lasted a bit longer. The next day he failed the PT test.

But boy he looked fine while he failed. Good days and bad, the man was impeccable, in a BCT sort of way. His fatigues were always starched, his boots always had a perfect shine, his comportment was beyond reproach. Everything was done with a flair. Even the failures were stylish.

The point was clear enough. The Army had nothing to teach him, and he really wasn’t interested in this stuff.

A week from cycle’s end he went missing.

Sunday afternoon, fifteen years or so ago….

A knock on my door.  (That was rare; the building was secured, and the right way to get in the apartment was to buzz me.)  I opened the door, found a pretty Scandihoovian teen, maybe 17, maybe 15; five foot three or so, medium-length and very thin blond hair bleached to white by the sun.

“Hi!  I’m Lynn, the rent-a-kid you ordered from Sears.”

What she wore:  Not a whole lot.  Tight white shorts, and a white shirt with yellow flowers.  The shirt was sleeveless, and secured by a couple buttons.  She was wearing a halter underneath which hid what it had to and little else.

I was speechless, so she repeated her line:

“Hi!  I’m Lynn, the rent-a-kid you ordered from Sears.”

Still speechless.  This is not a line she should be feeding a lonely forty-year-old….

“Oh, you didn’t order a rent-a-kid?”  A change of voice.  “Actually, I’m selling magazines to raise money for my school.”

Sent her on her way.

Mulliken’s elevator failed several years ago.  They began tearing the place down yesterday…. 

Mulliken Elevator

For over a century, this grain elevator was the main reason for Mulliken.  This railside complex was the farming community’s touchpoint with the larger world.  They’d come to buy seed before planting, then return to sell the grain they’d grown from the seed.  This routine made for an interesting, seasonal parade of vehicles on Potter Street.  July’s winter wheat harvest was a particularly busy time; trucks, tractors, and trailors would line Main Street day and night as the farmers and staff would struggle to get the grain from truck to hopper.

That’s gone.  A few years back, a fire gutted the office.  The owners rebuilt.  Then the contents of one of the silos got wet, rotted, and stank up the town.  They cleaned it up, but that crop was a total loss.  The business limped on for a few months after these disasters, then failed.  The place was vacant, except a few stray cats,  for a couple years; a family converted the office into a home and has now lived there for some time.  They’re now removing the ancient buildings, and the silos.

Photo taken October 5, 2003. Camera: Olympus Camedia C-50

I grew up listening to jazz and classical–especially baroque–music, with a bit of pop and folk for variety. At college, I listened mostly to folkies. Then I got drafted, and learned rock and soul by the total immersion method. It was a bit of a shock.

LegsWhen I was stationed at Fort Huachuca, the post offered bus service to Tucson every weekend. I rode those busses several times. I stayed in an older hotel, and wandered around town until I had to catch the bus back to the fort. Most of my Tucson memories, frankly, are pretty vague; the object was more to get off the post than to see the sights. I do recall spending a lot of time on the University of Arizona campus, and spent enough money on clothes that I remember doing so. At least once I took along a camera, though I seem to have taken only one photograph. I’ve still got, and still use, a clipboard I purchased in the UA bookstore; it’s unusually well designed, and now carries a lifetime’s memories. A different story, though; perhaps I’ll tell it another day.

There was a bookstore/candle shop/concert space just off the campus. The place doubled as a coffeehouse (only on weekends, I think), and the house band was a folky quartet–a girl singer, her husband on guitar and harmony, a bassist (I think), and a drummer. It was the first time I’d found a drummer in a folk group, and the first time I’d ever seen a girl play a conventional drum kit. The group’s repertoire was pretty standard for a coffeehouse band, except they had an unaccountable affection for Tim Buckley. For me, the attraction (besides the drummer) was the opportunity to hear “my” music.

The bookstore’s name may have been Back Pocket, but I’d not stake money on that recollection. The drummer was a pretty & tanned & lanky person who answered to Twink St. Ledger, at least in my memory. Doubtless someone with better memories will stop by this journal some day, and set things straight; I’ll post an update at that time.

This recollection was triggered because iTunes found Buckley’s Buzzin’ Fly a few minutes ago.

Heard from Twink on September 19, 2011: She says I’ve got things essentially right.

On January 3, 1970, I left Kalamazoo for Fort Huachuca. I’d graduated from Signal School in early December, spent Christmas at home, and was assigned to Huachuca to wait for further assignment.

I don’t remember the trip, properly, though I do recall arriving in Tucson after dark. The last leg of the flight was via Apache Airlines on a plane (I hope not this one) which held a handful of passengers. I imagine there were Signal School classmates on the flight, but no longer remember those details. Since we arrived at Libby Field late in the evening, long after the staff had headed home, CQ put those of us who were new to the post into an empty office on the Old Fort and told us to get comfortable; someone would come for us in the morning. We stretched out on the hardwood floor and eventually caught some sleep.

Sunrise, and we discovered the Huachuca Mountains, like an unexpected island in the plains. Never–never–have I been so astonished by the morning.

This little reminiscence was provoked, of course, by my recent foray into Tombstone Territory.

When Dad died, someone gave Mom an Azalea to honor his memory.  Mom planted it, tended it, cared for it; things didn’t work out.  After a couple years of fighting for and with the plant, it was still just a twig in the yard.  Mom offered it to me; hoping I’d have better luck.

It was just a twig!  I planted it in front of the kitchen window; gave it the usual new-bush care, but didn’t do anything special.  And watched it flourish.  This plant loves my yard; left to its own devices it would grow a couple feet taller each summer.  The birds love it; year ’round, it’s a refuge near enough the feeders for convenience and far enough for protection.  Because it’s so close to the house, we’re always fighting it for space; at least twice a year we cut it back to size.  I’ve been working on that today; first you hack off the worst offenders, then you trim it to a reasonable shape.  I’ve just completed the first step.

Wish I’d planted it farther from the house, so it could reach its full growth.  It’s really a wonderful plant, except a bit problematical.

Addendum 2/7/2011: I’ve learned that the bush is actually a quince, whatever Mom thought. No matter, doesn’t meaningfully change the story.