Published October 11, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Was Getting Out Inevitable?
Flint Series, Chapter 5
Sometimes I think that friendships are simply a matter of convenience. While many people seem to make life-long friendships with kids they grew up with, my experience has been different. I lost contact with my childhood friends in high school, lost touch with my high school friends while we were all away at college, didn’t pursue college friends after the post-college diaspora. Indeed, even grad school, which was right here in the DC area, didn’t produce any lasting relationships, despite many of us staying here to pursue our careers.
No, my life has been marked by associations based on externalities, convenience, common interests – and those interests have changed over the years.
Through high school, in Flint, my primary interest focused on my future. Not that the present was so bad, just that it seemed to have no growth possibilities. Flint was already as big as anybody in my world could imagine it. My friends would say, “Well, you may not know where you’ll end up, but it sure as hell won’t be here!” My mother said with a look of anguish on her face, “Surely you must come up with a plan to go somewhere else?” My father mostly would laugh at the prospect of coming back to Flint after college – “What, and work for GM?” he chortled. And, he had been a General Motors “lifer.”
Only the “other Sundwicks” in Flint had any sense of attachment to the city. Perhaps it came from their mother’s family, the Stebbins. Perhaps it was from the complex web of social interconnections that the three siblings had woven over more years than my relatively brief Flint lifespan. As it turned out, only one of the three left Flint – middle cousin, Bob.
During one foray back to Flint, in 1979, staying with cousin John, I contacted a high school friend who was still in Flint (hadn’t seen him in more than a decade). He had graduated from MSU in E. Lansing, with a degree in oriental philosophy, and was working as a computer programmer for the City of Flint and raising his young family there. He was the exception.
Everybody else from high school, by that time, was far away. Even though, in 1979, I didn’t know where any of them were, it seemed inevitable they wouldn’t be In Flint. I believe it was inevitable for me, and I never needed an exit strategy.
Once Google was available, I discovered a Ph.D. dissertation from friend Nate. And my mother had informed me, when I moved to Northern Virginia, that childhood friend Charles had married a “Korean girl” and was living in Reston. I never contacted him, though. I have no idea what happened to Abe, best of friends through both junior high and high school. But, it didn’t matter. The deed was done, escape effected. All who came before erased from memory.
Is there something wrong with me?
Once, during a trip from Kalamazoo in my college senior year (1968-69), I dropped in unannounced at Abe’s house on Mackin Road and talked with his younger brother, Sol. I introduced my girlfriend of the moment, who had driven there with me.
What transpired in the conversation is fuzzy, but one haunting aside from Sol keeps impinging on my consciousness. I believe he interjected, almost unnoticed by me at the time, “You know Abe is gay, right?” I think I didn’t want to acknowledge the import of that. I didn’t reply. In high school, he often joked (I thought) about “us” being “queer” – I had always taken it as a lame excuse for our not being able to find attractive girls to date at the time. I guess the meaning was deeper for him.
I’ve often wondered what happened to Abe during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties. But, I never followed up to locate Sol or Abe. No trace of either on Facebook, Twitter, or Google.
Abe had been the ringleader of the whole Get Out of Flint movement, not that there was much opposition from anybody else in our crowd. But, he was the most vociferous. Could he have been motivated by some personal animus against that conventional blue-collar midwestern city? His alienation may have been stronger than the rest of ours, and not just because of his Holocaust survivor parents, either!
All this leads me to wonder if any of us has an obligation to our hometown. What is it about placethat can inspire loyalty, a desire to return after leaving? To “give back”?
In the case of Flint, the city has become known everywhere over the last thirty years as a dying place. Poisoning its residentsthrough willful negligence has only been the “icing on the cake” of a three-decades-long disinvestmentby its corporate overlord, General Motors, and by politicians not beholden in any way to those residents – the poorest city in the country, from a 2017 survey. Flintoids don’t have the money to buy the politicians. And, that generations-long brain drain, common to many rust belt cities, depletes any wherewithal to resist. We all shed a tear for Flint, but what have we done about it?
In the last chapter of my saga, I will try to shed some light on where the city is now. Some folks there remain optimistic, others are merely trying to keep expectations low. Is the popular local meme true? — “Flint, coming soon to a city near you!”