Back Home Again

Here’s a philosophical question for you. What do you do when your work project in Detroit ends on Friday and the next day your old college football team, which you follow with an embarrassing fanaticism, has its first game of the year 35 miles away? 

Of course you do. It’s simple really, or actually not at all simple, because as my friend David likes to say, “Nothing’s simple”. The world, as you and I both know, has grown very complex over time and every bit of that complexity is owned by someone anxious to charge you money for slipping into “their” territory. I wish I knew how it got that way. 

To get to Ann Arbor in time for the noon kick-off, I had called my favorite taxi driver a day earlier and booked her to pick me up at 6:30 AM so I could get to the car rental place at the Detroit Airport early enough that I could beat most of the other 110,000 people who would cram themselves into the stadium before long. Many of them would be in front of me on the highway, and would stay that way until they had taken the last parking place in town. But the taxi driver overslept, proving that the guy who wrote “the best laid plans of mice and men…” knew what he was talking about. I called her and said “hey”, and she said she would be right over and, still not awake, she rushed over to the wrong hotel and waited 10 minutes. Since that is the way I lead my life too, I wasn’t too upset, besides I realized not long ago that getting upset is starting to make me tired. My admirable attitude, however, didn’t change the fact that she got me to the car rental place 40 minutes after I knew I had to arrive. 

Well, I thought, those car rental places process you in a flash. It won’t be so bad. Not this time. The guy behind the counter was annoyed by the blue cap on my head with a big yellow M on it. It did not make him want to serve with a smile. “You know, sir,” he told me, “I have to admit (though I hadn’t asked him to) I hate Michigan. I’m a State fan and you guys are way too arrogant. I like Ohio State better than you”, he said, moving in for the kill. “We beat you regularly in football and you still think you’re better than we are.” He had a point, and anxious to move on, I didn’t bite. “Arrogance is always wrong”, I said. “It sure as hell is”, he began and would have given me a lot more information about that if I hadn’t redirected his attention to the forms he needed to fill out. So I got out of there way late, and it was only when I hit the highway that I realized I didn’t know how to get to the State Street exit, which would be the most strategic route for reasons you don’t care about. So I picked up my iPhone and asked Siri, who knew exactly what I should do and gave me instructions in that smart-assed way of hers.

The closer I got to Ann Arbor, the more confused I became. In spite of everyone’s screw-ups, there was no traffic jam at all – I mean. So I cruised right into Ann Arbor feeling cool even though I was now surrounded by college kids. I was able to have breakfast at Zingerman’s Deli which I enjoy more than some good bistro in Paris (though it is a very close call). After breakfast I wandered through the farmer’s market, a place I loved in the old days. Then I found a parking place right behind the Law Quadrangle, which is one of those gothic looking college buildings that is so inspiring. And I headed out to the State Street Barber Shop a few blocks away which usually has game tickets to sell. They did, and I got one that turned out to be pretty good and joined the great flow of humanity that was surging to the stadium.

And yet, I knew I was not re-living the old days. Then I would have rolled out of bed, grabbed some food and headed to the game with friends and that would have been that. I would have walked briskly too, pretty much bouncing as I went. This time I walked the way an old guy walks and took time to admire the wonderful, lush old Midwestern forestland trees. And I savored the way so much of the place is still the way I remember it in spite of all the expensive new buildings, and the memories came so easily. I thought about how frightened I used to be that I wouldn’t make it academically yet how exciting the classes were, and how bright and vague my hopes were for the future. A future that was more or less endless.

I finally arrived at the stadium, a place I had first entered on my father’s shoulders when I was three, though I don’t remember it really. But that’s the family story, and it’s way too late to get another angle on it because anyone who actually remembered that day is long since dead. That was another difference between this lovely day and my student days. A sense of the loss of people and places I loved hovered in the back of my mind all the time, though I didn’t feel regret, and things there seem better now than ever.

The game was more fun than I had hoped it would be; in addition to the team, I love the band, and the student section is always jumping around and yelling, waving their arms in unison, dancing and singing non-stop throughout the game. Back in my day, we had a great time but I don’t think we were so animated, and it never would have occurred to us to wear matching yellow shirts the way they do now. I loved watching them all day, just as I used to love being one of them. 

And that’s the thing about this. Going home to visit your grandmother or having dinner with good friends can easily be this rewarding. But the nice thing about seeing the old college play a football game is that it is a ready-made and well-practiced ritual. It means being surrounded by people you feel you belong with, and they affirm the relationship with their clothes, and by the way they walk and talk – and because they sing the same songs and do the same cheers you have a million times.

I felt acutely alive while I was there. Alive the way a man my age should, a man who has had my experiences, who has lived most of the life I used to wonder about; and then I had an interlude when I felt profoundly sad too, also the way the man I really am should. So I walked through the law quad and made my way to the center of campus, which we call the diag, and found a place on the old stone bench not far from the Tappan Oak which was planted by a senior class more than 150 years ago, and I remembered what I belonged to and what I would be a part of long after I died, and life seemed peaceful and simple. 

On the plane ride home I read part of a book of essays by the great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, and he said this at one point: “suddenly one’s heart is open again to landscapes that had never really been forgotten, and you rethink your position within the vast world of nature, in short you taste the flavor of being alive.” Have you noticed how good writers always seem to be in mid-conversation with a part of you that is more in tune with life than the rest of you is?

 

Tony Smith

September, 2016

Comments

  1. Beautiful piece of writing, Tony. It should be published in the New York Times next Sunday! Thank you for this.
    Lillian

  2. Not knowing the schedule, but knowing you were near and so was, inevitably, The Game, I did wonder.

    So glad you were able to participate in the old rituals again…. a joy to real.

  3. Beautifully written, as always. Love that you went.

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