Under the postcard-perfect U.P., a reality only natives see

I’ve lived in Mount Pleasant, Oshtemo, Forest Park, Rogers Park, and worked in Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Oak Park and Mackinac Island. I’m probably forgetting some places. Nomadic, I’ve stomped around the Midwest, circling Lake Michigan maybe 100 times. I find myself writing about the place, a lot. And when I do, it tends to be different from the eastern white pines and northern cardinals and quasi-religious representations of Lake Superior. For me, there’s a lot more blood.

When I return for readings or signings or panels and I talk about the U.P. and the Midwest, it’s with a true love/hate relationship. Or if I’m in a bad mood, a like/hate relationship; I’ve had audience members walk out when I’ve said that. They want only positive reports of the Midwest. As if there has never been a homicide in Chicago or Detroit. As if everyone has a well-paid job in the U.P., a job that’s not dangerous or harmful to your health. As if it’s not important to talk about the realities of place.

Someone told me I was going to have difficulty in my future as a writer, that readers tend to have little interest in the realities of lower-class white kids. Another told me readers want India and New York, Paris and L.A. No one cares about Negaunee, Mich. No one cares about the Midwest.

At Chicago Dramatists, I talked with a theater director who, just days after our conversation, was stabbed more than 50 times in a suspected hate crime. The man was bald and friendly and, I thought, probably gay. He was helpful and encouraging and dead years before ever turning 50.

It was hard for me to see Chicago as beautiful after that. Lake Michigan seemed so dark. I noticed pollution I hadn’t seen before -- a dirty, dull Doritos bag floating -- and that became all I could see. A neighbor of another friend was killed, murdered in a nearby apartment. I moved.

When I read various poets, the Great Lakes turn into “a glossy brochure with blue skies and calm lake waters,” as Roxane Gay writes in her short story “North Country.” The waters become the area, become the state, its symbol, a synecdoche. Jeff Vande Zande, in his story “Mercury,” writes that “Lake Superior was somewhere at the end of the river.”

I’m somewhere at the end of my river. I come from the land of unemployment. I was born in Marquette and raised in Palmer and Negaunee, mining towns. I know how to be a miner, instinctually.

My grandfather lost his hearing in the mines. I write about the mines. Either be a miner or write about them, but you cannot escape the mines. Maybe that’s why I return to blood. Because mines are always filled with blood. About 21,000 mining injuries per year in the United States throughout the ’90s.

Sometimes, the U.P. can feel like it’s Lake Superior and mines.

My cousin Trevor drowned in Lake Superior. A Grand Marais storm. He went out on the breakwater with his friends, got knocked into the water by a wave. A man saw it happen, rushed to help, held his hand out, but couldn’t reach him.

The last time I saw Trevor, I bought him an ice cream cone at the shop on Teal Lake and, as I returned to the car, the scoop fell to the sidewalk. I picked it up and put it back on, hoping he wouldn’t notice. Of course, he tasted pebbles, spit, saying, “What happened?” I kept laughing. I was a teenager, an idiot. I didn’t know he was going to die shortly after.

It’s hard for me to write of the spectacular views of Lake Superior or its clear blue water. Instead, I think of Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Lake Superior,” its third line that opens with “In blood.”

Perhaps the problem is my response to the deaths of northern living, that I see a homicide as that Doritos bag and cannot take my eyes off of it, even when instead I could focus on the perfection of the wake created by a sleek keelboat from the nearby Chicago Yacht Club. It’s what you choose to focus on. The out-of-state tourist’s camera goes to the yacht. The city resident’s eyes go to the Doritos bag … because the resident has to live there; the tourist doesn’t.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sun, 05/05/2013 - 10:04am
I try to focus on the man who saw your cousin fall in the lake and held out his hand.