Waking up this early on an April morning when frost still clings to the grass, you need something hot hitting your belly. Breakfast at Frank's Restaurant, with its simple decor. No frills, interior the same as it was some 30 years ago. Nowhere in the joint does one find smacks of franchises or chains.
You order two eggs, sunny side up, wheat toast, hash browns, short stack of pancakes and hot coffee. Mabel never lets the coffee cup get more than half-empty. The grill sizzles, the crowd gets bigger. You sit there with two friends, the conversation turns from the weather to poetry to French toast. The conversation turns to your impending graduation, and how much you're going to miss this town. Sitting there, in the corner of the smoking section, a little niche you've carved out in this small city; you watch Ann Arbor waking up.
Ann Arbor is all about these niches, these special places like Frank's, that make you feel like you own the city, like the city's magic is meant for you and your friends only. The nice part is, everyone feels that way: Everyone has their own favorite things about this city, and mix those things together, and you have one happy populace.
True, some cynics pop up, slap rough epithets on our fair city - call it provincial, pretentious or pompous. But notice they don't leave. They, too, have something deep inside of them that makes them stick around. A personal, special niche they've carved out inside of the city.
And we share those niches. I'm sure there are others out there who feel at home in the fiction section of "Books In General" on State Street, but when I'm in there, I feel like it's been built just for me, like I'm uncovering a hidden mine with precious gems from Malcolm Lowry to Elmore Leonard.
There's countless places in Ann Arbor that make it special to me. Sitting at Steve's Lunch eating Be Bim Bop. Splitting a pitcher at the Brown Jug, stopping to chat with Shakey Jake as he visits from booth to booth. Watching a flick at the Michigan Theater.
Sitting above the campus in a study carrel on the sixth floor of the Grad, watching winter start to shroud over South University Avenue in shades of gray. Or skipping class and heading to the banks of the Huron on the first day that a strain of spring slips back into the air, riding along the road on your bike, your headphones tuned to the jazz and blues on WEMU.
Growing up in Southeastern Michigan, I played among strip malls and asphalt. This area is a land of cities either created or decimated by the auto industry. Factories dotted the stretches along the highway, franchise grocery stores surrounded the schools. Places to play were limited to playgrounds or parking lots. It was an impersonal way to grow up, coming of age in a world where nothing seemed unique, or special.
Perhaps that's why I love Ann Arbor so much; it was lucky enough to escape that erasing of character, and emerged with a sense of independence. In the center of this small, sometimes sleepy, midwestern mecca, it seems we've partly staved off the rest of the world. People who don't like Ann Arbor are often quick to point out that it serves as a false Eden to its residents, or that ignores the rules of capitalism, earning it the name "The People's Republic of Ann Arbor."
And this is true to some extent, Ann Arbor is almost a fairy-tale land when contrasted with other cities along the Rust Belt. We have three independent pharmacies, in a world where insurance companies have made that sort of business unprofitable. We have independent video stores, burger joints, book shops, bars, music stores, groceries, movie theaters, radio stations and coffee joints; all of them surviving among a world of Burger Kings and Blockbusters.
There's so many places to be in this city, so many niches to make our own. We can all find a place in this city, be it the shelves of Shaman Drum, a bar stool at Ashley's, a table at Mr. Rib's, or a quiet spot under a tree in the Arb.
This city and its people, full of special places. My list could go on and on, and it still might not match yours.
Next fall, when the leaves change and rain across the Law Quad, the banks of the Huron and the sidewalks on South State in harmonies of reds, oranges or yellows, I won't be here anymore. Many of my friends will be gone too. I mean, you can't stay in the same place forever, right?
But lately, with the knowledge that I'll be leaving town in a few short weeks, staying in the same place forever suddenly doesn't seem so bad.
Good-bye, and thanks for reading.
Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
- Shakespeare's "Macbeth," (5.5.23-28)
Dean Bakopoulos may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
should be sent to: email@example.com