Bay City, Michigan, USA – October 2012
I smile to myself as I read the St. Laurent’s sign above the familiar striped awning, even though I have no personal connection to this local icon. When I was growing up, my family didn’t have money for such luxuries as nuts and candy. The play on words makes me think of my father, who did time in the local nut house. His presence is palpable in these streets. Much more so than at the banal stone slab that marks his resting place in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. I haven’t visited it in years. He worked at the Chevy plant just a few streets away. In the 1970’s, Bay City had begun the slow, but relentless decline seen in other industrial cities in Michigan. Even so, it always seemed liked the big city to me. When I was four, my parents moved ten miles away to Auburn (population 1500). We’d still come here for shopping or to go to the doctor. It was always a big event to go to Bay City.
Every time I visit, I’m more disoriented. This place is so strange to me now.
“You should take a picture,” Dyanna says. She pulls over to the side of the road. I hop out and brace myself against the cold wind. A lone car pulls up to the intersection. A short, silent laugh escapes me as I focus my camera on the building. My father would have laughed at this play on words, if I’d joked about it with him. I inherited his dark humor.
I ask my childhood friends about the Mill End Store, the “world’s most unusual store”. Shelly informs me that it’s slated to be demolished in a few weeks. We drive by to take a look. The sign is already gone. The large windows are vacant. I spot the Cari’s Red Lion restaurant a couple of streets down. My maternal grandfather used to drive from Midland, a half hour away, just to eat here. On his way, he’d pass through Auburn to pick us up. We rarely ate in any restaurant, even McDonald’s. The small cafeteria, with its squeaky pleather booth seats and grouchy female staff who wore classic “Vera” uniforms, seemed like the height of sophistication. The memory of those coney dogs still makes me salivate. The secret recipe disappeared after it closed. It became a fine dining restaurant, then a rumored swinger’s club, and now it’s a cafe. The original sign has stayed. An enduring icon in a city of vanishing icons.
When I got my driver’s license, my first job, and my first car – a 1977 Plymouth Fury – Cari’s Red Lion became my refuge from the hostility of my peers. I’d skip class and drive all the way here. After I wolfed down my food, I’d stare out the windows and plot my escape. One day, I’d get in my car and hit the gas until I was far away. In a place where no one knew me. I would not look back. I would show them all.
“Is it okay if I take a photo of this, too?” I don’t tell my friends the personal significance of the place. They didn’t know me during that period of my life. Dyanna had moved up to rural Gladwin. Shelly and I had no classes or extracurricular activities together in high school, so we’d drifted apart.
A large utility post blocks the middle of the sign, so the only way I can get the whole thing in a photo is by standing on the kiddie corner across the street. Dyanna stops at the light, which is green, and tells me to jump out. I hesitate. It’s not smart to stop at a green light at a main intersection in the middle of a city. Then I realize that ours is the only car to be seen. No one is waiting to go anywhere.