Hometown Ghost Town


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.

16 thoughts on “Hometown Ghost Town

  1. You did it again!!! You captured the idea that we are connected to location and moments in time. Going back is not easy for me – I relive the experiences, and find that even the good memories become a wistful thought. We are meant to only go forward. I grew up in a mining town in Northern Manitoba, when it was a thriving community. It is no longer needed. The mine closed down and most have moved away. It is now being slowly reclaimed by the earth. And somehow, I find that gives me great hope.
    Another wonderful post!!!

  2. I’m from the Uk and totally got the Vera Uniform! Great image, sad story but I get the sense you feel you have come along way from your roots but remain humble!

    • The Vera uniform is not so different from an old style nurse’s uniform. Did they wear those in the UK, too?

      This last visit made me realize how far I’d gone. Bay City seemed more foreign to me than Europe. That really blew my mind.

  3. You always have a way of writing that makes us feel what you are feeling we are there with you traveling, the tone of this it goes perfect with the photos even if is a bit sad and nostalgic well is the whole point of the post very good like always. I have a thing about old towns and love to see photos like these, love the ones in the flickr too, I love all things retro specially buildings signs, I do love to see urban decay makes us think about so much.

  4. Great post, as usual. I find myself riding, walking, sailing, along with you on every adventure.

    Going back home for me now is sad but in a reverse sort of way. We’ve had two huge casinos take over our rural little communities so everything has expanded. I find that just as sad.

    At any rate, just wanted to let you know that I now have the song “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night” stuck in my head. If you had asked me before reading your post who sang it I couldn’t have told you. But as soon as I saw Bay City it popped. Which I suppose is really strange because the band Bay City Rollers was from Scotland – go figure.

    Also, just for the record, since I read your post I’ve told the hubby twice that he could go… “Kiss my grits!” ;-D

    • Actually, I think urban sprawl is sadder than urban decay. I prefer to look at faded signs and crumbling buildings more than strip malls.

      The BC Rollers…the city once had a mural of them painted on a large building. Ornate moustaches appeared on their faces almost immediately, and the city left it that way for quite a while. Some people are pushing for a Madonna statue. I’m sure the local hooligans have creative plans for that.

      “Kiss my grits” is so funny. That show sure had some unforgettable one liners. 🙂

  5. Small world. I’m from Saginaw, Michigan. This post caught me by surprise; I can’t handle reading about Detroit’s bankruptcy in the newspaper because it reflects my hometown of Saginaw, and the surrounding places like Bay City. I’m impressed you still have friends there, most of mine have drifted away because they can’t find work and the city is dying. This post makes me sad and nostalgic, but also a little proud.

    • Hey, that’s funny. Yes it is a small world. I can understand your pride. People from those parts of Michigan are resilient. And the gritty atmosphere of former automotive cities is totally unique.

      Actually, many people from my graduating class are still in the Tri-Cities, but I’m in my mid forties, so my friends were able to get jobs (mostly at Dow in Midland) before the serious decline set in.
      Thanks for saying hello.

  6. Sometimes I wonder is it better to go back and change our memories with the nostalgia, or leave our memories as they are? When we have family in places, we often must go back. But I’ve now learned there are many places I will never return to. Because they’ve changed and I want to remember them as they were.

    • Interesting perspective. I can understand wanting to keep memories as they are, and therefore never go back to certain places.

      In the case of my hometown, there’s something strangely appealing about the faded signs and abandoned buildings. Maybe it’s because Bay City has kept its personality rather than becoming mundane strip mall hell. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the wistfulness I feel is comforting.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

  7. Have worked in a few ghost-towns, some (long since gone) one can hardly tell existed, except for the unusual groupings of introduced trees, or the lie of the grass were roads once saw traffic.

    There has to be a book of all these secret recipes out there somewhere, someone may just be keeping it all to themselves.

    I was going to say something about my hometown (a little ten street village), but I might get around to posting something nostalgic eventually.

    • There are ghost towns and then there are towns that are fading into phantoms. Michigan has a lot of the latter. Grooves in the earth where roads and rairoad tracks used to be are eerie sights. You need an imagination to visualize what might have once been there. I look forward to reading about your hometown.

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