Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Coming up Cross

I remember the first time I came to Ypsilanti. My sister drove me up Cross Street. I saw Tom’s sign “COLDEST BEER IN TOWN”. I saw the water tower, the first few campus buildings, and everything was so green. We rode to McKenney Hall for Fast Track, an orientation that would launch me into my first year of college. I got a pass out of school that day. College awaited me. I had managed some scholarships, and financial aid came through after all. My sister would sit in the orientation, gather information for me. She came through with the most profound act of love: the ability to endure the mundane for a relative. Having worked in the admissions office, and knowing how long fast track goes on for, I know she endured a lot. I didn’t see her again until late that afternoon.

When the water tower loomed high above the road I did not see the gigantic phallus that so many instantly let cloud their vision. Old brick and floral arrangements caught my eye. The water tower stood to me as a symbol of Ypsilanti being a real city. I traveled to Ypsi from Novi, a city made up of suburbs with a town center that was a mall. Novi is not made for walking. I saw people walking in Ypsilanti though. They crossed in front of the water tower, came out of Tom’s, and Eagle’s Market, Cross Street Books, Jimmy John’s, Pierce Hall, Tower Inn, and filtered their way into the student housing on College Place and Washtenaw. Hell, there may have been no one on the street that day, but I saw the possibility for people, for fun, for messiness, and a chance to take control of my life.

We drove up Cross Street one though grew larger and larger: I would live here; Ypsilanti would become a part of me. Well, that and I would get free lunch provided for me at Fast Track. Those who know me, know that many of my most profound life choices have been mitigated by the presence of free food. I am, and always will be, hungry. Hungry for new experiences, for actual food, for new books, for music, and for each new day, but I will also allow myself to be full. When I walked into McKenney Hall I became full. I walked around campus, chose my classes – all of them. They all lay out before me. I got to chose literature, theater, psychology, technology, and history all at the times I wanted! The profundity of choice engulfed me. Control and freedom flowered in the third floor of Pierce Hall. I left the office overwhelmed, but joyful.

I have an artifact to that joy. My last stop was to get my picture taken for my student id. A legendary picture in my own mind, I am giving the biggest grin, and although it is cut off by the small frame on the card, I am giving a thumbs up. Yes, this is in part a fake smile part of my goofiness shining through, but I didn’t do it at the time to show off, I did it out of the most intense feeling of happiness. Well, that and I had not learned how to take picture yet, but the same person who drove me aptly instructed me before her wedding on how to smile. Most times I use the id I get a compliment on the photo and that day comes back to me. Before coming up Cross Street College hadn’t seemed an option. A letter from the Marine Corp was thumb tacked next to my bed. The piece of white paper eventually yellowed, but never stopped being a guarantee and promise for three hot meals a day, a clean cot, brothers, and a purpose. I thought about College but blanked when it came time to take action. The Marines offered a route, a revocation of control. Sign here your freedom is given to us. As Sartre said, “We are condemned to be free.” I chose condemnation over relinquishment thanks to a handful of wonderful and loving people in my life I’ve made it here. I will always respect the Corp, and all the armed service branches, even squids and flyboys.

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The beginning and end of a moment, of an event, of a period of an era is slippery and elusive. My traveling up Cross Street started when I scrawled the application in haste during first block. It started with the Eastern student teacher that was placed in my drama class. It started with Mrs. McKaig and all the other English teachers I had. It started with the bookshelves that filled my house throughout my whole life. It started with my getting the name Stevens, so that my high school counselor was the one I was so lucky to have. It started with my mother, and my grandparents, and their parents. It started with so many choices made to just take that ride. To just come up Cross Street on that bright green summer day meant that all of those forces had to conspire together. That one photograph on my Eastern id is a moment of joy earned by so many tears, blood, and screams, countless births and deaths and erotic glances. To be present at all here as a mobile and capable human is a gift, to be able to bring food to mouth and smile and walk up Cross Street is a big green leafy mass not unlike the trees I’m so happy to see bursting with life.

Coming up Cross Street that day marks a beginning because it is a first, a first look at a place that is now a text that evokes and reads of…well, everything.