Bottoming Up in Kalamazoo

I love small amounts of pleasant disorientation. Peering out the 1970s window at Herndon Intermediate School during geography lessons—some hammering out there, the shop class fussing with some molten something—I missed the point Mr. Harrison was making about Detroit being east of Chicago, and Michigan, north of Ohio.compass_rose

In my mind, Chicago was closer to Baltimore, and Detroit was somewhere near Minnesota, and the great lakes were in no particular order except that some froze and sometimes dogs were lost or cars disappeared and some fish never stopped eating no matter how cold it got.

It isn’t as if I don’t have a GPS system. It plugs into my cigarette lighter port. But I resent using it. I can’t stand being interrupted while my mind wanders, when I’m actively engaged in my own disorientation. To avoid having to pay attention to traffic I prefer to settle in behind a truck that seems to be going a lot further than I.

Unless is has chickens in it. Those strange snow flurries coming out of the wind gates…

On the road I’m always vegetarian. At home I’ll eat meat if I know the animal. A steer is ready for college at about 18 months. I prefer eating one that has a PhD in something. Nothing with eyes is a good rule to follow, but if it’s old enough to need reading glasses I’m in. As for animal products, well, honey is basically bee shit, and even if I were vegan I wouldn’t spit, I’d swallow.

JYoungMy friend Joe Young had just driven to Kalamazoo, taking four days to make the trip. Something about going to your home town makes you want to camp a lot before you arrive. I was flying, but I missed my plane at Thurgood Marshall Airport by two minutes. Through the viewing window I could see its tires crawling back into its Delta belly a few hundred feet off the ground.

Instead of a long layover in Detroit, wherever that was, I laid over in Baltimore. I was giddy, and already thinking about Joe’s piece of advice: a stop to Bell’s Brewery. He’d also let it slip—and there’s no way he could have known about my river fetish—that Kalamazoo had a river. I took the information as cool as possible in spite of my attraction to snake-shaped endlessness, mysterious splashes in dark green waters, and incredibly small bridges.

My flight to Detroit outlasted my connection to Kalamazoo. I would have to rent a car and drive to Minnesota. Terrible situation, I said to Julia, who was furious at me. Inside, I was radiant, but also confused. We were driving west to Chicago. Hadn’t we flown over it already? Instead of phoning ahead to say we’d be later than expected she called Bob, her Pittsburgh lawyer, a title meant to imply he was made of tougher parts.

“There’s a nice restaurant called Bell’s Brewery,” I said.


“Do they have chardonnay?” she said. The brewery was large, more like a refinery. We stood outside, looking at a menu placard. “You might enjoy the veggie burger; it’s made out of fungus.”

“Why can’t you call them mushrooms like everyone else?” I said.

A few blocks away there were three ladder companies and dozens of black and white patrol cars parked on Portage Street. Their lights whirled but the fire brigades were mostly standing around like they were making a disaster movie.

We went to the wine bar across the street and took a table outside to watch the crews. She ordered a “Migration,” known for its oak butter entrance and almond exit. I ordered a Bell’s Oberon, known for nothing. Each thought is a mile. I would need at least a hundred of them to put us in the same bed that night, a little west of the sounds of hammering, a little north of everything else.

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