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Sunday, February 10, 2008

We Like It Here

After reading my little exposé of the entertainment scene in Jackson, MI (hotlinked here for your convenient reference), some of you may be wondering, was Jackson really all that bad? In the interest of enlightened inquiry, I offer the following observations and will let you decide for yourself. We’ll discover the validity of their vaguely defensive motto, “We Like it Here,” or relegate the fair city to the ash heap with Youngstown, OH and Winchester, VA.

One evening a few months ago, the ineffable Mrs. Bruck and I were shopping at the Manassas (VA) Mall. She observed, “this is just like that mall in Jackson,” at which point chills went up and down my spine. Reeling, I agreed, “Why yes, you’re right. Do you mind if I wait in the car?”

Just what was Jackson, MI really like? Let’s start with the positives:

- Plenty of free parking
- Home of Southern Michigan State Prison, the largest walled prison in the world (or in the US or in Michigan or whatever)
- Birthplace of the Republican Party (Ripon, WI, Pittsburgh, PA, and numerous other localities also stake this claim)
- The Cascades (a water fountain/light show, that's all I know, I never went there, but I've seen pictures)
- Golf
- Mexico L
- Jackson Harness Raceway

I moved to Jackson in 1986 at the commencement of my professional career, and lived there for about 2 years prior to marriage, which compelled me to relocate to neutral territory between Jackson and Ann Arbor (Go Blue!), where Mrs. Bruck worked. My home in Jackson was actually slightly north of the city limits, in Blackman Township, in the Granada apartments, which was the initial roosting spot of most new employees of the electric company where I worked.

I had a few interesting neighbors in the Granada apartments. There was the emotionally needy prison guard living in the unit below mine, whom I occasionally visited. He had found Jesus, which was good for him, but Jesus didn’t get much out of the bargain. And then there was the marginal character on the first floor, whom I suspect is the person that compelled me to use the US mail box to send letters - when I left them out on my own mailbox for the mailman to pick up, the stamps would be stolen. This same neighbor got in a fight once with his brother in the parking lot. The neighbor was swinging a ludicrous homemade cat-o-nine-tails and screaming vile epithets at his brother as I watched from my 3rd floor window, phone in hand, 9-1 already dialed and finger resting on the 1. The neighbor's slightly-less-white-trash brother retrieved a five iron from the back of his El Camino and broke the shaft of his brother's medieval masterpiece, whereupon the first brother calmed down somewhat and sought a more diplomatic solution to the conflict.

I did have some good neighbors in Granada, including Rev. James Bell (not his real name), a fellow engineer at the power company, part-time urban pastor, and absolute ace at betting on the thoroughbreds at Jackson Harness Raceway. I had a very good betting strategy: go to the track with James, follow him around, and bet on whatever horses he bet on. My strategy unraveled when his church overseers got after him about gambling and he was compelled to quit. In the interest of full disclosure, the church I was attending at the time also would have disapproved of my equine investment strategies, therefore I didn't discuss the topic with them. Whenever people from my church and I would see each other at the horse track, we'd be like Baptists in a liquor store. There was another fellow in the complex, one of James’ co-workers, whose name escapes me. He was more of an acquaintance really, and was a huge Madonna fan. The only other thing I remember about him, aside from his being slightly less masculine than Michael Jackson, is that he wrecked his moving van on the way to Jackson. That, along with the other 11 accidents he claimed to have been involved in since getting his driver's license, was not his fault. And he absolutely adored Madonna.

In addition to harness racing, divorce was a popular spectator sport in Jackson. There was a little low-budget weekly or monthly newsletter sold at the convenience stores called the Legal Times. It summarized all court actions for the preceding reporting period. There were always a few copies floating around the office, and readers would highlight the names of people they knew who were newly divorced, got caught drunk driving, or bounced checks, or whose kids were in trouble, or whatever. Great fun!

Another highlight of the Legal Times was the superfluity of lawsuits against various governmental entities by inmates of the Southern Michigan State Prison, whose ample spare time and fertile imaginations rendered an inexhaustible list of spurious lawsuits which had to be processed by the local courts. And with welfare being one of the few non-geographically-bound professions available prior to the internet, many families of inmates moved to Jackson to be near their incarcerated loved ones, adding more pressure to the legal and other social systems.

There is a certain “look” about native Jacksonians, which not all share, but enough to draw an irresponsible generalization. I had forgotten about the Jackson Look until visiting a couple years ago. A friend and I attended a viewing for a late former co-worker who lay in state in Albion, MI, which is the next town west of Jackson, then stopped in Jackson for dinner on the way home. Immediately upon entering the restaurant, I saw the Jackson Look all over the place. It’s not an objectionable look per se, but it is distinctive and noticeable to the trained observer. And I don’t think it’s due to inbreeding, which I’m sure was the first conclusion you jumped to. I blame the water.

Whenever you go to a new place and start drinking the water, you usually have some kind of minor physical reaction, which goes away in a day or so. This isn’t so much of an issue now, with everybody drinking nationally-branded bottled water, but in the 80s we drank tap water. I got used to the water gastrically in the usual timeframe, but I never got used to the other side effects, which included a strange mentally detached feeling, which I can only describe as feeling like my center of consciousness was not in my brain, but outside my head, about six inches in front of my face. There were physical symptoms too, such as strange skin rashes and other irritations. I discussed this with other newcomers to Jackson I knew, other engineers recently hired by the electric company, who experienced similar symptoms. These symptoms subsided when I switched to bottled water. So that’s what I think - the Jackson Look is due to long-term exposure to whatever is infused in their drinking water. The brother of Bruck, a civil engineer, once warned me not to live in a town with a plating factory. Of course he meant don’t drink the water in such a place. I discovered later that Jackson has, or at least had some plating factories. Hmmm.

I briefly noted in the aforementioned column on the entertainment scene in Jackson, the presence of four (at the time - maybe now there’s more, maybe fewer, who cares) venues for suspended adolescent, I mean adult entertainment. This, I thought, was a remarkable ratio of strip clubs to population (abt 30,000), for a non-border town. There was one that I passed every day on my way to and from work called the YES Club, where “YES” was short for “Your Entertainment Senter.”

Jacksonians have a strong insular streak/homing instinct. Natives don't want to live anywhere else, and those of us who migrated there were left scratching our heads and rashes in bewilderment. It was very difficult to break into many social circles (those who succeeded claim it took up to ten years), and therefore most of the friends I managed to make were fellow immigrants. Jim, a former co-worker of Bruck, moved to Jackson in the early 70s from the "downriver" area of Detroit, said that when he first got there, he found a phone booth and called his parents to let him know he had arrived (no cell phones back then, junior). Inside the booth was his little welcome wagon in the form of a missive scrawled on the wall: "Goodbye Jackson, I'm leaving this [expletive deleted] town and never coming back!"

It's not like I didn't try to fit in socially in Jackson. In fact, I even joined up with the Jackson Ski Club, which was basically more of a singles group than a social club. There were a lot of rather colorful people in it, including a preponderance of "suddenly singles" and "parents without partners." I didn't have a lot in common with that crowd. We went on a few camping/canoeing trips, as my tenure with the group was during the warmer months.

One high point in Jackson was the golfing. There were two 18-hole courses right in town, with very reasonable rates, even with cart rental. Another plus was a little Mexican dive named "Mexico Lindo." I used to order their combination plate, which was reasonably-priced and mighty tasty, and probably only took 10 years off of my life. This place was authentic - they answered the phone in Spanish! But alas, all things must go the way of all things. We passed through Jackson on our way from Detroit to Chicago a few years ago, and it being about lunch time, thought we'd pay Mexico Lindo a visit. What we found was a boarded-up storefront where Mexico Lindo used to be.

So Bruck, was Jackson a total downer? By no means! I would be remiss to neglect making an important distinction between the quality of life in the city and the fine people therein. In the two years I lived there, and the 3.5 or so years I worked there, I did manage to make friends of several of my co-workers, with some of whom I maintain contact to this day. I look back fondly on my relationships there, and can easily recount the influence they had on me regarding music, politics, lifestyle, religion, amateur radio, and general outlook on life. And I hope I had some kind of positive influence on them as well.

So, what's the verdict? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Site of the 2012 Olympics? Good place for a nuclear waste dump?

As for me, I'll quote my division manager on the day of my job interview with the electric company, as he was driving me to its downtown offices. Incidentally, he was from an onion-farming family in Stockbridge, MI, which is northeast of Jackson. The correct pronounciation of Stockbridge has only one syllable; for that matter, Jackson, according to the native dialect, only has about 1.5 syllables. He asked me what I thought at the time was a strange question: "Why do you want to live in Jackson?"


  • At 9:35 AM, Blogger ChrisDetroit said…

    Hey, I've actually been inside the "YES Club".

    It has haunted me for decades.

    I went there with a very frequent patron.
    It was a rock and roll bar with topless dancers separated by a curtain.

    I remember one dancer was called the "parrot lady" because she actually looked like a bird, and not in a good way.

    WOW.....why was I googling the YES Club?

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger Bruck said…

    A frequent patron of the YES club... I don't want to know!

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