Welcome Home, Mr. President

Local legends are essential to small boring towns and the one I grew up with maintains that you can never actually leave Grand Rapids, Michigan.  You can go somewhere else for a while but you will always feel compelled to return.   Family values beget family values and Christianity Christians so it makes sense that a number of people choose to stay here and raise families.  And raise families you do in Grand Rapids.  It sounds very fifties, but by the time I left, one year after graduating from college, friends and acquaintances were getting married left and right.   Now they are having babies. But for those who are not necessarily satisfied by such a lifestyle, an excuse has to be made for why they are moldering away in this place that will never, it seems, be as good as it should be.  Hence the transmutation of demographic trends into legend.  If you happen to hear this in one of several smoke filled coffee shops catering to a mixture of homeless people, disaffected teenagers, artists of varying levels of dedication and bored college students, the excuse will go something like this:  Downtown Grand Rapids was built on Indian burial grounds and now any white person who has settled there or whose parents had settled there is stuck with the place for life\footnote{1}.  This narrative does well with angry teenagers who now have an excuse to fault their parents with an inescapably boring Midwestern existence that is not only inevitable but eternal and has nothing to do with a level motivation that does not allow for much more than occasional road trips to Chicago or Detroit for a show or a night at a bar that is not Mulligan's.  And it works as well for failed poets and unpublished writers whose location precludes any appreciation for their art.  I can't say that I ever heard this story from a homeless person but one winter afternoon Ruby a local inhabitant of the ministries on division, bestowed upon me a wealth of angry un-sourced information about her land rights while snapping pictures with a disposable Kodak and using the opportunity to ask for countless cigarettes and coffee refills.  I believed her- her claims not being far from the historical picture painted by my mother whose inordinate pride in our distilled Native American heritage colored my childhood.

We are in fact built on Indian Mounds. Southwest of what most would consider downtown proper are the Norton Indian mounds.    In a place that makes every effort to deny the existence of its history despite its devotion to tradition, something so ancient could understandably cause enough anxiety to become a myth.  The mounds have been attributed to the Hopewell Indians who are thought to have existed between about 10 B.C.E. and A.D. 400 after which there ceases to be any trace of them.  These mounds are authentic if misplaced and they are sandwiched between the Grand River and I-96 along Indian Mounds Rd. the same road that one takes in order to catch a ride on the red and white riverboat called the Grand Lady that serves dinner and provides entertainment and seems always docked although it is rumored to function.  It is also a road that I have spent much time since adolescence driving on purposelessly with friends or by myself.  We never found the actual mounds although we did find the following: a litter of abandoned puppies, two dear heads with the tops missing and their brains removed, a pile of fly covered animal guts and a lot of trash. What the grumpier residents of the Amway Corporation's hometown are referring to are the mounds that were completely obliterated by farms which were completely obliterated in their own turn by commerce and progress.

I returned home for the holidays for the first time in two years, nervous about my commitment to stay in Grand Rapids for a full ten days.  After the first week I extended my stay for a full week, succumbing I suppose, if only momentarily to that curse and finding the dull little town towards which I feel such resentment from afar, to be rather inviting.    Grand Rapids, described in a certain way, is the most typical of Midwestern cities.  It is, by appearance, very middle class and it is clean, both a result of space and horizontal expansion.  The city proper tends to vote democrat and is, like many cities, surrounded by more conservative communities either properly suburban or uncomfortably not quite rural.   But while many cities find themselves circumscribed by more conservative elements, the environs of Grand Rapids might be eligible for some sort of community fanaticism award.  Zeeland banned Harry Potter from its libraries, I think it might have been Hudsonville or Byron Center that got McDonald's to close on Sundays, and Holland ("Where trend meets Tradition") threw an absolute fit when some high school kids dressed as pirates (actually claiming to be pirates), tried to march in the Tulip Day Parade.

And of course, while slightly better, the city is not immune to the influence of its surroundings so its cultural accomplishments remain rather unremarkable for the most part.  Rent arrived fifteen years after opening on Broadway and everyone still thought it was the height of controversy.  So we support a small amount of uncontroversial artwork and we do something surprising just often enough to give our more liberal denizens some hope.   We are not hicks we are merely slaves to an overabundance of common sense and reverence.  It boasts the largest volunteer run arts festival in the country, although a majority of the performances are provided by church choirs or children's dance companies that insist on covering the child performers' eye-lids from lash to brow with bright blue eye shadow, regardless of gender.  The Calder Festival is named for the towering orange metal forms that sit outside the city clerk's office and were the product of the very first NEA grant.   On the other hand, The Grand Rapids Press has the largest Religion Section in the country.

The family values and  an assumed Republican majority made it easy to eulogize Gerald R. Ford- an unelected president who was not in office long enough to do much damage.  Bush loves God and family, Gerald "Our" Ford loves god and family, Bush loves Gerald R. Ford.   He was also a military man and before serving in the Navy in WWII he was a boy scout.  His wife took one for the team and admitted she was an alcoholic.  Cheney was his chief of staff.  He was the 38th president, which means that we would have one less if that mess I wasn't alive for had never happened.  But all I am really concerned with is the fact that he is from Grand Rapids Michigan which, in my defense, is the same reason anyone else there cared.

Gerald R. Ford grew up in East Grand Rapids or on the West side depending upon who you ask and for some reason I think I remember Betty getting her picture taken somewhere on Lyon St. not more than four blocks from my school.   But it was from EGR that his funeral procession snaked through Eastown (my own neighborhood) and into downtown where he was laid to rest at the museum- so I guess they win.

Motorcades do not consist of much.  There are absolutely no surprises.  However it would be disingenuous to claim that I knew this in advance, even if I suspected it slightly, because if I had I wouldn't have gone and I did.   Who doesn't want to be president or at least meet the president at some point during their childhood? As critical as I am of the funeral industry I am not above the voyeurism inspired by corpses.  And so late that morning I started walking from the downtown that has been renovated out of recognition since my adolescence, contentedly noting the wig shop and Morton's Party Store- the two inexplicable survivors of gentrification along Monroe mall (now open to traffic).

I could see them on the corner the moment I left the building; non-descript white people with flags and various hats, holding children, sitting in lawn chairs, covered in blankets, standing alone, sitting cross-legged, holding flags, casually holding as yet unreadable signs in their armpits like rolled newspapers.   Crossing Division St., I entered the fray and immediately found myself in front of a neat line of six women "at ease" as it were, wearing button up American flag shirts and cowboy hats.  From a distance the Boy Scouts of America appeared as large beige blotches punctuating the primary colors that composed a majority of the crowd gathered along either side of the hill.  The Masons were outside of their temple wearing ornately decorated aprons and hats.  Later between the motorcade and the funeral warplanes, we stopped at the Masonic Temple museum and library, which contained its own shrine to Gerald R. Ford amongst cases of aprons too old to be worn and Shriner dolls.   I spent most of my time examining a glass case full of arm-less porcelain miniatures in wedding dresses arranged on green felt between two men at either end standing with their own amputee brides.

Half way up Fulton Hill I found myself following two men in their early twenties wearing press passes and carrying cameras.  One of them was on his cell phone explaining to someone that they have found the Boy Scout troops from Hudsonville, Grandville, Zeeland, Grand Rapids and Kentwood but had yet to locate the Holland troop and were now walking all the way from downtown and into East Grand Rapids in search of them.

We kept pace for the next seven or eight blocks, alternating who led the way, past the man holding the two by three foot portrait of Ford, past the stained glass shop built by my Mel, a staple in my father's basement woodshop who looked like Santa Claus and reeked of tobacco.  It is also where my mother worked in the seventies when it was actually, according to her, a stopover point for a rather large number of drugs.   When I arrived at my friends house, a little late, I had walked about two miles and was now turning back to make sure I did not miss a long line of black cars rolling slowly up the street, heading towards East Grand Rapids and the church from which they would return in an actual funeral procession ending at the museum in time for a 21 gun salute and some Blue Angels to fly up the Grand River in missing man formation.

This was scheduled to happen at three thirty and did not occur until after five at which point they would have had to fly into the water and emerge on the far side of the bridge unscathed for me to have been impressed.   A friend of a friend's girlfriend and I discovered some warm air blowing out from one of the news vans that lined the bridge and I warmed my feet in the exhaust and jumped around and complained and grumbled with all the punctual Dutch people for nearly two hours before they stopped circling the city and got into formation.   Our reward for waiting was something that resembled migrating geese flying over a noisy tarmac.   At this point a cheer went up and weeping, Betty Ford put her husband into the ground or rather the vault where they are storing his remains for eternity.

As far as I know, the media wasn't interested in the proximity of the president's burial place to the fake Indian mounds.   Adjacent to the Gerald R Ford museum on the banks of the Grand River are perfectly sculpted and manicured green mounds constructed in what I imagine to be a rather severe, if not acknowledged, fit of guilt.  Perhaps we are pleading with future generations in regards to our own remains?

The night before Gerald R Ford's death was announced-the day before he became, according to signs posted in storefronts and on constructions sites, Gerald "Our" Ford- my friend and I walked around outside of the museum, posing with a pasty 'floating' astronaut free from the marks of vandals despite its vulnerability, looking at an empty reflecting pool in the Betty Ford memorial garden in which nothing seemed to be growing.   We came via the concrete boardwalk that runs along the Grand River, climbing over a chain we made our way through a tunnel running under the Pearl St. Bridge on whose walls were painted running Buffalo or what was left of them after who knows how long.  I tried to remember if they had been there when I was in high school, galloping along on shrunken legs across some unspecific plain, but came to no definite conclusion.     We smoked some pot and talked about how much pot we must have smoked along these boardwalks growing up; how much strange fruity malt liquor we must have consumed while we sat just yards from the Betty Ford reflecting pool.  The picture of my graduating class was taken in front of the museum.  I was not in it.

The next day, around the sign reading Gerald R. Ford Museum, just to the west of the imposter Indian mounds the construction of a patriotic shrine commenced and behind American flag pin-wheels stuck into the unseasonably soft ground, teddy bears and pictures of people's children and boy scout troops began to accumulate.  A small crowd milled about.  People knelt and prayed. I walked over to take pictures and laughed.  I left when my camera batteries died, passing on my way home our neatly mowed apology for trampling on the other dead's right to an eternity of remains. ---

* According to www.city.data.com, Grand Rapids is 62.5% White/Non-Hispanic, 20.4% Black, 13.1% Hispanic, 6.6% other, 3.2% two or more races, 1.5% American Indian and .8% Vietnamese.