Some of the saddest, loneliest, and most miserable years of my life were spent in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a small college and factory town 35 miles west of Detroit.
I don’t put the blame entirely on Ypsilanti (pronounced “Ip-suh-lant-y,” and also known as “Ypsi-tucky” because so many locals hailed from the South). I was in my late teens and early 20s at the time, when it’s easy – almost natural, in fact – to be lonely and miserable wherever you are.
I’ve come to think, though, that certain places have a metaphorical if not literal black cloud hanging over them. Regardless of the resources they offer, no matter how great the people, things always find a way to go wrong. I’ve lived in more than one such place, but Ypsilanti remains Exhibit Number One.
I came to Ypsi in September of 1965 to attend college, but that didn’t last long. By October I’d been expelled, and was working midnights on the line at Motor Wheel, making wheel and brake drums for General Motors.
I already suspected things weren’t quite right about Ypsilanti. On my first day in town, I sat down to order a Coke at the drugstore soda fountain downtown.
“Hey, you can’t sit there,” someone hissed in my ear. Turning, I found myself facing someone my own age and size who, oddly enough, was also named Larry.
I was the only person at the counter; there were half a dozen unoccupied seats on either side of me. Trying not to sound too sarcastic (a similar situation a few months earlier had ended with a crazy man waving a gun in my face), I said “Don’t tell me, this one happens to be your own personal seat?”
“Nah,” he said. “But you can’t sit there. You’re in the colored section.”
Segregated lunch counters had been all over the news in the early 60s, but by 1965 sit-ins and legislation had all but put an end to them. Even when they had existed, it was almost exclusively in the Deep South. I’d never heard of such a thing in Michigan. This other Larry, I decided, had to be an idiot, a racist, or both.
But he wasn’t wrong. There were no signs or laws enforcing it, but Ypsilanti was rigidly segregated. South of Michigan Avenue was black and north was white, and that was that. Ypsi-tucky might as well have been in real Kentucky. Or Alabama, more like.
It was like that at the factory, too. Out of a hundred-plus employees, all of them white, I was the only one who wasn’t from the South. “The Yankee,” they called me, or sometimes “Pinhead,” their name for anyone who’d been to college, even if, as I protested, it had been only a couple of months.
Despite the bad impression he’d originally made, I became grudging buddies with Larry, and he introduced me to his gang. Unlike other gangs I’d been involved with, they didn’t have a name; outsiders typically referred to us as “the pool hall boys,” based on our main hangout.
It wasn’t a glamorous gang, just a hardbitten crew of petty criminals. I’d only known them a few months when all of them except me landed in prison on a two-year bit for burglary. Only a simple twist of fate had saved me from joining them, so give Ypsilanti its due: occasionally a stroke of good fortune would come shining through the gloom.
If you want to suggest that I should have been making better choices in friends, you’re free do to so. Be that as it may, I was alone again. In late December, as winter was beginning to bite in earnest, I wandered morosely up Michigan Avenue on an especially grim Sunday morning.
I never liked Sundays, not even as a child. They meant being cooped in a too-hot house or church, dressing up in itchy uncomfortable clothes, searching for someplace to hide from the classical music Dad enjoyed blasting while Mom steamed up the windows with Sunday dinner.
For a fleeting moment I felt almost nostalgic for those days, but as I passed Ypsilanti’s closest thing to a fancy restaurant, the smell of overcooked food pursued me out onto the sidewalk. Inside I saw families crammed claustrophobically together in forced jollity and collective misery. Yeah, I decided, maybe being alone in the world wasn’t so bad.
Turning the corner, I saw some stragglers disappearing into a church, but by the time I got there, the street was empty again. A choir started up inside; it was a good tune and my heart was momentarily lifted. Then a deacon peered out, giving me a curious glance as he slammed the church door shut.
Once again the loudest sound was the soles of my bedraggled shoes slapping against the pavement. With nowhere else to go, and too tired to do anything but sleep, I meandered back to the boarding house. There, as at the factory, I was the only Yankee, and was never allowed to forget it.
All of us worked the same shift at Motor Wheel. We’d get home around 7 am, unless we stopped off for beer first, then eat grits and eggs in a kitchen thick with cigarette smoke, fried lard, and nonstop country music playing on the tinny clock radio atop the fridge.
“What’s that song?” I innocently asked when “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams came on, and got a graduate-level education in his life and times from my co-workers, visibly shocked that the pinhead had never heard of the greatest country singer of all time. A couple weeks later I went downtown and bought my first guitar.
Included in the price were 10 lessons, at the end of which I knew a couple Beatles and Rolling Stones songs, and at least a dozen by Hank. Then one night I got drunk, passed out, and set fire to the sofa with my cigarette. The landlady confiscated my guitar – the only thing of value I owned – and wouldn’t give it back until I’d paid her enough to buy a couple new couches. Then she kicked me out.
So it went, and would continue to go. Six months in Ypsilanti had already furnished me with a lifetime’s worth of bad luck, even if much of it was self-inflicted. I should have thought about leaving town, but I was a slow learner. Over the next three years I’d get kicked out of college a couple more times, get arrested often enough that I was on a first-name basis with most of the town cops, be evicted from almost everywhere I lived, and wind up living on the streets for most of the spring of 1967.
It was also where I started taking drugs, first sniffing glue and guzzling Robitussin and then moving on to large volumes of LSD. Ypsilanti’s ornate and genteelly unkempt 19th century houses turned the place into a Gothic funhouse where I could wander for hours, at least until the cops showed up and told me to get lost.
Somehow I never learned: time and again I’d go somewhere else and be amazed that life didn’t have to be nt so fraught and chaos-strewn, and time and again I’d come back for more. I spent my last few months in Ypsi in an unheated 1840s building in Depot Town, huddled around the kitchen stove in hopes of coaxing a little warmth from it. When February came, I packed up what little I hadn’t thrown or given away and headed for California, where I’d spend most of the next 30 years.
Every five years or so, I pay a brief visit to Ypsilanti to see how it’s getting along. Not so great, I’m sorry to say. Hipsters and preservationists have spiffed up some of the old buildings, but as in most American towns, much of what was once a semi-thriving center has hollowed out.
The drug store, the pool hall, the guitar store, the hotel, they’re all gone. I read in the paper that my pal Larry from the gang had been shot dead as he was breaking into his next door neighbor’s house, which didn’t really surprise me. Motor Wheel closed down long ago; it’s now a Superfund site.
My Ypsilanti memories haven’t deserted me, though. Always at the back of my mind there’s the nagging question of whether things would have turned out differently if I’d made better decisions, if I hadn’t been so hellbent on self-destruction. Maybe it could have been an amazing place to live. Maybe I’d still be there now.
But somehow I doubt it.
“Wait a minute,” somebody is bound to ask. “Ypsilanti, isn’t that where Iggy Pop is from?” Yes and no. He grew up in a trailer park outside of town, but the only place I ever saw him hanging out was in Ann Arbor. I have a vague memory of seeing an early Stooges show at the student union in Ypsi, but this was during my heavy LSD period. Nothing from those days comes close to being certain.
Remember how I started out talking about wandering the empty streets on a sleepy Sunday morning? I’ve replayed that memory countless times, for myself and others. And it always has a soundtrack: “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” the Kris Kristofferson song made famous by Johnny Cash.
It was as if Kris was following me around as he wrote it, the bits about being hungover, the smell of frying chicken, the distant churchbell, and above all, the crushing loneliness:
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
That’s half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleepin’ city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin’ comin’ down
Whenever I picture that wayback winter morning, I’m hearing or singing that song, but there’s a slight problem: it hadn’t been written yet, and wouldn’t be for several more years. Yet it accompanies me with deafening certainty every time I recall that despondent stroll up Michigan Avenue.
Time and space are relative, as Mr. Einstein said, and maybe some intersecting dimensions caused the words and music to occur to me years before Mr. Kristofferson, but I was just too self-absorbed or clueless to write them down. More likely my brain was simply operating out of sync, which is the kind of thing you get used to when you’re living in Ypsilanti.
Well, it’s what happened to me, anyway.