Monday, March 23, 2020

Getting real about the 517


The absolute worst.

Okay, so I have some thoughts on one of those social media "copy & paste to your status if you agree" things that's going around these days:
I grew up in Michigan. When I was a child our area code was 517. Eating out at a restaurant was a huge deal that only happened for very special occasions . McDonald's was a rare treat. Fast food was a bologna or pb&j sandwich to take outside in the yard . Eating ice cream was a treat on a hot day. You took your school clothes off as soon as you got home and put on your play clothes. We had to do our homework before being allowed outside to play. We ate dinner at the table. We went to school everyday and rode a bus with 3 to a seat. There was no taking or picking you up in the car, you walked! Our phone hung on the wall in the kitchen and had a cord there was no private conversation or cell phones! Most TVs didn’t have remotes, we had to actually get up to change the channel.
We played Mother May I, Hopscotch, Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, 1,2,3 Not It, Red Light Green Light, Red Rover, Hide & Seek, Truth or Dare, Tag, Baseball, 4 square, Kick Ball, Dodge Ball, and rode bikes.
Girls could spend hours playing Barbies or house. Boys played football in the yard.
We played baseball or softball at the local park every summer and swam in the river or the lake . No one had their own pool!
Staying in the house was a punishment and the only thing we knew about "bored"--- "You better find something to do before I find it for you!"
We ate what mom made for dinner or we ate nothing at all.
There was no bottled water; we drank from the tap or the water hose (warm).
We watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and rode our bikes for hours and ran around in the woods.
We weren't AFRAID OF ANYTHING. If someone had a fight, that's what it was and we were friends again a week later, if not SOONER. We played til dark, sunset was our curfew.
School was mandatory and teachers were people who you could TRUST and respect.
We watched our MOUTHS around our elders because ALL of our Aunts, Uncles, Grandpas and Grandmas AND our Parents best friends were also our PARENTS (they COULD & WOULD WHOOP Y'ALL!,) and you didn't want them telling your PARENTS if you misbehaved.
These were the good ole days. Kids today will never know how it feels to be a real kid. I loved my childhood...!!!
Kids these days will never understand how we grew up!!!
 Good Times 
Copy & paste if this was close to your childhood.
There's a lot to this, so let's break it down.

I grew up in Michigan.  When I was a child our area code was 517. 

So, this is kind of insidious.  It comes across as just a sort of geographical marker that's maybe expressed with a tinge of old-man-berates-cloud vibe on the days when area codes really meant something or whatever.  But actually, they kind of did.

See, Michigan basically has four parts.  There's the Upper Peninsula, a great deal of which is nearly virgin wilderness and the population density is like zilch-point-two.  So that's irrelevant.  Then there is "west Michigan," which is basically everything from Traverse City down to the Indiana border and at least west of Lansing; it has kind of a fuzzy eastern boundary but the important thing about west Michigan is that it's more in the Chicago orbit than the Detroit.  Under the original 1947 area code map, both the UP and west Michigan were in the 616.

Then you have "Southeast Michigan," which is basically Detroit, its suburbs and exurbs, and then "northern Michigan," which is actually northeast Michigan because the Upper Peninsula is a different thing entirely.  Southeast Michigan was long the well-recognized 313, until population numbers became overwhelming and it was broken into the 248 (north of 8 Mile), the 734 (western Wayne suburbs and Ann Arbor), and then further divided from there in future years.

So BITD, the 517 basically covered Lansing and the slice of Michigan mostly east of I-75 from just above Flint up to the Mackinaw Bridge.  You might never have heard of any of these places unless you are from Michigan, so let me clarify: what's important is not what these places are, but what they are not.  Being from the 517 meant being from the part of Michigan that was in the Detroit orbit, but not Detroit or Flint and not a suburb of Detroit.  Never mind the Tigers cap or Red Wings jersey; there's a certain kind of person who would be very careful to let you know that although they are from Michigan, they are certainly not from Detroit.  Having a 517 area code meant you didn't need to clarify.  People would just know.

Eating out at a restaurant was a huge deal that only happened for very special occasions.

This is accurate if "restaurant" means "real restaurant" and not "glorified fast food franchise" como Olive Garden or Chi Chi's.  And also if you are not counting take-out steak sandwiches from Tony's or picking up (this is before delivery yo) pizza from Little Caesar's.  Thought you were from the 517, bro?

McDonald's was a rare treat.  Fast food was a bologna or pb&j sandwich to take outside in the yard.

This might have been somewhat true if your parents didn't both work.  But for us latch-key kids, fast food was a staple of the diet.  To this day I can give you the detailed lowdown of the offerings at Mickey D's, BK, Taco Bell, A&W, Subway, KFC, and probably several other fast food joints I have not stepped into in years and may have even forgotten existed.  I can tell you which places took "special orders" and which did not, which places undercooked the fries, and which places let you order water and fill the cup with soda multiple times.  I still drink out of promotional Coca-Cola glasses from Burger King.  And this is to say nothing of the essentially fast food "sit down" restaurants I mentioned above: Bonanza, Denny's, Howard Johnson's, Ponderosa...  I'm a grown man and am still kind of pissed that Hardee's bought our Burger Chef and eliminated the car meal.

Yeah it was empty calories and maybe I want nothing to do with it now.  But step directly off with the Little House on the Prairie nonsense.  "Fast food was bologna or PB&J."  No.  That was a "cold lunch" that you might take to school if you weren't into whatever evil crime the cafeteria planned on committing with government cheese that day.

Eating ice cream was a treat on a hot day. 

Generally true.  But some caveats do apply.  First, this probably refers to the Hav-A-Bar ice cream cart that would randomly appear like twice in the summer and all the kids would come running with fists fill of dimes and nickels in hopes of scoring a creamsicle or chocolate eclair.  The worst was having to settle for the bomb pop.  Oh, the hated the bomb pop.  So yes, in that sense this is correct.

But they also made those 5-quart tubs of shit ice cream that you could pick up at any local grocery store.  Those, most people had around.  In fact, the existence of those damn 5-quart tubs was often given as a justification for why your mom wasn't going to give you the $0.65 you needed for a proper ice cream sandwich the one time you actually heard the Have-A-Bar cart in time to catch up with it.  "We have ice cream in the freezer!"  You'd probably search the couch cushions and come up with $0.55-just enough for a bomb pop, not the good stuff.

And it wouldn't necessarily be a hot day, either.  As anyone who grew up in the 517 well knows, the temperature on any given summer day could range anywhere from about 40° F to well over 90° F.  As long as it wasn't raining, any day could be your day.  So it wasn't like you never got any ice cream.  Except maybe for this Red Fern Grows motherfucker, who probably only ever had the fake vanilla ice cream that his grampaw rolled out using ice-filled coffee cans in the barn.

You took your school clothes off as soon as you got home and put on your play clothes. 

Truth.  I still do this.  Honestly one thing that has been a difficult adjustment with the COVID-19 work-from-home thing is not feeling like I have "work clothes" and "home clothes."  Kind of strange that I consider this a personality quirk that I ought to perish while Beaver Cleaver insists it's a figment of virtue.  But to each their own.

We had to do our homework before being allowed outside to play. 

You know, until very recently it was against the law to swear in Virginia Beach.  They even had signs up downtown and the police were authorized to write you a ticket if they caught you.  But you'd have to be real f*king numbnut to actually receive one of those citations. 

So yeah, most peoples' parents probably had a rule that you were supposed to do your homework before you could go outside.  But how were they going to enforce that, even if they did happen to be at home?

Mom: "Did you do your homework?"
Kid: "Yeah ma."

Honestly, what kept kids indoors through most of the school year was the damn cold and darkness.  This is the 517, remember.  Not freaking homework.  We didn't really have that much homework anyway, despite what boomer might tell you.

We ate dinner at the table. 

Ah, ha ha ha ha ha ha.  Yeah, you ate dinner "at the table."  By yourself, probably, with the black & white TV going or maybe a copy of the Saginaw News.  Maybe with your sibling (whose dinner you also cooked).  Or maybe you really just ate dinner on the living room couch like every other freaking person.  SRSLY.

Most of us were lucky if we had a "family dinner" more than once every couple weeks.  Go on back to the '50s with that shit.  You had dinner "at the table."  Who cooked it, Mrs. Garrett?

We went to school everyday and rode a bus with 3 to a seat. 

Yeah, that sucked.  Though most of the time it was two to a seat; three was not uncommon but not really the rule either.  Regardless, this was all a function of overcrowded schools and fucked residential segregation anyway.  Nothing to look back upon with any kind of nostalgic fondness.  Half the time you were just happy to get on a damn bus after waiting 25 minutes in the bitter cold for the damn thing to show up.  Thanks to being a K-12 student in north Michigan I still have a pretty good sense of how painfully frozen your fingers and toes can be without actually being "frostbitten."  Three to a seat?  Not a big hit.

There was no taking or picking you up in the car, you walked! 

Like hell you did.  I don't know what the walk score is for the 517 but the number of people who lived within walking distance of a single damn thing worth walking to has got to be well under 10%.  And the public transit was shit too, so if you weren't walking you weren't taking the bus either.

MAYBE you would ride your bike.  But bikes--pretty much all fixed-gear, steel-frame monstrosities that we rode in all kinds of rickety physical conditions and without helmets or any kind of safety training--were essentially a form of entertainment and an intra-neighborhood form of transportation back then. You weren't going to ride your brown steel Murray with the loose handlebars four miles to the mall (on the other side of Bay Road or Tittabawassee) and back.

Being a teenager in the 517 had basically two phases: before you could drive, and after you could drive.  "Before you could drive" was all about getting rides or having friends who could drive.  If you couldn't drive and you couldn't get a ride, then you were stuck at home with your Atari 2600 and microwaving Banquet TV dinners for your younger brother.  You'd sell a freaking kidney for a driver's license.  Or in my case, a Commodore 64.

Our phone hung on the wall in the kitchen and had a cord there was no private conversation or cell phones! 

True, but usually the phone cord was long enough that you could take it into another room if you needed to talk privately.  Plus it wasn't too long before we started having multiple phones within the house--so then the only risk was your brother or your mom picking up the receiver downstairs and listening in.  But I am sure that never happened to me.

Most TVs didn’t have remotes, we had to actually get up to change the channel.

Yes, that was such good exercise.  I'll bet over the span of a K-12 education is probably added up to at least 30, maybe 40 calories burned by getting up to change TV channels.  Probably held the whole obesity epidemic in check all by itself.  High-fructose corn syrup never stood a chance against the literal TV dial.

What was probably more significant is that most TVs were not equipped with cable signals or satellite and so you were limited to the channels you could get with your over-air antennae.  In the 517, we basically had channel 5 (NBC), channel 12 (ABC), channel 25 (CBS), and channel 19 (PBS).  On a good day you might be able to pick up TV 50 from Detroit, or a CBC broadcast from Ontario.  But usually that was it.  So everybody basically watched the same news channels and the same sitcoms and the same game shows and the same sports and the same TV-movies.  The cultural influence had to have been incredible; whether it was objectively better or worse than what we have now, who knows--but certainly there were advantages and disadvantages.

We played Mother May I, Hopscotch, Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, 1,2,3 Not It, Red Light Green Light, Red Rover, Hide & Seek, Truth or Dare, Tag, Baseball, 4 square, Kick Ball, Dodge Ball, and rode bikes.

My favorite was playing baseball but using a tennis ball as the ball.  Every kid was f*king Darrell Evans.  Or maybe Lance Parrish.  Still can't believe they f*king traded him.  What the hell is "Red Light Green Light" though?

Girls could spend hours playing Barbies or house. Boys played football in the yard.

Hey, so let's dispense with the subtlety and just go straight for sexist gender stereotypes from grandma's world!  WTF.

Also, if we're gonna go back to that world then I may as well point out how you generally didn't play football "in the yard."  You climbed the fence and played on the real field at your local high school.  Only if you were a weak-ass "scaredy cat" would you stay home and play football "in the yard."  The "yard" was for pickle, or maybe whiffle ball (with hitting the ball onto certain parts of the house counting for different scores).  But what would this guy know?  Girls played the fuck out of pickle and whiffle ball.  I even had some on my actual Little League baseball teams.  Go have your heart attack, OP.

We played baseball or softball at the local park every summer and swam in the river or the lake . No one had their own pool!

Oh, come on.  People had pools.  It was the '80s, not "the time before waters."  I will say, I swam in just about everything from Lake Huron to the gravel pit half a mile from my house to my friend Anthony's awesome in-ground pool to my grandparents'' terrible above-ground pool to Lake Michigan to various inland lakes and rivers all around Michigan to the Y to the aptly-named "Bad River" in St. Charles.  So that part is true: if there was water, we was gonna go up in it.  (Or "down in it?"  What's the cool way to say that?).  But this "we didn't have pools AND WE LIKED IT" nonsense is for the aquatic birds, to which some of us like to feed Alka Seltzer.  Because we were such good kids.

Staying in the house was a punishment and the only thing we knew about "bored"--- "You better find something to do before I find it for you!"

Okay, this was true.  This was called being "grounded" and it was basically the worst punishment available for parents who didn't severely beat their kids.  (Although my parents began levying actual monetary fines, which 😐 ).

We ate what mom made for dinner or we ate nothing at all.

This must be be put into context, which was that mom only made dinner a couple times a week.  Usually she had to work, so either you were making dinner yourself or food was being purchased (see the take-out and fast food options outlined above).  And it wasn't really that you "ate nothing at all."  It was that you didn't eat dinner--and then you filled up on Red Vines and Coco Wheats later that night.

There was no bottled water; we drank from the tap or the water hose (warm).

Why would you drink bottled water when you can drink from the hose?  Every Gen Xer knows the best drinking water comes from the hose.  Yeah, it can be a little warm.  But the hose water in the 517 has that awesome metallic flavor.  I'm sure there couldn't possibly have been anything bad for you in it.

We watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and rode our bikes for hours and ran around in the woods.

The Saturday morning cartoons part is accurate.  Richie Rich, Thundar the Barbarian, and Plastic Man were my favorites.  Though, once channel 66 came on, we used to get to watch ole Loonie Toons or WB stuff all week long.  And actually Scooby Doo was on after school even before that.  So this might be one of those things where the memory distorts the actual thing.  But it's just cartoons, no big deal.

I touched on bikes above, but yeah--bikes were a BFD.  I lived across the street from a big apartment complex and we would play "bike tag," which I imagine you find self-explanatory from the name.

The "running around in the woods" part, eh, I don't know.  Maybe that guy did.  But that was probably a good way to get abducted or DDT poisoning or some shit.  We'd ride our bikes through the woods though, that was fun.

We weren't AFRAID OF ANYTHING. 

I used to ride by rickety bicycle with the loose handlebars down a three-flight concrete staircase behind the HMO clinic behind my house.  That was right after digging through their dumpster for cardboard boxes to build a fort out of.  Then my buddies and I would probably go sneak under the barbed-wire fence into the local gravel pit to go and catch crawfish, or maybe an illegal swim (in the gravel pit that was sealed off because it was not a safe place for anyone to swim, fish, or be).  And any kind of abandoned equipment was always the best toy: derelict cars, busted stereo equipment, old refrigerators--to say nothing of actual abandoned structures.  We all had BB guns and after a while picking off green army men in the sandbox just doesn't do it--you need a live targets, preferably ones that might shoot back.  Safety goggles?  Eh.

So yeah, we weren't afraid of anything.  But a hell of a lot more of us died back then too.  What was that Orwell line?  Ignorance is strength?  Yeah, that.

If someone had a fight, that's what it was and we were friends again a week later, if not SOONER. 

Okay, is that different for kids now?  I didn't think it was.

We played til dark, sunset was our curfew.

Pretty much.  You couldn't really see the basketball hoop after dark so what was the point?  Plus the mosquitoes are relentless.  But keep in mind that in summer in the 517, it doesn't really get dark until after 9 pm, sometimes close to 10.  For me, I never even really had a curfew.  What would have been the point?

School was mandatory and teachers were people who you could TRUST and respect.

Okay, so school is still mandatory and there have always been both crappy teachers and great teachers and everything in between.  So to the extent this suggest today's teachers are somehow less deserving of trust or respect than in the past, that's bunk.

We watched our MOUTHS around our elders because ALL of our Aunts, Uncles, Grandpas and Grandmas AND our Parents best friends were also our PARENTS (they COULD & WOULD WHOOP Y'ALL!,) and you didn't want them telling your PARENTS if you misbehaved.

Okay, well, this is another thing that is still kind of true in its own way in the present, and also something that really stopped being true in the manner the author suggests once the auto industry began its major decline in the early '80s and people in the 517 started moving away in droves and really the community fabric started to fray.  There is not much opportunity left in the 517, so most people who grow up there need to leave--and where they go, they don't know all their neighbors and aunts and uncles of neighbors and so forth.  Such is life.  Plus I already covered that in a previous blog so let's move on.

These were the good ole days. 

For some, perhaps.  But our childhood in the 517 was unsafe, devoid of culture, riddled with racial and ethnic discrimination, limited by poverty or at least relative poverty, insular, arbitrary, and not nearly as hard-core as the meme suggests.  If we thought it was so great, it was probably because we were too ignorant to know better.

Kids today will never know how it feels to be a real kid. I loved my childhood...!!!

So today's kids are not "real kids."  Interesting.

Kids these days will never understand how we grew up!!!

Perhaps not.  But the chances of them understanding might improve if you they were given a more factually accurate explanation in a respectful way--rather than a bullshit story delivered in a manner certain to insult their intelligence.

⚜ Good Times ⚜
Copy & paste if this was close to your childhood.

Yeah, gonna have to pass on that.

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