i was (re) born in Flint….
I wandered so aimless life,
then praise the lord, i saw the light.
now i’m so happy…
only, being (re) born in flint, it didn’t make me happy. it didn’t fix things for me. in many ways, it made things worse. i’ve spent most of my life since flint trying to recover from that birth.
birth is wonder and joy and tears and love–but birth is also ripping, bleeding, tearing. agony.
where do i say i’m from? when the place that birthed me almost killed me?
it’s my day one day off in three months and i’m sitting on an icy cold bench in the middle of a small wooded area in the back of a library. anytime i’m not working, i’m usually sleeping. but today, i need to be outside. i need to hear trees instead of frying meat, i need to smell dirt instead of grease. i need to remember that i’m only 18.
my journal sits unopened in my lap. in a different world at a different time i had wanted to be a writer. i breathe icy air deep into my lungs. try to undo the twisty knot in my stomach.
the cold of the bench against my legs makes them ache. but i don’t get up. i have no place to be, nobody to be there for. the only people who would notice my absence if i died in these woods would be the people at work.
and they’d be looking for me to tell me i was fired.
i’ve been watching old bob probert and joey kocur hockey fights from the 80s. i spent my youth wanting to be joey kocur. boy, he could beat the shit out of a person. there was nothing I loved watching more than joey kocur slam his gloves off and grab a hold of someone’s shirt. fighters were beautiful in how they moved. they were beautiful in their masculinity. because those big guys had a fighting code, and ethic. they didn’t take on little guys. and they didn’t fight just because. they fought to protect. to take care of. to make sure nobody messed with the team captain or the high scorer. they gave other players the room to be brilliant.
watching those hockey fights in the 80s was how i learned working class love is shown less in words and more in how willing somebody was to put their body in the way of a train for you. how willing they were to fuck somebody up who tried to hurt you. ‘i got your back’ wasn’t just something you said.
but watching these fights now…mostly just make me sad. especially watching bob probert. kocur had (and still has) his problems with alcohol and drugs, sure–but probert. the intensity of his some of his fights went well beyond a loyal teammate defending his captain, and stepped into the coked up rage territory. where the calculated tactics of hockey fighting (grabbing the jersey, pulling the pads over the head, etc) were forgotten, and the other player became the stand in for every hurt probert ever had. his fighting leaked off the ice–there were bar fights and domestic violence arrests. there was therapy and sincere apologies to the press, but it never stopped. the rage so there could be no pain.
and eventually, probert fought kocur. they were good friends. good friends who usually avoided each other on the ice. because each of their jobs was to enforce. to fight. to be the one who loved so much, he’d use his body to protect. they were protecting each other by avoiding each other.
but the time came when they couldn’t avoid. kocur may have been smiling at the end of the fight, but probert–he meant for that fight to happen. he was angry. he wanted to hurt kocur. it was only because kocur was as good a fighter as probert that he handled probert, wouldn’t let himself become an object to be punished by probert.
that fight was the first time i saw the truth about loyalty and masculinity and working class love. sometimes masculinity was ugly. sometimes it was a burden so great the only reason friends survived it was because they were as big as you. sometimes loyalty was a job. and a job always trumped friendship. even for fighters. there’s a reason why hockey was so firmly embraced by working class detroit for so long. all of us workers could see and understand what Bob Probert and Joey Kocur were doing when they got in fights…and we all knew what it meant when they got arrested (again) for drunk driving. because we were leaving work and doing the same thing.
trying to cope.
my kid’s been studying the Great Sit Down Strike of Flint for school. through the course of studying, she came across a woman named genora dollinger. i am a women’s studies major and I had never heard of dollinger. i am from flint, and I never heard of the sit down strike until after i left. but since i found out about dollinger, i’ve been reading/viewing everything i can, sharing what i can find with my kid, but mostly just absorbing what this woman said and did.
she was perhaps most well known for forming the womens emergency brigade during the strike. but she was truly admired by me for standing up to her white supremacist father. for dragging her kids to protests. for talking openly about getting an abortion. for continuing to organize even after being beaten almost to death. for using the time she spent in the hospital recovering from bouts of tuberculous to read up on socialist theory. for organizing even when she had to put paper into her shoes to cover up the holes in them. who can afford new shoes when you have two babies to feed and a protest to organize?
she wasn’t the most eloquent writer. she was blunt and practical, cut right to the chase. i also tend to think that genora probably took up way too much space and knew her own story too well. she’s done a lot of interviews, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between each of the interviews because she says almost the same thing in each of them.
but is it her fault that she was asked the same questions repeatedly?
is it her fault that the only value anybody ever found in a sick old woman from flint michigan was in the way she could fill the bellies of lecherous academics?
genora spent a lot of time when she was older fighting for the place of women in the collective memory of the sit down strike and union organizing. at a celebration of one of the anniversaries of the sit down strike, she used her time to speak to berate a male historian who was on the stage sitting next to her for how he had written about the women of the strike. when she was done, he threatened to take genora down. she told him to fuck off.
most people would see that as fearless. feminists would write that moment as bold, as inspirational. standing up for women. i suspect some of it really was because she was an inspirational bad ass who wasn’t afraid of shit. but i suspect more of it was because she knew better than most how a body could be eaten and spit out–replaced the next day, like it never existed.
and how badly to be forgotten hurts when the only thing you’re allowed to have is memories.
i’m laying on the hospital bed, an oxygen mask on my face, steroids pumping into my arm, an oxygen counter hooked up to my finger. my cook’s apron hangs on the chair next to the bed, my work boots ground dark stains on the sterile white sheets. i’ve had another asthma attack at work.
later on in life, i’ll be in therapy, and we’ll wonder if those asthma attacks i kept having were really panic attacks. but back then, when i was 18 and working 60-70 hour weeks so i wouldn’t be on the streets, i scared enough people that they called the ambulance.
and now i am laying on the hospital bed. i can smell grease mixed with oppressive body odor. i try not to imagine what the doctors and nurses who were working on me thought of when they smelled me. i hadn’t noticed the smell when i was at work. everybody smells just like you.
the nurse checks in on me, then points to the phone. says i can call somebody to come sit with me. leaves the room. i lay on the bed, breathing the oxygen, watching the numbers measuring how much oxygen is in me shift up and down, up and down.
i don’t move.
there’s no one to call.
the men and women of the flint sit down strike weren’t sitting down for money, per se. men were working so hard and so long, they’d come home and collapse on the floor, unable to even bring the fork of food their wives had cooked to their lips. black men working the worst jobs had skin burned off their backs from the heat of steel vats. fingers were lost to the ravenous machines. wrap up the stump, get back to work. there’s plenty of men who would love your job.
genora noticed things woman’s perspective. men were not good husbands. they beat their wives. came home drunk, trying to cope. with the burning ravenous machines. and doing it badly. women didn’t have enough money after the drinking to feed the kids. working women had to deal with predatory bosses. in one department, an entire shift of women had to be treated for the STD a boss had given them.
when the men sat down, it wasn’t for the money. it was for their lives. so they could be good husbands. so they wouldn’t hurt so badly they needed a drink just to make it to bed. so they could focus on their growing up kids.
when the women supported their husbands, their brothers, their fathers, their fellow workers, it wasn’t for the money. it was for their lives. so they could see their husbands smile. so they could work without fear. so they could finally see the future their children would live.
so they wouldn’t be spit out. forgotten.
the sit downers got a lot of things wrong. genora herself would tell you in a heartbeat what they got wrong, if you ever asked her a question that assumed she was critically aware. you never saw intense like when you asked genora about the bureaucracy that mandatory union fees created.
but something the sit downers got right was that they knew a union was about better pay so that workers could be more human. they knew the sit down was about better working conditions so that workers had time to remember they were human. they knew they couldn’t stop because if they did, they were agreeing to feed themselves to the voracious machines.
they looked at that desperate feeling of being forgotten straight in the face. just some drunk. just some white trash. commie trouble makers, wife beaters, lezzies, whores, tramps.
replaceable bodies, scarred knuckles…
and they said solidarity. forever.
it’s amazing how radical their decision was, even today.
do we have that same clarity?
that same understanding?
that we’re fighting for each other?
i’ve seen the documentary on genora dollinger and the women’s emergency brigade at least five times already–two times in a theater packed with community members. suddenly people want to remember genora and the women of flint. suddenly people find her useful. at one post-viewing panel i attended, we were supposed to talk about how important women were, about how nothing could’ve been accomplished in that strike if it weren’t for the women. and the three union men on the panel called me “little lady” and “girl” whenever i asked a question or made comments.
i didn’t have enough guts to ask them what they thought genora would think of them calling her that.
i was born in one city. and then i moved to another, and faced down what genora dollinger and all the sit downers did decades before me. nobody to call. nobody who cared. used parts.
i was being used. and forgotten. forgotten even as I stank up their sterile rooms, greased up their white cotton.
it was in that city that every bit of me finally died. completely collapsed under the pain of having no one to call. but it was also in that city that other people who knew the shame of smelling without knowing it invited me out for drinks. who shared their joint with me out by the dumpsters on smoke break. who didn’t ask why i never talked about my family. who had my back when the guy at the bar started a fight with me. who put their body in front of a running train. for me.
and so in flint, i was born.
i spent most of my life believing there was something good, something valuable, about me because i was a hard worker. because like a good mexican, i did the work nobody else wanted to. i picked the blueberries. i scrubbed the floors. i washed the dishes. i worked instead of studying. i worked for free. i worked so hard and so well, people couldn’t see what that work was doing to me. they didn’t see the shoulder pain that i still, 30 years later, am going to therapy for. they didn’t see the slices in my arms, memories from the ritual i performed at night, trying to feel something. anything. they didn’t care how small my dreams were. they didn’t ask if i was ok. they just kept repeating; oh, thank you SO much for doing this so i don’t have to!
and their gratefulness was enough for me.
gratefulness is a type of love. right?
flint didn’t just help me to see what all that work was doing to my body. it slapped me in the face with the truth. unless you fight, unless you love, unless you look at the person next to you, and see yourself in them–you will be forgotten. replaced. and forgotten. because there’s always somebody who will work if you won’t. used parts.
but even as flint slapped me, it tried to soften the blow. other broken people surrounded me. and showed me how to love in the war years.
i am walking in the woods. i have to keep a good pace, there is only an hour before i need to pick the kids up from school. but the wind is blowing so hard, i’m almost knocked over with each step i take. i should go back to the car and just listen to music or write–but i keep walking. the ground is slippery under my feet. it rained recently, and the leaves are slick with decay.
i had to leave flint. once i had kids, i could hardly tolerate the taste or smell of flint, much less the slap in the face. the thought of my babies getting that slap filled me with rage. other people, people with more money or whiter parents or better luck, their children weren’t being slapped. their children were so precious, so valuable, people quit jobs for them. to stay home and take care of them. nurture them with big dreams and lots of love. other people’s loyalty to their children was not a job. and their children have never been the used parts the machines spit out.
and so i decided that my children wouldn’t be used in their place. my children would be precious, and valuable to the world too, even if i had to kill the world to make it happen. so i packed them up and left. the city that birthed me.
things were not any easier in University Town. people could tell immediately that i didn’t belong. one child on my hip, the other child squirming in my belly as i answered the professor’s question. but i stayed. fought down their stares. because i knew what was meant for me, for my children, if i didn’t.
i still, even now, am far too aware of how close being forgotten circles around us all. around me. those are the especially hard days. sometimes, i can’t get out of bed. other times, i come out swinging, destroying anything and everything i can. the only reason loved ones survive is because they are as big as i am. and know how to fight back.
but the good days are starting to outnumber the bad ones. and on the good days, i think more and more about flint. about the sweat watered ground. the roaring freeways. connecting us all.
to each other.
to the day we said fuck it
we can change the whole thing…
for each other.
i have reached the area I was looking for. a large field of wild flowers and over grown grass. two long tracks are dug into the earth from years of trucks driving through the field. the wind is still blowing hard, but it’s not cold. i have a few minutes before i need to head back to the car.
after i pick up the kids, i’ll stop by W*’s work and pick him up too. maybe we’ll go out to dinner. spend the evening catching up with each other. or maybe we’ll pop in one of the harry potter movies and and talk through it like we always do. because we’ve seen the movies just that many times. or maybe the kids didn’t get enough sleep last night and are angry little bears now, and W* and i will fight all the way home. where i’ll go to the computer and he’ll go to the t.v.
i don’t know. it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future. but when you know how to love in the war years…there’s a little less about the future to worry about.
i breath in deeply. the rays from the winter sun glitter on the field in front of me like water. i raise my arms up to the sky, lean into the whipping wind. it holds me up, pushing into me, rushes through me. i close my eyes and feel the warmth of the sun burn into my face.
i am from flint.
and i am alive.
i exhale slowly, lower my arms. then i turn and start the walk back to the car.