Essays > Arsonists Ignite Fantasies of Escape from Flint

And when we take off in rain from Detroit, though I’ve done this so many times before – maybe forty or fifty times in the last ten years – I’m hit with a piercing, pulsating fear, and as we go down the runway and the big machine lifts off, I find myself chanting “I love my life, I love my life, I love my life.” as if maybe it matters what I’m thinking and what I’m saying to myself in case this is it and I go down for good.

My first car was a ’65 Corvair, red body with a black convertible top…a very, very cool car under any circumstances, though when I got it it was all beat up, the roof falling apart and the paint worn to gray plotches by the corrosive sea air of Southern California, where I was plying my trade as a kid reporter for a coastal daily. But I didn’t care. The car was MINE, and I remember how it felt having it to myself, having wheels, having a way to go wherever I wanted to go.

I remember the first time I drove by myself anywhere. Actually, I don’t remember the exact car – since it was my dad’s, it was probably an Impala, being in the years before he regretfully and in a fit of righteous guilt abandoned Chevies for Toyotas. Anyway, I asked if I could take it out myself, and though I existed back then in a cocoon of usually stifling parental sheltering, somebody said yes. It was in Wooster, Ohio, and we lived in a parsonage at the outskirts of town. Country roads weren’t far off and I headed that way, maybe a little scared of city driving. But it was also what I liked: profusion of green at the roadsides, red-winged blackbirds on the fence posts, dramatic Ohio overcast, the smell of humus and summer. And me in a car that could take me everywhere – anywhere. The taste of escape and possibility on my tongue metallic, silvery,
I didn’t go far – I might have been gone 20 minutes. I was half afraid to keep going, pulled between going and going and going, and fear of going too far. Eventually I turned around, combining carefulness with addictive adrenaline, and threaded my way back to our gravel driveway, the bright modern church in the background. It was a taste, just a taste, and I couldn’t wait.

So I woke up in my bed with the postage-stamp quilt and felt good, really good. I looked at my windows, the spring light bounding in from Maxine Street, and realized I really love this life, all the sights and sounds and flavor of it, and I was going to sign onto something – the arguments for the finch and the maple and the cat in the lap, the strong coffee in a blue cup and a husband’s smile at the kitchen table.

I’ve been contemplating escape.

I stopped by the charred holes, like rotted molars, on Court Street and Stockton and the two on Oak…I took pictures of them and stood there trying to make sense of the broken bricks and caved in studs. I know there are 107 of them by now, and I’ve only seen about six or eight of them; part of me wants to photograph every one, visit every one, take notice, carry out a ritual of forgiveness. Just to acknowledge what we’ve done, pour sweet oil, what my father’s religion called “Extreme Unction” into the soot.

The one on Wellington got me – I’d just dropped off my recycling at the horrid CBC Recycling, hardly a spot one goes despite the cliché of bagging up one’s cans and the smaller and smaller piles of papers, for hope. The trees around the place were what got me – blackened and probably killed by the conflagration – and the house next door, it’s walls on the fire side obviously singed and partly melted.

I drove by it on a gorgeous spring day, and people were kind of standing around on the street – midday, weekday – and I worried for them…did they have jobs? how stressful it must be to wonder if there will be another one, or if they might lose everything,…it just felt anxious.
A guy on the plane was heading for Graz, Austria and we talked and talked – about his kid who flunked out of UM – Flint and despairing about “kids today” and how the Iceland volcano was messing up everything in Europe. I mentioned Flint’s fires, and even though he lived in Grand Blanc, he’d never heard a word about it. How can that be?
We are heading down – I feel the pressure in my ears, and thus it now seems likely that I’ll make it back onto solid ground again.