From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Sunny M. Somerville

The problem with realizing that you spent your college degree on a hobby is that you have to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.  Vocational success not important?  Okay, then, what to do?  Life doesn’t exactly stop at 22.

After graduating from college, I took a year off.  Off – I didn’t work, I didn’t do much of anything.  I did watch a lot of movies.  I also worked on my next novels, being productive in that least productive kind of way.  But mostly I did nothing.  This downtime was mostly because I suddenly realized that, although I was no longer a mess as a person, I still had no direction.  I had no schedule anymore, no homework aside from what was self-appointed.  So, what to do?  Where to go?  What did I want – oh, yes, that old question still floats around, doesn’t it?  I was happy, but the longer I sat and looked around me, the more I realized that I was basically where I’d always been.

I get restless easily.  I hate ruts and the thought of settling.  As a kid, I’d always told myself that I would explore life and soak up as much as I could before getting married, having kids, and settling down in a “normal” life.  I think I always planned to have those things eventually – family, community, etc.  – but I have this thing deep inside me that always needs to be different somehow (think Claudia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler).  I always knew I would want to go to college, live on my own, and experience Otherness first before I could be even mildly content with settling down.  I wanted some life on my own terms for a while.  Then, I would always have those memories and experiences that were different from those around me.  I could live perfectly normally after that, and be content. 

The problem was, Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids weren’t that different from everything else I’d ever known.  I hadn’t really experienced the Otherness that I felt I needed.  Here I was, already settling in one year after college, and I didn’t feel like I’d ever moved.

So, after a year of doing nothing, I made a break for it.  July 2005, I plopped myself down three hours away from every home I’d ever known and moved to the Detroit area.  Honestly, that is why I moved – it was an experiment of getting away from my comfort zone/bubble.  I needed change.  I needed drastic.  I needed surroundings that were fresh and new and completely disconnected from everything back home.  I needed something that was different which was just mine, my own experience.  I’d always said I absolutely did not want to live in Detroit, so naturally this seemed like the most drastic move I could make.  I wanted a place different in setting, feel, tone, and perspective so that I could explore and also maybe figure out what I wanted for the rest of my life.

On a Tuesday I had no life plans; by Friday I was living in the suburbs of the D.

I liked it immediately.  There was an artistic, creative energy about the place – Birmingham, Troy, Royal Oak mostly – that I loved.  I’ve never been heavily addicted to urban-ness, but the variety of places to go was great.  I liked how one city blended into another like a puzzle, and yet each city was distinct.  Birmingham is money, Troy feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up and so is focused around the mall, and Royal Oak is a little niche strip for hipsters and artsy types.  Detroit itself, let’s face it, was kinda clinging to life, but it’s still so big that even with half the city functioning it would be a force to be reckoned with.  There were concerts and art exhibits and restaurant openings and book readings and baseball games, etc. etc. etc.  And young people really seemed to be far more numerous over there, or maybe I just noticed them more because of the job I took as a model scout – youth were our marks, so of course I picked them out of every crowd.  The sheer volume of younger people somehow seemed to control what happened in a city, if that makes sense.  Events and places catered to young people to keep us entertained, to draw us in.  Our VIP status as model scouts (ha, what a joke…but anyway) didn’t hurt either.  I saw all the good sides of the clubs, bars, etc.  We never had to wait in line.  I never, in the 6 months I lived over there, paid for my own drink (this was for a variety of reasons, but it did make learning to drink easier).  And because my coworkers were a tremendous bunch of fun natives, they showed me the places to go, the people to meet, and the food to eat.  

Here’s another big difference I noticed about the east side of Michigan – people go out to mingle with people other than the people in their party.  There was a more inclusive, communal approach to being social.  It didn’t hurt that, as model scouts, we had to talk to like 50 people a night.  But, even when we weren’t scouting, I noticed this different approach to socializing.  I don’t know if I’d say people in Grand Rapids are less friendly, per se, but the most you get out of most people here is a reciprocal smile of acknowledgement.

Anyway, because the Detroit area is considerably less church-infested than Grand Rapids, I encountered people who had very, very different worldviews from the average person in my Cornerstone/Grand Rapids bubble. It was wonderfully refreshing.  I made friends with openly flamboyant homosexuals, one of whom was the best Christian I met over there.  My closest friend was a self-proclaimed “pot-smoking, experimental nymphomaniac.” I made friends with Buddhists, Catholics, and Kid Rock fans.  Overall, I liked the variety of people I met, and they forced me to question things I’d always believed but never been forced to questions.  I’ve always hated white noise and people who can’t think outside their box, so this gave me an opportunity to prove to myself that I was stronger than that.  While interacting with these people, I found I was able to hold to what I believed but maybe growing it a bit.  I found that all this interaction solidified in my mind that not everything that is Other is bad, and not everything that doesn’t agree with what I believe is to be hated or feared.  At the end of the day, you can fundamentally disagree with someone but still love each other.  Maybe that is what Detroit did for me more than anything – it widened my experience of humanity just a little bit.

Memories –

  • At the model scouting office, Diego was responsible for one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard: “Thank God you guys are back.  The most exciting thing that happened all day was when I walked by the mirror.”
  • When trying to get into my car from the curb, Sophie was responsible for one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:  She fell and slid down the side of my car, making a smearing sound against the glass like you hear in a cartoon.
  • Sophie, as we walked past the nicest car I’ve ever seen: “Oh, f*** men.  Can that have my children?”
  • We ran into Chauncey Billups at a Mongolian Barbecue.
  • We accidentally scouted Jack Johnson’s barefoot drummer in a mall.
  • We accidentally scouted Mario and his friends/bouncers in a mall, and he was so amused that he invited us to his birthday party.
  • I literally ran into John Heffron, the second season winner of Last Comic Standing, in Somerset Mall.
  •  “Cheap Gay Layaway” at Old Navy.  Dominic found a man-purse he loved but could not afford, hid it behind a rack of clothes, and then 3 months later we found it in the same location.  When telling the checkout girl, she said, “That does not speak well of us, does it?”
  • Craig telling the story of when he’d drawn the perfect picture of Sonic the Hedgehog only to have the nuns at his school take it and throw it away.  This had been when he was in second grade; he was still bitter.  I loved him instantly.
  • Troy acting like “Sexy Little Drummer Boy” while walking by the door as we were trying to have a serious meeting.
  • Carmen calming saying like a GPS, “Head-on collision,” as Sophie for no reason drove straight at a van like a game of chicken in a wide, wide parking lot.
  • Various outings with Felix in his car because I liked the sound of his car’s blinker.
  • Once I quit scouting, I worked at People’s Pottery, a high-end craft store (if that makes sense) in Birmingham.  Sarah and I spent many hours playing “Hide the Duck” in the store when it got slow.  This is played by…hiding the duck, a figurine we didn’t like, somewhere in the store and then making the other person find it in a hot-cold method.
  • That girl who came in with her rich husband (it should be a given that there was an age gap of like 20 years) and pointed at things she liked until she’d racked up a bill of $850.  I contributed to $500 of this by convincing her that all the ugly stuff in the store that we were sick of looking at was totally awesome.
  • That semi-hot, constantly-drunk guy who came in repeatedly and one day wondered what the wine bottle stoppers were.  When I told him what they were, he looked at me in almost hurt disbelieve and said, “Why wouldn’t you just drink the whole bottle?”
  • The older Romanian lady telling me that I could get a job at Hooters.
  • The “homeless” guy I encountered in the store’s back alley who held out a bill and asked if I had change for $100.

 Gosh, it was fun.  I know most people (certainly those in my circle of friends) look back on college as the most exciting time of their lives, but for me it was this 6-month experimental period in the suburbs of Detroit.

But, as I mentioned in my “Spiritual Geography” blog post, I didn’t like Detroit enough.  I was so busy most of the time that I didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and think, and this was probably a good break from my usual mode of over-analysis.  But, once I slowed down and started reflecting on my life again, I knew that this experiment was over.  I’d gotten my time away, and now  I wanted to go back to be nearer to friends (whom I surprisingly really did miss), nearer to family, and nearer to whatever idea of “home” I had.  It was just time to get back to normal.  I’d had my “different” like Claudia from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

So, I moved back to Grand Rapids to start the next chapter.  I will always look back fondly on my time in the Detroit area because it gave me memories and experiences that are just mine. This will give me that sense of different that I need, and now I can be perfectly content living a normal life in white bread, conservative Western Michigan, if that is what happens.  (Also, I have the added fun now of knowing that nobody knows what I’m talking about whenever I say that I can never look at people the same again – I often slip into model-scouting mode when bored in a crowd, taking people-watching to a whole new level.  And, I like confusing guys when they talk about strip clubs and I say, “Yeah. I miss my old job.”)

About Sunshine Somerville

I'm the author of "The Kota Series" and "A Fairly Fairy Tale. Originally from the beach side of Michigan, I work as a medical transcriptionist from home. When not staring into a computer screen, I enjoy reading, painting, and being outdoors.
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