Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Paradox

I have been in a weird place lately, again, regarding Detroit. I have been here on and off for eight years, with time out for that sabbatical on the west coast. As a kid growing up in Toledo I had always found Michigan to be a convenient place to ridicule, especially its college football programs and driving habits. Then I picked Michigan State over Ohio State so I could go to James Madison, and I found myself behind the lines. It was compounded when GM gave me the only paid version of the "field experience" (ie internship) that I needed to graduate, and so it was that I was spending every day in downtown Detroit, a place I had been to only a few times in my entire life.

I was having the best time I had ever had though, and I even met Intern Paul on the job, who'll be a lifelong friend. I went out most nights after work downtown, and was in the last group of people to work in the GM Building before GM turned it over to the state. After the internship I got a job with PwC in the RenCen, thanks to Intern Paul, who had another internship there. In all, I spent about four years working in downtown Detroit, hanging out, and griping about how PwC's Bloomfield Hills employees got free parking and didn't have to pay city income tax. We had a better time though.

That first internship in particular taught me a lot - how to exist on very low wages, the difference between fun and stupid, and that career white-collar employees are petty enough to totally key up an intern's Toyota pickup truck in the executive parking garage. One thing I remain very proud of is that (in my memory at least, maybe they'll correct me) I never borrowed money from my parents while I was an intern or early in my career. I just dealt with it, even when paying rent meant dinner was instant ramen or peanut butter on a frozen waffle. It's not like that story is anything special. I grew up.

The upshot of all of this is that after I while I wanted to try something else, and we did, and the scenery was tremendous and the job was lousy, so we came back for a better job and proximity to our families. Something still nags at me though, not a feeling that things are better someplace else, but a feeling that the opportunities here are rapidly diminishing. The job opportunities are obviously the worst in the country right now, but we also have real problems with the important intangibles, like being able to walk places, or having neighbors who talk to each other, or just having interesting places to go.

The irony is that I would not be able to have my current job anywhere else, because I joined my company as a start-up. It helps that I think I have found my niche, surprised as I am to discover that it is retail, but I was never really cut out to be a tax consultant. Maybe it is just my first suitable career role, and I'll have a new one at 40. If I had stayed at PwC, I would still be billing hours and trying to grind to the next promotion. I'm fortunate to have it on my resume.

So what is this about? I am trying to find things about Detroit to appreciate, and one of them is that the Midwest still has an honestly about it, and without channeling Garrison Keillor there is a lack of pretense among the real people. There are certainly advocates of loftification in places that never had industrial buildings, and people who want to be seen out in their dad's AMG Mercedes in downtown Birmingham, and there is way too much McMansion sprawl. There are people who spend lots of time in clubs and think they live in New York. An upside to living here though is that you can still go out on a Friday night with your family and and get a huge plate of pierogies and saurkraut, homemade and terrific. If you ever want to go get these with us, let me know. I am convinced that the cabbage creates the "Polish paradox," just as red wine is the "French paradox" - it is the healthy part that keeps your arteries minimally functional while you gorge on fat and dairy products. With the exception of the (terrific) Old Krakow in West Portal, it's tough to find this in California. You can't have everything, and maybe that is the next bit of growing up to do.

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ilya said...

i refuse to accept "you can't have everything. that's the next step of growing up"

maybe i'm the one having issues w growing up (fine, ok)

but really, you CAN have everything, it just may not look like what you expected.

read about Montclair, NJ.

closest thing i can think of is mix of huntington woods/birmingham, excpet its 30 min from manhattan

Jonathan said...

OK, I'll go with this for a second, but I have to ask, do you have everything you want?