A Stranger on a Bike
Thoughts on Ann Arbor
by Faith Woodside
The Atlantic recently named Ann Arbor as one of the best places to live for recent college graduates. I have to admit that when I saw the article I felt the tiniest twinge of triumph. I might not have a job I love, a plan for the future, or any money, but I picked the best place to live. That's gotta be worth something, right?
I've been in Ann Arbor for four months. My boyfriend and I spent the summer in a third-floor studio apartment with no air conditioning. There was a garbage Dumpster next door, and even with the windows closed, a thick oily stench seeped in and clung to the walls. The toilet was temperamental, and the smell of urine resisted my assaults with Lysol spray and air fresheners. The first time I took a shower I found a spider sac the size of a silver dollar in the tub.
Yet this shabby, pungent apartment felt like the most beautiful and appropriate place to be. A hot and cramped first home is a rite of passage for the liberal arts grad, isn't it? I loved our one room (with a kitchenette and bathroom--don't forget!) and clung to it as proof that I had completed college. It was my claim to the "real world" and my ticket into the Ann Arbor community--which, Atlantic ratings aside, I really do think is the best place to be.
My boyfriend, Michael, was born and raised here. He thinks that to be part of the Ann Arbor community, one has to complete a checklist of experiences: surviving the tumultuous highs and lows of football season, being on a first-name basis with a vendor at the Farmers Market, and having at least a basic knowledge of local politics. I sometimes call U-M's team the Wolves, I don't know the words to "Hail to the Victors," and I still get lost trying to find Kerrytown. But I did feel a surprising sense of pride
at witnessing the completion of the Library Lane parking structure.
I asked other people what they think it means to be an Ann Arborite. One colleague, a longtime resident, suggested that "townies"--people who grew up here--are the thriving core of Ann Arbor. A friend said that a true member of the community has an open mind, an open heart, and some relationship with the University of Michigan; she feels that the university makes Ann Arbor the hub of creativity that it is. Still another person told me with a groan that being a true Ann Arborite means "you have been to enough art fairs that you just want to get out of town for those four days!"
The results of my survey were inconclusive. To be a part of the Ann Arbor community, I was told, is to love the art fair, hate the art fair, love the university, hate football Saturdays, go to the townie party, avoid the townie party, express a fierce liberal ideology but welcome all political and social thought, rave about Zingerman's but never go there (way too many tourists!), hold a firm preference for one high school over the others, buy local, and love dogs, to name a few.
To this eclectic and contradictory blend I would like to add my own, admittedly limited, thoughts.
The other day I was feeling down after work. I missed my family. I felt out of shape. I felt overwhelmed: Why can't I keep one studio apartment clean? Why can't I remember to make a stupid dentist appointment? I decided to go on a short run. A blend of melodramatic and self-pitying thoughts trickled through my mind as I jogged sluggishly down the street. I paused for a red light, and a young man on a bicycle stopped next to me on the curb. He was tall and burly, with a long beard; his arms were covered in tattoos and his earlobes stretched with gauges. His bicycle was a bit too small and looked as if it might snap under his weight, which added a light comic aspect to his otherwise intimidating appearance. He glanced at me and smiled.
"Man, I hate running. How many miles have you gone?" he asked.
Startled, I glanced at my shoes and mumbled that I was not a good runner and had done only a couple of miles at best.
"Nah, dude, that's awesome. Good for you. Running is hard." The light changed and he biked away.
I wanted to sprint after him and hug him. That small, perfect moment--encouragement from a curious stranger on a bike--began to define Ann Arbor for me.
When you graduate from college, you are showered with "congratulations" and "good lucks." Schools sometimes offer financial planning tips, career advice, and seminars on interviewing. But in the midst of the bubbling excitement, no one ever tells you how extraordinarily lonely life after college can be. The uncertainty of the future combines with leaving friends and family to create a unique kind of loneliness. It is not the homesick loneliness I sometimes felt at college, or the heartsick loneliness I felt when my high school boyfriend and I broke up. It is a loneliness that grows slowly from accumulating unknowns.
It was comfortable and easy to locate myself as a college student studying English. There are more variables now when even the constants are changing. My relationship with my parents is shifting from student-parent to adult-adult. I have a new bank. I had a new address and then, when our summer rental ended, another, in a big apartment complex on the edge of town.
These changes are not bad, and I do not want to give the impression that life after college is miserable. Far from it. I just want to acknowledge that, if I pause for a moment, I feel a subtle current of loneliness even among the new crowd of wonderful Ann Arborites around me.
And here is where Ann Arbor shines. Regardless of how he or she defines an Ann Arborite, the individuals I have met seem to understand immediately the loneliness of a recent grad. Like that stranger on the bike, countless others have offered me a nudge of encouragement or nod of gentle solidarity: the art fair vendor who reminded me to tie my shoes; my boyfriend's mom, who bought me mint ice cream; his dad, who waited with me at the bus station; the woman who told me about the hidden path through the Arboretum prairie.
The bright music scene and the nightlife are great distractions from the post-college blues, but I think it is that collective support that makes this city so attractive to wide-eyed twenty-somethings. Ann Arborites offer a friendly and knowing smile for the days when the studio apartment loses its romantic charm, when it just smells like garbage and sewage.
As the stranger on the bike said, running is hard, but a couple of miles can be all you need.
[Originally published in October, 2012.]