Day 38. IN/MI: anabaptists, wind chimes, assisted residence, duelling pianos

by Kevin May

The familiar sound of Fraser hullabaloo informed me that breakfast had begun. Out in the lounge area, several tables had been set up and there was a free-for-all in the kitchen.

I sat on the same table as LuAnn and Mrs Culver whose agenda for the day was shopping. They reckoned that I should go to either Ann Arbor or Port Huron. The former was a university town and the latter had a great place to stay on the waterfront called the Thomas Edison.

Mrs Culver, who tended to be known outside the classroom as Sue, also enthused about a bar called the Duelling Pianos where she had got so drunk once that she was now banned. Before they left, Sue thrust a scrap of paper into my hand. It had two cell-phone numbers on it, hers and her husband’s. “If you have any problems at all…” she smiled.

It was odd to be at the beginning of a day with little idea of where it would take me. Every other day had been carefully planned, but I had no blueprint to follow for today.

Anna suggested a good shop to buy Indianan souvenirs and also said that it would be beneficial to visit the Menno-Hof Museum. I took the hour-long guided tour with various shows about the Anabaptists, covering not only the Amish, but the Mennonites and the Hutterites too.

The building had 18 different rooms to troll through, and had been built in six days flat (although it took another year and a half to equip it with wiring, pipes, rendering and finished décor). The Anabaptist movement had started in the 16th Century by people who objected to infant baptism and who sought a more biblically oriented way of life.

Underlying a lot of it was the conviction that community could only exist if it were in some way separated off from others, and stood for something distinct. The reason for Amish dress was to avoid becoming muddled and possessed by the world of fashion.

There was a threefold justification for the buggies. Firstly, the waste created by this mode of transport was recyclable and so environmentally friendly. Secondly, the average family went through three buggies in a lifetime (versus an average of ten cars for an American family), and usually only changed in response to a need for a larger vehicle. Thirdly, their ethos was concentrated around the family, and buggies meant that nobody ever got to stray too far from the homestead. Presumably they could also have claimed the fourth benefit of much less roadkill, but they chose not to.

The Anabaptists had been subjected to great persecution back in Europe and when they arrived in America. One of the eighteen rooms was a replica of a torture chamber and made the point that the more they were reviled the more entrenched they became.

There seemed to be a pertinent lesson for today in all this history. Nowadays the community was prospering and their numbers swelling, partly down to the average family having ten children.

It was all interesting stuff. I would have stayed longer, but I was conscious of time rushing on. It was now 11.30, and I would have to pay later today for Indiana’s having the same approach to daylight saving as Arizona when I lost an hour going into Michigan.

I made my way round to Fork’s Store as Anna had directed to pick up a souvenir. The store had a large parking lot, with long thin bays rather than short fat ones. It had been designed for buggies over cars and there were about thirty of them tied up along one side.

It wasn’t the kind of store that I was after, being more of a grocery supermarket than anything else. I wandered the aisles of fresh produce, conscious that my bright yellow Benson & Hedges Jordan Formula 1 fleece was far from “plain” attire.

Anna had also told me that the main characteristic of Amish cuisine was that they prepare everything from scratch and don’t use any pre-packaged food. I’d learnt at the museum that nowadays some made a concession to breakfast cereals, which were the only recognizable food brands that I could find on the shelves. There certainly weren’t any souvenirs. Not even a picture of Kelly McGillis’s bosoms.

I returned to the Visitors’ Center and they suggested that I tried Yoder’s, which turned out to be an Amish department store. The people in there were very helpful and one Amish woman scurried off to find “just the right thing”.

She returned struggling under the weight of some wind chimes that were nearly as tall as she was. Regardless of the fact that you’d need to live in a house along the lines of Admiralty Arch for a set that size, there was also the issue of getting it on the plane home given that I didn’t have any five foot long baggage. I wasn’t exactly wild about the $600 price tag either.

In the end they found me a much smaller set and I was off. I had been surprised to hear from Kentucky David that he had used some Amish folk to do building work and that they had got very well paid for it. My impression had always been that they shunned everything to do with the modern world, but this clearly didn’t include cash. They were voraciously commercial, and had little compunction capitalizing on their myth when it came to selling tat to tourists. Various Amish goods/crafts/ food shops along the way were shameless in their exploitive positioning.

I had chosen this area rather than the more renowned Lancaster County PA, which was described in the books as an over-commercialized Amish Disneyland. I shuddered to think what could possibly constitute greater commercialization than this place. What on earth did they have? Amish bordellos and gambling parlors?

Once in Michigan, I continued to Ann Arbor without stopping. It looked lovely, just as I had imagined an American university town. The main street was tree-lined and arrayed with book shops and cafés, and fresh faced students were bustling about with folders under their arms or sat outside at tables having earnest conversations.

It was too late for lunch, so I continued on to gruesome Motown. I found myself in stationary traffic when I hit Detroit. Rather handily the northbound carriage of the Interstate had been closed for a 25-mile stretch and all cars diverted onto the much smaller MI 3.

Here I was in the state with the longest coastline of the 48, where you could never be more than six miles from a lake or trout stream (if you laid all the state’s rivers and inland lakes end to end, it would stretch for 36,000 miles), and I was stuck on pot-holed tarmac in the middle of crappy old Detroit.

Port Huron lay at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron and stared over a narrow stretch of water at Canada. It was approaching seven by the time I arrived in town and been able to locate the Thomas Edison Inn.

All that the Fraser women had been able to tell me was that it was just past the bridge over to Canada. The car park was jammed full and teeming with golf club members and their families, all dressed up to the nines. They may not actually have been golf club members, but they were certainly of that ilk.

It was strange after the last few weeks in the wilderness to see such seemingly formal dress. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had seen a woman wearing a dress and court shoes. Some function, or several, was obviously going on.

It didn’t surprise me when I went to enquire to find out that they had no rooms. It didn’t particularly bother me either, as the place wasn’t what I had imagined. I was hoping for a snug little inn bravely sheltering in the face of the great lake and offering warm refuge to travelers. This place was like a Holiday Inn: large, faceless, bureaucratic.

Driving along the main drag, I came upon some shops and then more shops and then more shops. The neon of about twenty gas stations and endless pharmacies and fast food places lit up the dusk. I wasn’t sure whether the sign outside the Rite Aid pharmacy – “With us it’s personal” – was a reference to September 11th or to their relationship with their customers. One dry cleaners had a special offer on: American flags cleaned for free.

Back near the center, I saw a place called the Historic Harrington Hotel. A sign outside commemorated it as one of the oldest in Port Huron, dating back to the 19th Century. It looked like a characterful building and promised an atmospheric reception.

A couple of old dears were relaxing in armchairs in the lobby. Behind the desk was a grey haired woman, who seemed to be a little deaf. She was preoccupied with searching through all the drawers in the desk for something.

I tried coughing, tapping my credit card on the counter and even a couple of “Excuse me”s, all to no avail. When she had finished her search she picked up the phone and in the middle of the ensuing conversation finally noticed me. She looked slightly scared, and when she put the phone down she just stared at me.

I asked her if they had a room for the night. She looked at me for another moment and then came round from behind the desk and walked down the corridor. She beckoned me to follow. The thing that I had assumed was a turquoise pinny, was tied down her back like a hospital gown.

At the end of the corridor, we turned left into a large hall with a trestle table at the door. Inside, chairs had been arranged all around the edge of the room and most were occupied by pensioners. It was some old-timers’ shindig, and everyone looked like they were enjoying themselves.

My guide pointed to another woman who was behind the table collecting entrance fees, tugged at her sleeve, pointed to me and scurried off. The fee collector was more formally dressed and in her fifties. She looked like she might be the owner.

“You want to come to the dance?” she asked quizzically. I laughed. No I was after a room for the night.

She laughed louder. This wasn’t a hotel any more. It was an assisted living residence for the elderly and infirm.

I had found the Duelling Pianos place that Sue had enthused about, and there was a Super 7 Motel a couple of blocks away. Resigning myself to yet one more Saturday night of high-living, I checked in. It was a room, it was cheap, and it was near the centre of town. Apart from that, it didn’t have much going for it.

I never liked leaving my car in a car park that had three shady characters hanging around for seemingly no good purpose. As a precaution, I gave them my mean-motherfucker look as I coolly grabbed my bag from the trunk. They probably thought I was squinting.

When I got to Duelling Pianos there were still plenty of stools free over by the bar in a raised area, but the tables down in the pit by the stage were packed with diners. On the stage there were two grand pianos facing each other. I ordered a beer and waited to see what was going to happen.

A couple of likely looking lads were larking about on the stage, seemingly as part of a boys’ night out. One was podgy and clumsy looking and reminded me a bit of John Belushi. The other appeared to be about fourteen. He was scrawny, wore specs and generally came across as a bit of a dweeb. A third guy with a menacing appearance, long blond hair and a fresh bruising around his eye and cheekbone seemed to be keeping watch, ready to throw them out at any minute.

From my first impression of these blokes, I would never have guessed that they were to be the evening’s entertainment. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that they were as talented musicians as they turned out to be.

The fat one was called Doug, the pre-pubescent Jeff, and the bruiser Danny. They took it in turns to face off against each other, with only two of them on the stage at a time. The audience wrote the names of songs on napkins and passed them over, and then the two musicians tried to outdo one another in playing the tune while still staying melodic and in harmony with one another.

It was like the duelling banjos scene in Deliverance, only a touch less sinister: a constant cabaret, a kind of cross between Jools Holland and Norman Wisdom. Despite the horsing around, the music was good.

At one point, Danny got his guitar and sax out and changed the mood. When he sang God bless the USA, not only was the whole restaurant joining in and booming out “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free”, but everyone to a man was on their feet. Some were waving lighters in time to the song.

Without thinking about it, I’d got through a fair amount of beer. During one of his breaks, I saw Doug near me at the bar and I went up to congratulate him. He was probably the best musician of the three and clearly the most charismatic.

My enthusiasm was a bit overstated, but he handled it well. When he heard that I was from England, he politely said that he’d always wanted to play London. He came from Boston, but his family were originally from Walsall in Staffordshire.

I told him that I thought he’d be a storming success. I gave him my details and told him to contact me if he ever felt like coming over. I’m pretty sure that I also told him that he could stay at my house and that I’d be able to fix him up with some gigs. He thanked me and said that that sounded great and he’d be in touch.

As he resumed his spot on stage, it began to sink in what I had just done. I was sure that he would be successful if he ever came to London, but I was going to be in a real pickle if he got in touch.

I wasn’t sure whether inviting a complete stranger to come and stay open-endedly was a very wise thing to do. I was absolutely sure that offering to set up gigs for him was just plain idiotic, seeing as I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to go about doing such a thing. If I had been that much of a twat, then it definitely was time to go home.

The fresh air outside hit me like a tank. Although it had been a short walk there, it proved to be a lengthy stagger back. It had been a great evening out, which was unusual given that it was a Saturday, but I was relieved to be back in my room. What’s more the car looked intact out of the window.

All that I needed to hope for now was for Doug to lose that scrap of paper with my details on it, in amongst the napkin requests for Your Song, Wully Bully and the Hawaii Five-O theme.