If you tell people you are from, or live near, Kalamazoo, Michigan, the response is usually, “I didn’t know that place existed for real.” That’s probably because “Kalamazoo” is a weird word, and I believe Bugs Bunny once took a wrong turn on his way to a carrot convention there. Glenn Miller made the town famous with the song “(I Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo)”.
If you’ve ever lived, worked, or even just visited Kalamazoo, you know the town slogan: “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!” Located exactly halfway between Detroit and Chicago, the city got its name from the Potawatomi people, whose name for the area was “boiling water”. I know this because it’s engraved on a lovely fountain on the downtown mall (the first pedestrian mall in the country). The fountain features a lovely bowl of gently burbling water at about chest height; I once got my friend Warnement to lean down to read the inscription, then used both hands to force the water out and over his head. He retaliated by later pushing me into the much larger fountain in Bronson Park.
Every year, the park is turned into a Christmas wonderland (and the fountains are drained of water, making it a much safer time of year to go there with pushing-inclined friends), with each tree draped in lights. When I was a child, my grandparents would bundle me up and take me out to see the decorations, including the now retired Frosty the Snowman and giant candy canes. My friend Jill Barry got engaged under those same candy canes (we posed for her wedding pictures in front of the Kalamazoo sign downtown). Once, she and I saw a man wearing what appeared to be a suit of Christmas lights riding a bicycle (also covered with Christmas lights) through downtown. He turned off the street and headed into the park, and, being the holiday season, we knew we had no chance of finding him.
I met Jill and Lisa and Anna, my twenty-plus years BFFs, when I started as a freshman at Hackett Catholic Central High School. Living in my rural town twenty miles outside of the city, Kalamazoo was the place for me, where I spent much time roaming around with my friends and visiting the local coffee shops, Fourth Coast and Boogie’s. Boogies had a wall you could write and draw on in their loft; Fourth Coast stank of cigarettes and you could always find a game of hearts. My first date was at the now-torn down movie theatre at the West Main mall; my first backseat adventure with a boy was in the driveway of the Soccer Complex.
My first apartment in Kalamazoo was in a basement on Rose street, where people would routinely knock on our ground-level kitchen window and inquire as to whether Ray-Ray was home. I don’t know who Ray-Ray was, but he was popular. The location was great for me, as it wasn’t a very long walk to the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, where I played Annelle in a production of Steel Magnolias, and a milkmaid in Oliver!. Over the years, my involvement in Kalamazoo theatre included stage roles and tech jobs at both the Civic and The Whole Art, the former a grand 1920s building with a resident ghost, the latter a black box with leaky basement dressing rooms cordoned off with sheets and laundry lines.
Kalamazoo was a great place to live as a young adult. Being irresponsible and flaky as I am, I had jobs all over the city. Mostly retail and food service, briefly at Borgess hospital (where my first novel, Blood Ties Book One: The Turning was inspired) and a nursing home. My move from Rose street to Nichols and West Main necessitated a lot of bike riding to get to the two jobs I needed to keep my $500 a month second apartment at The Landings. I’ll never forget the morning I finally managed to ride my bike all the way up the unbelievably steep Westnedge hill without stopping; a guy slowed his car, opened his window, and shouted encouragement at me all the way.
Now that I am a boring adult, Kalamazoo is the place where I go to concerts at venues like The State Theatre, or where Mr. Jen and I go on dates. Our son attended preschool and kindergarten at St. Augustine, which, despite its spelling, is always pronounced “August-IN” instead of “AugustTINE,” and to which we add the ubiquitous Michigan possessive ‘s. Mr. Jen works in Kalamazoo. Many of our friends still live there.
Over the weekend, a mass shooting took place in Kalamazoo. A man drove around the city, indiscriminately killing people in their cars between picking up Uber fairs. Seven people were killed, ten were injured. Most were women and children. I guess, considering the climate of the United States with regards to gun violence, it was only a matter of time before it happened close to home. But I’ve made this post not to talk about the tragedy, but to share just a handful of my memories of the city, and show a side of Kalamazoo that is both weird and wonderful. A city where the local library once had a real mummy in a sarcophagus just kind of sitting out in the children’s reading room (the mummy was later moved to the old Kalamazoo Valley museum upstairs, and later to the new museum; they made an episode of Reading Rainbow about her). A place brutally hit by an F3 tornado in 1980, and which later adopted the tragedy as a point of pride, going so far as to host a semi-pro football team called the Kalamazoo Tornadoes. The birthplace of Gibson Guitars and the Checker Taxi. One of the most important craft beer scenes in the U.S., where many restaurants offer their own microbrews, and home of Bell’s brewery, known world wide for its Oberon, Two Hearted Ale, and Hopslam beers. A college town that can claim alumni Tim Allen, Terry Crews, Bruce Campell, Marin Mazzie and Luther Vandross (Western Michigan University), as well as Steven Yeun, Selma Blair, and Ty Warner (Kalamazoo College), among others.
It will continue to thrive and survive, and be the place that nobody thinks is real. But yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, and it is so much more than one horrific Saturday reported in the media.