Ireland. Music. Books. Culture.

Madonna, Michigan, and me

I grew up less than 10 miles away from Madonna.

She was raised in Rochester Hills and I was just a little bit east and a quick trip down 24 Mile Road in Rochester: both towns are part of the big sprawl of suburban Detroit, and to say that she and I grew up in different towns misses the reality that these suburbs just bleed into each other, going out of Detroit for miles and miles of quiet streets and 7-11s and backyard cookouts and Friday night football games and trees and auto plants, petering out in the fields that surround little country towns like Romeo, where families go out to family farms on chill fall nights to get apples and pumpkins and, as the temperatures drop and the leaves fall and the Lions continue to lose game after game, Christmas trees.

I like to think that somewhere, at some time, our paths crossed. I could ride my bike to a place called the Yates Cider Mill – which opened in the 1860s – that people all over the state know about, and it was a treat to have Dad drive all of us there on winter afternoons to skate on the little lake right across the street, before it got filled in so yet another apartment complex could be built. Perhaps she and I waited in the same line for apple cider and doughnuts. Or maybe our families spent the same Sunday afternoon sledding on a famous hill in Rochester, just a few miles away from the town’s main street, where our family would go to the movies and then get two scoops of ice cream at the shop next door.

I think about what I’ll readily admit is a tenuous link I have to one of the world’s most famous women occasionally, and I have been recently, because Madonna is all over the news again, having just released her latest solo CD, Rebel Heart, which will be followed later in the year with a huge tour of some of the biggest arenas America and Europe have to offer.

And, as always with her, there is a new controversy. In a recent appearance on the Howard Stern show, she recalled running away to New York not long after high school and being raped in her apartment. Stern asked her if this made her think of turning tail and going home, and she said no, the prospect of being raped again was actually better than having to return to Michigan and the “basic, provincial people” she grew up around.

In other words: If it’s possible rape vs Rochester Hills, possible rape wins.

As might be expected, these comments earned several responses from proud Michigan and/or Rochester Hills residents, including Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan K. Barnett, who in an open letter told the singer that “While we certainly don’t need your stamp of approval, I am quiet confident we would earn it.”


Madonna expressing her displeasure with where she grew up is not anything new. She has said often that she fled small-town southern Michigan for the excitement of New York just as quickly as she could. It’s also worth noting that on several world tours, multi-month jaunts that have played dozens of cities in America and Europe and gone on to Asia and Australia, she has skipped Detroit.

Not Chicago. Not Cleveland. Not Kansas City. Detroit.

You couldn’t miss the symbolism if you tried.

All this makes me think less of the little girl or young woman that I might have brushed passed in line at the movies or on a frozen lake decades ago than the girls that I did know, gorgeous dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian and Polish girls – because where I was from just about everyone was Italian or Polish – who lived up the street or on the next block or sat near me in math class. There were dozens of them, impossibly cute, and they kept their eyes shyly down if they caught you looking at them during mass but then, one day, there they were, flirting and snuggling up with older boys, boys with facial hair and confidence, the girls and the guys both giddy with the freedom of disappearing under the stands at Friday night football games, flushed with sexual discovery and beer their older brothers had bought them.

They giggled a lot, these girls, and talked low, behind their hands, conveying secrets I couldn’t imagine, and I both desperately wanted them to be talking about me and scared that they were. I was awkward and pudgy and shy, and talking to them was an impossible effort; I stayed with my friends, playing baseball and football, growing up maybe too late as they grew up, maybe, too fast, but they were not mean, not at all, I think now, just doing what teenagers have always done and always will do: trying to project a personality that says, I don’t need anyone to tell me anything.

Somewhere nearby, Madonna grew up and waited, learned about dance and drama and New York, and plotted her escape, and when the time came she made the most of it, moving to the madness of the big city the moment she could.

I both don’t blame her and never had any desire to do the same. Because she’s right, you know, she really is: the quiet suburbs and endless summers and crisp falls and changing seasons of Michigan just aren’t enough for some people, for lots of people. I know that some of those pretty Italian and Polish girls I knew, the sweet ones that talked to me and the others that had no time whatsoever for me, went their different paths: off to college and young marriages and law school and dead-end jobs, off to Chicago and maybe Los Angeles and New York or never getting any further away than a big wedding at their Catholic church and life lived in another suburban house on another suburban Detroit street.

And some of them, I am sure, hear Madonna’s name or go buy a ticket and see her in concert and feel the same close-but-far-away connection that I do, and wish that they had had the nerve and the drive and the bravery and maybe the stupidity to take a bus and not look back and find some other sort of life in a New York that, according to many accounts, was a far rougher, meaner city back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s than it is now. They wonder, watching her onstage or tending to their grandkids at a cookout or driving to the store or maybe heading over to Yates Cider Mill for cider and donuts, just what might have happened if they, too, were foolhardy and driven enough to take such a huge chance.

I do, too. But it was never in the cards for me. Our family moved to Texas, and I have never moved far away. I went to college in the same suburban town where I went to high school and got my first newspaper job in Dallas, which back then was less than 25 minutes down I-30 from my apartment in north Arlington. I had chances to move to California, two of them, and when I think of how much I wanted at the time to get the hell away, I wonder who that person was. What was that need, to simply get away for, at least for me, getting away’s sake?

How could I have been so stupid, and how lucky am I that neither of the newspapers I interviewed with in the Los Angeles area could come to an agreement with me over salary or moving expenses?

Luckier than I should be. Because there are some people who are meant to go and some people who are meant to say, to work and live in a familiar place, among familiar people, and see those people grow old, and find a sweet sense of purpose and wholeness in the consistency and the pace of a life outside of the hustle and noise of a big city far away.

I think about Michigan and my childhood there fairly often – the crisp fall nights, the soft and muggy summers that seemed to go on forever, the flushed faces of my family coming in from the cold after playing outside in the snow, the driveways Dad and I shoveled all winter, all those years and birthdays and Christmases and Labor Day cookouts signaling the end of summer, all those trips to Tiger Stadium and the cider mill and the knowledge that I was safe, here in on my little dead-end street in my little town.

I went back, just once, years ago. It was 1999 and I wanted to see the last baseball game at Tiger Stadium, but what I really wanted was to see the old neighborhood. I flew back and rented a car and found a hotel room on Rochester’s main street, just a block or so from the vanished pool hall that my Dad had taken me to, because pool was my passion then.

Later that night I found myself walking around my old neighborhood. I parked the car and wandered down the path from the top of the hill of my street to my old elementary school, and I sat there on the scarred bench by the baseball diamond where my friends and I had practiced by the hour, endlessly throwing and catching and hitting.

Night was coming on and there was nobody around. It was a soft, warm September evening, and I had been away 22 years. The old streets looked just the same, and as I sat and imagined the little boys we had been back then, happily killing another summer day together, I found myself suddenly, with no warning, crying. Really crying. I don’t know why, except I could feel, for a second, what it might have been like to grow older not where I did, in Texas, but right here, in this little part of the world, another Michigan boy who never felt a need to go anywhere else as the seasons changed and fall came on and the leaves fell and we went out into the country to a farm just outside Romeo, and bought ourselves crisp apples and a Halloween pumpkin.