Friday, May 27, 2011
That Michigan's Upper Peninsula is on its uppers is no news to the people who live there, both the hardy folks who struggle to survive and those fortunate enough (like the Lady Friend and me) to have made their pile elsewhere so they can spend their summers in these glorious woods on the shore of Lake Superior.
But now word is getting out. A crack Associated Press reporter named John Flesher came up from lower Michigan and looked around, and he filed a sobering report this morning that so far has appeared in 164 newspapers and television-station web sites, including the Daily Mail in London.
Ontonagon (Porcupine City in my mystery novels) is growing famous, even if the fame is the wrong kind: an international object lesson in the economic decline of rural America.
Still, there are opportunities up here. Living expenses are low, so low that many folks who live in urban Illinois and Minnesota are buying up properties for summer and retirement homes.
They have a love-hate relationship with the locals, some of whom call them, among other things, "FIBs." That's short for "Fucking Illinois Bastard," coined by a local waitress stiffed on the tip by a customer who drove off in a car with Land of Lincoln plates.
FIBs buy homes, many of which are foreclosures, that locals are too poor to afford even at absurdly low prices. Up here you can score a roomy, well-maintained three-bedroom home in town for $35,000 -- a home that might go for $350,000 in a Chicago suburb.
Still FIBs are not all bad. We bring in sorely needed money. We hire local tradesmen and spend our retirement checks in local supermarkets, some of which have expanded (especially their wine departments) to attract the summer crowd. Many of us fall deeply in love with the place and participate as much as we can in its cultural events, donating whatever we can to support local institutions.
True, some FIBs are truly arrogant bastards and attempt to lord it over the locals, but others try hard to win their hearts, knowing that will take time and effort. They volunteer their labor as well as their lucre -- and they ask for help in turn. If they're lucky, they get it.
You know you're on the way to acceptance when a neighbor brings over a clutch of eggs and a clump of chives for transplanting in your yard, when new friends quietly drop off (and stack) a spare cord or two of firewood after you've left for the winter, knowing you'll need it the coming chilly spring.
Today I'm going to wear my T-shirt that says "I Wasn't Born in the UP, But I Got Here as Soon as I Could."