This essay is an excerpt from our forthcoming Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology (Belt Publishing, June 2016).
By Connor Coyne
The bath delights her.
When it’s 6:45 in the evening — dark or getting darker — and we ask her, “you ready to go night-night?” Ruby toddles over toward the stairs, muttering: “bobble, Eejee.” A bottle of milk. Geegee, her stuffed giraffe. She is one year old.
Her eyes light up when we carry her into the bathroom. We drop the plug and press down the plastic mat — you don’t want little babies slipping and banging their heads on the hard porcelain — and fill the small room with the silver sound of falling water.
She gives us a big smile as the lukewarm bath surges up around her sides. She laughs brightly when she sees she can make waves by slapping her hands down against the water. She feels buoyed by the bubbles between her toes, the fine mist that catches in her light, pixie hair. She grabs for floating foam letters, a plastic turtle, a rubber duckie. This is one of the happiest moments of her day, and it’s good that she is happy before we ask her to keep calm in the darkness, to let her brain slip into sleep, to stop moving for awhile. Bath as benediction. A sacred quietness that slips between the Flinty clatter of distant train wheels rolling. The familiar thrill of train whistles. A reminder of her baptism.
For Ruby, the bath is an immersive experience, and so she tries to dip a plastic cup in the water and take a big gulp. Little kids are immune to parental squeamishnness. They do this all over the world, or at least anywhere little kids take baths in porcelain bathtubs. Squeamish parents cringe and say, “No, no, we don’t do that. We don’t drink water from the tub.”
In Flint, though, our reaction is more severe. We lurch forward, our faces pale. It’s like catching your toddler tottering at the top of a flight of stairs. It’s like seeing a preschooler running headlong toward a busy street in pursuit of a plastic ball. You feel it, visceral in your gut, like someone sucker punched you and you want to puke. They might be making themselves sick from something much worse than suds and whatever scum has been washed away from the day’s play.
* * *
My wife isn’t from Flint.
Well, I grew up in the city until I was twelve, when my parents moved out to Flushing, a picturesque suburb that finally got its own coffee shop in 1997. That was the year I graduated high school. But even though I had a Flushing address, I auditioned for every play at Flint Youth Theatre and went to the Flint Central High School prom. I always considered myself a Flintstone and spent as much time as I could in the city. When I went away to college in Chicago, I always hoped to come back home. To me, Flint was a place of youthful energy and risk, frisson and connection. I was aware that I was the salmon swimming upstream, against the current of all the other people eager to leave, but I didn’t care.
[blocktext align=”left”]…how on earth was I going to promise my children a happy, stable childhood in this, my fucked-up home?[/blocktext]When I met my eventual wife a few years later, I regaled her with all the stories of my friends and their fucked-up lives. The insane intensity of life in Flint. The city had been abandoned, I said. Physically abandoned by the company that built and nurtured it, and then again by half of its people left struggling in the wake of deindustrialization. Psychically abandoned by a state and nation that had little patience for what they saw as retrograde rust … the unrealistic expectations (they thought) of a populace that expected luxury but lacked the ingenuity and the work ethic to hold onto it. Were these assumptions justified? That was one question she might ask. I would shrug. Occasionally, I might say. Usually not. What was key, though, was that this place broke everyone, and the brokenness made us like Jesus. Conscious suffering, self-aware suffering, opened us up to beatification and grace. We Flintstones cracked open like Easter eggs that offered our provisional yolks as a sacrifice to testify to the flawed construction of the world and its human institutions. Or maybe we were just Buddhas who emptied ourselves inside out so that we could move forward as that best of blank slates: an erased American chalkboard, ready to be filled with knowledge and questions, to offer hope and transcendence to the world-at-large, and to find peace for ourselves. Inner peace that existed independent of external poverty.
For my wife, practical concerns edged out my visionary rants.
I wanted to go back to the place she said that seemed to break everyone I knew (my fault for building the perception, after all, since I told her about the pedo that chased two friends through Woodcroft — the rich neighborhood — in his car, even while my friends in Civic Park and the State Streets — poor neighborhoods — saw neighbors’ houses light like jack-o-lanterns and burn down on a fiery autumn night) … how on earth was I going to promise my children a happy, stable childhood in this, my fucked-up home?
“I got this,” I said.
I actually felt — and I’m not bullshitting here — more able to deliver that happy, stable childhood in Flint than anywhere else. See, in Flint, I knew the rules. It isn’t chaos. There are rules. There are especially rules if you’re, 1) middle-class, 2) white, and 3) educated. And the college education supplied by my father’s almost 40 years at GM under UAW-earned contracts got me there. My kids would have friends here. They would live in a stable neighborhood and go to a good school. They would have educational opportunities, we’d keep an eye on them, and it wouldn’t be any more difficult or risky than a life in Chicago, or New York, or New Orleans, or San Francisco. It would be safer, less risky, because I knew how Flint worked. I didn’t know how those other cities worked. I didn’t know their rules. I had the tools to control a child’s experience of Flint. Anything else, I’d be learning from scratch.
I said this with a lot of arrogance and a fair amount of truth, but hubris always lands the punchline.
When our first daughter was born, we decided to leave Chicago and move to Flint. Because of the fallout from the 2008 housing meltdown, we could afford a house south of Court Street, just east of Downtown. When I grew up, this was one of Flint’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Now, a family on a single income could land a beautiful 1930s Tudoresque house for a down payment less than that of the tiniest Chicago bungalow. around the middle range of five figures. We could use the money we saved to choose any school for our daughter we wanted. We were close to my parents. We were close to friends. I planted a garden in our back yard and put up a swingset and a fort. The front yard was filled with dappled sunlight that streamed through the maple leaves each summer, enough shade to cool off, and enough sun to nourish the petunias, iridescent in their violet summer glory.
It was cool.
I knew the rules.
* * *
I didn’t know the rules.
The rules were bullshit.
I was thinking about classroom sizes and museums and violent crime and copper scrappers. I was thinking about street violence and friends from broken homes and arson and unemployment. Too many guns and too little supervision. These were the problems I was trying to puzzle out. Meanwhile, the city went under state receivership and started drawing water from the Flint River instead of the Great Lakes by way of Detroit. The rest is a sad story told across the world by now: the river water wasn’t treated properly; it leached lead and other junk from the pipes into tap water. A lot of people drank that water. A lot of people got very sick. Government officials tried to cover up the catastrophe, leading to more sickness, more delays, more damage.
[blocktext align=”right”]I had never banked on the water going bad…A place that tries to damage you with its water is damaging in the most basic way.[/blocktext]I had never banked on the water going bad.
In all my youthful exuberance, my desire to bring my girls up here, in my community, my pride, my home, I thought I had covered all of the bases, but water is fundamental, the number two necessity for humans after breathable air. A place that tries to damage you with its water is damaging in the most basic way. And so, I stayed alert each night, watching Ruby bathe, conscious that this isn’t right, that this is supposed to be safe, that she would only be safe, for sure, through our unfailing vigilance.
* * *
Ruby doesn’t know that the water in this city is bad. Dangerous.
Mary, her five-year-old sister, understands it in a straightforward way, like Darth Vader, like busy traffic, a risk to be avoided. She knows that she shouldn’t drink that water just like she shouldn’t talk to strangers in strange cars. This loss of innocence and the anonymous lies that prompted it make me sad and angry. Sometimes, it keeps me up at night, thinking of all the injury, the hurt, the real hurt, physical, mental, the loss of trust, the enormity of that loss, the immensity of betrayal, the contempt of those officials who have treated us — treated our children — like expendable animals. Lab rats. Numbers and statistics that might be converted into a political liability, and what a pain-in-the-ass we are for that reason. I’ve dreamed about it more than once. What if the tests the city conducted on our household water were wrong? What if we didn’t act quickly enough? What is this place going to look like in fifteen years? Who is going to be left?
Mary is a bright five year-old. She is old enough to understand some of this. Not old enough to feel the outrage, but old enough to notice the contradiction and confusion. It’s expensive, we tell her. Why can’t we drink it? she asks. Well, I tell her, you can wash your hands in it, but don’t drink it. Don’t you drink it. Even if it’s the middle of the night and you’re thirsty, come and wake me up. I’ll get you a glass. You’re right. The world isn’t right and the world isn’t fair.
Some of these are conversations every father expects to have with his child, but not so soon, and certainly not about the unsafe tap water that costs you $130 each month. Not in the first state to light its darkened city streets with street lamps. Not in the U.S. state that put the world on wheels and taught it to move with speed.
Ruby isn’t even two yet. She doesn’t even see the confusion of contradiction. For Ruby, the confusion is much more simple: she likes to dip the plastic cup in her bath water and take a drink when she can. We freak out, lunge forward, snatch up that cup, and toss it to the floor. Ruby yells in surprise and disappointment, the loud noise, our worried faces, the brief chaos of moving hands and water spray.
She’ll relax again, in a few moments, when we soothe her with a song, or give her something else to play with.
We’ll relax, too, when the last of the water has finally vanished down the drain.
Connor Coyne is a writer. He has two published novels and a collection of short stories. His website is connorcoyne.com. He lives in Flint, Michigan’s East Village (or the College Cultural Neighborhood, depending on who you ask) with his wife and two daughters.
Banner photo by Alena Navarro-Whyte