Coming Home Again
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
My book-tour travels brought me back to my hometown of Detroit last week, and it felt good to be back. I left Michigan in 1985, and except for once-a-year family visits have not returned. Can't say I've missed it. Poor Michigan has been down on its luck for a while now. The auto industry is essentially the only game in town, and it's been in a seemingly ever-downward spiral. When I arrived at Detroit Metro Airport on Election Day eve, the first headline I spotted wasn't about Obama's historic sweep but of looming troubles at General Motors and Ford. The word "bankruptcy" seems to come up here in nearly every conversation.
Despite that economic gloom, the sun was shining and the temperatures unseasonably balmy. But best of all, I got to reconnect with a lot of old friends and neighbors I haven't seen or heard from in years -- and in some cases, decades. At my Wednesday night talk and signing at the Borders store in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, the audience was peppered with familiar faces from long ago. There was my old Central Michigan housemate, Diane, whom I have not seen or heard from since I left Central in 1979 and who still looks fantastic after all these years. There was my old high school buddy Mark, who had disappeared off my radar even before that. My old neighbor Tim Smith showed up with his whole family. So did one of my very best friends from my college years, Jeannie Crampton, whose family still owns and operates the cherry farm near Traverse City where one summer I learned how to pick fruit -- but unfortunately failed to heed her father's warnings about not eating too much of what I picked.
More than a few of the old faces belonged to people who make appearances in my book. Much of The Longest Trip Home takes place in metro Detroit, and my Birmingham signing was just a short drive from my childhood neighborhood in Orchard Lake and the haunts of my youth. In the crowd was Chris (Shotwell) Simpson, the high school English teacher who got me journaling and on the road to first-person narrative writing. And my freshman "Math for Dummies" teacher, Bob Stark, who was the only teacher in my entire education able to unlock the mysteries of algebra for me. I had not seen or heard from Mr. Stark since I left Brother Rice Catholic High after my freshman year in 1972, but I instantly recognized him. He was grayer and slighly more weathered, but the same, good guy. He told me he keeps in touch with Brother McKenna, the stern freshman composition teacher who taught me the discipline of writing, and Bob said he'd say hello to him for me. In the book, I credit Brother McKenna for instilling in me the notion that sloppy writing -- sloppy anything, really -- just is not acceptable. Wow, what a trip down memory lane.
But one of the funniest moments came while people were queuing up to have me sign their books. In the line I spotted a familiar face from my childhood: the next-door neighbor boy. Yes, that one. The son of my first crush, Mrs. Selahowski, who provided my earliest ideal of feminine beauty. In Chapter 2 of The Longest Trip Home, I write about my second-grade fascination with the sunbathing Mrs. Selahowski and how it morphed -- with the aid of my toy telescope -- into an early, pre-pubescent form of boyhood lust. It was a lust for which I was convinced I was hell-bound. A lust that prompted me to lie bald-faced to the priest in my first confession.
Now here was her son, Peter, standing with a big grin on his face. We said hello, and then he handed me his cellphone. On the other end.... yes, his mom. "Hello, Johnny," she said in a now-frail voice. "I read your book and it was beautiful. But I must say I was shocked to learn what you were up to with that telescope. I had no idea."
From somewhere in the line, I heard someone say, "Look! He's blushing!"
Oh God, kill me now. On the one hand, the exchange was embarrassing. On the other, I thought, there are worst things than to remind a woman in her sunset years of the beauty of her prime.
As it turned out, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press was standing in the line and the next morning she called me at my hotel to ask me about the experience. A few days later, this is what Marney Rich Keenan wrote....
John Grogan's 'Longest Trip' turns toward home
John Grogan, the best selling author of "Marley & Me" (William Morrow, $21.95), got a little bit more than he bargained for at book signing at Borders in Birmingham this past week.
Promoting his most recent book, "The Longest Trip Home" (William Morrow, 2008), Grogan, who was raised in West Bloomfield Township, was not surprised to see a lot of old friends, former classmates and neighbors.
Surely the book, which is about his boyhood rebellion growing up in a terribly devout Catholic family (two uncles were priests) during the 1960s and '70s, was sure to bring out the neighborhood to see their old friend and now famous author.
Many of them saw themselves in the familiar stories of chugging the sacramental wine as an altar boy, or remembered their long-haired radical days with Grogan when he started an underground student newspaper.
Standing in the book-signing line, fans exchanged their ties to Grogan. "Are you a fellow refugee? What year?" was a common refrain. The Grogan clan -- three boys, one girl -- all attended Our Lady of Refuge in Orchard Lake. And at least one of the members of "Secret Society of Smokers, Swearers and Sacramental Wine Swiggers" was also at the reading, now some 40 years older with radical teenagers of their own.
But the surprise came when a former next door neighbor walked up to have his book signed and handed Grogan his cell phone. "Could you just say hi?" the man coaxed.
Quizically, Grogan obliged.
"Hello?" he said, timidly. "Oh my God! Mrs. Selahowski? ...Oh, my! Yes, yes. I'm fine! And you? You have read it? Uh-huh. Well, you will recall, I was only 7 at the time."
Mrs. Selahowski, now in her 80s and living in Florida, is indeed a celebrated subject in the book as the object of one of Johnny Grogan's first most egregious mortal sins. Grogan writes: "By the time second grade had rolled around I had clearly moved into the sinful land of lust. I was coveting my neighbor's wife."
Evidently, the next-door neighbor liked to tan herself in her backyard stretched out on a chaise lounge "in a tiny two-piece bathing suit, her blond hair piled loosely atop her head, rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses shading her eyes, baby oil slathered over her golden body."
While lying on her stomach, she would often unfasten her bathing suit top. And little Johnny Grogan, watching from his second-story bedroom window, would pray fervently for the lawn sprinklers to come on and shock her onto her feet. "One false move and her bosom -- I pronounced the word ba-zooms -- would be fully exposed," he wrote.
For his birthday that year, Grogan requested a telescope. "Our little Galileo," he heard his mom tell his dad.
From the first French kiss to a girl with so braces: It was a little like French kissing with a power tool ... I spent half the time marveling at my amazing luck and the other half trying to prevent serious injury," to the attempt to smuggle contraband past his father, Grogan writes with his trademark ease of wit and humor.
But the book turns poignant and thus a teaching tool for all us who has ever loved our parents but not their religion and felt the deep pain of their disappointment.
After graduating from Central Michigan University and coming into his own, it became painfully evident that shedding the Catholicism of Grogan's youth deeply wounded his parents.
At age 30, when he announced he was moving in with his girlfriend (whom his parents loved and whom he later married), they were crushed. "You'll be living in a state of sin," his father raged. "Is that what you want? To live with the pall of sin over you?"
After marriage and children, a fateful call from his aging father brings Grogan home again and he writes eloquently of reconciliation, grace and the enduring power of family itself.
Just like "Marley and Me" was more than just a story about an incorrigible Labrador retriever, so too, "The Longest Trip Home" is so much more than a story about a strict religious upbringing. Says Grogan: "It's about how family love and openness of heart can and will triumph over differences."
That's it for now. I'm writing this from a hotel in Philadelphia's Old City where I'm looking out at Independence Hall. It's great to be back in my hometown where so many readers first got to know me as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I'm finishing up a series of radio interviews, and soon I will be home again.
posted by John Grogan at 7:19 AM