Friday, June 29, 2012

The Windsor–Detroit International Freedom Festival

A lot of people in the U.S. probably don't know this, but Detroit, MI is actually located north of Windsor, ON, Canada. There's your first fun trivia fact for this entry. The next is that since 1959, the two cities have celebrated the International Freedom Festival to honor our two countries days of independence, July 4th for the U.S. and July 1st (2nd if it falls on a Sunday) for Canada. And how do we celebrate? With fireworks, of course! The best fireworks display I have ever seen, in fact. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Growing up, I had often heard about the joint fireworks celebration along the Detroit River, and I have always wanted to go. This year, I finally got my chance. Knowing it would be busy and parking would be scarce, my boyfriend Greg and I arrived in front of the Rosa Parks Transit Center where we were allowed no further by a bunch of police blockades. We found a place to park for $10, then made our way to the People Mover. At 75 cents per ride, the People Mover is the cheapest form of public transportation I think I have ever taken. (It's $1.50 to ride the bus in A2.) 

The People Mover is kind of fun. It was first time riding it, and it reminded me of MUNI when it's in the tunnels. It also reminded me of the tram that zips around San Francisco's airport. The People Mover moves in only one direction and rides a continuous loop, which seemed odd to me, but it's certainly efficient since the track isn't very long at all. You get a great view of Windsor, where a carnival was going on, and at night, you could see all the rides lit up, such as the large Ferris wheel. 

Anyway, we took the People Mover to Greektown (again, my first visit), and had dinner at Pegasus. Greg and I both ordered the Greek Trio, a plate comprised of large squares of spanakoteropeta (spinach pie), moussaka (a layered eggplant dish), and pastitsio (a baked pasta dish). My favorite by far was the moussaka, though I think the spinach pie would have been improved by not having bechamel sauce all over it from the other dishes. (But I do freaking love bechamel sauce.) 

After dinner, we found a spot in front of the civil courthouse to watch the fireworks. The are was swarming with police officers, many of them mounted, and Greg witnessed a man giving crap to one of the mounted officers who was ordering him out of the street and back onto the sidewalk. In retaliation, the officer nudged her horse, which then pushed the man back toward the sidewalk, spooking him more than if the woman had done something herself. 

As I said earlier, the fireworks were spectacular! Easily the most beautiful I've ever seen. The show began with a plane flying over the river pulling a Canadian flag followed by another plane pulling a much larger American flag. The cheers and applause were equal to the sizes of the flags (at least on the Detroit side). There was music meant to accompany the show, but we were too far away and the crowd was much too loud in their appreciation to hear it.

At one point, while we were sitting quite happily watching the pretty fire explode in the sky, screams erupted from the people immediately to my left. The crowd rose almost as one, and a tide of people surged toward me. I got stepped on by at least two before I could get to my feet. A bunch of mounted officers came trotting over, but the police on foot were faster. I didn't know what was happening, though I overheard a few of my neighbors say a man had had a gun. 

The man immediately to my left (who happened to have a misbehaving daughter with the same name as me, which was confusing and weird as they kept yelling out her name) loudly declared: "I came here to watch some fireworks - I'm going to watch the fireworks!" Everyone settled down for the remainder of the show, and many people clapped as an officer led a man away in handcuffs (after having tackled him, or so said Greg, who saw it happen.)

The police were definitely out in force as we walked back to the People Mover and then to the car, but I didn't notice any more serious incidents. Just some young guys throwing glass bottles at another young man, possibly trying to start something (the glass shattered in the street and skittered into the crowds on the sidewalks). Oh, and the cop that had to get out of the patrol car to yell at a driver to let them through after the driver had cut them off. ('Cause that's a good idea.) Getting to I-94 really didn't take very long, surprising Greg and myself, and we returned to my apartment in practically no time, where we promptly fell asleep because that had been one eventful evening. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ghost Hunting in Marshall, MI

Once we were finished exploring Colon, we headed back to Marshall to have dinner at the infamous Schuler's. Then we drove to Stuart's Landing to follow the River Walk along the Kalamazoo River. This sounds much more pleasant than it turned out to be.

The Kalamazoo River was once used by many mills, especially paper mills, that dumped all of their leftovers and trash into the river. This resulted in hideously polluted water that could give you a burning skin rash if you touched it, and once, many decades ago, it was debated whether the river should just be turned into an open sewer. This was voted against, and now the river is not a toxic waste dump, though people are still not advised to swim in many parts of it, and we even spotted a sign that recommended we check a website to see if the river was safe that day for swimming or fishing before indulging in those activities. Portions of the river, too, we soon discovered, stink like the Bog of Eternal Stench from the movie Labyrinth. In that moment of covering my mouth and hurrying down the path to get away from the smell, I fully understood why my mother always told us never to go near the Kalamazoo River when I was a child. I seriously believe that if any of my clothing had touched that water, I would have to burn it rather than try in vain to get the smell out.

Anyway! After escaping the river, we headed over to Dark Horse Brewery, a place that a coworker had recommended to me many times. I had heard of them from other sources, as well, as I am pretty sure their beers have won awards. (Not that beer competitions are something I generally follow, but working in a retail establishment that sells many local beers, it's hard not to be at least a little up on these things.) It turns out I like the raspberry, one of their more popular brews that is available elsewhere in the state, too.

We were there in the early evening when things weren't slow, but not exactly busy, either. Since we'd already eaten at Schuler's, we only ordered a few beers and sat around and talked. It was nice just to be out of the sun and sitting down. I noticed a patio out back surrounded by a decent sized yard with a stage, so I can imagine this place would be great on a weekend night with live music, drinks, and food! The atmosphere was casual and fun. Hundreds of beer mugs of various shape, color, and style hung from the ceiling and comprised their mug club. If you wanted, you could purchase one of these mugs and it would be yours to use every time you visited. Pretty cool, I thought. The walls were also covered by drawings and scrawlings of past patrons.

One such mark alerted us to the presence of “a freaking bidet in the bathroom,” which, of course, I had to investigate. It was true. Not only that, though, the toilets had a rinse “for the ladies” and a drying option. Plugged into an outlet by the wall, the toilet reminded me of the ones I used in Japan and Google HQ (yes, Google HQ has Japanese toilets, and yes, I've been there so I know), but the seats weren't heated, the instructions weren't in Japanese, and the control panel was mounted to the side of the toilet, not the wall next to the toilet. On the underside of the toilet seat lid was a block of text that informed me that not only was there a risk of shock in using this toilet (how uncomfortable would that be?), but that before I use it, I should read all instructions and notices in full. I did not. It's a freaking toilet. Why does it come with a warning manual the size of a sheet of computer paper?? I did not get shocked, nor did I try out any of its advanced features. I also did not take a picture, so you're just going to have to take my word for it, or visit the brewery yourself, which is not a bad option if you are a fan of good beer.

Finished with our beers, we headed back downtown to meet up with our ghost tour guide. She was a very friendly woman with quite a bit of knowledge about the history of Marshall and also a lot of personal experience stories that were interesting and enjoyable. This tour was far and beyond the best ghost tour I have been on, and I firmly believe Marshall is possibly the most actively haunted city I've visited.

We started out at the tour's headquarters and were introduced to a haunted doll, a goddess, I believe, from India. While the guide addressed the doll, offering it a marble to play with, its nose ring started to swing back and forth. There was no breeze in the room that I could detect, and even if there were, the doll's earrings should have also been swaying along with the nose ring, and they were perfectly still. The spirit of the doll has been said to follow people home and cause mischief until an offering is left to her. Greg and I both left offerings of small change, but Kimmy did not. I think she was hoping the spirit would turn up at our apartment. As far as I can tell, it has not.

From there, we walked down Michigan Ave and learned that at least half the buildings have reports of ghosts, some of which she was asked by the owners not to discuss, which she did not go on to do. We also learned quite a bit about the history of Marshall. Growing up, I was used to thinking of Marshall as a backwoods sleepy town with no sophistication, which turned out not to be true. As I said before, it is only off the beaten path now because I-94 was built just a few miles north, shifting the bulk of traffic away from the center of cities. Kalamazoo is rather unique in that is has maintained its hub status, probably due to the presence of so many huge national industries (Stryker, Pfizer, Summit Polymer, etc), though that has also lead to a shift to the suburbs, leaving downtown rather shuttered.

Marshall used to be a summer vacation town for the well-to-do. This is also how Colon got into its magic capital status. There was good fishing in the area, it was close to larger cities like Kalamazoo and its State Theater (still a concert venue today) where vaudeville and magic shows were performed during the cooler months, and, earlier in history, the ladies of Marshall insisted on such theaters and even an opera house being constructed on Michigan Ave right downtown. Quite the decent little vacation spot a hundred plus years ago. It was quite remarkable to me how well preserved the buildings are today, though, granted, Kalamazoo lost a lot of its downtown buildings to a giant freak tornado back in 1980. Marshall has been lucky to escape such tragic weather.

At least, we didn't hear of any tornado victim ghosts on the tour. We did learn about an actor who still practices his lines today, two sisters who ran a clothing store for the better part of the 20th century, only recently passed away, and haunt both their old home and the store, a Civil War soldier who haunts the basement of a shotgun house that might be built over the site of his grave, a man who likes to sit on his porch fully naked now that he is beyond chastising by his still living relatives, a lady in red who is known to terrorize women who stay in “her” room at a downtown inn, but gives the male guests quite the good time (sadly, our guide would not elaborate), and many, many more. There were also a number of speakeasies in the city's history, and the underground of Marshall is riddled with hidden rooms and tunnels that were once part of the Underground Railroad. (The tour group hopes to have an Underground Railroad Tour put together soon. I can't wait!) The ghost tour is supposed to take 90 minutes, but I believe ours took over 2 well-enjoyed hours. Definitely worth the $15!

Next time, probably around Halloween when activity is at its highest, I think we may spring for the carriage tour. The walking tour mostly covers just the north side of town, and given the stories we heard, I am anxious to hear about the south side and the cemetery, as well, both covered by the carriage tour. Once the tour was officially over, our guide took us back inside the store and showed us pictures of alleged demons in the cemetery and the aforementioned lady in red, though she was difficult to see in the darkness of the late evening. Kimmy is supposed to email for a digital copy of the pictures, but I don't think she has yet since we haven't had internet in our apartment for about two weeks now.

Thus ended our day of Magic and Mystery in Colon and Marshall, Michigan. I think we all decided that we definitely need to return. Who knew such a little town would be packed with so much to do? Any fan of history, ghosts, architecture, magic, antiques, or beer should visit Marshall. I think you, too, will find more to do than you anticipated you ever would. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Magic Hunting in Colon, MI

My roommate Kimmy considers herself an amateur ghost hunter. In fact, she is the mistress behind the blog American Haunts. She is also a fan of stage magic, most recently reinforced by reading the Dresden Files novels. (Which I have also been reading, and I really enjoy them. They remind me of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, only from a male perspective rather than female, which itself is pretty interesting.) Thus, for Kimmy's birthday this year, she and I together with my boyfriend Greg (also a fan of stage magic) descended upon the little towns of Marshall, MI and Colon, MI. 

We started our day in Marshall because it is right off I-94, roughly an hour from my apartment. Billboards along the way boast about Marshall's extensive historic downtown, and they are not joking. I was very impressed with not only the size of Marshall's downtown, but also how well preserved it is! This makes sense, though. Back before I-94 was built, the main thoroughfare between Detroit and Kalamazoo, the halfway point between Chicago and Detroit even today, was Michigan Ave, which happens to run straight through downtown Marshall, and a large number of other small towns that now find themselves Off the Beaten Path (aka I-94). (If you want to drive Michigan Ave/Old US12/the Red Arrow Highway from Detroit to Chicago, it is still possible, and I'll bet terribly interesting for local history buffs. I vow to do so myself one day.) 

Marshall is home to the American Museum of Magic, the largest of its kind in the U.S. (though the building is still rather small; just a warning so you don't get your hopes too high; this is not the Smithsonian). Unfortunately, though this was our main destination, we did not realize that the museum is closed on Mondays, unless you make an appointment. We snapped a few pictures and peered inside, but that is all we got to do. We learned later that the man who runs it is very friendly, and if we call ahead next time, he would be willing to open up the other part of the museum, which is mostly just archives (of interest to my compatriots) and located in another building. 

Located at 203 W. Michigan Ave is the Marshall Ghost Tours headquarters. If they aren't out on a tour, there is a horse and carriage parked out front, and for $1 you may feed the horse. (We did not feed the horse. Horses are evil.) The three of us booked a walking tour for that night; a private tour since we were the only ones attending. It would have been fantastic to do the carriage tour, but none of us had the extra $30 each to do so. Then, we set off south for Colon.

Colon, MI is well off the beaten track. You travel a few miles down I-69, then turn off onto many, many more miles of country roads. After the abrupt turn into town, you are greeted by a sign proclaiming "Welcome to Colon Magic Capital of the World." Just beyond that is the high school football field with their mascot painted on the side of a building, an angry rabbit in a top hat. They are - I'm not kidding you - the Magi. (How cool is that?)

I think it goes without saying that Colon is one tiny town. But it has its charm! The street signs have top hats on them, and lining the "downtown" are big pots shaped like top hats containing flowers and wires popping out shaped like bunny heads. There is also the Abbot Magic Company, where we stopped on our way out of town and met the son of the man who started it. He talked to us for a bit as we walked around and showed us three magic tricks. I figured out two of the tricks, but the third still eludes me. He invited us back to Colon for the 75th Get Together, what is essentially a magicians convention. (How cool is that?)

Anyway, our true goal in going to Colon was to visit the graves of Harry Blackstones Sr and Jr, as well as a number of other magicians who are buried in Lakeside Cemetery. (Here is the full list.

It is a beautiful cemetery. It is not shaded, and I did get a sunburn as we wandered that is still bugging me today, but the graves are marvelous. We saw a number of headstones beautifully carved to look like four foot high tree stumps. Word to the future adventurer, the magicians' graves are all up near the front. We wandered the entire cemetery before nearly giving up and finding that we'd driven right past them on our way in. 

Among the many pictures that Kimmy took of the graveyard, there was one that proved to contain something a mysterious. There is a big bright glare right in the middle of the photo, as if the light were reflecting off something, though we can't find anything in the picture that would cause it. I am sure Kimmy will post all about this on her blog, and probably post the picture there once we can get it properly cleaned up and zoomed in. 

I think this entry has gone on for long enough. I will post next week about the rest of our day ghost hunting in Marshall. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Do-Dah Parade, Art Fair & Books 2012

For as long as I can remember, the city of Kalamazoo has held an art fair the first weekend of June, and to kick off the festival they hold the Do-Dah Parade downtown on the first Saturday of June at 11am. Many years has my family attended this parade, and since I'm back in Michigan now, I was very excited to join the newest generation of the Coburn Clan in watching the tom foolery. 

There is no special holiday that the Do-Dah parade celebrates, only silliness. It is reminiscent of the medieval feasts of fools where everything was turned on its head for a day, and everyone was allowed to let loose and be ridiculous. The parade this year began with a large gaggle of young girl scouts dressed as caricatures of the elderly - canes, walkers, wheel chairs, gray wigs, old dressing gowns, curlers in their hair, etc. In the words of Disney, topsy-turvy. 

Many local schools are represented, such as my alma mater Western Michigan University. A few years ago, the summer before moving to California, I marched in the Do-Dah Parade with a bunch of former WMU classmates to represent the first ever Kalamazoo Pride event. (Our theme was "Over the Rainbow" and we were dressed as modern-day versions of the Wizard of Oz cast. I was the Wicked Witch of the West and held a Swiffer rather than a broom.) Anyone can have a float in the parade provided they pay the modest entry fee. This is how I sometimes learn new things about my hometown while watching the parade. Like that Kalamazoo has its own curling club! 

Some of the other memorable floats I saw were a large group of kids dressed up as Jedi warriors, Princess Leias, and a Darth Vader behind a sign that read "If you don't do dah crime, you won't do dah time." The kids were obviously having a lot of fun with their plastic lightsabers and waving at all the parade watchers. 

That is what the Do-Dah Parade is all about - fun! People running around in goofy costumes while promoting their own unique corner of their community and passing out candy to all the excited kids on the sidelines. 

Once the crowds from the parade have dispersed, it's off to the art fair! The event used to only consume Bronson Park, but over the years, it has spread to the nearby "mall," the shops along Burdick St that once was the first outdoor walking mall in America (now it's a one-way street). This was also Greek Fest weekend, and between the two festivities, many bands came to play in town, like Hoobastank, Rubber Soul, and the Verve Pipe. Only Greek Fest costs money, so if you find yourself near Kalamazoo next June, you need to head downtown!

The Kalamazoo Public Library also has a huge book sale that weekend. All books, even hardcovers, were only ten cents each, or you could purchase a paper grocery bag for $2 and fill it up with as many books as would fit. I picked up four books that I might not have bought if they hadn't been a dime each. It's really hard not to buy something for that cheap!

While downtown, I also came across a newspaper dispenser shaped like a robot. He made me want to buy a newspaper, let me tell you! I only had dimes, though, so I didn't get one. (Sorry, Mr. Robot.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

World Steam Expo 2012

This blog entry will be somewhat difficult to write because, unlike everyone else, apparently, I didn't really enjoy my time at World Steam Expo this year. To put it quite succinctly, it was the biggest let down in years. 

To begin with, it turned out to be more expensive than they'd listed on their website. $10 more. It's a good thing I'd decided to get extra money out of the bank "just in case," but that meant that I had $10 less to spend in the merchant hall, bringing my total budgeted "fun money" down to $10. 

We saw a live radio program, which was fun, then went to a panel that ended up not happening. It was amusing to sit around and hear funny stories, but still it wasn't the panel that I'd gone to see, so I couldn't help feeling a little cheated. 

Then we had breakfast at the cafe in the hotel's lobby where I was overcharged by $3 for something that I didn't buy. I was told to come back in an hour and I would be refunded. When I stopped by later, I waited a full half an hour for the manager to come out of his office to give me the refund, which he never did, so I just took more food that I didn't want or need, since we were on our way to dinner, to make up for their mistake. The whole time I was there waiting, no one apologized for the error. 

I'd wanted to see a few more panels and productions, but we didn't see any. We did get to see Abney Park perform, and they always put on a good show, thought it was only an hour long. I decided to throw my budget out the window since I was already in the hole after just a couple of hours at the convention, and bought a cute Doctor Who dress for $30. This possibly turned out to be the highlight of the entire day, and it involved me spending money that I really had no business spending. I think Abney Park was a close a second to the Doctor. (Sorry, Captain Robert.)

The real highlight of the night was supposed to be the masquerade ball, which I'd been preparing for for months. In the words of a very dear friend of mine, I looked smokin' hot! I got in a couple of dances before the DJ turned the floor over to the charity that the ball was donating its money to, Relay For Life. This was the beginning of the end. 

I really should have stood up and walked out on the woman, but I didn't. I stayed and listened to her long-winded speech about how cancer is a devastating disease that involves a long, hard fight that may not be won. She pointed out that 1 in 3 of us at the ball that night would get cancer and probably die from it. She went on and on about how moving it was to see the survivors of cancer walk a solo lap at the Relay For Life event; that Relay For Life was making a difference in lives with our help; that people were surviving cancer and had more years to enjoy their friends and families.

Well, not my father, you stuck up, self-righteous bitch. He died. He fought cancer twice, and in the end lost. Yes, as you so helpfully reminded us, some people there that night were affected by cancer, and some of us really didn't want to be reminded of the months of fighting and not knowing what the outcome would eventually be. Years of wondering when it would come back, and if that would be it. Wondering how much time we still had together as a family.

The rest of the night I sat in a chair on the sidelines and cried. If I'd paid for my own ticket instead of my boyfriend, I would have demanded my money back. That women completely ruined my night. I was there to dance and have fun with my friends, not be reminded of and forced to relive all the pain and months of anguish that I went through leading up to and following my father's death - and still go through!

Even the DJ seemed a bit shaken because he tried to make a joke when she finally finished preaching and play some upbeat music. But the damage was done for me and I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and die. She'd said it herself, 1 in 3 of us who were at the ball will get cancer and die slowly, painfully, with our loved ones watching helplessly as we waste away to nothing. 

The really frustrating thing about groups like Relay For Life is that they're funding cancer research, but I've never once seen them mention that a cure for cancer has already been found. Why are they not all flooding behind this? If cancer is so horrible that it must be stopped zomg right now, why is this simple cure not being trumpeted by all the cancer groups to the ends of the earth? Because it won't make anyone money. Dying people are like gold mines to the pharmaceutical companies. Healthy people are a drain. 

So thank you, Relay For Life, for using your greed and manipulation to ruin what might have been an enjoyable evening. I'm not sure I can ever go back to World Steam. From where I'm standing now, it was a colossal waste of precious money that left me emotionally comatose for the next two days barely able to even get out of bed.

Thank God for antidepressants! Wish they were stronger.