Yesterday was my first and last day in Manistique, an exceptionally charming little sea-town on Route 2. Everything was so perfect that I felt the need to leave quickly, before messing up the memory, the mirage. I had a similar experience in Tiffin, Ohio about a month ago. It’s a hard feeling to describe, almost as though I’m collecting a small rolodex of purely perfect places, untarnished, partially-false realities. If the technology from Vanilla Sky ever comes to pass, I’ll ask to spend eternity in Tiffin or Manistique, places where I didn’t scratch below the surface, where I refused to accept that disappointment is inevitable. The upside of a life on the run.
My feeling about a place says a lot more about my inner state of mind than anything else. I arrived in Manistique in high spirits, ready for a great day. I had already done some reading and writing and my morning drive was beautiful. Route 2 along the southern coast of the Upper Peninsula might be one of my favorite highways in Amerirca - two lanes, one in each direction, gentle turns, zero traffic, smooth as butter. It was a meditation. As a bonus, two radio stations came in crystal clear: NPR and “big country.” Who could ask for anything more? I was practically floating by the time I parked Sputnik in the Manistique Area Middle and High School parking lot.
I explored the town a bit even though I didn’t really need to - directly across the street from where I parked was The Grind, a cafe managed by a friendly high school student. She helped me decide between a double-chocolate muffin and a blueberry muffin, even though I knew as soon as I approached the pastry display that I’d be going with blueberry. This girl was a reincarnation of Reese Witherspoon in Election, simultaneously bubbly and stern, eager to talk about her college plans, a perfectionist to the extreme. Over the course of the day, to get my bearings, I asked her more than a dozen questions. How do you pronounce cudighi? What’s the least expensive place for groceries around here? How many students are you graduating with? She lent me a sharpie and scissors with more enthusiasm than I thought possible. Despite being distracted by a great conversation with a mulleted long-distance bicycle-camper named Charlie (who gave me several solid Milwaukee recommendations) I powered through a relatively long list of Readup to-dos.
In the late afternoon, after a lunch of beans and spinach, I took a longer walk beyond the center of town, along well-groomed boardwalk and river trails. I walked to the end of a very long jetty and settled down on a concrete slab in the shade of a stumpy, red lighthouse, a pictaresque location to meditate and write some postcards. Soon, I needed another sweet. And in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine the treasure I was about to stumble upon.
Sharing a parking lot with the only grocery store in town was a Shopko with a massive banner that said GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. Making my way across the lot, a woman said to me, “Have fun in there,” so I knew I was in for something good.
You can’t imagine how glorious this experience was for me unless you know just how frugal I’ve been lately, denying myself even the most modest of enjoyments: tealights, “fancy” trail mix (versus mere peanuts and raisins), dry beans instead of canned. Overall, I’ve enjoyed this dalliance with ascetic minimalism. A simple life is an easy life. And an easy life is a happy life. But I must tell you, reader, that I went on a downright spree when I found out that every single thing in the entire store was 80% off. It wasn’t the least bit frenetic, but several people used the term “madhouse” to refer to five or six families casually walking around a soon-to-be abandoned warehouse. It was a dream. It was Christmas.
I managed, for the most part, to stay focused on essentials. Food and household items. Things that I’d have to buy eventually. Almost everything was under a dollar. I now have sixty-four loads worth of laundry detergent. Enough green tea to consider Sputnik an ashram. I have Harry & David’s birthday cake-flavored caramel popcorn. Read that again: Harry & David’s birthday-cake flavored caramel popcorn. Pouches of pink salmon for a thirty cents, travels size shampoos and soaps for a dime, cans of soup. I bought five Bauducco “mini chocottone” cakes and as soon as I stepped out of the store, I scarfed one of them in three bites then turned around to buy another five.
Throughout this extravaganza, I was helped along by a strapping, light-haired boy who loved hearing about my travels. He used the term “jealous” at least a dozen times and told me that he’s heading off to the army next year. When my hands were full, he got me a basket. When my basket was full, he got me a cart. And when it was time to check out, he opened up a new register aisle just for me and we talked as he rang me up. The conversation went something like this –
Me: So what’s going on here?
Him: We’re going out of business!
Me: I can see that. But why? Is it just this store?
Him: Nope. The whole corporation.
Me: Bummer. Do you know why?
Him: Well, some guys bought it and started taking the money without putting it back. They just kept it. You know?
Me: I see. Was it a private equity firm?
Him: Nope. Just three guys.
Me: Well they must have been incorporated in some way.
Him: Yeah. I guess so. Maybe.
Me: Wow. So they just bled it out. Pretty sad, huh?
Him: Nah, it’s okay. Apparently they made a hundred and twenty five million dollars each! So they did pretty well.
Me: Yeah, but what about the stores? And your coworkers? Doesn’t everyone need the jobs?
Him: Yeah, but something else will come.
I walked the mile back to Sputnik with four heavy plastic bags and a lunatic grin on my face. As my arms got sore, I thought about private equity with greater clarity and depth than at any other point in my life. And I thought, hands down, that was the best thirty bucks I’ve ever spent.
Leaving Manistique, blasting Christian rock, everything seemed to be in perfect order. Because, really, it was.