The little town of Baldwin, Michigan, ought to be the crown jewel of Lake County. It ought to be prosperous. It ought to have a bustling downtown, comfortable, well-maintained homes, and adequate schools.
But it doesn’t.
Even though Lake County is riddled with deep blue lakes and expansive deep green forests. Even though it’s a sportsman’s paradise, bisected by one of the few designated “wild and scenic” rivers in the nation (the Pere Marquette). Even though it’s been a summer destination for generations of “downstate” families, some from as far as Chicago and Detroit, Baldwin and Lake County remain stubbornly down-at-the-heels. Despite its natural riches, it remains a struggling village in the middle of the poorest county in a state that’s not known as an economic powerhouse.
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m in the Pathfinder’s Library on Main Street to, what else?, access the Internet. Pathfinder’s is shoehorned into a couple empty storefronts and the effect is part clutter and part convolution.
Bonnie is the librarian on duty. She has a wicked sense of humor and a no-nonsense demeanor. Mary is also on duty. She’s a tiny wisp with a big smile. Sweet to Bonnie’s balsamic.
Chris comes in with a meek and uncertain air. He’s young-ish and tall with unkempt dark hair that flops over his eyes. His general style is secondhand plaid flannel.
“Do you have any information on boxer’s fracture?” he asks uncertainly. “I, uh, don’t know anything about computers, but, uh, maybe you could find something?”
Bonnie is already on the computer. She finds the condition on Wikipedia. It’s also known as “brawler’s fracture” because boxers are too well-trained to break bones in their hands by hitting someone.
Before long, Chris reveals that his dad had been harrassing his mom. The unstated assumption is that this isn’t unusual. “He’s had a bunch of mini-strokes. I didn’t want to say anything I’d regret, so I punched a hole in the wall.”
“Better to punch the wall than your dad,” said Bonnie.
“I was supposed to go to the hospital,” continued Chris, “but I was wondering if I really need to. I’ve been hurt worse.”
He holds up his hand. The swelling is visible from where I sit.
“At least I can move this finger today. Yesterday I couldn’t move any of them.”
He might have moved a finger, but I couldn’t see it.
Mary copies a bunch of information about boxer’s fracture and puts it in a bag.
“Here. They’re free.”
“Well…I should pay for them…,” Chris says uncertainly.
But the next customer has already come in. This is a 12-year-old boy who wanders through the videos adjacent to the librarian’s desk. He chatters with Mary about school and video games.
“This is a really good movie,” he says. “I watched it before.”
The movie is Spawn.
“Well, honey, you’ll need your mom to check it out because it’s rated R.”
“I checked it out before, I’m sure,” he says.
To my surprise, Mary stands firm.
“You can’t check out an R-rated movie until you’re 18,” she says. “Bring your mom back and you can have it.”
“Yeah, maybe she was with me before,” says Boy.
Three adolescent girls swarm in, eyes encircled in black liner, tops skimming midriffs.
“Honey, you can’t bring that drink in here. You’ll have to finish it outside,” Mary says. She has more backbone than I thought.
The girls mill tentatively. The girl with the drink goes out. The others follow. Boy leaves.
And so the morning progresses. A retired couple drops in to say good-by before beginning their winter migration. A middle-aged man comes in with an update on his wife’s condition.
“You give her a big hug for me and tell her I’m praying for her,” says Mary.
At this point, I’m wondering how prosperity might change the character of this town. If Baldwin were more like a resort town with a fancy library–and I’ve been in several–I’m not sure I’d have conversations like these to eavesdrop on. People in those places tend to have the transparency bred out of them.
Personally, I prefer the Baldwins of the world.