November 28, 2022

A Clearing in the Distance

By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Oct. 2, 2021

“It feels as if nothing can be overcome. Everything is being relitigated.” – Maureen Dowd

The halfway point of our 34-mile bike ride is Harbor Springs – our favorite destination, rich with Michigan history. 

Ancient glaciers wrote the first chapter of this town’s history. When the glaciers receded thousands of years ago, they carved the northern Michigan landscape that includes this deep harbor surrounded by steep bluffs. 

Native Americans, Jesuit missionaries, French fur traders, and lumber speculators were all drawn to the distinctive natural features that continue to attract visitors from all over the world.

The town has been a trading center, Native American community, a mission, a summer destination, and a year-round destination.

Every year visitors flock here. The spectacular beauty and fabled resort hospitality that attract people continues. Ernest Hemingway spent part of his first 22 years here.

This day is hot and muggy. The bike path’s undulating hills exact a heavy price – we are ravenous.  Wearily, we secure our bikes and head to a prominent and historic restaurant.

We enter behind another couple and request a table for two.

“Sorry, there aren’t any more tables at this time, and we close in 20 minutes, so we are not seating any more customers,” the redheaded hostess icily informs us. 

Meanwhile, she directs the other couple immediately before us to a seat.

“But you are seating them but not us?” I ask. This cannot be what it appears to be, can it?

“They were here before you,” the redhead spat out the words like they were hot and bitter.

“Not so,” I said, stunned.

“We are not seating any more customers,” she intoned, avoiding eye contact.

I stand there briefly, incredulously, anger bubbling to the surface.

Is this really happening? What year is this?

I have traveled many places in my life and time; this doesn’t happen anymore – never in HS.

My wife and I go outside. Then: Two other couples enter the restaurant, but do not leave. 

Perplexed, I re-enter the restaurant. 

“NOW you have tables?” I ask quietly.

“Some people left and we now have tables,” she said.

“Some people left, really? Were they invisible ghosts perhaps? I’ve been standing near the door; not a single, solitary soul exited,” I say.

No response. I leave and grab my bike. This can’t be what it seems to be.

Then another couple approaches the door. 

“You will probably get a table; we couldn’t,” I tell them. 

They enter and do not leave. I train my camera on the door.

The redhead hostess peers out, sees me taking pictures, then waves us in nervously. 

“We have a table for you now – come on in,” she says.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “I saw the pie scene in the movie, ‘The Help.’ How could I eat here?”

“No, come on in,” she implores. “We have tables now.”

My wife pleads to go. And we do. There are other restaurants in this lovely little town.

The Paper Station Bistro around the corner on 145 E. Main St. welcomes us with open arms. 

Before reluctantly resuming our bike ride, we visit Between the Covers, the best independent bookstore not located in Traverse City.

“You guys are back; it’s always a pleasure to see you,” the lady behind the counter says warmly. “Great day for biking, right?”

We groan our affirmative reply.

A few minutes later, we exit. I’m clutching a copy of Kafka’s “Lost Writings.”

And so, we wait for our young country to wash away the stain of its sordid history.

What will America become? I wonder.

Roxanne Gay, writing in her Audacity newsletter, pondered this question more incisively than I.

She writes, “I have been re-reading James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’ (and) considering the phrase, ‘This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it.’” 

I take these words as a reminder that all of us who want to be here belong here and have every right to call this country home. We have every right to be safe and to be happy and live our lives as we choose.

“(Some people are) fighting to keep us from what is ours and where we belong,” writes Gay. “That’s nothing new. But we cannot be moved. We will not be moved.”

Isiah Smith is a former government attorney.


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