A return to hometown Flint shocks entertainer Sandra Bernhard.
I couldn’t get Sandra Bernhard to pose in front of her house on Concord Street in Flint because she said it was “too creepy,” and she was right. I wasn’t about to stand in front of my old house around the corner, either. In fact, everything about our old neighborhood and everything about the trip up to the old neighborhood could be described as “creepy.”
Sandy — comedian, singer, performer, actor and one of my best friends from kindergarten through fifth grade — was bringing her show to the Ark in Ann Arbor on a February weekend, but she came in a day early on Jan. 31 so she could visit Flint. She’d been having dreams about the neighborhood, but wasn’t sure what was real or not, and who better to take her back home than me?
My wife, Mary Ann, and I picked her up at the airport that morning, then took her to her Ann Arbor hotel to drop off her four bags filled with clothing, essentials and “merch” and then made our way up to Flint.
On the same crappy, horrible day of the huge pileup on I-75 in Detroit, we were stuck in traffic because of another huge pileup in Fenton that closed off the southbound lane. As emergency vehicles sped north up the wrong side of US-23, we inched through occasional snow squalls that reduced visibility to zero. The whiteout conditions seemed to transport us to a different world. And Flint, on the best of days, can be considered a different world. Staring at her house from the street, Sandy pointed out the features her mother designed — a brick addition to the front of their modest house, a super Danish modern design with a modern entrance.
“My parents built it the year I was born,” she said. “I smashed my finger on the door once and lost a fingernail on Rosh Hashanah.”
She also pointed out the collapsing eaves, the paint job needed on the garage door, the general run-down condition of the house and the neighborhood in general.
Driving through the 20 square blocks that identified our world so many years ago, Sandy rattled off the names of the families living in many of the homes. We’d see the occasional burnt-out shell of a house with a big yellow sign stuck to a remaining wall offering $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist responsible.
“I don’t think this is going to dissipate those dreams I’ve had,” she said. “They might be in better shape than the reality.”
Back In The Day
These were once beautiful middle-class homes in a neighborhood teeming with children. No one locked their doors, and most kids had “refrigerator privileges” with several other homes — they could just walk into a house and take something to eat. It is now known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.
We stopped at the Mackin Road Units around the corner from my old house, where elderly teachers like Miss Miller, Miss Rolloff and Mrs. Eckstrom taught kindergarten through third grade in a row of one-room schoolhouses that shared a common asphalt-covered playground. A place where Sandy and I — two scrawny, strangely imaginative Jewish kids — played made-up games like Santa and Rudolph at recess, hopping around the asphalt, passing around invisible presents to kids, then playing on a jungle gym shaped like a rocket ship made of unforgiving galvanized steel. The jungle gym still stands in the corner of the yard, but the Units have been converted to a Baptist church.
“I threw stones where they were building houses behind the playground, and they landed in the wet cement,” she remembered. “Lenny Fink told Miss Rolloff what I did and she kept me after school.”
For someone who left Flint at 10 years old and never looked back, Sandy has a remarkable memory of her childhood. She still doesn’t know why the family moved to Scottsdale; she only remembers spending her last night in Flint in 1965 at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on Pierson Road.
“We left behind everybody we knew — you get plucked without any real explanation,” she said. “A week and a half later, you’re living in a motor court hotel in Phoenix with a kitchenette and a gas stove.”
A City Transformed
We drove throughout Flint and through streets that were once so familiar.
“Out of all the places I’ve ever gone back to in my life, it’s a place that’s changed the most remarkably,” she said. “It bears no resemblance to where I grew up. It’s shocking.”
My wife, Mary Ann, a family law attorney, has traveled in the worst neighborhoods of Detroit, blocks filled with rubble, where even the street signs have been stolen. Driving around Flint, she said, “At least in Detroit, they board up the burned-out homes.”
Wherever we drove in Flint, it was hard not to notice the lack of people on the streets. Throughout the day, we barely saw a dozen people; and it made Flint look, sadly, post-apocalyptic.
We stopped at our old shul, Congregation Beth Israel, which holds special memories for Sandy.
“I remember Morrie Bickoff’s mom, Sophie, did all the catering. She’d come in with her rolled-down stockings, and she worked her tuchas off. She did all the bar mitzvahs and weddings,” she said. “When you think about all the people that you knew in your life, you’d also run into them at shul because people don’t go to shul like they once did. That was a real gathering place.”
Just like the Units, the gathering place turned into another Baptist church, with a multi-colored glass cross embedded in the front lawn.
We wanted to go inside and see the sanctuary, but it was closed. She posed beside a tree by the Hebrew school entrance that she used to hang out under with other kids from shul.
Sandy’s Spiritual Side
When her grandfather, George Schwartz, was older, he went every day to morning minyan and evening services, and he led the family seders.
“He was from Russia, and when you think about how much has happened in the last 100 years, and families totally re-establishing themselves in a whole new world, it makes you more compassionate toward people who also want come to America and establish their lives,” she said.
“In many ways, we all snuck in just the way people from South America and Central America and Mexico do. Most people want a better life, and we’ve stopped offering the better life because everybody we know got in under the wire? I have a big problem with that.
“If anybody should be leading the charge to opening this country to other people, it should be the Jews,” she said. “Jews have had it the hardest and have been through more than most people and were turned away. We should open our hearts and our arms to people who are also having a hard time in other places.”
She attends Shabbat services every week at a shul or a Chabad house, no matter where she is. In Ann Arbor, we went to University of Michigan Hillel.
Sandy, also known as one of the people who introduced Madonna and Hollywood to Kabbalah, is still profoundly spiritual but — as in the rest of her life — on her own terms.
“I like a lot of the things that I picked up at the Kabbalah Center,” she said. “I found the center a little bit dogmatic and limiting. They have their own thing. They want to control people to a certain extent and dictate how people are supposed to live and how they’re supposed to practice their spirituality. That’s when I started getting turned off.”
She said that Judaism “needs an overhaul.”
“The super ultra-religious Jews have gone over the edge. They’re repressing women. What they did to the 8-year-old girl in Israel, spitting on her. All religious fundamentalists have disregard for women and treat them like chattel.
“People have to stop having so many children, and the ultra-religious are baby machines. It’s antithetical to the way we live in this world and the environment, and it’s no good for anything,” she said.
“How can you really raise your child the right way when you have 10 others to deal with? They just raise each other, and you have no real connection to your child. I find that really strange.”
A New Friend
Before we left Flint, Sandy wanted to finally meet Shawn Colton, a singer and writer who lives with his wife and son in Flint. He wrote Sandy on Twitter and they became kindred spirits through the Twitterverse. Shawn is writing Legends of the Boo-Monster, a children’s book based on his autistic son, David.
Sandy planned to invite Shawn on stage to sing a duet for her closing number, which is a rarity. She has traveled all over the world appearing in her one-woman shows filled with stories that blast Hollywood, politics, American culture or anything else that crosses her mind. And the lady can sing.
Later that night over dinner, Sandy said she’d incorporate some of what she saw in Flint into her show.
“The great thing about doing your own work, you can constantly weave in your day-to-day experiences and keep evolving your show and making it fresh. It’s also relevant for the people who come to see you.”
She loves performing live but would like more television work. She has appeared on Roseanne’s Nuts and will appear on The Neighbors, as a driving instructor.
“It would be nice to have a more regular presence on television, so I wouldn’t have to rely on this so heavily. It’s just exhausting to travel; it takes its toll,” she said.
“It’s not the end of the world that I have to — it could be a lot worse. The good news about being a self-starter and writing your own material and doing what I do, you can sustain your career your whole life.”
At the Ark on Friday and Saturday night, Sandy mentions the weather and her tour through Flint, but she doesn’t make it funny. She skewers Whole Foods, and Barney’s Christmas catalogue, describes Jane Fonda’s 75th birthday party and everything else that crosses her mind.
She belts out four songs with a three-piece band she put together locally and invites Shawn on stage to sing REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” to close out a sold-out show.
By Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer