If Michigan Had a Nile: Kewpie Dolls and the Dammed

lansing1If Michigan had a Nile, it would be Grand River. An astonishing 252 miles in length, Grand Rapids, Jackson, and Lansing historically depended on its ancient, unspoken power for economic development – the very engine of our society – and perhaps Lansing more than any other city. It’s there where the placid river of mirror-like gentleness is turned into a roaring waterfall by the North Lansing Dam, the tremendous whoosh blanketing the shoreline in a man-made cacophony of sound.

Without the dam’s tremendous power, Lansing as we know it wouldn’t exist. We owe a lot to it as a people and state.

lansing2Unfortunately, for many decades, the great dam was also death trap for fish migrating upstream, a regrettable side effect of human progress. That was, until the Brenke Fish Ladder was constructed in 1981. A series of winding concrete steps, the ladder was cleverly designed to simulate the sort of natural rapids fish instinctively navigate in the wild. Though it might look crude and artificial to the human eye, it evidently works, and the Brenke Fish Ladder has indeed done wonders for the local fish population. It was a small triumph for conservationists.

lansing3The Brenke Fish Ladder attracts more than just fish, however. Fishers of all ages, aware that the ladder is the only way up the river, regularly stake out spots near it, where even the most inexperienced kid with a hook and a worm can cast a line and catch carp like a regular Earnest Hemmingway. It’s kind of unfair when you think about it, but you can’t blame them. That’s where the fish are biting.

It was under such circumstances I watched a group of boys, maybe 8-10 years old, fish near the mouth of the ladder. Puffy cumulus clouds loomed on the horizon, but on the river, the world was bright and windless, the perfect environment for childish adventure.


“Oh, oh, look! Look!”

“Oh my God, check it out! It’s huge!”

“Hurry, hurry!”

A glittering sunfish about as big as a New York boneless strip steak dangled in midair from one of the boys’ lines. Laughing and squealing, the boy reeled it in, the fish writhing, struggling desperately to break free from the sharp end of the hook. The other kids hopped and ran back and forth, caught up in the drama of the moment.

His victory nearly assured, the boy jerked out his hands to grab the sunfish from over the railing, ready to claim his prize, only to have it knocked loose from the hook in his haste. The sunfish, bewildered, smacked against a wall on its way back down and then landed with a thud against a small concrete embankment above the water, the safe haven of the river a few pitiful inches away.

Before anyone could react, the sunfish, after one last violent spasm, mercifully entered the afterlife.

“Aw, why’d you do that, man?”

“I don’t know! I thought….”


lansing4Meanwhile, on the other end of the ladder’s mouth, a small turtle sized up its odds, blissfully unaware of the commotion. All it cared about was whether or not it could make it up the ladder. The task, safe to say, was truly formidable, but what other choice was there?

Following what looked to the untrained eye like a period of intense deliberation, the turtle swam brazenly up to the first step, prepared for the difficult ascent. Yet almost immediately, the sheer force of the water crashing against the step sent the turtle reeling towards the chaos of the dam. Confused, the turtle swam in wild circles, caught in an eddying current that was drawing it closer and closer to the massive undertow.

It was too little, too late; the turtle now spun madly below the water’s surface, trapped, like… like…


Like the wheels of an Oldsmobile Alero speeding down Lansing’s Michigan Avenue, away from the imposing dome of the neoclassical Michigan State Capitol.

lansing5At the same time, a robin pecks at a McDonald’s wrapper in the middle of the road, gobbling up the scraps of a McChicken. The Alero’s bug-splashed grill – low to the ground – is a delirious blur of death, the driver apparently unworried as he approaches the robin. Sure enough, the bird flees from the oncoming car at the last second, conditioned to the dangers of the automobile.

lansing6High above the the car, Lansing’s uneven skyline hangs over the city, this the very town that automobile pioneer Ransom E. Olds called home. Of course, his home – a stately Victorian manor on the corner of Main and Washington – doesn’t exist anymore, long since demolished to make room for I-475. Heck, neither does Oldsmobile for that matter, but that’s another story for another day.


It’s getting late, after all. The pod people, as I call them, have left for the day, their suits and hurried mannerisms and frowns awaiting the next 9-5 shift. In their place, an unsettling quiet takes over downtown, the magnificent stage set emptied of its impassive actors. Still, the minute hand on the exterior of the 297 foot, 23 story Boji Tower ticks away the waning hours dutifully, one after another. Somewhere in Lansing’s gritty working class neighborhoods, the comforting patterns of everyday human life are proceeding normally, but not here.

lansing8In a daze and completely overwhelmed, I take my olive burger from Weston’s Kewpee Sandwich Shoppe (Since 1923! With a naked infant modeled after the Kewpie Dolls popular in the early 20th century as a mascot!) down to the Grand River, past the the fake bell tower and commissioned abstract sculptures. By this point, the grease has bled through the plain white bag I’m holding and the burger’s smell is imprinted deep within my nostrils. Like a starved man, I tear open the tidy wrapper, behold the lumpy sandwich for a moment as if might talk, and then take a big, satisfying bite out of it.

lansing9Ah, yes.

The bun is soft and moist, and the beef nice and juicy, though a tad underseasoned. But the mayonnaise – oh, the mayonnaise! – is amazing, to die for, ingeniously mixed with diced green olives and wonderfully tangy. People swear there has to be some secret ingredient in the mayonnaise, but from what I can tell, this is simply what happens when you put together high quality mayonnaise with pickled green olives. Who’d have figured, right?

Soon, the entire burger is dissolving in the gastric juices in the pit of my stomach, the brief moment of delicious levity finished. Bereft of something useful to do, I find myself inexplicably pondering the philosophical implications of Kewpee’s claim that all their beef is fresh. What does, for example, “fresh” even mean in this industrial country, out there on the expansive ranges of our mechanized farms? How can anything from a factory be fresh?

Then, suddenly, my mind turns back to the sunfish, the turtle, and the robin. The laughing kids. In my mind, I utter that same dumb phrase again, that clichéd, pointless expression I always to turn to: I don’t know.

I don’t fucking know.



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