15. Michigan Man
Pops’ death notwithstanding, I was ready to meet the challenges and opportunities posed by the University of Michigan. I had worked too hard and had endured too much emotional turmoil to turn back. And then there was the silent promise I’d made to my father—that I wouldn’t let anything or anyone stop me; that I would control my destiny.
My life as a “Michigan Man” began weeks earlier with preparations for the move from Flint to Ann Arbor. GMI had ingrained in me the importance of work experience, so before moving I contacted the U-M College of Engineering to seek an on-campus job. I wanted the practical experience, and I needed the spending money. Unlike GMI, a U-M education wasn’t free, and despite my mother’s willingness to pay for my education, I didn’t want the entire burden to fall on her.
My job-seeking call to the dean of engineering’s office scored a referral to Professor William J. Williams. I phoned Professor Williams, who sounded like a reasonable, no-nonsense guy. I asked if he had any jobs in his laboratory, and right away he hired me as an undergraduate research assistant. I was surprised because Professor Williams knew little about me other than that I was transferring from GMI and was interested in his research field: biomedical engineering.
Just prior to Labor Day, I loaded up the Camaro and took off on the fifty-five-mile jaunt to Ann Arbor. It was a bright, sunny day. Stevie Wonder had just released the album Innervisions, and I had it blasting from my cassette player as I cruised south on U.S.-23. My first Ann Arbor stop was the G. G. Brown Laboratory on North Campus. That was where Dr. Williams’s research lab was located, and I wanted to meet him right away.
I found an office marked Bioelectrical Sciences, and saw a white, middle-aged man with curly dark brown hair seated behind a desk. I knocked softly on the open door, and when the man looked up, I said, “Excuse me, I’m looking for Professor Williams.”
The man got up from his chair, extended his hand, and said, “I’m Professor Williams. And you must be David Tarver, the man from GMI.” Professor Williams smiled as he said, “the man from GMI,” and I couldn’t help smiling back. He seemed like a nice guy, not a cold and detached “professor type.” He didn’t seem surprised by my skin color—his face didn’t distort into that weird but all too familiar expression that said I wasn’t expecting you to be black. His hairstyle and his disarming, confident manner reminded me of John F. Kennedy. I took an immediate liking to my new boss.
Dr. Williams told me about his research as we toured the Bioelectrical Sciences Lab. He said his work focused on understanding how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. I was fascinated as he explained that the brain and muscles communicate via electrical signals, and that by decoding those signals he hoped to create medical breakthroughs for people with spinal-cord injuries. As I followed Dr. Williams around the lab and listened to his mini-lecture, I thought this is important work that can really make a difference in the world.
Of course I had other reasons to be excited about my move to the University of Michigan. One reason was girls. I was happy to trade GMI’s near-monastic environment for a campus populated by thousands and thousands of voluptuous girls—and not just engineering girls, but social science girls and education girls and biology girls and psychology girls. I couldn’t wait to start meeting them.
Another cause for excitement was the sports scene. Michigan had a full-blown major-university sports program that stood in stark contrast to the few intramural activities at GMI. More than 100,000 people gathered in Michigan Stadium for each home football game. In the winter, the action shifted next door to Crisler Arena for Big Ten basketball. Even the intramural sports programs at Michigan were much bigger and better than those at GMI. With more than 40,000 students on campus, compared with 3,000 at GMI, everything seemed more grandiose at Michigan.
I was filled with excitement and anticipation, and a bit of apprehension, as I eased onto central campus in my Camaro. I was apprehensive because Michigan was so big, and because the engineering school was full of smart kids, each from the top of his or her high school class. The apprehension dampened my spirits, despite the beauty and warmth of the sunny late-summer afternoon. I remained dispirited until I remembered Reggie’s Rule.
Whenever my friend Reggie Barnett and I found ourselves the only blacks in a high school class, and I expressed concern, he told me not to worry. He summed the situation up this way: “Look, Dave, in any of these classes, you’re only competing against twenty-five percent of the students. Twenty-five percent are incompetent, twenty-five percent are lazy, and twenty-five percent are just not as good as you. That means you have a B in the class even before you get started. If you work hard, you should be right up there at the top of the class.”
That was Reggie’s Twenty-five Percent Rule, and he must have taken it to heart, because he graduated from Flint Central with a 3.95 grade-point average while starring every year in football, basketball, and track. As I thought about Reggie’s Rule, I smiled softly, and the euphoria brought on by the beautiful fall afternoon returned.
My first stop on campus was the housing office. I needed a place to stay, but didn’t want to live in a dormitory. I had heard too many stories about the wild and crazy goings-on in the dorms. That environment didn’t seem compatible with the intense studying my engineering curriculum would require. My problem was that, as a transfer student, I didn’t know anyone I could share an apartment with, and I didn’t think I could afford my own.
The clerk at the housing office listened patiently as I explained that I was a transfer student in need of an apartment. She looked as if she had heard my predicament a thousand times. She suggested an apartment complex called University Towers, commonly referred to as U Towers. She said the rooms there were reasonably priced, so I wouldn’t need a roommate. That was exciting news. U Towers sat at the eastern edge of campus, only a few blocks from the engineering buildings. It was a dull, grayish high-rise, one of the tallest buildings in Ann Arbor. A few retail shops were housed on the ground floor, and the building was surrounded by a variety of shops and eateries. I was thrilled by the idea of living in a relatively new high-rise, and pleased at not needing a roommate.
The U Towers rental agent confirmed that units were available for $106 per month. I gladly accepted an apartment at that rate, sight unseen. The agent then said I would be sharing an apartment suite with two other tenants, but that each tenant was separately responsible for his own rent payments. I was taken aback. It seemed that I would have roommates, people I hadn’t chosen or even met. I was uneasy, but the school year was about to begin, and I needed the apartment, so I accepted.
I unloaded some belongings from the car and carried them up to my first-ever apartment. I unlocked the door and peered inside. The front door opened into the kitchen. The living room sat just beyond, with a bedroom on either side. A bathroom was situated just off the living room. The agent had told me my room was on the right-hand side of the apartment, so I immediately went there to settle in. I was shocked to find two beds, and even more shocked to find an olive-skinned fellow with a scraggly beard sitting on one of them.
“Hello” the scraggly one said. “My name Mehmet.” His English was heavily accented but understandable, and I appreciated his cordiality.
“Hello” I replied tentatively. “I’m David. I was told that this was an apartment for three people.”
“Yes, my friend and I are sleeping in this bed. You can have that one.” He pointed to the other bed. “Another couple stays in the other room. They are from India, I think.”
I was burning with anger, not at Mehmet, but at U Towers, as I realized I would have four roommates, not two: Mehmet and his “friend,” and a couple from India who would be occupying the other room. And I would be paying a third of the rent even though five people were living in the apartment. I felt as if I had been taken. Still, it wasn’t a bad apartment, and Mehmet seemed like a nice guy. I needed a place to stay, and I didn’t know anyone else I could share an apartment with. I had to give the arrangement a try.
I decided I might as well get to know my new roommate. “Where are you from, Mehmet?” I asked.
“I and my friend are from Turkey. We are here at the university to study education. From where are you?”
“I’m from Flint, just up the road,” I replied. “I’m in the engineering school.”
Mehmet and I continued to make small talk for a few minutes. He told me he liked Ann Arbor but missed his home. I told him I was looking forward to living in Ann Arbor, and that I was excited to study engineering. We talked, but we didn’t seem to have much in common. After a while I started unpacking boxes and organizing my side of the room. Mehmet sat on his bed and read a book for a while, and then he went out.
That night, things began to heat up in our little apartment. First, Mehmet and his friend arrived together. I was in the living room setting up my stereo equipment when they came in. Mehmet introduced me to his friend, but the second Turk spoke hardly any English. His name was difficult for me to pronounce and even more difficult to remember. After the introductions, the two Turks went immediately to the bedroom. A few minutes later, my other roommates, the Indian couple, made their entrance. The man wore a wrinkled tweed sport jacket and an open-collar white shirt. The wife wore traditional Indian garb. When they saw me standing in the living room, they stopped dead in their tracks. They seemed shocked to see me, and I recognized that kind of shock. The last thing they expected to find in their living room was a large American Negro.
The Indian man tried to conceal his surprise, and from the spot where he and his wife stood frozen in the kitchen, he made his introductions.
“Hello,” he said, tentatively. “I am Gopal and this is my wife Dipa.” It was a terse and choppy introduction, and Dipa’s gaze never left the kitchen floor.
“Hello, Gopal,” I said, trying to sound cheery. “My name is David, and I guess we’re going to be sharing this apartment. I’m a student in electrical engineering.”
I thought the knowledge that I was an engineering student would put Gopal’s mind at ease. It didn’t.
“Nice to meet you,” Gopal said. The brevity of his response was matched by its insincere tone. Gopal and his wife retreated to their room and closed the door. I heard the click of the deadbolt lock. Gopal and Dipa were in for the night.
I finished setting up my stereo system and put on some vinyl—360 Degrees of Billy Paul—at a respectful volume level. I chuckled when the cut Am I Black Enough For You came on:
“We’re gonna move on up, one by one
We ain’t gonna stop until the work gets done
Am I black enough for yah?
Am I black enough for yah?”
The song put me in a defiant mood. I finished unpacking and storing my things, and then sat back on the sofa to contemplate the situation. The apartment was far from what I had envisioned. It was nice enough, and it was modern, but it wasn’t glamorous or fun. The Turks and the Indians certainly weren’t ideal roommates. The rent, which had looked attractive at first, now seemed like a rip-off.
On the other hand, I had a place to live. I had moved to Ann Arbor on my own and had found a job. My roommates, while not exactly fun folks, probably wouldn’t bother me or intrude on my business. And I lived just two blocks from the East Engineering building (“East Engin”), where most of my classes would be. It’s not quite what I expected, but at least I’m here, I thought. Things can only get better. I decided to focus on my classes and on having the best possible time in Ann Arbor.
Most engineering students took three or four difficult courses in a semester. That first semester, despite being new to U-M, I took five. I had carried heavy course loads at GMI, where intense study was the rule, but U-M academic life presented new challenges. For one thing, most of my course subjects were new to me. Sure, I was familiar with electronic circuits, but not with subjects like electromagnetic field theory and linear algebra. Then there was modern physics. I had earned an A in each classical physics course I took at GMI, but modern physics at U-M was a different animal. We studied Einstein’s theory of relativity and other new-age topics. The ideas were abstract, and I had a hard time grasping them.
The whole approach to teaching and learning at Michigan was different. At GMI, genial and experienced instructors led the classes, and their main role was to teach. It was similar to high school, but with more advanced, more specialized subjects. At Michigan, professors lectured but seldom interacted with students. Their primary charge was to do research and publish books and get famous, to bring acclaim to themselves and the university. Dealing with students was often delegated to graduate teaching assistants who explained the lectures, answered questions, and administered and graded exams. Many teaching assistants were from Asia, so dealing with them sometimes presented considerable language and cultural barriers.
At GMI, if you paid attention in class, did your homework, and studied hard, you would almost always do well on exams. At Michigan, you could study as hard as you wanted, but you might not even recognize the questions on an exam. U-M professors wanted students to demonstrate that they could extrapolate from what they learned in the classroom and apply that knowledge to new and unfamiliar situations. GMI instructors were usually satisfied to have students regurgitate what they’d learned in class. That difference made for some challenging exams during my first semester in Ann Arbor. I felt fortunate just to be keeping up.
The 1960s civil rights protests, the Detroit riots, and the U-M Black Action Movement (BAM) protests spurred diversification of the U-M student population. In 1970, BAM sponsored student strikes and took over buildings, demanding that the university admit more blacks. I was part of the first wave as Michigan began admitting more than a token number of African Americans. Even so, being in the College of Engineering avant-garde made for a lonely existence. Other areas of the university, such as the School of Education and the College of Literature, Science and Arts, had far more black students. I rarely saw them, though, because the College of Engineering was a world unto itself.
One day, feeling isolated and alone, I was walking toward the dean’s office in West Engineering when I heard a female voice behind me.
“Hey, there! You’re new here, aren’t you?”
I turned around and was amazed to see an attractive black woman running up the hallway toward me. I wasn’t sure if she was a student or an employee. She was casually dressed and wore her hair in a neat Afro.
“Yes, I just transferred here from GMI, up in Flint.” I tried my best to sound cool and confident, seeking to make a good impression.
“Well, I’m Anne Monterio, and I run MEPO. Have you heard about it?”
“Uh, no, I haven’t,” I said. I didn’t want to seem uninformed, but I had to tell the truth.
“Well, Mr. GMI, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m David Tarver, and I’m in ECE.” ECE was the acronym for Electrical and Computer Engineering—no one ever used the full name.
“Oh, a double-E,” Ms. Monterio said. “I’m impressed.” Double-E was college slang for electrical engineer, and was a cooler expression than “ECE.”
“Well, Mr. Tarver, you need to come by my office and get acquainted! That’s how we do things around here.”
Anne didn’t strike me as pushy. Despite her unfamiliar Brooklyn accent, she seemed warm and welcoming, in sharp contrast to the drab hallways of West Engineering. I walked with Anne to her office, and that’s when she elaborated about MEPO, the Minority Engineering Programs Office. Anne explained that the office was set up by the engineering dean to help blacks and other minorities deal with life in the College of Engineering. She said if I had any problems, if I needed academic help, if I had trouble with a professor, I should come to see her. Anne had a completely disarming way about her, and I immediately felt at ease.
I was glad to meet Anne and find out about MEPO, but I didn’t think I would need any academic help. I had always thought of myself as a top student, and given Reggie’s Twenty-five Percent Rule, I planned to be in the upper echelon of any class I took. MEPO was a welcome sight, though, a place where black engineering students could congregate, commiserate, and exchange information. MEPO seemed like a little black island in the midst of a vast engineering sea.
And what a sea it was! In most classes I was the only black student, and the environment was often hostile. Repeatedly, when I raised my hand to ask a question, I heard snickers or saw exasperated, impatient expressions on my classmates’ faces. It was as if they felt my question proved I wasn’t qualified to be in the class. At first, I was intimidated and reluctant to ask questions, but I soon noticed that when the professor answered my question, other students scribbled in their notebooks. I realized that they had wanted to ask the same question but had been afraid to. I developed a thick skin. I decided that if I didn’t know something, I was going to ask, and to hell with what others thought. I knew I wasn’t stupid, and even if I was, I wasn’t going to get smart by not asking questions.
Classroom life wasn’t all bad. After a few weeks, I bonded with a couple of foreign students, a guy named Carlos from Brazil, and a woman named Adilah from Kuwait. Both were shunned by classmates, just as I was, and both seemed to be serious students and interesting people.
Carlos was a studying maniac. When he left class, he would immediately go somewhere to study, either his room or the library or one of the small study compartments in the East Engineering building. Carlos was a bright guy, and was always prepared for class, but he had no practical engineering experience. Since I had so much experience as a hobbyist and as a GMI co-op student, I was able to add practical perspective to the things we learned in class. Carlos and I were great study partners. He would come up with the right answers to the homework problems, and I would tell him how each answer applied in the real world.
Adilah was another story. From the first day I saw her in class, I felt sorry for her. None of our classmates ever spoke to Adilah. On those few occasions when she asked a question in class, other students treated her even worse than they treated me. Adilah dressed conservatively and seemed extremely shy, adding to her isolation. One day after class, I decided I would befriend Adilah and get to know her better. I knew she also lived in U Towers, because I often saw her entering the building. On the way home one day, I struck up a conversation.
“Hello,” I said.
“That was a pretty tough class today, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes. I think I will need some help before the next exam.”
“Well, I’d be glad to study with you if you want.”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
After that, Adilah and I studied together a few times in the East Engineering building. We often walked back to U Towers together after class, and we started to talk about things other than school. One day, Adilah invited me to her apartment for dinner. I was quite surprised, because I thought she was much too shy to do anything like that.
On the day of our dinner, I arrived at Adilah’s apartment not knowing what to expect. I didn’t feel a romantic attraction to her, and I hoped the sentiment was mutual. I suspected and hoped Adilah was just expressing appreciation to her study buddy.
Dinner was a huge disappointment. No, it was more than disappointing—it was the worst meal I ever had. I didn’t know if it was the lamb—I had never eaten lamb—or if it was the unusual spices, or if Adilah just couldn’t cook. Whatever the reason, the food tasted horrible, and the dinner was torture because I had to be polite and pretend I was enjoying it, though I wanted to spit it out.
After dinner, we talked about our backgrounds. Adilah told me about her upbringing in Kuwait, and that her father wanted her to be an engineer. I told her about my life in Flint, and that I had loved electronics since grade school. The Yom Kippur war was in the news at the time, and I was curious about Adilah’s view of the Arab/Israeli conflict. I figured that being from the Middle East, she might have a special perspective on the situation, so I asked.
“What do you think the chances are for peace in the Middle East?”
Adilah turned very serious and stern. Without hesitating, she looked straight into my eyes and said, “There will be no peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have a home.”
I didn’t even know who the Palestinians were.
The relationship with my roommates rapidly unraveled. Mehmet and I continued to get along reasonably well, but his friend never spoke to me. I attributed that to the language barrier, but I couldn’t be sure. Gopal and Dipa kept pretty much to themselves; Gopal spent almost the entire day in class, and Dipa holed up in their bedroom. Sometimes while I was away at class, Dipa would venture into the kitchen and cook a pungent Indian stew. On those few occasions when I returned to the apartment and found her in the kitchen, Dipa ran to her bedroom and locked the door. I found that humiliating.
The Turks never seemed to change their bedding, and between that and Dipa’s aromatic cooking, my nose was never wanting for stimulation. After enduring those conditions for a few weeks, I retreated home to Flint to rest and sleep in my comfortable old bed. As I lay there thinking about the good old days, I felt an itch. I looked down at my forearm and saw a small scab, and I immediately did what any red-blooded young male would do—I picked at it. To my dismay, the scab began to fight back. Suddenly, it leaped off my arm and ran across the bed.
My heart started to beat rapidly. What the heck was that? I was frightened out of my wits. The anxiety began to subside as I realized the “scab” had been some kind of insect. I spent the rest of the weekend at home and didn’t think much more about it.
I returned to Ann Arbor on Sunday night, rested and ready for another week at the apartment. When I arrived, the Turks and the Indians were absent. Before turning in for the night, I went to the bathroom. While standing in front of the toilet, I noticed a bug on my shorts that resembled the one I had seen in Flint. So that’s where it went! Then I saw another, and another, and I started to get frightened all over again. Upon closer inspection, I noticed what must have been hundreds of the little creatures.
A few of the bugs were dead, so I pinched one between my fingers and inspected it more closely. It was one of the strangest bugs I had ever seen, because it looked like a little crab, complete with near-microscopic pincers. I couldn’t bear to think that thousands of those little things were residing in my pubic region at that very moment. What were they? Would they kill me? If I went to sleep, would the Turks find me dead in the morning, half-eaten by tiny crustaceans?
I went to bed, but between the itching and the anxiety I couldn’t sleep. First thing in the morning, I dashed over to the student health center. As soon as I entered the building, I saw a huge banner that depicted a giant version of the bugs that were infesting my body. I didn’t know if I should be relieved or terrified.
My condition turned out to be well known and common: I had lice. The little creatures had occupied every patch of hair on my body, including my afro. The health-center nurse said they probably came from the bedding in the not-so-tidy room I shared with the Turks. She brought me some medicated shampoo and told me to shower with it a few times. I did, and within a couple of days the lice were gone.
Back at the apartment, I resolved that the Turks had to go. The Indians too. I was sick of my living conditions. I was sick of the Turks’ smelly sheets. I was sick of Dipa’s pungent stews, and I was sick of hearing the Indians’ door slam and lock every time I entered the apartment. I had to take control of my environment, so I decided to drive them all from the apartment with music—very loud black music. I cranked up my stereo late at night. For extra emphasis, I played along on my trombone. The Turks and the Indians were too timid to complain. They just got up the next morning, bleary-eyed, and went about their business. My strategy worked. Within a few days, Gopal and Dipa, Mehmet, and Turk #2 all moved out.
I had the place to myself for several days, but then U Towers assigned two new tenants. My new roommates were brothers—brothers as in siblings, and “brothers” as in African Americans. The brothers were well dressed and clean, and they seemed like nice guys. We communicated easily, and they were Michigan natives, just like me. I was confident my roommate problems were solved.
One afternoon, I returned to the apartment to find the brothers sitting on the living room sofa, listening to my records on my stereo. A huge pile of marijuana was stacked on the coffee table in front of them, and they were calmly transferring it to little plastic bags. The older of the two brothers looked at me severely and said, “Don’t tell nobody ’bout this shit, man.”
I was too frightened to discuss the situation, so I just said okay and left.
It was my turn to move out. A few days later, I found a one-bedroom apartment far away from U Towers. The cost was much higher—$180 per month—and the location much less convenient, but I never wanted to see the brothers or the Turks or the Indians again, and I never wanted another roommate.
All things considered, I felt fortunate to have that first semester behind me. I survived the loss of my father. I survived the transition from GMI to U-M. I survived U Towers. Sitting in my nice one-bedroom apartment at the Village Green, near U-M’s North Campus, I resolved to do better.Share