The Coast in Autumn

October 18, 2010

Whenever I say I grew up in a beach town, folks usually assume I mean Havana, where I was born. But, perversely, Havana has no beaches...

When we first arrived from Cuba, after a year of compulsory residence in Miami and year of assimilation in Terre Haute, farther south in Indiana, my family moved to the coast of Lake Michigan. And I do mean the coast.

This was, quite literally, our back yard from third to sixth grades.

The neighborhood was down and out then, our neighbors imports from Texas and Appalachia. A few members of a motorcycle gang lived nearby and tortured their wives and small animals.

Many of the homes around us -- some buried deep in the dunes, the landscape sculpted differently every day by the shifting sands -- were summer getaways for Chicago folks and, for us, abandoned castles during the year which we made our own.

We couldn't wait to get home from school and tear through the grass and the dunes.

Growing up in smallville, Midwestern America wasn't, however, what my parents had planned for us. And so, summers -- when our locale on the beach should have been most advantageous -- we pilgrimaged to Miami (our substitute Havana) and frolicked in those salty waters instead.

Which meant that the moodier tempest of fall, the crisp cool sun and windy seascape is what got imprinted in us about the coast of Lake Michigan.

Later, our abandoned neighborhood would be re-discovered by Chicagoans with money enough for a second home and prices would soar (I checked out a little place, strictly out of curiosity, a place with nary a renovation, and the sale price was nearly half a million with $13,000 in annual taxes).

My childhood in Michigan City was neither idyllic nor uneventful nor traumatizing. It was sweet sometimes, and painful sometimes, like many childhoods.

But each fall I get a craving, like a siren call, for that Third Coast. And each autumn I find an excuse to leave Chicago -- where, frankly, I live only a block from the beach -- to search out that other Lake Michigan, the one where the wind whistles and the dune opens up like a magic portal to the water's edge.

ALL PHOTOS BY ACHY OBEJAS