On Michigan and Michael

Much of my time spent on Twitter — when I’m not making bad Nazi jokes and sharing long-form journalism — involves discussing football with Michigan fans. Some of them are reporters and bloggers, some of them are just obsessed, like me. I look forward to my conversations with these friends in so many ways. I need people in my life for whom having the “in the 2007 game against Penn State, we definitely should have gone for it on that third and two, right?” talk is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I’m insane.

On Monday, some of these friends and I had a long conversation about the most painful games in recent Michigan football history. The Horror. Losing to Toledo at home because we were beyond terrible. The 2007 game against Oregon. (By the way, Dennis Dixon, I still think you would have won the Heisman that year if it weren’t for that pesky ACL tear.) A litany of pain and anguish that I have done my best to forget.

Had I not been bound by both the character limits and rules of decorum expected of Twitter users who don’t suck, I might have described these games as “drive-by shootings” or “like being slowly strangled by large members of an organized crime family bent on destroying my small, family-owned business” because that’s what it felt like to watch Appalachian State rush the field after blocking that field goal, or to see the football team you, for some reason, love more than life itself flail its way to a losing season. It hurt physically and emotionally and spiritually. And if you don’t understand how losing a game can hurt your soul, then you’ve never loved college football.

On Sunday, a little boy named Michael, who lived in the house behind mine, disappeared. He was seven-years-old and autistic, last seen in the alley directly behind my back gate, wearing a diaper and a red t-shirt. I’ve probably seen him before. Maybe I saw him last Fourth of July when we set off fireworks in the alley and I dove behind my roommate’s car to avoid losing my eyelashes. Maybe I saw him in the mornings when I walk past the alley on my way to my Metro stop. I have probably seen him dozens of times and barely registered his existence until he was gone.

The neighborhood mobilized to look for him, even when the police seemed to be taking his disappearance in stride. Sex workers who walk the block in the mornings and kids who skateboard to Northeast Market to buy cheap ice cream sandwiches searched every nook and cranny of that alley. Community members looked for Michael, tweeted about Michael, searched out and discussed and argued about every scrap of information about Michael. It’s so hot, and he’s so little, and he just couldn’t have gotten that far — couldn’t have.

He was found at 6 p.m. yesterday. He was dead, lying in an unused Nissan Altima 40 feet away from where he was last seen. Searchers passed the car in which he was found dozens of times. Some people said that they were sure they’d looked in that car, a car I’ve seen parked behind the house next door to Michael’s almost every day.

People were angry, and still are. How did this happen? Was this an accident? How did that car not get searched more thoroughly? Why were there not more “missing child” posters in the neighborhood? Where were DC police? I watched from my kitchen table as homicide detectives and CSI units – the same people I’ve watched on network television shows for the past 15 years – sweep the alley, and I’ve never felt more useless.

I can’t stop thinking about Michael. I can’t stop thinking about the crime scene tape and the news reporters standing behind my back gate and how scared he must have been in that car and how I hope, I desperately hope that he wasn’t in pain when he died, alone, in the trunk of a car barely 10 yards away from his family. I can’t stop thinking about how he was probably dead while I was discussing whether or not I’d rather have a painful win or an exciting loss (painful win, obviously). I can’t stop thinking about how a little boy, born my sophomore year of college, is gone.

But eventually, I’ll forget about this. The neighborhood will forget this. The anger will dissipate into community meetings and Twitter arguments. It’ll be a road sign in our rearview mirror – “Remember when Michael disappeared?” – like how we remember 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombings or other tragedies that mark a time and place in our memories. Things will change, or nothing will change, because how can you stop a little boy from somehow climbing into a car on a 95-degree day and accidentally locking himself in? People will move into the neighborhood who won’t know about Michael. Life will go on.

In a way, I feel almost as if writing about this is like trying to graft myself onto Michael’s story when I am only tangentially connected to him, and I don’t know if that’s wrong. I saw a documentary once about a woman who claimed to lose her husband in 9/11 (but didn’t), and one of the interviewees said that 9/11 became a moment people wanted to be a part of so that they could feel like parts of a whole, even if that whole was horrific and tragic and terrible. Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.

They towed the car Michael died in last night. The car had been there for so long that not seeing it in that yard was weirdly jarring. The crime scene tape is still up. Network news outlets were parked at the end of the alley this morning, videographers running across the street to set up their shots. I watched them, and then I walked to work. 


My sister visited me this weekend while the hunt for Michael raged. She’s family, obviously. But so is Trinidad, and so is Michigan. I’m bound to these communities by zip code and student loan payments and rent checks and addresses and sweatshirts. I’m bound to these communities by loyalty, and by love. The sense of shared pain my neighborhood is feeling and the hour-long conversations I’ve had with my fellow Michigan fans saying only “WHAT” and “HOW” are bonds that tie me to other people, and to myself. I love Michigan because it was my first real home. I love Trinidad because it’s my first real neighborhood. I love Michigan because it shaped me, and I love Trinidad because it’s challenged me. 

Football doesn’t matter, but community does. And communities are at their best in times of trial. The crime scene tape will come down soon, and we’ll forget about the police cars and the search parties. Children are already going back to running up and down the sidewalk while parents stand on porches and talk. Communities mourn together, and then they move on, whether from the Horror or from a true tragedy.

So we’ll be okay. Not today. Or tomorrow. But we’ll be okay.