Excerpted from the hardcover edition. Chapter 1
i grew up in a suburb of detroit, michigan. no, not Grosse Pointe. Not 8 Mile. To everyone who is not from Michigan: there are more places besides Grosse Pointe and 8 Mile in the Detroit area. Grosse Pointe is for superrich people, of which I was/am not. And 8 Mile is a road, not a place. It is a long road that goes from Eminem-land all the way to McMansion-land. I am from Livonia. It’s basic. It’s clean and there are no tall buildings that I can remember, maybe the city hall, or the hospital, but I’m only talking eight floors, tops. There are a lot of strip malls and two-story colonial houses and many good public schools. It is your typical midwestern suburb.
In Livonia our high schools were named after foreign statesmen, the junior highs were named after poets, and the elementary schools were named after presidents. I went to Kennedy for elementary school, Frost for middle, and Churchill for high school. But I hated school. I pretty much hated every second I had to be there. I can’t really remember why I hated it so much, but I think some of it had to do with having to leave my house in the cold so many months out of the year. It was always so cold, and there was a lot of snow. I took the bus to high school, but most of elementary and all of junior high I had to walk. It was a particularly long walk across a huge field to get to Frost, and in the winter that field was covered in snow. There were no trees or buildings to stop the freezing-cold wind from tearing through my jacket and sweaters in order to get to the very center of my bones, where it would stay until spring. No, it wasn’t uphill both ways barefoot, but still, those mornings and afternoons were rough. Sometimes my friend Nicole and I would “borrow” change from our classmates and stop at the donut shop on our walk home, and we’d cross the field almost happily, thinking of the cinnamon roll and hot chocolate we were about to inhale. And for one week during the summer I forgave that field because it would morph into a magical carny wonderland called the Livonia Spree. For one week I lived a block away from the Tilt-a-Whirl, the merry-go-round, the Matterhorn, game tents, a fun house, a house of horrors, and my favorite attraction, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses. I really looked forward to those horses coming to my town for a visit. I think that’s why I cried so hard during that Super Bowl XLVII commercial. You know, the one about the horse trainer who sent his horse away to Budweiser once it was trained but then drove out to visit it during a nearby parade. And in the end the horse broke loose and ran back to find his trainer? Shit. Now I’m crying again. I sobbed after seeing that commercial. Like, sobbed. My husband was worried about me. I was worried about me; I wondered if people ever died of suffocation due to uncontrolled sobbing, because I thought I might. Anyway, as a kid I loved seeing those beer horses and marveled at their size. I always wondered if they liked being on the local carnival circuit and was slightly disillusioned when I found out there was more than one team of Budweiser Clydesdales. For years I thought I was meeting the stars of all those commercials. The day I found out differently was a real coming-of-age moment for me. Maybe that’s why I cried so hard . . .
Before I ever went to Kennedy Elementary, I went to Gibson School for the Gifted, a private school for “gifted” students, as named. I like that they didn’t mess around when naming it. So many private schools beat around the bush with names like Dalton and Spence, why not just say what it is? Crosley School for Rich Kids, or the Teeter School for Troublemakers, Lionsfront Last Chance Before Juvie Academy. Aren’t we all thinking it anyway? At my gifted school for gifted students, we went to school until about 6:00 p.m., when they started to lock the doors and call the parents who hadn’t picked their kids up yet (maybe they should have named it Gibson School for Children with Busy Parents). It was an ethnically diverse school; most of the students had divorced parents or came from households where both parents worked (me). I remember that my friend Chris and I were always the last ones to get picked up. I hated leaving Chris when my mom got there first because his parents were divorced and he could never remember which one was supposed to show up, but I hated it more when I was the last one, mostly because I was eight years old and eight-year-olds aren’t usually that self-sacrificing. Chris could also be a little bit naughty. One day he wanted to start a gang, but since I was the only one left hanging around with him at the end of every day, it was just the two of us. He named us the Punk Rock Pick Lockers, and we managed, one time only, to pick a lock in the cafeteria and steal a mini carton of chocolate milk out of the refrigerator. I felt pretty cool after we picked our first lock but also completely scared we would get caught. And even though it was fun that day, I was certain that eventually Chris was going to get me in a lot of trouble. I couldn’t be in a gang with this boy, that was not a “gifted” thing to do. I tried a phaseout, but it was hard since we were still the last two kids to get picked up after school every day. Shortly after our one and only gang activity, Chris came to school with a homemade puzzle and tried to give it to me. I refused, trying to make my motives clear. We could still hang out in the bookbinding corner after class, but accepting handmade gifts was where I drew the line. I could tell I hurt his feelings when I marched away from him, but I didn’t care. I needed boundaries if I wasn’t going to pursue a life of crime with him. That night when his dad finally came to pick Chris up, his dad found me and gave me the puzzle himself, telling me that Chris spent a lot of time making that puzzle for me and I should keep it. I put it together when they left and it said “I love you” on it. I felt terrible. I didn’t know Chris loved me. I thought we were just friends and fellow gang members. Now what do I do? I thought. Do I have to love him back? Or make him a puzzle that says, “OK . . .”? When my parents pulled me out of Gibson after third grade, I didn’t talk to Chris again until he magically showed up late in high school dating a tiny dancer I knew from the arts program. I was so happy to see his face, and happier to see that he didn’t end up in jail, but we never really picked up where we left off and lost touch for good when I moved to Chicago.
I didn’t want to change schools when I was at Gibson—that was my parents’ idea. Even though my new school was just a short walk from our house, I did not want to go. I had friends at Gibson, they were all different colors, and probably brilliant and gifted and talented, but I didn’t care about that stuff—they were my friends, and I didn’t want to leave them. Everyone at public school seemed so average and white to me. My parents promised if I hated it, I could go back to Gibson, but they lied. Now that I’m an adult, I can’t really blame them—it was expensive and a long drive—but still, for the record, they lied.
Once I left my special school, I never liked school again. It was all so normal. There were desks in rows, lesson plans, bells, after-school clubs that you had to be invited into. What’s that all about? See, at Gibson we were told we were all amazing artists, that we were smart, creative, good writers, basically that we were special, but that we were equally special. I’m not saying this is how it should be, but it was hard to suddenly find out, at nine years old, that I didn’t necessarily have all the talents I thought I did. For example, at my public school, there was an art club, and I didn’t get invited to be in it. That was so confusing to me. Why couldn’t anyone be in it if they wanted to, not just if the horse you drew actually looked like a horse? And how come in class we sat in desks instead of on couches or giant pillows? Why weren’t there pets in every room? Why did I have to raise my hand to ask to go to the bathroom? Why didn’t we call our teachers by their first names? It was a hard transition for me. I was graded for the first time in my life. I wasn’t athletic, and I had weird hair, a combination that I blame for being a loner for a while. Is there some connection between “gifted” kids and weird hair? My old friends and I all had some crazy-ass hair, but at my public school everyone seemed to have great hair.
I thought since I was at a special school for special kids, public school would be a breeze for me, but it wasn’t at first. (Of course I shouldn’t rule out the possibility that I was in a school for weird or slow kids, but was lied to by my parents.) Eventually, I settled in and made friends, and even had some teachers who really inspired me. I resigned myself to not being popular but finding that one special friend who would always have my back. Her name was Nicole. She was pretty and smart and had great hair, of course. She was funny and just weird enough that she understood me and didn’t think I was a spaz. She was also a great artist, so I always partnered with her to work on class projects (she totally got invited to be in art club, so we couldn’t walk home together on Wednesdays after school). I was thrilled that we would go to the same junior high together so I didn’t have to start from scratch again and find new friends. Nicole and I walked through that freezing-cold field together, side by side, and she stayed my best friend all through high school. This time we commuted by bus, unless one of us could con our parents into driving us instead.
I think that Nicole could have totally left me behind in junior high and been one of the popular girls, but she didn’t. She looked like Grace Kelly when we were thirteen, and the boys really noticed her. I remember a boy asking me for my number, only to then call and ask for Nicole’s. She went to homecoming with him, and I was 70/30 happy/jealous. I know I should have been 100 percent happy, but I was a teenage girl, for Christ’s sake! And I am the John Hughes generation. I was waiting for my Blane, my Jake Ryan, and I am not a saint, I’m sorry, but I was a little jealous when Nicole got to go to a dance while I stayed home, wrote in my diary, and watched my VHS tape of Pretty in Pink again. In fact, the only high school dance I ended up going to was prom. I had my first boyfriend at that point, and Nicole had hers. We went together, naturally, and had a ball, kind of. My dad borrowed a fancy car for us to drive, and we got clearance to all spend the night at Nicole’s date John’s house because he had a cool apartment-style bedroom. I don’t know how that became a winning argument with my parents, but they caved and that was the plan. I will just tell you right now I don’t have a good prom story. It’s hazy at best. And not hazy due to alcohol consumed that night, but probably more likely due to alcohol consumed since. I bought eight prom dresses, but none of them were right, so I ended up making my own out of a pattern from the 1960s I bought at a thrift store (hello, Pretty in Pink much?) and used my dress budget on fabulous shoes. Nicole bought her dress at a vintage store, and I thought we looked so cool I made my parents take our prom pictures in black and white to really capture our vintage vibe. Prom was in a fancy restaurant/venue in Dearborn (where the Big Three car companies used to live). I have to admit it was a little bit of a letdown after watching all those John Hughes movies leading up to it. Yes, it was beautifully decorated, and we all looked appropriately dressed up, but when I stepped into the room, there was no hush in the crowd, no one was shocked at my prom makeover, I didn’t look better than the popular bitchy girls, none of them gave me a hesitant encouraging smile, there wasn’t anyone apologizing for misjudging me the last four years, and worst of all Jake Ryan and Blane were nowhere to be found. But most shocking was I didn’t care. We sat down for a few minutes, we danced for a few songs, then John went missing, and when we found him inhaling helium out of the decorative balloons in the corner, we decided to take off. We went to prom. Milestone checked off the list. We drove back to John’s house, changed into our jeans and T-shirts, and watched Sixteen Candles until we fell asleep.
The best thing to me about growing up in a suburb of Detroit was going into Detroit—there was always great stuff to do there when I was a kid, and I actually did it. I am so happy, looking back, that my parents didn’t hide out in their little suburb, that they took advantage of all the Motor City had to offer. There was a zoo, an awesome art museum with the most beautiful Diego Rivera mural you’ll ever see, this gorgeous painting of an assembly line that is such a perfect representation of what Detroit was built on. A science center. The Red Wings played downtown, as did the Tigers. While I was in high school, they were renovating some old theaters in the city, and my first date with my first boyfriend, Eric Campbell, was to see Casablanca downtown at the Fox Theatre. It was the first time I’d ever seen the movie, and it was especially thrilling to see it on a big screen in a theater that it most likely played in the first time around. When I was little, there were lots of picnics, boat races, and Belle Isle, a little island/giant park that was connected to downtown by a bridge. But when I was old enough to go downtown with just my friends, I really fell in love with Detroit’s music scene. There were great little bars and venues that local and touring bands would play in, and I tried to catch them all. I had a fake ID and I used it! There were great record stores, and with Ann Arbor about twenty minutes away in the opposite direction we Detroiters had great music at our fingertips.
Excerpted from I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer. Copyright © 2015 by Judy Greer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.