A $120-per-month apartment. A priceless landlord
Columnist Steve Lange looks back at one of those people who change your life. Even if you don't realize it at the time.
After college, I moved into my friend Chris’ house in Cleveland, where I parlayed my new four-year communications degree into not one, but two jobs—deck-building assistant and worker at a factory where I spent entire days installing car batteries into giant electric vacuum cleaners.
Six months into that, Chris and I were hit head-on at 50 mph in a car crash that crushed Chris’ wrist and forever ruined his golf game, and sent me through the steering wheel and broke bones off my spine. The two people in the car that hit us had it worse.
My injuries made it difficult to lift bags of Quickrete and giant batteries, so I eventually drove north, just looking for a cheap place to live.
I ended up 340 miles away in Roscommon, Michigan, a town of 900 near the knuckle of the middle finger of Michigan’s mitten. I ended up at the Spruce Motor Lodge.
I rented a single room—just a bed and a desk—for $120 per month, plus linens.
In its 1920s and ’30s heyday, the Spruce Motor Lodge was a sprawling, three-story hotel that drew wealthy guests in search of wilderness getaways. Groucho Marx stayed there.
When I moved in, the lodge offered two dozen rooms for rent and housed eight or so long-term tenants.
One guy rode his bicycle to work at the paper factory in Grayling, nearly 15 miles away. Every work day. Even during the Michigan winters.
The oldest guy in the group had an oxygen tank that he could attach to his bike, and he spent his days riding to nearby campgrounds to collect discarded aluminum cans. He used that 10-cent deposit money to buy cigarettes.
I was writing and selling fiction for 5 cents a word, and eating grilled sandwiches made with slices of "processed cheese food." To make $1,000 a month, I had to write and sell 20,000 words, a novella.
I knew no one. To pass the time, I played chess against myself. This was late 1992, and Bobby Fischer was facing off against Boris Spassky in a rematch of their World Chess Championships of 1972. USA Today carried the move-by-move of each game, and I would go to the library, copy these notations onto a sheet of paper, then go back to my room and replay those moves on my chessboard. I’m sure even the guy with the oxygen tank on his bicycle made fun of me.
One of the local churches — when they held potlucks or "wild game dinners" — would call and ask if we wanted the leftovers. We did. We would spend the next week eating mashed potatoes and three-bean casseroles and meatballs made of elk.
Then there was Shirley.
When I got to Roscommon, I was broke, both monetarily and physically. I slept much of the day and stayed up all night, writing. Oh, and playing chess against myself.
Occasionally, I would wander down to the communal living room.
Shirley, in her 60s, was regularly up and about, even at 3 a.m. She and her husband, Carman, had owned the lodge since 1970. Carman took care of the repairs. Shirley took care of the people.
We would sit and talk. Shirley would ask to read my stories, and was openly excited when magazines — with my published pieces inside — arrived at Spruce Motor Lodge.
"You’re famous!" she would say. She made me autograph magazines for her.
When the rejection letters arrived, she would say, "They don’t know what they’re missing!"
Eventually, I started making my way to the living room most every night. Shirley would give me beer. And encouragement.
When I came downstairs on the night of my 23rd birthday, she had left me a cupcake.
When I came downstairs on my last night there, she had left me a writer’s notebook.
I moved out of the Spruce Motor Lodge after nine months, and headed north again, eventually landing in a $165-per-month apartment in a converted military base in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the northern dead end for U.S. Interstate 75.
On the day I was writing this column, on a whim, I emailed the Roscommon newspaper. They passed my message along to Shirley’s daughter, who emailed right back.
"My father passed away in 1996 and Shirley ran the lodge until a few months before her death in 2008," she wrote. "Thank you for the kind words about her. She was such a loving and kind-hearted person. I think the world was a better place with her in it."
I know mine was.
Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.