Brandon Zwagerman

Brandon Zwagerman
alum, UM TCAUP master's program in urban planning; leaving Ann Arbor, headed for greatness in NYC

Tottered on: 30 August 2006
Temperature: 70 F
Ceiling: mostly cloudy
Ground: really long grass
Wind: NNE at 12 mph


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TT with HD: Brandon Zwagerman


[Ed. note: Brandon arrived for his totter ride in a mini-van packed with all his belongings. He was on his way out of town, headed for Brooklyn. Mentioned below is a song by Umberto called, Don't Move to Brooklyn.

Mentioned below are also the following: Madison House, Fred Thomas, Nick Dykert, Emily Jane Powers, Actual Birds, Greg McIntosh, and Starling Electric.]

HD: I noticed that the car that you drove over here, this minivan that you rented, it actually has New York plates, so did you ...

BZ: ... I didn't make a special request for that! I went over to Dollar Rent-a-Car over by the airport and asked for a minivan, and it happened to have New York plates already. Don't ask me! Destiny.

HD: So this is going to be a one-way rental?

BZ: Yeah, I'm leaving it in Manhattan. I have it, I think, through the 2nd of the month. I have it for a few extra days just in case I need to haul something or another. But it seems like a pretty nice car, I mean, for a mini-van, for a car. I don't really like cars much.

HD: So you don't have a really tight travel schedule that you have to adhere to then?

BZ: Well, I really don't want to stay overnight anywhere on the way. I'd really like to make it all the way to New York tonight.

HD: Wow, you've got a long drive ahead of you!

BZ: I've heard different things about how long it is. I didn't bother to really research it. In my head, I was remembering it was eight hours or something last time I went. But I'm starting to think that might have been ...

HD: ... optimistic?

BZ: Or incorrect. Exactly. I'm hearing it's maybe ten, eleven, twelve hours. I drive pretty fast. I don't think I'll stop too often.

HD: So the mini-van is cruise-control equipped?

BZ: It has cruise control, it's got a CD player. It doesn't have a CD changer, which is kind of tricky when you're driving by yourself. But I've got a bunch of music in there. I'll probably listen to NPR for a change, too. Should be pretty scenic. The weather looks nice, at least on this end, and hopefully further east is, too.

HD: Do you have a specific destination, or are you planning to cruise around mid-town looking for a place to live?

BZ: Oh no, I have a place to live. I have a sublet over in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, which is about four blocks from Prospect Park, which was designed by Olmsted, as well as Central Park. I haven't actually seen the park, but I hear it's really nice. The neighborhood is, I think, a lot of brownstones. The sublet is for like three months.

HD: So you haven't actually seen the place?

BZ: I haven't seen the place. I just didn't have the time to get over there and look at it. But it's a sublet and the guy seems really cool, who I'm renting it from. He's a friend of a friend. He's a musician, and he's going on tour for about three months, so the room's just sitting there waiting. It's 750 a month, which seems expensive, but it's not bad for a nice place in Brooklyn. It's rent-controlled.

HD: So do you have keys already?

BZ: No, I have to get a hold of him when I get there.

HD: But you're going to be arriving in the middle of the night, right??

BZ: Well, no. Tonight, I'm just crashing at a friend's in Brooklyn Heights. A friend from high school lives over there, just graduated law school. Then tomorrow I'll go move in with all my stuff. You don't want to move thing in at night anyway. I'll be exhausted, I'm sure.

HD: So what kind of commute does that represent to your new job?

BZ: I haven't quite tried it yet, but I'm thinking it's probably twenty minutes or a half hour, max. I think it's a straight shot on one train. The job's about a block or two off Times Square, so I think whatever train line it's on goes right there. As you can see, I really researched this in detail! I'm just going to show up in New York and see what happens.

HD: When's your first day on the job?

BZ: First day is on Tuesday. Day after Labor Day. I figured that was a good start time. I actually accepted the job about a month ago, so it gave me some time to kind of get my act together, and put on various events I had going on around here.

HD: So once you accepted the job, did you begin a cycle of the-last-time-I'm -going-to-do-X-Y-Z in Ann Arbor?

BZ: I was planning on doing that. I was going to go hit all the hot spots. I went to my favorite bars a lot, anyway. I stopped working my summer job about a week and a half ago, so I've been going around the town quite a bit since then. I've been having a lot of fun, but I know I'll be back is the thing. I have a lot of friends here. I'll probably come back a few times a year and visit. I had planned to walk around one day and just take pictures of the city, but I was busy packing and that didn't really happen. I'll be back, I'm not worried. I know I'll see Ann Arbor again. I try not to get too nostalgic about it. I just try to accept it that this is what's happening: I'm moving to New York. I'll be in touch with everyone and I betcha, give me three months, I'll come back for some weekend. We'll see what happens.

HD: So maybe Thanksgiving?

BZ: I'm not sure what's going on Thanksgiving. I mean, I should see my family at some point. They live over in Holland, Michigan, on the west side of the state, so I might go back there. If I come back here Thanksgiving, then everyone's out of town, of course. That might not be the best time to come back to Ann Arbor.

HD: How much time elapsed between your actual interview with this design firm and the offer of the job?

BZ: I had a phone interview sometime in July, I think. And then about a week, week-and-a-half later, I was invited to come out to New York and interview in person. It seemed pretty promising. I had about a three hour interview with my soon-to-be supervisor, and he seemed like he liked me quite a bit ...

HD: ... so just with the one guy?

BZ: Just with him. There is someone higher above him, too, who I didn't meet, who I think was in a meeting all day. But he showed me around. It was very informal, actually. It wasn't too stressful. There's different types of job interviews. The ones with the HR people are very formal and they have their list of 40 questions about, Talk about a time you used teamwork on the job. Then you have to flip through your head and come up with some random thing that you did when you were a groundskeeper five years ago. So no, this was more conversational. About two or three days later I got the call and actually got the job offer. It happened very fast. I asked for like a month to actually get out there and get settled.

HD: And they were fine with that?

BZ: They were very fine with it. I guess another person is just starting the same day.

HD: Oh, that'll be nice, you'll have a buddy.

BZ: Yeah, there's going to be two of us in this position working in different wings. I'll be more on the urban design end of things.

HD: So do you have a clear concept of exactly the kind of activity your day is going to be filled with?

BZ: Well, not exactly. I'm going to be working as a marketing coordinator for an urban design and architecture firm, so it's not exactly urban planning. It's not what I went to school for, but it's related. So a city, or developer, or a university, or whoever, will issue an RFP--or request for proposals: We have this parcel over here, we were thinking about doing this with it, submit X, Y, and Z with your qualifications, and examples of related projects, etcetera. I'll be writing or drafting these proposal booklets. And researching leads on possible work for them. My job will be basically to convince people to hire this firm to do their architecture and urban design work. It'll be a lot of writing, I think, which I think I'm pretty good at. But I don't know exactly what it's going to be like on a day-to-day basis.

HD: So it's safe to say they're not going to ask you to design and build a Greenway?

BZ: [laugh] You never know! In New York, they're doing the High Line thing. Have you heard about that? It's this abandoned elevated railway in Manhattan that they're ...

HD: ... I've seen photos of it, yeah.

BZ: I don't know exactly what the status is, but I know they're trying to turn that into some sort of Greenway-esque pathway.

HD: So this firm you're going to be working for, are they involved with that at all?

BZ: I don't think so. So I won't be designing any Greenway-esque things. I won't be designing anything, frankly. I'm just kind of the front-end, the marketing wing of this company. I don't have a lot of design training. I really like urban design, but I can't draw anything. I cannot use CAD or any of these other programs. There are a lot of people who can and there'll be a lot of people working here, who can do that. Looking back at my education, I kind of wish I had taken some classes in that. But no, I studied more policy and history.

HD: I had wanted to ask you if there were any courses that you look back at now and say, Boy, I wish I would have had that course!

BZ: In terms of my urban planning master's program, I studied land use and environmental planning. There are lot of these kind of sub-concentrations within the degree. Which I think was good, but I really wish I had at least a few urban design courses, just so I could understand the process of what goes into it. You have a plan of this five-block area here, and starting from that how do you create an attractive, pedestrian-oriented street. I mean, I understand what a good street looks like, but I can't actually design one myself. I wish I had those skills, especially in terms of this position. I never thought I'd work in a private sector job, frankly. I haven't before. I mean I have, way back in the day, working in the garden center in high school. But in terms of internships or anything I've had since being in school, it's all been non-profit and public sector. I tried to apply to all sorts of things in various cities, and this is what's happened. They do really good work, I don't feel like I'm contributing to the sprawling of America or anything by working there. It's good urbanism that they do, and ...

HD: ... it seemed like a very prestigious firm from what I saw of their website. You've got guys running around in bow-ties.

BZ: I didn't notice the bow-ties, I'll have to look at that again. But it seems like they're very well respected, and I'm excited to be there. They take a lot of pride in their work. I think it'll be a really interesting opportunity. I guess I should be a little intimidated!

HD: I was intimidated just by their website.

BZ: It's New York. New York, in general, is intimidating. It's a very competitive sort of place, a lot of people, a lot of money, a lot of education. People with high opinions of themselves. Ann Arbor is probably a nice transition compared to growing up in Holland [Michigan] anyway [laugh].

HD: So circling back to the interview you had with them, were you concerned at all when you went on that interview or on other interviews, that you would be asked about any of the online writing that you've done?

BZ: [laugh] Well, you know, most of the stuff I've written online is not particularly Google-able by my full name. But some of it is. Actually, the guy who interviewed me, he Googled me and found some writing samples somewhere and apparently liked it. So he mentioned that and I thought, Oh jeez, why'd you put ...

HD: ... so as a part of your preparation process, just in general, in applying for jobs, did you sit down and say, Okay, what's the entire body of work that I've written online, and is there anything I might be embarrassed about, either because I was too harsh, or rude or anything? So that you could develop a standard answer, if you were called out on it?

BZ: Right, well, I haven't thought that much about it, because a lot of people seem to use the internet less than maybe you and I do, for instance. There's probably things out there--but they're not usually under my full name for the most part--that I regret. But I don't think there's too much I feel bad about. I've definitely had some harsh comments about things before, but hopefully they're not too Google-able!

HD: I noticed on your MySpace page ...

BZ: ... oh, no! ...

HD: ... that you've been TV-free for something like two years? Was that a conscious decision or did your TV just break and you just didn't buy a new one yet?

BZ: It's a variety of things. I actually never really owned a TV. I was living with a friend a few years ago and he had a TV and we seemed to watch it quite a bit. We had full cable. He was always watching it. When I moved into this new house on Madison Street two years ago, I didn't have one up in my room. My housemates eventually did real basic cable, but I almost never watch it. I'll pop in, if they're watching it. Wherever I'm going to move, I don't see myself buying a TV, but sometimes you live with people who have it. Every now and then my housemates will be watching something decent. I actually never watched Star Trek before, but one of my housemates is always watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I actually got a little into it. It's kind of dorky, but good. And they're always watching that CSI or some other stuff, and I will watch from time to time. I have no interest in TV, though. It's just really time-onsuming. You just get stuck sitting on the couch for hours and hours and hours.

HD: I think you have to be organized about it. You have to have something to do during the commercial breaks, you have to have something to do while the show itself is on.

BZ: Right, right. I just think TV makes people very passive. I don't want to know who the heck the contestants on American Idol are. I have no interest. You just really get immersed in this pop-culture BS that you know is completely meaningless.

HD: But wouldn't you say that is a part of American culture, and if you consciously exclude yourself from it, then around the water cooler, there's a certain amount of cultural fluency you might be lacking?

BZ: That's true. I feel like you can't escape some of this stuff, at least on a broader level. I might not know every character on whatever show, but it's in the papers, it's on the internet, you're stuck hearing about it whether you want to or not. No, that makes sense. But there's other things I'd rather spend my time learning about.

HD: I think you're right about the fact that it's possible to keep up with what's going on with television just by reading the newspaper. My wife and I actually went without a television for around 10 years. That was a result of getting rid of our television along with a lot of other stuff, just before we went off to China for two years. And then when we came back, we decided not to buy a new one. We finally ended up getting one again, when we wanted to watch the World Series, I think. But it was remarkable how easy it was to keep up. I imagine, for example, a person who doesn't watch any television would probably still know what the rules are to Deal or No Deal.

BZ: See, I don't even know what that is.

HD: [laugh] That's a show it might be worth buying a television just to watch.

BZ: What is it?! Tell me!

HD: You remember Howie Mandell, right?

BZ: Sure.

HD: Well, he has shaved his head now, and he is hosting this game show. The premise of the show is, you've got I think it's 26 pretty girls in pretty dresses holding numbered briefcases.

BZ: Okay?

HD: Inside each of these briefcases is a dollar amount. As a contestant, your job is to pick one of the briefcases to be your own.

BZ: Do you get the girl, too?

HD: No, they're just holding the briefcase. And their job is, when called upon to do so, to open the briefcase revealing the dollar amount.

BZ: That's not a bad gig.

HD: No, it's not a bad job. So you pick one to be your own, and that one you don't get to look at the dollar amount. And then what you do is pick other briefcases and those dollar amounts are revealed. Now, the list of possible dollar amounts is known and standard, and they have a big board where they keep a tally of which dollar amounts have been opened. So as you open briefcases, those are amounts that can't be in the case you chose at the beginning. So you to see all these amounts between one dollar and one million dollars start to be eliminated, and what you're hoping is that the briefcases that you open in the early stages are the lower amounts. And then after each stage where you opened a certain number of briefcases, there's this shadowy character up in the booth ...

BZ: ... Regis?

HD: No, who is the Banker and he makes a phone call down to Howie with an offer to buy the contestant's briefcase for some amount of money. It's always a dollar amount that is somewhere between the lowest amount still out there and the highest amount.

BZ: It's complicated.

HD: So after the banker makes the offer, Howie gets to do his job, which is to say, Deal or no deal?

BZ: Ahh, like the catch phrase, Is that your final answer?

HD: No, there's no final answer.

BZ: But it's very Regis-esque it sounds like.

HD: Well, yeah. I think it was the end of last year, when they were just piloting, trying it out. I watched it, because I just could not look away and I thought there's no way this could survive. Because it's too inane, there's just no drama there. But apparently, America feels differently.

BZ: Well, America usually feels differently than I do, it seems like. But see, I hadn't even heard of that, I'm completely out of the loop. I can't relate to anyone!

HD: Well, now you'll know, in case on your first day, the other new guy--or is it a new girl you're starting at the same time with?

BZ: I think it's a female.

HD: So if she wants to talk about what happened on Deal or No Deal last night, at least you'll know what she's talking about.

BZ: Or maybe she'll talk about some sweet local music. You never know who you'll be working with or what they'll be into.

HD: You mentioned this house on Madison Street, Madison House ...

BZ: ... as it's called often. I don't know if it'll still be called that.

HD: Who actually holds the lease to that? Or does the landlord maintain separate leases with all the housemates?

BZ: It's owned by a landlord and there's five of us on the lease. It started out, I don't know if you know Dale Winling, he's one of the housemates, ...

HD: ... I know of him.

BZ: We were both starting grad school at Michigan a couple of years ago and met at some lecture on urban planning up on north campus. I think he'd seen me online somehow about something and got a hold of me and said, Hey, you wanna get a place together? And I said, Okay! So I just decided to basically bike a circuit of everywhere within whatever radius I drew on a map of downtown Ann Arbor and look for For Rent signs. I figured that might be a way to find places that are a little under-the-radar, that aren't the big property management companies ...

HD: ... and by definition would be bike-able.

BZ: Exactly. And walk-able for that matter, but the bike was a little faster way to see them all. I basically went up and down every single block. I eventually found this place on Madison with a For Rent sign. We called, the price was right, it was really affordable. I think my other requirements were, I didn't want any vinyl siding, and I wanted a front porch, and wood floors preferably. It had all those things ...

HD: ... wow, vinyl siding would be a deal-breaker in a rent situation for you??

BZ: I just think it looks like, well, I hate it.

HD: Dude, I've got vinyl siding and I love it!

BZ: You do? Oh, it doesn't look bad, it looks almost like wood. It's good vinyl. Is it a newer kind?

HD: I don't know.

BZ: I would not have even noticed. I thought it was paint, frankly. I thought it was wood.

HD: I have to say, on aesthetic principle I'd rather have wood siding than vinyl siding, but given that I haven't had to paint in the last 9 years ...

BZ: ... oh, I understand, I understand. But it had me fooled, though, actually.

HD: Well, it came with the house. So it was one of those deals, where I was in a pleasant position of saying, Of course, I think vinyl siding is wrong, but what can I do?? I would have to take it all off and that would be really expensive!

BZ: Now maybe you've converted me to vinyl siding.

HD: Anyway, back to your story.

BZ: So we found this house and we just decided, let's recruit some other people to live there. We both had this idea a great community in the house with everybody hanging out together all the time and whatever. It didn't quite work out that idealistically, but it's worked out okay. We just put up some ads online, and on CraigsList, and on UM off-campus housing website, and put up a little survey to find out a little bit about people. We had a ton of applicants for this place, because it was a great location and really affordable. So we found a few more people to live there. And every year, it seems like a few people now move out, but some stay. It's kind of a rotating cast. There's still a few original people who will still be there this fall. Dale will be there and also one of our original housemates, Heidi, will still be there. So it'll keep kind of cycling. Next year they'll probably have a few people stay, and then they'll try to recruit some new people as well. It's just a rental house with a bunch of us on the lease.

HD: So at what point did it evolve to be the nexus of the local music scene?

BZ: I don't know that it's the nexus of the local music scene.

HD: Okay, then, one of the nodes.

BZ: It's a node. It was a node, alas. Well, what happened actually, one of your past totterees, Dustin Krcatovich, a.k.a. Actual Birds was coming home from a Greyhound bus tour of the West Coast and posted something on MySpace--MySpace cliche, but everyone does use it!--something like, Hey, I'm coming back off a tour, I need a show somewhere in Ann Arbor, can anyone help? And I said, I dunno, I guess you could use my backyard. We don't have anything, we don't have a PA system, we don't have any seating, for that matter. It's basically just a gravel outdoor room with fencing on all sides, but I thought it might be all right. I kind of thought about that when we first moved in. I thought it might be some space where we could sort of hold some sort of event back there. Because it's a really intimate and enclosed space. I said, Yeah, you can do this. He got Fred Thomas on the bill, which kind of blew my mind, because he's just one of my very favorite songwriters. He's amazing. So he was playing, and then Emily Jane Powers, who's originally from Ann Arbor and lives in Chicago now for school. And I got my friend Nick Dykert to come over from Grand Rapids to play, too. And amazingly--this was booked five days ahead of time, and I put up maybe 30 flyers, and posted it on the internet a little bit--and about 30 people showed up to watch. It actually sounded really good. I was amazed you could actually hear without amplification. It was completely audible and really fun. Some or most of my housemates were out of town that summer, so I kind of just decided to start doing more of these, without too many people there to complain.

HD: Did you get any flak from neighborhood houses at all?

BZ: No, well, that's the genius thing about that space. On one side's a parking lot and on the other side's an abandoned rug store--well it wasn't abandoned at the time--and our house is on one side. Across the street from our house is the Cingular store. The parking lot and the garage is on the other side. We have one direct neighbor, but it's pretty far to their house and she's actually really cool. Diane, she's really been accepting and doesn't really even seem to hear the music, for the most part. The other thing is, it's mostly acoustic. Every now and then, someone will plug some things in, but it's almost always acoustic music, so it's really quiet. And we try to start them by 6 or 7 [pm] and they end by 10 something at the latest, so it doesn't happen too late. It worked out pretty well, just in terms of the location and the timing and the way it wasn't amplified, that we weren't bothering many people. We did once have a band that was coming through that needed a show--they were coming from Seattle--and I said I guess they could play there. I tried to get them to turn things down, they were a little loud. That's the one time we had someone come over and say, Be quiet! But that's the only time. Every other time we haven't bothered anyone. I'm surprised that more of the neighbors haven't come out to check it out. But a few have and seemed to have a good time. It was great. You could do that here, you could put on shows back here, it's a great space!

HD: Well, even though the actual music might not be an issue, um, I have to say that 30 people talking, even in normal conversational voices, would create enough of a commotion that I'd have to think about how I'd feel if my neighbor on either side were to have something that size on a regular basis.

BZ: It's not that regular! Don't your neighbors have little parties, or have a barbecue? It's a similar thing, I think.

HD: Well, most of the time if they do, then I'm invited, or if I'm not invited, I'll tend to sort of insert myself into the situation as if I'm invited. I'd have to think about it.

BZ: Well, you have many more neighbors than I did, too, in close proximity. During the day, I don't think people are too bothered. As long as you're not waking them up at night, I think. That's when people get annoyed.

HD: Can you think of anybody here locally, any local personality at all, who you'd like to teeter totter with?

BZ: If I could teeter totter with anyone in this town? Wow, that's something to think about. You know, I'd say I'd like to teeter totter with Greg McIntosh. I don't know if you know him. He's in Great Lakes Myth Society, a local musician. He works at a local company that provides content for music reviews and such. He's a great guy, he's one of my favorite people in town. I'd like to totter with him, I think. I could see him and me having a few beers and hanging out here for a few hours, not getting too bored. Eventually someone might fall off, but I could see that being a nice lazy Sunday afternoon event.

HD: Alright. Anything else on your mind this morning?

BZ: Oh man, is this running down already?? Wow. Well, I don't know. I have some exciting news, that I just learned about last night! Local band Starling Electric ...

HD: ... oh, yeah, they live right over there ...

BZ: ... you know them! Yeah, they live right over there. You should get them over here sometime. They are going to go play in New York with Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices fame. Three shows.

HD: Wow.

BZ: That's a big deal for them. I just learned about that last night.

HD: And their new album was just released, right?

BZ: Yes, just finally officially released, so that's great. That's exciting news. What else is going on around here? I don't know what else I have to say. I'll miss Ann Arbor, that's for sure. I'm basically heading out right after this. I have a few stops to make. I have a book I borrowed from someone I have to give back. I have a staple gun that I have to give back to the East Quad Music Co-op. And there's a CD I need to get at Encore yet before leaving town, but basically I'm on my way out.

HD: What's the CD you're going to pick up?

BZ: There's a lot of things you can't buy in New York that come from Ann Arbor. A local musician, Umberto--Gina Pensiero, who plays under the name Umberto--she has a new CD I haven't ended up purchasing yet. There's actually a song on it, Don't move to Brooklyn, so I think it'd be good driving music for heading over there. I think that's the one local CD in my mind right now that I haven't picked up yet, that I need to snag before I go. Hopefully Encore is open already, and I'll hit that on the way out of town, and maybe stop at Cafe Ambrosia one last time, too for a little more coffee. I'm ready to go. But I'll be back, I know I'll be back.

HD: What I'm concerned about is, I want to be able to say that you tottered literally on your way out of town, but you've got these errands ...

BZ: ... I'm on my way, no I'm not going back to my house! I'm just making a couple of more stops on the way to the highway, so you can officially say I stopped on my way out of town. This was going to be my last stop until I realized I had these other things I had to do that I didn't get around to doing until yesterday. I was basically packing until the very end last night right up until I went out to Leopold Bros.

HD: Okey-doke. Well, thanks a bunch for making this your last stop.

BZ: I was honored, it was a lot of fun, I've been reading your website for quite some time and was glad I could be a part of it. Keep it up!