Things I Remember About Detroit
Five Years of Abandoned Factories, Talking Cats, and Cars on Fire
First day of college. A tour of campus, then a tour of the three-block radius separating us from the wilds of inner-city Detroit. Instructor tells students NOT to leave three-block "safety zone"—and if we DO, always "look people in the eye." Don't look like a "victim." Walk tall and confident, and if someone demands money or a wallet, just give it to 'em.
I had no idea every other city wasn't like this one. I had never seen a city before. I loved it—tall buildings, libraries, black people, freedom. On April 1, Mom calls to check in on me. My dorm roommate has a new Macintosh II, and we play gunshot sound effects as I tell her that my car has been stolen. It works too well. Then: "April Fool's!!!" Mom doesn't laugh. Next morning, my Plymouth Horizon is still where I left it, but every tire except one is flat and the passenger-side window is busted. The replacement window costs $200. Weirdly, nothing is stolen.
I get lost driving in Southwest Detroit, trying to find food. Factories, abandoned houses, dirt roads. Finally see a Farmer Jack, and while exiting the freeway, a big-ass hooptie—a great big green Lincoln Continental—hits the back of my Horizon so hard I fly into a 180-degree spin and lose my back bumper. I get out and ask the guy if I can get his insurance number. He pulls a 9 mm from his crotch and asks me why I hit him. I say sorry, get back in my car, and wait for him to drive away. Then I get out and throw my bumper in the trunk. When I finally pull into Farmer Jack, it's closed. A guy with a shopping cart rolls up and asks me if I "want some rocks." I say no. Farmer Jack—the biggest grocery-store chain in downtown Detroit in the 1990s—from that day forward becomes Farmer Crack.
Being a 'billy from Up North, growing up on a farm in Northern Michigan, I'd never seen a prostitute. One sunny summer day, while riding my ten-speed through the Cass Corridor trying to find something called a "falafel" sandwich, I ride past a bunch of hookers. "Whatchoo doin' cracka-biiiiiiiiiitch?" Big awesome curvy black ladies, wearing nothing but silk camisoles and ho-heels, laughing. Getting catcalled, getting things thrown at you by the Cass Avenue hookers, becomes an official sport that summer. We keep a tally sheet on the fridge. Being called "bitch" gets 5 points. "Cracker" gets you 10.
I'm going to school for graphic art—"commercial" art. When a group of way cooler FINE ART students asks me to participate in a gallery show, I'm honored. The show has the loose theme of "time." We're each given only the motor of a clock and asked to build the rest. There is an abandoned two-story house over on Willis Street that I've always wanted to go in. The doors and windows are long gone, and grass and flowers are growing on the windowsills. My boyfriend and I go in to scavenge for clock materials. Being inside a house that's still partially furnished and still has an old framed painting hanging over the fireplace is beyond creepy. Even in broad daylight, you can't shake the feeling that someone is watching you. I go straight for a downstairs bedroom and find an old box spring. I pull at it and get a hunk of rotted wood covered in a perfect mess of rusty springs. My clock is gonna rock. Boyfriend wants to go upstairs. "No," I say. "Let's just go—I got what I need." He calls me a wuss. We go home. The next day on the local news, we see the house with the windowsill flowers. They found a long-dead body in the upstairs bedroom. A woman. They think she was a prostitute. We don't ride our bikes down Cass so much after that.
Can't get any homework done in the dorm. Mom comes with a truck full of apartment stuff, and I tell her to follow me to my new place. I drive her all over the worst neighborhoods I know, then pull into the driveway of a boarded-up three-story house covered with graffiti. "Kill Whitey" is spray-painted on the front of it. I get out of the car just to see the terror on her face. Then: "Just kidding!" She yells back: "You BITCH!"
Move into a gorgeous brick brownstone called Phillips Manor—hardwood floors, fireplace, four bedrooms. My two roommates and I pay $110 apiece. The three of us are sitting and watching the huge Star Trek–looking TV I scored for $15 at the thrift store. All the remote controls are sitting in plain view on the coffee table. We're watching VH1. The channel changes itself to The New Dance Show—the local, low-budget version of Soul Train. This is the first of many times that the TV switches itself to another station. The radio randomly switches itself, too. And always to a black TV show or song. Seems to be a friendly ghost. Most definitely an African-American ghost. The only other thing living in that house, aside from the three of us, is my roommate's spooky black Persian cat. Always hiding somewhere. Can never pet it. Once, we can't find it for almost a week. My roommate leaves to make a "Lost Cat" flyer at Kinko's, thinking it somehow got outside. Boyfriend is sitting in the living room, and I'm at one end of the long hallway near the bathroom. The cat comes stumbling out of one of the bedrooms and just sits in the middle of the hallway, not moving, staring intently at me. I say, all sweet, "Kiiiii-teee, there you are!" The cat just stares. Then its mouth opens slightly and a very deep man's voice says, "Hello." With that, the cat walks back into the bedroom. Boyfriend says, "Who just said 'Hello'?" Not making this up. I scream and lock myself in the bathroom. For hours.
Detroit's freeways were built for TRAFFIC. Except there are no people left, just embankments, grass, cement. Pretty easy to turn around, because every exit has an overpass. I'm driving 89 miles an hour, late for class. Teacher says if I'm late again—expelled. WHAM! My hood flies up and hits the windshield. I'm going so fast and can't see anything. Then the wind catches and it slams back down, but now the latch is broken, so it flies up again. HOLY FUCK. It slams down again and I start pulling to the right. WHAM! Hits the windshield again. Oh my fucking God, why is this happening? The next time it flies up, it doesn't hit the windshield—it just flies right off the car. I watch it in the rearview mirror go end over end, airborne. I pull off at an exit, thinking my hood just caused a HUGE accident. Maybe killed someone? I travel south, then back north, looking for carnage. NOTHING. I go farther and do the loop again. And again. Nothing. Where the hell is the hood to my car? Somebody steal it? That fast? Never ever find it, and drive around the D with my engine exposed for over a week.
Some kids at school ask if we wanna go to a party. Sure! Okay, they tell us to go to Zoots Coffee to get directions. We go to Zoots. Barista looks us up and down, then tells us to go to Alvin's and ask the bartender for the directions. Weird, but all right. After Alvin's, we get sent to Cass Cafe, and someone at Cass Cafe says to go to Showtime Clothing, then finally someone there tells us the party is at the long-closed Packard Plant—a huge auto factory built in 1903, now a maze of 40-plus abandoned buildings on 35 acres. We go. Holy shitballs, it's scary at night. A couple kids are outside directing people. We follow a tunnel made of black garbage bags that empties out into this gigantic open room. There are crazy lights everywhere, some guy named Plastikman is DJing, and over a thousand people are dancing, partying, screwing each other in the dark corners. Some guy asks me if I want some "E." I say, "What's that?" He says, "Oh, child, is this your first rave?"
One day, my friend calls. She lives in the same apartment building, but on the fifth floor. "Come quick! Come up here!" We go to the window and look down at the street. There's a view of the Majestic Cafe parking lot, Detroit Medical Center, more brick apartments, and Woodward Avenue, the main drag. Three men in brightly colored ski masks are pouring gasoline all over our landlord Judith's Buick Riviera. One of the men throws a book of matches on it, and then they walk away. We clap and laugh and LAUGH as Judith's boyfriend tries to put the fire out with buckets then a garden hose. We didn't like Judith very much. Apparently, the drug dealers down the street didn't like her either. Especially after she called the cops on them. Another time at that window, we watch a drunk guy with a cinder block smash out the windshields of five cars in a row. The cops actually show up that time.
One night, I get real shitty drunk on OE. We thought it'd be soooo funny to drink Olde English 800 malt liquor, just like all the other homeys in the D. All real funny until I have to drive home. I mean, walking was ALWAYS out of the question, unless you wanted to maybe die, and cabs were rarely around. It'd be good to take all the side streets, I think to myself, kinda creep my way home. "Creeping" was all I'd done anyway since I lost my driver's license. If you lose your license, and you're a 22-year-old girl living in downtown Detroit, you have no choice but to keep driving. I'd been driving very carefully for almost a year, with no trouble. When the cops pull me over, my neck immediately breaks out in hives. This is it—I'm going to jail, oh sweet Mary mother of God, I'm going to jail IN DETROIT. Two football-player-sized black policemen come up to my car. Instead of asking for my license, they ask if I know I'm driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I try to explain. Oh fuck. My speech is slurry. "What's that?" policeman one says, pointing to the red gas can in the back of my car. "I ran outta gas two days ago," I say. "Don't you know it's Devil's Night?" says policeman two. (Devil's Night, the night before Halloween, is the Detroit phenomenon where residents set fire to empty buildings. One year, over 800 houses burned to the ground in less than 72 hours.) "You know, you can go to jail for even having that in your possession." "I wasn't gonna burn anything, I swear to God, please believe me," I say. "Okay, okay," one says, "but I gotta take that can." "What are you doing down here anyway, blondie? This is a bad neighborhood," says the other. "Where are you trying to go?" "Home. I live on Willis Street." "Okay, then, follow us. We'll give you an escort. You really shouldn't be here."
Walking home from the Detroit Institute of Arts—my first museum, with so many real Van Gogh paintings that I get overwhelmed and physically nauseated—I see the infamous, majestic "yellow dogs" running down the street. Unlike Mexico, which has a sunshine-y warm climate and loads of feral dogs, Detroit's wild dogs are so furry and dirty they almost look like they have dreads, or like smallish grizzly bears—maybe once domesticated, maybe once someone's pet, now alien creatures worthy of scientific study. You can tell the lead dog—he is always leading the pack—used to be a yellow Lab. The rest are a mix of breeds, but for some reason, everyone calls them "the yellow dogs." They are always silently running somewhere—never barking. The rumor is that you have good luck for a week if they cross your path.
I'm working at the college and at the Majestic Cafe on Woodward Avenue. I lied my way into a waitress job there: When they asked if they could call my former employer, I gave them my mom's number and told her to answer the phone for a few days as "Torsch's Bar and Grill." She did. And it worked. The Nub Man is a homeless, toothless, one-armed vet who spare-changes in front of the Majestic. I see him almost every day. He used to scare me a little, but I try to give him change or bills when I can. One night, after a super-long, hard shift, someone steals my apron with all my money in it. I'm livid. So tired and angry. I start to walk home. The Nub comes running after me. "No, you know what?" I say. "I DON'T HAVE ANY FUCKING MONEY! Someone stole it, and now I can't fucking eat! I don't have any food!" Then I start crying. "Oh giiirl," he says, and hands me five bucks. "You gonna eat. Just take it." I pay him $10 back the next day, and after that, the Nub and I are friends. One sunny day, we even play Frisbee in the parking lot. Last time I ever see him: He comes running up to me for his typical high five—he'd hold up what was left of his arm and say, "Give the nub some love!"—then says, "Girl, whatchoo think?!" I say, "'Bout what?" "What's different?" he says with a huge, cheesy grin. "You got teeth!" "Ah, haaaa! I did! They tried to give me an arm, too, but I didn't want no arm."
One day, I'm in so much pain I can't walk. Feels like a knife in my girly parts. I'm crawling on our dirty hardwood floors in Hamtramck, the little Polish hood north of downtown. Since I live with a sculptor, there's clay dust on everything. The Midol my boyfriend brings me doesn't work, so he throws me in his Ford Festiva—the tiniest car in the world—and takes me to Henry Ford. "Waahs wrong witchoo, girl?" the ER nurse asks. I'm pouring sweat. I'm dying. I feel like I'm going to start hallucinating. They roll me into what has to be a maternity ward. A pack of gigantic and gorgeous super-pregnant black women surround me. I'm in the fetal position, weeping. Only white person for miles. (My stepdad would have died before coming in here. "I don't even like driving past Detroit," he used to say. In the five years I lived there, he never visited once.) One of the women pets my head. I can't stop crying. "This is a blood gas," a nurse says, plunging a needle into an artery in my wrist. It basically feels like she's cutting my hand off. Next thing, someone's saying, "It didn't work, gotta do it again." And then I'm alone in the room. And then, suddenly, all the pain just stops. Instant gone. I can hear them coming back for my second blood gas. No more "blood gases." No way. SORRY. I find my street clothes, carefully pull the IV line out of the vein in my other arm, and walk out of the hospital. According to the $2,000 bill I get later, I passed a kidney stone.
One night, my friend calls. "Come up here!" "Is someone torching Judith's new car?!" "No, just come up, CLOWNS!" We go to the window and look down. "I think they're called 'Juggalos'—some band called ICP is playing at the Magic Stick across the street." We start throwing paper airplanes at them. Then various other crap, including some potatoes we have on the kitchen counter. This angers the clowns. They start yelling at the building. Then throwing bottles of Faygo at the building, except they don't know which apartment the potatoes are coming from. Judith goes outside to see what's going on. We clap and laugh and laugh some more.
The best part of living in Detroit is the ruins. The whole place is one giant urban-ruins park. Though it's sad and broken and abandoned, there is art everywhere. It's beautiful. From the graffiti and street art to all the overgrown empty places, where nature is slowly but surely reclaiming its place. When school ends, it's time to leave and find a job. The last summer we're living there, we break into 50-plus buildings. Not to destroy things, but to pay our respects to all those grand old dinosaurs. We spend so many nights sitting on top of the old train station, Michigan Central Station. We climb 18 stories—it takes almost 45 minutes—with food and beer and blankets on our backs, and then just sit on the roof and watch the sunset over our pretty city. I think I miss that place the most, out of everything. I spend my last day thinking I should go over to the train station one last time to say good-bye to her. Gonna miss this Detroit. I've been robbed, mugged on the light rail (thanks, People Mover, I mean People Mugger, I mean MUGGER MOVER), and almost carjacked once, but I'm still really gonna miss it. I step outside my apartment and take a huge breath. Suddenly, a big gust of wind picks up a plastic Farmer Crack grocery bag filled with nasty trash—some old Kleenex, some cigarette butts. The bag hits me in the face. Nope. No train station today. Gotta go.