Best Worst Year: Episode 58 (Or, Motor City is Burning)

The swerve around a pile of mattresses in the street was gradual, expected. Almost anticipated, as if the road always bent at this crook of soiled single twins and busted boxsprings. Had it been darker out, maybe it would be different, but as it was, not only was there enough daylight to see these mattresses, you could also see sunset through the matchstick corpses of nearly a dozen burned out homes on this block. In the growing gloaming, sunlight got soft but the exposure of these houses, skeletal and desolate, seemed to cut jagged stray puzzle pieces of shadow against a bruise-purple sky.

St. Aubin? Dubois? Mt. Elliot? Names and nameless all the same. Lines of blank verse and open books all telling the same story. High tides of neglect breaking against the beaches of abandon. The savannah and fields wouldn’t be out of place in any small midwest town, but here, in the heart of the Motor City, they are reminders of fallow promises left to wither in asphalt fields.

1987. Summer vacation. Before poetry. Before broken arms and Roy Orbison. Before crushes and shaky confidence. Before The Replacements and A Catcher in the Rye. Before Dylan–Bob or Thomas. Before A Hard Day’s Night. Before French New Wave. Before Punk. Before Slam. Before midnight black coffee insomnia. Before bowties. Before collecting records and unemployment checks. Before MFAs and PDAs. Before I even knew it was happening.

Before long, we were driving through the mausoleum of class war personified by the Brewster Projects. Here we piled the poor in neatly stacked cinder block mattresses, surrounded by chain link fences. The streets grid out and around the cold still towers. A handful of streetlights still worked to light the path away from the handful of coffin nails sticking out of this city. Our guide talks about its notorious history–nameless fixtures and figures, counting to a thousand by holding our breath and calling it sleep. Dreamerless and unimagined best describe the architects of such urban planning although they’d probably see it differently. It’s amazing what the mirror tells us if we live in towns who can’t afford to keep the lights on. A twin project tower is tagged “Zombieland.” The letters hang in the sky–grace to rage but ultimately a resigned retort to no one or passengers like me.

I’m riding in the back with my two cousins and my mother. Eleven. I’ll turn twelve in November. The midnight blue Plymouth Reliant Station wagon I would eventually total the day I turn sixteen seats all seven of us comfortably–a monument to American monstrosity and suburban nuclear potential. The last true 50s sentiment to oxidize. You have to go south to go north. Canada. Windsor. The Maple Leaf Tijuana. A quick day trip to beaches. My mother’s only sibling to make it stateside and to be on the beach with her, any waterfront, almost closed a circle of reunion. Both married G.I.s, both have children. Mirrors of making good on island promises.
Not really escape just life.

When people started leaving the Motor City, the nation didn’t notice. This slow bleed was a faucet dripping with life, quietly pooling red along the broad industrial chest of the suburbs. The 80s turned the tap open. Plants closing. Crack. Industrial flight–more vicious and exacting than the surgeon hands of new industry reshaping downtown. A complex of hospitals and medical centers–a city within a city sits inside Detroit. It has its own cops. The E.R. has a jail. Even in the metal and shine–the chrome bumpers replaced with stainless surgical steel–the violence never is too far out of sight. What reaps remains. In the shadow of Ford Field and Comerica Park, a bombed out Police Station, a dead neighborhood with trash spilled like entrails, and more fields–a plowshare pounded into pistols and fired into the air to remind us they are still there.

At the U.S./Canadian border, our stationwagon is pulled out of line. There had been an epidemic of kidnappings going on. My cousins were dark enough to look like my aunt. I was just white enough to be and not be like my parents. 1987. Before passports. I had no I.D. The customs agents asked me a chain link net of questions designed to catch me in a lie. Variations on verse but the refrain was the same: “Who are you?”

Twenty minutes? Forty minutes? Days? Timeless and all the same. Eventually they believed my tears. Proof in bloodshot eyes and hoarse throats. We reached the shoreline and I hid my face in the water. Half shame. Half confusion. Half white. Half pinoy. Just to scream.

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Five Quarterly, and The Minnesota Review. For an audio version of this column, check out: Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.

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