Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On the Road to the Motor City

It was an ordinary part of our bus trip with hot sun and countryfolk in their minivans lined up in one fast food drive at one rust belt town after another, till we got on the rim of Lake Erie up by Cleveland. We pulled into town and crawled past crumbling mansions that had, a hundred years ago, been home to the managers of the now-closed mills and factories. Thin black men hobbled along weedy sidewalks, pushing wobbly shopping carts loaded with junk, their sorry faces gaunt in the broken glass of the dusty corner barber shops and check cashing stations that hadn’t seen a big payday since the flush a generation back.

But then we crossed the tracks and swung into the shady graces of the University of Cleveland, its neoclassical buildings bright and shiny and new with squeaky clean doctors in residence stepping lively across the green campus, the still mighty towers of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in command of the distant skyline.

We were glad it was lunchtime because that meant we could stop driving for a while and eat. We had heard of this restaurant called Slyman’s. It was near the train tracks, just east of downtown. The place was all clattering plates and shouted short orders and popping bags and a line of regulars out the nothing-to-look at storefront. Diane and I dodged the line and grabbed stools at the low bar and shared a plate of their specialty, corned beef on rye.

It was the biggest sandwich we had ever seen and we ate every bit of it. We knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course and we would have had another, but we had to get going and stop moaning, so we paid the tab, said so long to the waitress manning the cash register and made for the bus.

It was slow going out of Cleveland, but no sooner did we clear the downtown than the wide blue lake peeked out again, this time from beside the never-ending ranks of stately stone houses that are home to the managers of check cashing companies and temporary employment bureaus. After a half hour of watching groundsmen mow lawns and clip elaborate hedges, we rode past the city limits and made time around the gentle southwestern sweep of Lake Erie and the Michigan border.

We arrived in the Motor City quite early in the morning. Tacking through the wind from Lake Erie with a bop over an overpass we saw smokestacks, smoke, railyards, red-brick buildings, and the distant downtown gray-stone buildings, and here we were in Detroit, the great roaring furnace of Michigan industry that still belched fire from its nostrils, its big rank smell like the raw body of America itself, and I felt as if its red river face was daring us to reconsider our trespass.

But we slipped the old troll and were soon enough cruising down the long walk of Michigan Ave., a street that hustled hope to injured souls and broken bodies despite its defaced character.

Though from block to block this stone block jungle cast a suspicious gaze on our cruising car, for no other car was on this potted road but us in this early hour, and in this small light the tallest buildings reared back and revealed to us how strong their old bones were, though in truth their stately visage was streaked with tears from a thousand broken eyes.

And as we drove by listening to that tearful sound of the light which this city has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something frantic and rushing about, because wherever they were they were not in downtown Detroit. Nobody was. Except us. And a few other hopeful fools.

Even so, the day was warm and beautiful and we had a meal of franks and beans in American Coney Island, a downtown institution since century’s turn a hundred years back, then extracted ourselves from the impossible tangle of downtown streets and aimed the bus at the DIA, a.k.a., the Detroit Institute of Art. We gained entry to the temple and stood in silent reverie before the epochs: the North American ancients and their totem poles that told of terrible beasts and soaring eagles and untold bounties long since forgotten; we heard the hoarse whispers of grotesque African masks, all stretched and thorny and bleeding evil blessings like sweat-stained skin; we pondered the pictures from an Old World, a time when the mercantile class in Europe was amassing great fortunes and willingly tossed their money onto a oily canvas to prove it; we saw the tangled mess of the modern mind—air-conditioned shards of broken glass on green finger-like carpets tacked to tall walls, a white-noise nonsense of repeating neon that slyly winked at us as within this holy temple of endowments.

We heard tell that Diego Rivera was still kicking around. He had arrived in the 1930s and some say he never left. I was excited to lay eyes on that dirty old Mexican so I beat feet to a large reception hall and found him hanging around, just like I thought he’d be. His language was melodious and slow. He was patient. He wore old clothes that had been turned black by the soot of railroads and the dirt of boxcars and sleeping on the ground. He fixed his face with a sardonic and insinuating smile, and though he had a lot to say about our lord Henry Ford and the terrible machine that feeds on the sweat of human labor, he said not a word and instead spoke to all who dared listen in a room filled with nothing but cartoons.

It was agonizing stuff and I pictured Diane and I and The Ford Himself in a Detroit bar that night, all the gang on stage, and in their eyes we would see something strange and ragged, filled with Wonder, like prophets of War who long ago walked across the land to bring the dark world its bright beat. And before we knew it, Diane and I were at the doorstep of Hitsville, USA.

We entered the dead rooms inside, and though the walls had long ago ceased to talk we could feel the spirits of those sounds still noisily clinging to the thin air.

In its time, the early ‘60s, Motown was going like mad all over America. The fellows at Hitsville blew with a wild air—Stevie and the Funk Brothers, Diana Ross and her Supremes—because Motown was somewhere between the glory rock that began with King Elvis and ended with the booty roll of Queen Disco.

Today it’s the early ‘00s and the Studio A is a museum of sorts, but they still let you into the sacred chamber and blow your horn and sing your song, standing tall and leaning up into the hot mics just like the greatest hit makers once did when they too were young and rushing about in beat sweaters and baggy pants and had nothing more to their names than a toothbrush and handkerchiefs and high heels and horns, their senses sharp with the kindest form of human love and friendship.

The sun was still high but falling by the time we left Studio A. And though I had a song of love in my heart, once I got back in the bus my head became fogged again with a torrent of Diego’s pastel cartoons I had witnessed earlier that morning. Unable to disperse these dark clouds, I resolved to pay a visit to our lord Henry Ford as soon as it was possible, and once I had made that decision I told Diane about it and she agreed. She told me the ghost of old Ford himself could be found in Dearborn, at a place called Greenfield Village, and once that was settled we headed across town to look up the old man.

The Motor City seemed empty somehow as we roared through its rough intersections and mean streets, surging past the burned up husks of once fine houses and startlingly green weedy lots and closed up shops that still promised the sweet heart of love forever in the pink, I was overtaken with the strangest feeling.

For once in my life I didn't know who I was. Diane and I were far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, and I heard the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of a mean hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked through that scratched old windshield and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. We were halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of a dying Old World and the West of the future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, in that strange high sunset.

But then we arrived at The Henry Ford, and in an instant we were transported back to the time of small town steam engines and railroad tracks, and shacks all smelling of sawdust in the dry summer haze of a midwest afternoon.

We stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world, among the old cars and beat engines of Main Street, the lonely brick walls destined to be illuminated by one lamp, with the prairie brooding at the end of each little street and the smell of the corn like dew in the night. All the townsfolk seemed to be going home from work or preparing for an evening’s pleasure ride, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere.

The only cars that came by were antique cars; they gave us friendly waves as they clanked along, the cows were coming home. It was beautiful there. But soon enough the sun turned red as it snuggled down into the its bed on the western horizon and before it disappear into nothing, Diane and I climbed back into the bus and roared off onto the open road, the openness of the Michigan pastures looming ahead of us like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, and I thought about the glories of Diego’s mad dreams and The Old Ford’s mad machines and we aimed the bus northward toward the roof of America and the very edge of the Great Lake Superior where the wild land blooms with giant bears and roaming wolf packs and ahead and I saw the thin outlines of jackpines in the silver moon, and saw the dirty ghosts of worn out factory workers, and heard the still-young voices of Motown, and wondered about them all. And this was really the way that our whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.

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