06 May 2011

Old and Lovely

She sleeps, this city. She sleeps and dreams, deep, slow, old dreams of better days gone by. I alone wander her streets, stumbling and mumbling and drunk. I love her, in my bones and my soul, I love her. Few do, anymore. I get angry to think of how far they've let her fall, how dirty her streets have become, how cluttered and shuttered and dank her alleys, how burned out and infested and forgotten her once-proud homes. I was born here, back in the glory days when that filthy rich old anti-Semite Henry Ford was building his empire out of desperate men and black-skinned migrants and paying them top wages. I picked pockets here and snuck smokes and did the dirty for the first time with sweet, smooth-skinned Millie Janowski. Oh God, I remember that night clear as crystal. Just kids, we were, young and fumbling and wet-palmed and eager. In the corner of a derelict factory at the edges of town on a rucked quilt we clutched at each other and clumsily kissed; in the dim, diffused glow of the moonlight through dusty windows we loved each other...I say loved, but at such a tender age is it really love?

I lean against a rough brick wall and swig from the paper-wrapped bottle, bathed in the sickly yellow glow of a streetlamp. The memories are flooding back tonight, for some reason. There are nights like this, where the cars are few and sirens distant, when I feel like I'm the only one left here to love this once-great city, when memory seems to beat in my veins in place of blood, remembrance in place of breath. I take another swig, stumble a bit further and slump into my pile of newspapers and boxes, let the huge, hovering history of this place lower itself over me and take me away with its succubus kiss.

Maybe it's me who's dreaming, instead of the city. Maybe the liquor has taken me away to when I was young and strong and full of verve and vigor and the future lay before me waiting to be plundered. Instead of sirens and gunshots and oppressive silence, I hear laughter and tinkling glasses and music from bars and nightclubs, I see couples wandering down clean streets wearing their about-town best, furs and fedoras, black-and-white oxfords and patent-leather pumps. I am barely a teenager, lurking in shadows with my best buddies, all older than me, cupping smokes like we see the union boys do, like the ex-GI's with Omaha Beach and Battle of The Bulge glittering hard and cold in their eyes. We pretend to be rough and tough, slug a drunk and take his change for cheap booze, we tumble gals in the back of rusted-out old Packards, we have this city as our oyster and we plunder it for all we can.

One night I'm lying in bed and voices are loud at the front door. Pop never came home from work. A factory accident, I never knew exactly what. Ma does her best, odd jobs and late shifts, but its never enough. When I'm sixteen and Mary is fourteen, Ma just vanishes, gone one morning with a suitcase and a traveling salesman, leaves a few bucks on the stove and not even a note. Mary ain't long behind her, takes up with a rich banker sort, gets by on looks and loose legs. I see her from time to time, then I don't no more and it's just me, scraping by. I hear about Korea, sign up, travel to a foreign land on a floating tin can full of old vets and scared boys.

It's hell, a pure and blood-soaked hell of rice paddies and dead men on obscure hills. I live through it, physically. My soul is never the same. I block out the memories when I get home, but I can't ever shake the nightmares. I take up the bottle to drown them out. Eventually I find a factory job and a woman. She was long-legged and buxom, sweet as sugar and soft as silk and sinful in the sack. Too good for me and my dreams of lost legs and spattered gore, my tall, vanishing bottles of golden whiskey that slowly eat away my soul. She loves me as best she can, as long as she can, but it's no use. She packs a valise, just like Ma, and flies to Hollywood in the arms of a producer with small round sunglasses and bell-bottoms.

The beginning of the end, that was. It began the slow inevitable descent into self-made hell. More whiskey, a bottle a day most days, then a little pot and a little coke, just every now and again with bar buddies and fellow vets, and then my boss at the Ford plant found me passed out one day, skunk drunk and high as a kite in the bathroom, and that was that. I just stopped trying, if I'm being honest. The bank took the house and I lived in my beat-up old F-150, until that got stolen. It seemed easiest to just let go, to abandon myself into what I had wrought for myself.

She's all I've got now, this old and lovely city. When I lost everything she took me in, gave me a home in her hidden places. I've watched her change and sicken and crumble over the years, and I grieve for her. She was a brilliant and vibrant place and she's gone to seed now but still she succors me and comforts me. I walk her streets, wide and straight and complex and variegated, I sit on park benches and take in the architecture, the doric columns and corbelled arches and intricately carved capstones, all the many features from when they still put such artistic touches on buildings; I admire too the high-walled canyons of glass and steel echoing with modernity and the ageless curses and loud laughter and idling engines. I stomp drunk and oblivious through the riverside park with the giant disembodied fist and huddle with a hoarded smoke near the Spirit of Detroit statue and watch as masses pour out from Cobo and the Joe Louis. I remember the way she was when she was Motown, thriving and rocking with new and fresh and dynamic music, a city unlike anywhere else.

Oh Detroit, I mourn for you. I weep for you. But I have hope for you.

The young and idealistic are pushing and straining against the downward slide, they're revamping and reusing; I watch her gaining clean new edges in slow increments, I get sudden glimpses of new beauty cropping up in unlikely places. I have hope that in time, she will regain and surpass her old glory.

I won't be around to see it though. There's a chill in my bones now, a deep, penetrating, unreachable cold in the core of me. It spreads, every day, every month. I cannot shake it, cannot warm it or drink it away. I lie awake at night, cold and alone, and I remember.

The sky is black now, flecked with flurrying white flakes of bitter, killing cold snow. I'm huddled in a corner, shivering. I'm not afraid, though. My time has come, and I welcome it. I slump farther down, sliding helplessly until I'm lying down and my face is pointed heavenward. The cold in my bones has spread until it has consumed me from the inside out. I am ready.

Just...remember me, Detroit. I've lain in your streets and sung your praises silently, I've wandered up and down Woodward and whispered my devotion to you, my home. I am forgotten, I know, by the living, by the flesh and blood and bone who rush around me, oblivious and self-absorbed. I am lost to the river of the past, I am remembered only by shades, mourned only by ghosts. So I ask you, Detroit, to remember me as I fall away. I die, and I sing to you a paean, an elegy.

I am floating, drifting. I see the shape of her, from above. I'm not cold anymore. Time flows past me, for I have stepped beyond its banks, and I see in stop-motion glimpses her future stretched out like unfinished road; the fragments I am allowed to see give me peace and my song changes, becomes a tribute.

I take him in to me, swallow his bones, digest his memory. He is gone, forgotten by all but me. I cannot speak in the quick shifting words of the men and women who walk my streets and dwell in my buildings, but I speak of him, nonetheless, in my own slow, heavy language. He is there, among them, in the grizzled beards and dirt-smudged cheeks, in the layers of clothes and shopping carts, in the forgotten names and haunting, tragic stories. That is him, on the park bench, him shuffling and silent and lonely in the shadows. He won't be forgotten, not entirely, for he is part of me.

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