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Falling in love with Detroit, the beginning
When I met kids my own age in Detroit— and I met hundreds, selling The Red Tide in front of every public high school in the unified school district— I’d tell them, “I just dropped out of school and moved out here from California.”
Their mouths dropped. “You’ve got it all backwards!” they’d say. “Are you crazy?”
I had their attention. “You have something here,” I said, “you will never find in Los Angeles if you looked for a million years. LA is a celluloid company town; everything is illusion.”
Detroit was the opposite of Los Angeles, however bruised the city was in 1975. It was still based on making things that made America run. If Chicago had big shoulders, Detroit had steel quads. You pushed the pedal to the metal. You meant what you said and you said what you meant.
My first morning in Detroit, I walked into the I.S. national offices on Woodward Avenue, across the street from Henry Ford’s original shuttered factory. The abandoned Highland Park site was a classic case of butt-ugly on the outside, and beautiful under the skin. The brick edifice of Ford’s plant was abandoned, weeds growing over barbwire fences.
I said, “This is the place that built the first car my Grandpa drove, the first time he didn’t drive a mule train.” And now it was crumbling in the rain.
I had hoped the I.S. “Commie Camp”— held near Metro Beach— would be a great party, but it would have to compete socially, with any weekend night on the corner of Livernois and Six Mile. That’s where I lived on the corner, with six other comrades in a beautiful old house presided over by a house-mom-&-dad named Cal and Barbara. They refused my rent money offerings. Cal set me up in a sofabed which looked like the same model I grew up with; Barbara made dinners that made me so happy I sang to her.
Living in a mostly-black city meant racism perception was turned upside-down. I’d walk down the street and everyone assumed I'd been adopted into an African-American family. —A bi-racial family. And I had, in the same fashion of everyone who’d stuck close to old Detroit. Everyone who lived in the town limits was a worker or unemployed; everyone in management had immigrated far out to the suburbs. The segregation took its toll, but the class awareness was fierce. Of course, the labor unions were corrupt— but people remembered what their grandparents, black and white, had died for. I didn’t have to “explain” the same things I did when I stood in front of Von’s Supermarket on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A., trying to convince a real estate broker’s husband why people who work should have a stake in what they produce.
All this was a huge weight off my shoulders.
I noticed Detroit extended families didn’t split apart and move like Malibu sandpipers every season. When I met someone new, I’d meet all their cousins along with them. The first barbecue we had in Barbara’s backyard, there must’ve been a hundred people there— but Steve P., a native, told me, “It’s really just three families.”
We danced every single night until we dropped. Until the pressure dropped. You didn’t go over to someone’s house in Detroit without dancing.
Legal drinking age was eighteen in 1975, which meant a smile could get you a pass if you were seventeen. My first week in town, my new friends took me to The Aorta, a popular bar down on Six Mile. I danced with every man, woman, and dog. Who cared that summer in Detroit was humid, grey and smelly? Cold beer never tasted so good.
I remember one bar girl, Pepsi, who showed me a move I had to take on for the rest of my life. She did a basic slow grind, but her hands and arms were clasped together like she was holding a hammer— bringing it down, slicing it up, down, up, and anvil-down. I took my pen out of my shirt pocket to scribble on a bar napkin: “Dear Tracey: Forget L.A.! Send me my records and everything!” I drew hearts all around the border. I had to remember to mail this.
Pepsi grabbed my waist off the barstool: “What’re you writing for, Susie Hollywood?” Those saber-wielding hands of hers were as soft as a puppy’s.
I slid off the chair and abandoned my wet postcard.
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