(In the Bowels of the Beast, pt. 2)
I'm riding the 450 bus down Woodward into the bowels of the dreaded beast known as Detroit. As the bus passes 8 mile into Detroit, the road Eminem made famous, the neighborhoods turn 100% black, clear evidence that Metro Detroit is one of the most segregated neighborhoods in the United States. The only white person I see from my window is a tawdry Eastern European girl with bright red lipstick walking the streets. The overgrown lawns, with their dandelions, crabgrasses and chickweeds, give the notoriously dangerous neighborhoods full of squatters, drug dealers and other various degenerates a false look of repose.
It's like this for miles until the bus finally makes it way to downtown Detroit, the grimy Art Deco skyscrapers towering in the sky defiantly amidst the urban decay like old men in shabby decades-old suits. I get off the bus at the intersection of Woodward and Kirby, by the Detroit Institute of Arts (the DIA) and the Detroit Public Library, a small cultural sanctuary from the blight.
I must admit, The DIA is a fine art museum, truly among the nation's best. I have spent days there. However, The Detroit Public Library is the real curio here. It's as if Detroit circa 1965 was put in a time capsule, before 1967's 12th Street Riot and the mass exodus of the white population. The upstairs has a huge Space Age era mural celebrating the role of Detroit in the development of modern transportation (from hot air balloons and trolleys to rockets), stained glass windows with Renaissance iconography and an exhibit on tribal African textiles with primitive, rhythmic patterns all in ONE room. Truly, this bizarre collage of elements is a perfect snapshot of what Detroit is today, an unintelligible jumble of old ideas and new ideas. Old dilapidated buildings sit next to fresh renovations and new constructions, all built haphazardly to cash in on Super Bowl XL back in 2006 and consequently not much of an attraction for suburbanites. (Walking through the library, I overhear people whispering about conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Jackson's death. It was the Church of Scientology that did it. Isn't it always?)
Now walking further down Woodward towards the GM Rennaisance Center (or, the RenCen), Detroit's 1.6% homeless rate becomes all too apparent (more than 1 in 100 are homeless in a city of over 800,000). The homeless are on stoops clutching bottles in brown paper bags, or on street corners begging for money, or just passing by silently with plastic bags full of clothes and other essentials - they're everywhere. One drunk, with the stink of cheap malt liquor on his breath and a nine o' clock shadow, tells me that it's better to give than to receive and that the karma will come back doubly to me. Of course, sir. I wonder how much karma $3 buys? Probably a negligible amount, but like a damned fool I give him $3 anyway. I'm sure he'll be pissing my karma out in a drunken stupor a few hours from now. Oh well. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel more than a little out of place walking up and down Woodward, with all of the vultures eyeing me suspiciously.
Just a block away from the RenCen (thankfully), I suddenly hear a mob chanting what almost sounds like a jaunty English pop tune: "Hey, ho, Bing has got to go, hey, ho, Bing has got to go!" Startled, I look to my left and see the crowd marching towards me as I wait to cross the street, an angry soccer mom in capri pants with a megaphone furiously leading the chant. It refers to Dave Bing, the incumbent mayor of Detroit, a popular former Detroit Pistons player and local businessman with ties to the Big 3 (GM, Ford, and Chrysler), A.K.A. a well-qualified politician. A kindly older lady hands me a pamphlet from the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) warning that Bing is planning to move to drastically cut social services, including bus services, to try and minimize Detroit's massive budget deficit, as if it were possible. What can you do, though? Almost a quarter of the city is unemployed as it is. With the pamphlet in hand, I push through the ever revolving doors of the GM World Headquarters at the RenCen feeling like Che Guevara.
The RenCen, 7 skyscrapers sometimes called "a city within a city", has become an emblematic target of my anger towards Metro Detroit's pedestrian unfriendliness, like how all of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson's frustrations with the government could all be symbolized in one man: Richard Nixon. Architecturally, it's a bland mesh of steel and glass. It's worth noting that nobody that works in the offices of the RenCen actually lives in Detroit, and standing in the lobby, I REALIZED I WAS RIGHT ABOUT SOMETHING: hell, like I always thought it must, has air conditioning and tiled floors, as well as banal slogans, like "teamwork is the key to success", on the walls. If I was anymore right, the janitor would set the thermostat to freezing at night. Inside there is a movie theater, a drug store, a hotel, restaurants, and shops of all kinds. What really bothers me is the showroom proudly displaying all of GM's latest car models, a collection of clunky metal gas guzzlers that get roughly 15 miles to the gallon, as if last summer's oil crisis was just a bad dream that we'll never have again. I'm watching people pose for photographs in cars they'll never afford (but were mostly made cheaply in foreign factories), laughing as they live out their lurid fantasies for a minute, and I see the American dream in all of its glory. If only I could put these sleepers' hands in a glass of warm water so that when they finally woke up they'd be covered in piss, like I usually am.
From the RenCen I can see the shores of Windsor, Canada past the filthy Detroit River. Windsor has 3 major automotive plants, while the actual city of Detroit, the motor capital of the world, has 0. The ironies of globalization. In Michigan, Windsor is primarily known for having a lower drinking age than the U.S. and the Caesars Windsor, a casino which prompted Detroit to build 3 casinos as retribution: the MGM Grand Detroit, the Motor City Casino, and the Greektown Casino.
After exiting the RenCen and swearing off its presence as seagulls ritualistically circled over me (or was it just the Doritos?), I made my way towards Detroit's little Greektown, an underwhelming block of Greek restaurants that locals rave about for some odd reason. Walking into the Greektown Casino, the heavily oxygenated air, the otherworldly shimmering sound of hundreds of slot machines, and all of the flashing neon lights with their fixed probabilities had an instantly hypnotic effect. At this moment, I halfway expected to ascend to heaven in aura of bright white lights. Girls in skimpy black dresses and pantyhoses handed out shots from sleek trays to the greasy patrons and filled straw holders with class. Then, I immediately lost $5 before I could rub my eyes. All too cognizant of what was happening, I ran out of there as fast as I could as elderly couples robotically pulled the levers of the slot machines as if it were an extension of their own bodies. I have to say, there is nothing more frightening than the glazed look of addicted gamblers, with their dilated eyes and expressionless faces. Zombies, every last one of them, the living dead.
Outside, the orange sun was low in the sky, signaling that it was time to leave. By now, junkies and addicts were asking if I wanted to be their friend for the night and people were smoking marijuana while waiting at bus stops, the pungent skunk-like odor floating down the potholed streets (not that I care, but it does indicate a certain level of lawlessness). I took the 490 to Royal Oak as the night descended on the city and the vampires came out to play.
(Of course, I've had good times in Detroit, like at the little bowling alley The Magic Stick, or when I saw some underground bands play at a weird little art center in the middle of a ghetto as I talked to their HIV-positive bodyguard Rufus, or listening to classical music at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, or... who am I kidding? This city is a disaster area!)
(A Citizen's Unfinished Sketch of Metro Detroit, pt. 1)