Motor City Malaise

Even though I was silent for a few months, I was still writing as if I were going to post something.  I have posts in every notebook I’ve carried around during this hiatus, half-written drafts saved here.  For the most part, I think I’ll just let them all die a quiet death.  This one, however, I wanted to put up.  I went to Detroit last month for the Equity Summit.  I’d been very much looking forward to it.  The agenda was interesting, and I thought there was the possibility for some great conversation and interesting connections.  And I got all of that, but I also got body-slammed by Detroit itself.  On the first afternoon, pretty much the second I arrived, I boarded a bus to take a tour of part of the city.  I was with a few co-workers, and we’d all signed up for one of the various tours the conference folks had arranged.  About mid-way through mine, I wrote the next four paragraphs thinking I’d post them when I got back to the hotel … but instead I needed to unpack my bags and register for the conference and meet my boss and get ready to spend half a week talking about equity … and it never got posted.  It stayed with me, though, the despair and anger.  I’ve talked about it with a lot of people since that trip, but I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, still want to put it up here.


So depressed.  I’m in Detroit today, here for the rest of the week.  I’m on a tour bus for this conference and I’m touring the neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit.

I read all the time about poverty, about economic and environmental injustice, about urban blight, about graft, corruption, racism.  I have experienced a number of these things.  I work in a community and live in another community that are dealing with many of these things.  I have never in my life felt the kind of pain that’s lodged in my chest right now, have never visited a place that made me want to burst into tears.

I don’t understand how it’s possible to so completely devalue people.  Oh, of course I’m not that naive.  But I am, too.

I know that I should read this pain as a call to action, that I should understand it as a reaffirmation of why I do my work, why the project I’m directing is as important as I know it is.  I know this, but right now my despair is too pronounced, too overwhelming.  The tour leaders are trying to inspire us to fight the power, but right now I’m waving a white flag.  I know I’ll move on from here, but right now the pain and desperation are overwhelming.  Right now all I want to do is cry.


Yeah, that was a fun-filled afternoon for me.  I kept wondering how I could have grown up poor but not have realized I was actually living a life of obscene privilege and opulence.   No one else around me on that bus seemed to be having the experience I was having.  They were talking to one another, taking pictures and comparing notes on what we were passing compared to wherever they’d come to Detroit from.  And I was taking pictures, too.  I was comparing Detroit to my neighborhoods in Brooklyn, too.  But I was also having a meltdown.  I must have looked miserable and unapproachable.  After our second stop on the tour, no one even tried to make conversation with me.  My feelings were too strong for me to keep them off my face.  I wouldn’t have approached me, either.

Before I left for Detroit, my mother warned me to be careful because the city’s supposed to be so horribly dangerous.  I’m not saying it’s not dangerous, but … you know, my own city can be pretty rough, too.  I figured I was prepared to take care of myself.  What I wasn’t prepared for was what I saw and heard on that tour.  We visited sites where we weren’t allowed to get off the bus.  And that was for our protection from. the. air.  Yes, we were told quite plainly that the air quality was so bad, we’d feel the ill effects in our breathing and our eyes in maybe about five minutes.  We pulled into two locations and people from those sites came onto the bus to talk to us.  We got to sit in our plush seats, listen to their stories and then watch them walk back into the poison.

This is a playground next to a community center, one of the stops where we stayed on the bus.  Notice the yellow plumes of smoke next door, the sulfur filling the air where kids are coming to hang out and play.  That play space used to be on the other side of the community center (a few breaths further away from the sulfur smoke) until a tractor trailer fell off the highway that runs overhead and landed smack on the playground.  I listened to the stories about this center and I stared out the window.  How did anyone think it was okay for children to be playing there?  How did anyone think it was okay for anyone to live there?

We drove past burned out foundations and boarded up houses, past lot after lot after lot where whole communities had been dislocated and their homes razed and the land just left fallow.  For such a big city, I was shocked by how many open fields there were in Detroit.

Open fields and this:

But at the same time, it wasn’t all dismal.  Right next door to these boarded up houses is a mural:  and murals, even when they’re sad or painful, always make me feel a little bit better.  And this one has the Dunbar/Angelou reference, which makes it that much nicer.

I know there are wonderful things happening in Detroit.  I know it because I made a point to do a little research and find out about some of those things.  I know it because my co-worker is a native and she made a point of sharing some of those things with me.  I know it because we got to see a tiny little bit of that at the tail end of our tour.  I know it because the Equity Summit folks showed us fifteen minutes of Lemonade Detroit.  I know it.  I know.  But I also know what I saw on that tour.  I also know all the things I’ve learned over the last year about the group in River Rouge that’s trying to develop the same kind of community revitalization project that I’ve been working on in Brooklyn for the last year.  All of these things fit and don’t fit together.

Detroit made my heart hurt.  It’s definitely not the only place in the country with the power to do that.  No.  I’m sitting in my mom’s house right now in Maryland.  If I want heartache, I can ride up the road to north Baltimore and it’ll be right there to smack me in the face.  I’ll be home tomorrow, and I can find it in my own back yard.  There’s plenty of heartache all over.  It’s not my job to “save” Detroit.  There are plenty of worthier, more capable people stepping up to that challenge.  It was definitely Detroit’s job to wake me up, however.  I needed that slap in the face, needed to see more clearly the importance of the work we’re trying to do in Brooklyn, of the role I play as part of that work.

I need to go back to Detroit.  Any place that grabs your heart as aggressively as Detroit grabbed mine needs more time, needs attention.  So I’ve put the city on my “must return” list, not for a conference and a whirl-wind tour, but for the city itself, to really see and be there.  Even in the places where it’s hard to breathe.  Even in the places that make me want to scream and cry.  If I want the lemonade, I need the lemons.

I got by …

… with much more than a little help from my friends!

I made it.  I finished the dreaded artist’s resume, wrote a proposal I think might actually sound good to the selection committee, and made to 34th Street before 10pm and got my parcel in the post!¹ 

It’s done, it’s done, it’s done.  I’d never have gotten through it without some serious hand-holding from my sister and without some very well-timed and uncannily on- the-money suggestions from my friend DR.  Ladies, you are my angels tonight!

And, of course, I’d never even have heard about this opportunity if not for The Harpist … and it was great to come home to a voice mail from her, saying she hoped I’d gotten everything together in time.

I wrote a tanka earlier in the week with today in mind … but it’s on my desk at work, so that will have to wait.  Instead I have three I wrote on the bus downtown on my way to catch the A train up to the post office:

that soft, milky smell
voices always a question
or sometimes a plaint
how does she manage all four
again I wish for just one

rain on my window
do those drops wish they were snow
long to be other
want mountains not worn concrete
or am I the only one

soft wave of your hair
my hand resting on your neck
this quiet moment
the space and time between us
all the reasons I am here

Yeah.  Guess I was feeling a mite creative tonight.  I’m so happy I pulled this off.  Yes, I want very much to be accepted, but at the same time, just getting this application in the mail was a huge step for me.  The closest I’ve ever gotten to applying for something like this was downloading the application, putting it in a folder … and then thinking how hard it would be to find someone to write a recommendation … or how none of my writing really seemed ‘right’ for what ‘they’ would want to see … you know, basically talking myself out of applying.  And I didn’t do that this time.  And that feels better than wonderful.


¹Thank goodness for the all-night post office … but only for a little while longer.  On May 9th, all that late-night fun comes to an end.  They’ll be closing their doors at 10.  Very sad story.

Domino Effect

I have a student I’m going to call “Benny.”  He’s a young-ish Puerto Rican guy who has taken classes at my day job off and on for three years.  Mostly off.  He’s always been a bit of a screw up: in trouble, smoking too much pot, disappearing for days, weeks, whole semesters.  He’s one of the students you know needs the help, needs the services, needs the grounding that thinking he’s working toward his GED can give.  At the same time, he’s one of the ones who makes us wonder if he’s being well served by the program.

He drives Lena, my assistant, crazy.  She finds him utterly annoying and would be only to happy to see him expelled … not that we actually ever ‘expel’ students, but still.  He’s always driven me a little crazy, too, but there’s a soft place in my heart for him, no matter what he does.  (Yes, I have a lot of soft places in my heart.  Yes, I am the word ‘pushover’ made flesh.  What’s your point?)

He is what Lena calls one of my ‘benditos,’ the ones who I make excuses and allowances for because it’s so obvious that no one else does and they could use a little kindness and forgiveness and understanding.  (She has her benditos, too.  I’m not the only soft-touch in town.) So, because of Lena’s name for him, I’m calling him Benny.

When I walked into orientation for my night class in September, there was Benny, enrolled in that other program, enrolled in my class.  I asked if he was leaving the day class, and he said no.  And that ‘no’ meant that he would be my student day and evening.  Because yes, I am now teaching in the morning and at night.

(This is another gift from our funding loss: if we wanted the Pre-GED class to go on, I needed to teach it because we have no more funding for it.  And, while I am absolutely loving my day class, teaching nine hours in the morning makes it very hard for me to do my full-time program director job.  Just saying.)

Now that Benny is my student, I am seeing more every day just how right I’ve been to have faith in him.  He’s had consistent attendance and he’s an active participant.  What’s more, he knows so. much. stuff.  About world history, about politics.  It’s very impressive.  And he’s been loving the conversations we’ve had in class about the elections.    And I’ve really enjoyed having him in both of my classes.

Last Thursday night when he came to class was the first time he was seeing me since Obama had become our president [sigh of relief and joy!], and he wanted to talk.  At first I tried to get him settled into the writing activity, but I gave that up.  Why?  Because Benny asked what a person needed to be to be president, you know, legally-speaking.  And before I could start to answer, he got a look of amazement on his face and said:

“You see what this man has done?  He even has me thinking about what could be possible!”

Yeah.  Exactly.  I don’t really have words to say how much that moved me.

So we talked about rules like the one about having to be 35 … and suddenly Manny (a young Mexican man who almost never speaks) says, “I’ve got two out of three.  I’m just not 35 yet.”  And I suggested that it would be hard for him to wake up on his 35th birthday and suddenly become president, that there were things he should maybe be doing during the next 15 years to get himself ready.

Things?  Like what?  Turns out the idea of local politics has never really occurred to them.  The idea of any kind of activism has never really occurred to them.   We talked about the fact that a job like Benny’s — working for a small, way-left grassroots organization in the neighborhood — can be a good first step toward a career in politics.  After all, our new president was a community organizer once … We talked about the Community Board (which they are looking up for homework) and the City Council (more homework), about mayors and governors and state legislators … and Jorge (another young Mexican man who is even more silent than Manny) says, “So I could decide to run for one of these local offices?”  And Benny says, “Can’t you see it?  All of us in politics, all of us becoming politicians?  I never even thought about something like this.”

You see what this man has done?

Tannin’, Tommin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas*

Or something.

Much has been made of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s unbelievably (racist, insensitive) stupid comment about Mr. My Next President being tanned.  Berlusconi says his critics are humorless, can’t believe folks didn’t get it: “Are there really people who don’t understand it was a cute thing to say?”

Cute.  Cute.  To make a joke about Obama’s color.  Cute.

But Berlusconi doesn’t surprise me nearly as much as he seems to surprise other people.  The man has proven over and over again just how much of a jackass he is.  Why are people surprised that he would say something racist?

No, I have saved my surprise for Ralph Nader.

Obama’s choice is whether to be Uncle Sam or Uncle Tom.  Uncle Tom.  Like Berlusconi, Nader saw nothing wrong with his comment, saw no problem with using one of the most offensive and insulting terms in our culture to refer to the black man who had just been elected to the highest office in the land.  Ralph Nader.

At one point, he restates his charge to Obama: “He can become a great president, or he can become a toady to the corporate powers …”  Now, I would still find reason to be upset about this, it’s true.  In response to this comment, I’d want to have a discussion about Nader’s claim that Obama has always been in the pocket of big corporations.  That’s a conversation that would be based on Obama’s actions, a conversation that would have nothing to do with race.  But the moment Nader throws in that “Tom,” the conversation becomes something different.

Only, Nader chooses not to see that.  I won’t say that he can’t see it.  Ralph Nader is a savvy, educated man.  He knew exactly what he was saying.  His choice of words enabled him to make a ‘cute’ comment of his own: the clever play of Uncle Sam/Uncle Tom.  Cute.  His unwillingness to revise his comment, to apologize for it stems in my mind from a belief that he is somehow ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ racism, that he can say things that he would damn others for saying because we all know where he stands, we all know he’s not a racist.  Hmm …  I seem to remember a comment I made a month ago about ‘racist is as racist does’ …  If you’re not a racist, you don’t use the term Uncle Tom to refer to a black person … I would hope that you don’t have the thought, but you sure as hell don’t say it out loud.

And so little attention is being given to this.  Yes, there is the melodramatic pause reaction of the Fox reporter in the vid, but I mean real attention.  There hasn’t been much focus on this comment.  One of the panelists after the Nader interview says, “That was the end of his career, right there.”  Yeah, I don’t so much think so.  Back in the summer, he said in another interview that Obama was trying to ‘talk white’ and that got even less play than this.

If Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan or any other conservative newsmaker/pundit/blowhard had said either of these things, it would be all over the airwaves, they’d be pilloried.  But Nader can speak with impunity because he’s a lefty?


* My apologies to Maya Angelou