A Tale of Two Cities
Thanks for this tale are owed to a gentleman named Sean, who works for Triangle in Detroit, a LGBT advocacy organization. They have the odd idea that gays are citizens with rights and the like. Sean was kind enough to host me on a trip to the Michigan State Capitol in March.
Yeah, its been a bit. Writing is like that for me. Sorry, but not much.
So, anyway, I got to go to the capitol, meet my state representative, who seemed confused by my presence, learn about lobbying, see the offices of the Democratic Party Communications department, the Media Communications offices, the Chambers of the House. I got to meet several fantastic people, very sharp, intelligent, pithy; the kind of people I like to spend time with. Everyone looked good: good clothes, together styles. I was terribly conscious of the fact that I mischose my tie. I was unsurprised by the reality that our government in Michigan was largely populated by people who flirt, smile, joke, kibbutz: people people. the kinds of people who create conversation, and dialogue and make lots and lots of friends. My host was stellar, and I hope to be able to repay him the courtesy sometime, ideally in food, which I may be able to do him justice with. I learned a vast amount form him, and probably retained less than half what he showed me. I gained strong impressions of many of the people who run the state of Michigan, and better understand why the state doesn't work, having watched these people move and interact, from the gallery, so to speak. It was hugely educational.
The environment was sparkling: the buildings were, excepting the Capitol, classic 1980's governmental architecture, but immaculately maintained, with fresh interiors and new furniture. The Capitol showed no signs whatsoever of wear or age: all of the paint, all of the details in the domes picked out in gold leaf and paint looked less than 5 years old, smelt less than six months old.
All in all, it was an amazing day. It was above freezing, and a suit was basically adequate for moving from building to building. the sun was out, mid levels of cloud cover; a gentle, crisp winter day in Michigan.
The second set of thanks for this tale are owed to a very good friend of mine names Leland, who I have not ever had enough time to speak with. Leland has been kind enough to offer an introduction to a job driving a mobile satellite studio for me, if I would be courteous enough to provide myself with a truck driving license. and so, Toward that goal, I scheduled a test, which I was, wisely, advised not to take, but to instead drive to Dearborn to do a pre-test evaluation with the man who owned the truck. Apparently, they were reluctant to allow someone who has never operated a truck, well, access to a truck. I can't imagine why, but then again, they don't know me, so...
So, the next day, I drove to Dearborn. I have worked in Dearborn before, for three years as a Project Manager for Ford. I know Dearborn passibly well, having driven it thoroughly as part of moving from offices and job sites and back and forth.
Now, I'd like you to picture my route over this two days. If you do not know Michigan, look at your right palm. There: Michigan. Detroit is the meaty part of your thumb's base. Dearborn is part of that. Lansing, the State capitol, is located in the center of your palm. My house in Pinckney is located where the meaty base of the thumb meets the palm. Kind of dead center of these two Cities. So, over the course of these two days, it was like a direct ride from one city to the next. And, it being winter in Michigan, late winter, I'm somewhat prone to altered perceptions of time during daylight. ( and if you don't know what I mean, try a winter in Michigan. By March, you'll barely remember that there IS daylight.) So, to me, these trips were all one big sojourn from one city to another.
Things started to get surreal at the junction of i-94 and i-275, about 15 miles west of Dearborn. First of all, the roads are bad, and getting steadily worse. Its late winter, and we've had a couple of freeze-and-thaw cycles. The tarmac is spalling all over the roads: where the water sits at the edge of the pavement, the tarmac is peeling up in two foot long scales away from the border of the road, and has delaminated until the yellow edge line is, well, patchy. Potholes have appeared anywhere there is a pothole patch to erode, and the patchjobs have gotten more frequent, and grow more and more common as the road leads me east. As these conditions get worse, its more important to hold onto the wheel with both hands so as to not inadvertently veer into other lanes.
Dearborn is at the heart of Michigan's industrial center. Ford Motor company came out a few years ago to state that they were created in Dearborn, and would be staying in Dearborn: Dearborn was their home. The famous Ford Rouge River facility is located there.
Dearborn isn't a war zone. Its needs artillery saturation to achieve that effect.
As I drive down Ford Rd. to where the meet is to take place, the corner of Ford and Independence, if I recall correctly, I watch as the environment degrades. I start off in the Middle Easter section of Dearborn: clean, old, but well maintained. Storekeepers who want clean windows, bright signs. House are 1920-s and '30's, industrial buildings date to the '50's. Cars are 5-10 years old, and well maintained.
As I move east, the situation changes: more vacancies, more paint older than ten years. Sometimes, paint peeling away from bricks. Broken, boarded windows. The potholes begin to get painful: the shocks on my car aren't the best, and these potholes clack your teeth together, jar your neck.
Churches, little chapels, become more common; so do package stores: (one of the weirder Michigan phenomena: drive through liquor stores.). Ratio seems to be getting one package store for each church/lot/vacant building/vacancy building set. I wonder about how people support so many package stores. But then, when I was in Seattle, I wondered how they supported so much Starbucks: so much for my MBA, huh?
Grey, Grey day: full overcast, but the temperature is holding steady at the 35 degrees F from the day before. Sweater weather today.
When I get to the parking lot for the truck lesson, I'm glad its daylight: this is a rough neighborhood. Not bad, rough. Like two day growth rough. There isn't going to be any violence in this place: there's not enough motivation. They may steal your car, but they won't fight you for it. This place is dead.
There are perhaps six people in the lot, including the very kind gentlemen who offered me the evaluation. The test truck is a tractor with a half of a school bus chassis bolted on instead of a truck cab. Good thinking, creative. the bus was cut in half with a ceramic blade in a circular saw. I have one in my shop. It cuts metal well, but unevenly.
The parking lot is flooded. Deep, pale brown water fills the lot deeply enough that the instructors in the lot have made piers with concrete blocks and milk cartons that keep us just above the water. That makes the water deeper than 14 inches. The trucks splash through the slurry, churning it, but not like its got a mud bottom. Later, I found out that is all bottomed with concrete: the mud comes up through the cracks.
So we do the evaluation: they estimate that I need about 8 hours of practice and instruction, but understand that I have very limited means, so, offer to take me on for $500. Genuinely nice of them, but since I had just managed to raise the $350 for the test itself,..
During a break, I walk across the street to the NW corner of Independence and Ford. There is, unsurprisingly, a church: maybe holds 200, max. The door’s open and the lights are on, so I walk in.
The place looks like a giant child picked it up, shook it and tossed it back down, ten years ago. There is no front door: There is no roof. the light is sunlight. The remains of the roof are on the floor of the main room, and the pews have all been thrown to one corner by the force of the landing. The corners throughout the room are littered with human size nests, some long abandoned and melted in the snow that fills the crevasses of the nests.
As I back out and check six, I realize, all of those empty buildings, for all of those miles and for miles around me, are all like that. Probably one in five, maybe worse. I've seen urban blight before, South Chicago, the Bronx, East Berlin, but never like this. I walk into the next three buildings, look around, same kind of thing, until I find a lock on the fourth building.
No wonder the neighborhood feels so empty. I look up and down the street, grey on grey, and can see the chimneys of the Rouge Plant complex between the buildings and down the street.
On the drive home, I wondered. At the time, MI was in a budget impasse: what to cut, schools, or more taxes, and such folderol. I had been amazed that for literally months, Michigan's politicians had been mouthing platitudes that sounded more like party stump speeches than practical politics. I thought of those polished people and buildings in Lansing, and the detritus of a 1950's civilization that lies in Dearborn, and wonder, do politicians ever visit Dearborn?