Why Detroit?

Why Detroit?

Part 1: Frightened Disappointment

“Why would you go to Detroit?” everyone asks. I imagine the friend I visited has often been asked why he stays. Isn’t everyone just abandoning Detroit? A lot of people have, for sure. I reread The Straights on the plane ride over. It’s a book of investigative poetry, a history of Detroit in prose from my English 452, upper division poetry writing course during my undergrad with Linda Russo. On one page it just says, “There are people here, there are people here, there are people here.” There are a lot of people there, granted there used to be more. And, perhaps ironically, perhaps written with a tinge of guilt, the author did not stay in Detroit. I gave the book to my friend Vaughn, so a little bit of her is back there whether she willed it or no (I tend to think she might have willed it).

My friend Vaughn and I have a characteristic tendency in common: we cram as much as we can into a day, an event, and experience. This inevitably backfires. My GPA suffered because I took three graduate courses instead of two while teaching as was recommended. In the name of seeing everybody before I left for Guatemala and they moved away from the transitory town that is Pullman, I didn’t read as much or pack as well as I could have before going to Guatemala by way of Detroit. Oh, and there were my Pearson project (hello, anyone there? I want to show everyone but still haven’t heard from them) first-year focus proposal. Meanwhile, Vaughn works ten or more hours a day in civic engagement projects, usually seven days a week. With this work load, it was perhaps not realistic to think he would be able to see me much in the time I was in Detroit.

But I didn’t stay mad at him (and I did get to see him eventually) and went out and about as much as I could sans motor in the motor city. I made new friends. And now I write them to you in San Pedro, Guatemala. It’s the rainy season which means around four or five it starts raining and stays raining at varying levels. The lightning lights of the sky behind volcan San Pedro in pink hues. It is quite dark because of the clouds even though it is only son las siete menos veinte. Yesterday when I arrived it was less rainy and less dark at the same time, which is good because I think I was running pretty close to my max for anxiety levels. It occurred to me that this will be therapeutic for my mild but affective anxiety. Or, it could be the worst idea ever (the latter is the anxiety talking; I’m sure of it). But before I get into that story, I must tell you my Detroit story.

The trouble started about a week or two before when the youth outreach program I had planned my trip around, planned to be a part of had to be rescheduled. This program, Detroit Team Strength, was going to bring Tricia, a woman, teacher and mentor from Vaughn and I’s study abroad days in Liverpool five years ago. I had bought tickets in a multi-destination package: Spokane to Detroit for a week, Detroit to Guatemala for seven weeks, then Guatemala to Spokane (to home, to mi novio. Posible estoy loco para viajar no con mi novio). I suppose I could’ve tried canceling my Detroit trip and just seeing if I could fly from Spokane instead. But I didn’t even try because I wanted to see Detroit and in my searching I found flying from Detroit had been generally cheaper. And, my sister said she would drive the three hours to see from Columbus. Given we went four years without seeing before, it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of an opportunity to see each other.

I booked the hostel in Detroit because Vaughn did warn me he was working in the day and I was getting in late on a Monday. I also figured to stay two or three nights, because having a house guest for six or seven night is a lot for anybody. But it ended up being five nights in the hostel and one with Vaughn because in addition to two jobs, his own business, and one or two (or more?) volunteer non-profit types, Vaughn is remodeling his house. Once again, I did eventually get to spend some awesome time with Vaughn, and it’s really kind of impossible to stay mad at a person doing so much good (impossible actually, I tried). Besides, the hostel was amazing and I made amazing connections that I would not have otherwise.

I arrived at DTW, an airport that looks about like any other airport, sterile, random pockets of beautiful art, overpriced food and chairs with armrest to sabotage weary travelers attempts at sleep. My flight came a little early, about 10:45 pm but didn’t make it to the hostel until about 12:30 on account of my inability to find a taxi via phone/Google search. I mean I found them and called a couple but couldn’t get anyone to come. Finally a nice airport security guard guy told me where to get a taxi at the airport. I was going to try a shuttle then bus but both were cutting it really close to when I would arrive. I’d end up in a Detroit neighborhood with no bus at night and only a so-so ability in navigation. Basically, because of Detroit’s reputation, I chickened out and shelled out the taxi fare ($50). It was a white van and it seems that taxi drivers don’t actually know their way around anymore – they use GPS. I think this worked in my favor because even though the hostel is, in actuality in a good neighborhood, the first thing you see getting off the freeway on to Rosa Parks Blvd. is a desolate looking gas station in front of a heavily graffitied building that looks unoccupied, and across the street is two houses, one of which has a fallen in roof, and a main floor filled with rubble. That is to say, he seemed a little uncertain and later I found out some cabbies refuse to go there at night though the reported crime there is very low and there are two community gardens within the same block.

Hostel Detroit (seriously, no pun intended, it’s not hostile) is painted up with bright colors like any hostel. It has a yellow door, red bricks and multicolored “pixel” bricks that inspired my nephews and niece to call it the rainbow house, or rainbow hotel and were bummed they didn’t get to stay there too. The manager let me show them inside, I never did hear if it changed their minds or maintained the appeal. The hostel has two kitchens and a bunch of private rooms. I went for the cheap of course, which was expensive for a hostel “open room” $27 a night, for a bunk. The hostel is on lockdown with a keypad to get in – luckily mine worked without any problem which I guess is not sometimes the case according the manager ‘Jay’. Jay sleeps in the room immediately adjacent to the only entrance, the yellow door with keypad. Jay was sprawled out on his bed with the door open, presumably waiting for me. He says he works the night shift but as near as I can tell he works all the time. Jay’s attire, at least while I was there, consists of weary shorts and fraying shirts. He keeps a long goatee that reaches the top of his chest though it’s thin and scraggly at the very ends, a gray that matches his unruly hair that is maybe curly or maybe just needs a comb. Basically, he looks like the average hotel working – if he had dreads it would be just too cliché.

While there are lockers at the hostel there aren’t ones big enough for a suitcase or backpack like Adam and I found in Kelowna, Canada. I put my overweight luggage (that United charged me twice for and so far, refuses to refund the second charge on the grounds that I did not file a petition for a refund the same day) at the end of my bed and my guitar beside me as a bedfellow, covered with the extra blanket because it was too bloody hot and humid to need it but also so that it would not draw attention to itself and get stolen. Maybe it was the shock of seeing the Detroit neighborhood for the first time, or maybe it was the heat; maybe the site of Jay and the initial thought that he might not belong in there (don’t judge a book…) or maybe it was the stress of not finding a cab, of not being in Detroit for the original reason – there would be no Detroit Team Strength work and, especially heartbreaking for me, no Tricia. Whatever the reason I didn’t sleep more than a fretful hour or two and finally gave up about seven am when the other person in the open bunk room was up and getting ready for the day.

Up next, Part 2: The Heidelberg Project and Hope