Saturday, 14 December 2013

Waking Up in Detroit

Detroit...

Birthplace of the middle class turned into killing fields where the corporations bled it to death. Crime ridden city of hopelessness. Nearly half the population unemployed. Tens of thousands with their heads tied up on hard drugs. People going crazy. 

The Murder City. 

Photo: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Highest homicide rate in the country. Every night the sky lighting up from gunfire or arson. Entire blocks empty and abandoned. House upon house burnt out or falling over. Whole neighborhoods sacrificed by the federal government, city officials, and the cops–who cares if the undesirables kill each other off? Organized criminals distributing junk brought over on U.S. military aircraft from Asia to hometown street gangs, flooding communities of disenfranchised blacks at the dawn of their political power–heroin acting as a kind of euphoric neutron bomb, leveling a whole segment of the population but leaving the buildings standing. Seventy-thousand packets of white powder handed out for free in the streets of the city in just one day. The Great Detroit Dope Giveaway as it was known, helped to ensure the poor and pissed would nod off rather than revolt.

Who paid for it? Whose idea to zombify that many people in one place? Who turned Detroit into a petri dish of socioeconomic collapse?

Photo: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Human beings reconfigured into heroin ghouls and methadone freaks, their cognitive abilities bombed out, their heart and soul sucked from them, left to wander like hungry zombies with their spirits destroyed and their minds all mushed, as good as dead and buried alive in that city of crumbling brick and lockjaw metal. They are still in my consciousness, even though they are undoubtedly gone, their living dead eyes permanently closed by now, their vacant expressions pulverized back into the streets that gave birth to them, their bodies recycled into scrap like heaps of automobiles piled up before a giant compacter at the neighborhood junk yard. All of them dead except in my memories, memories of people I never even knew personally, but a part of them was woven into the soft tissue of my psyche just by our eyes meeting. And then there are the ones that I did know, two brother in laws in particular, one overdosing with only the veins in his cock left to shoot up, the other slumped over on a chair, head to the side, Alice Cooper grimace, his setup laying there on the coffee table, a bag of uneaten chili dogs from his family’s hotdog stand laying next to him on the floor. 

That dying city, the unemployment lines filling warehouse-sized unemployment offices to capacity, standing there for hours and hours with no place to sit down. They had it set up so that if you moved out of line, you lost your place in it. Back to the starting point–a cruel metaphor that applied to our lives. But many were too old to start over, or put too many years in as assembly line workers and didn’t have the skills to do anything else. To the companies it didn’t matter. The workers were nothing but disposable garbage to the Big Bosses whose products were still selling, and in some cases they were even making record profits, they could just make more money by producing automobiles more cheaply elsewhere. 

Standing in the lines with other kids next to our mothers and fathers, holding their place for them so they could use the toilet or go outside and sit on the curb for a little while–smoke a cigarette, ground out, breath air mixed with pollution. Looking up at the masses of unemployed, all the grown ups were so down and out and frustrated. Hopelessness melting their faces into sullen expressions that perfectly symbolized the dismal future they faced, the same future in store for us. Not that having a secure factory job to sacrifice your life for was wonderful. I saw how these workers looked coming out of the plant my mom worked at. When the bell rang to mark the end of the shift change the workers poured out of the factory doors like water debouching from a dam, many of them running as fast as they could to their cars, like they were running for their lives. My mother would emerge after eight hours operating machinery that shaped big sheets of steel into trunks and hoods. The smell of gear lube mixed with the perfume she wore filled my nostrils as she pulled me close to her and asked how my day was, what I’d learned in school, if I liked the salami on Wonder Bread sandwich she made for my lunch. On the really bad nights when she came out of the factory all droopy, make-up smeared, her hair flattened and the spray net all washed out from perspiration running down her face, getting into her eyes, toxic sweat from working with metal in temperatures over 100 degrees, her arm aching from pulling levers all day, the same maneuver performed over and over, “working like a dog,” she’d say–on those nights she’d pull me close to her and say, “Now don’t you ever do what your mother is doing. Don’t you ever work like this for nobody. Do what you love and everything else will fall into place. I promise you that. But don’t you ever do something like this.”  


Still, for my mother and almost everyone else who lived in Detroit, working in one of the factories was the only way they could make it. The only way to pay the bills and keep their families fed. Hard as it was, it was the trade off people accepted, the trade off everyone accepts in one way or another to survive under the boot of capitalism. When the auto industry left, there was nothing to take its place, and the unemployment office was filled with the dread of a future as bleak as a forest slated for clear-cut logging.