Looping Detroit: A People Mover TravelogueSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Financial District, Saturday Morning, 1966
Saturday mornings when i was eight years old we were devoted to my bully defense program, which involved my father driving me downtown to Detroit Edison’s giant, hidden, twenties-era gymnasium for a company-sponsored session of Father and Son athletics. As an Industrial Photographer for Edison, my father was regularly dispatched into the guts of nuclear plants, lifted by cherry pickers toward the latticed peaks of electrical towers, or plunged deep into the crystalline labyrinth of Detroit’s underground salt mine. All part of the job. Other times, he would be assigned to photograph an “All Electric Home!” or even sent to shoot the death site of a victim of accidental electrocution. Whatever the assignment, he loved being out in the field, yet on the weekend he would head into the office in a gentle effort to toughen up his son. We were at that gym to toss around the medicine ball, lift dumbbells, shoot hoops, build confidence, but especially to learn how to box. They had a scaled-down boxing ring there and our Saturdays were often spent trying to get me to learn how to put up my dukes and defend myself against the tough kids who taunted and abused me at Burt Elementary School in Northwest Detroit.
On our way to the gym, my father drove us through Detroit’s financial district, where we would stop at Quikee Donuts for coffee and a cruller for him, hot chocolate and a nutty donut for me. (Just the thing to have on one’s stomach before entering a boxing ring!) Aside from my continuing affection for the nutty donut, that drive into the city is what has stayed with me from that time: my excitement whenever we entered the wide-open, weekend morning streets of downtown Detroit. I, looking up from the passenger seat of our ’65 Catalina, would be stunned by the size and beauty of the buildings I viewed. I didn’t know their names then, but I do now – the Penobscot building, the Buhl building, the Guardian building. (Thank you, architect Wirt Rowland for those beautiful edifices.)
There was also Yamasaki’s Michigan Consolidated Gas Company building, with its white marble panels, whose top floor was illuminated blue at night so to suggest a gemlike hydrocarbon flame. (It housed a penthouse restaurant where my family never dined, but its name even today evokes images for me of thin-lapelled, pill-box hatted, Stinger-swilling sophisticates: The Top of the Flame.) What knocked the wind out of me on those Saturdays was the way these buildings carved out the sky, how we drove through what felt like an obsidian corridor of concrete and granite and marble and limestone and tile, and how the light seemed to barely reach us there in the car.
As for what happened in that gymnasium, I remember those sessions in the ring as unpleasant as best, often tortuous though certainly not violent, since the gloves they gave us boys were so large and unwieldy, it was like boxing with pillows duct-taped to your hands. I recall feeling relieved when the bell would ring and I was allowed to stop. Is it really a surprise that the boxing lessons didn’t take? I continued to be a bully magnet, which in turn continued to distress my father. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that he had had a bully problem as a child, which was why it hurt him so to see me in the same situation. He did teach me one thing that was better than all the boxing lessons put together: how to meet a bully’s gaze without flinching. It was brilliant and worked almost all the time. Once I learned how to look a bully in the eye without looking away, my problems subsided. Eventually nature also provided for me when I grew 7 inches in my thirteenth summer. The bullies decided to move on.
All I really know now is that those Saturday mornings driving around downtown with my father were when I fell in love with cities, and certainly when I fell in love with Detroit, with the idea of this place, this place where they make the cars, where they make beautiful buildings like the Penobscot, the Buhl and the Guardian. Maybe I sensed then that this city, beneath the surface, has always had secret reservoirs of strength, the ability to believe in itself even when no one else could be bothered to, and how even at the worst times, has always been able to stare down the bullies that have abused us. Though I never became much of a brawler, it seemed to help that I was from a place that has always known how to fight back.
Is it May 21, 1987?
Is Coleman Young still mayor?
the newspaper headlines, held high in the hands of the man in the suit on the platform at Grand Circus Park say so every day.
That man in the suit never says hello.