Z and Detroit


It’s the city of exile and outmigration. Where’d they all go? Who wouldn’t leave? Nothing but burned out hulks and a future going backwards until the city bombs from existence and everyone else can shake their heads and say, “boy, whatever happened to our nation’s industries.” They love it. The city and everyone in it are all ruin porn for the artists and the gawkers on the turnpike. Shit is art these days. And the ones who stick it out in the mechanical Midwest get nothing for it.

So why did the rest of the country find the American Dream but they got tossed to the corner?

Z stands in the front of Cavanaugh’s bar, locking the door with a freshly bandaged hand. Z is the American Mythos and the mythos has fractured. It’s 2:30a.m and Z’s thinking about the blood seeping through from his fresh cut. Broken glasses again. At least there wasn’t a fight tonight. He swears and starts walking home. Usually he thinks about how ordinary and pathetic his life is. But Z isn’t angry or sad about it. His thoughts are vacant and empty like the city. He knows a change is needed, real change, but he ignores it. Because he can handle a cut or a burn, he can’t face the prospect of an uprising.

The streets are empty and the winter bites. Z walks this way every night after closing. He’s got his notepad held under his shirt so the snow won’t melt it. It’s another heated conversation he heard tonight. The people didn’t argue, they swore and smashed bottles in agreement. Fucking capitalists. Fuck outsourcing and globalization and corporate power. They need someone to blame for all those recent layoffs at the docks. The jobs are going to Mexico. Now we gotta lose 4 dollars off our hourly pay? Man, we’re fucking people, you know. Z writes down every word, swear words too.

Listen closely and you’ll hear the sounds of another school closing down in Northern Lincoln Park and more bodies vanish from the ruins.

Every night Z pulls his hood over and marches across the dead grass and liquor bottles. The lamplights don’t work so the homeless set up camp and now Z keeps tripping over them. Literally. But most suburbs are parks now. Abandoned. Overgrown lots begin their transition into wooded areas. When he comes around the block he passes a church. Where else in America do you find sleazy bars and churches on the same corner?

After he gets back to his share house, Z slips past the landlord Jo’s door and puts the kettle on the stove. It’s one of those decrepit Detroit rentals where the walls are rotted and collapsing inwards and there’s old furniture piling on the curb. An out of town photographer might call it ‘urban distress.’ Z can’t remember the number of houses he’s lived in. But they’re not really houses, they’re just a place to sleep. Out of towners won’t understand that, why would they? Detroit’s got a twenty-eight point nine percent unemployment rate, there’s no money for housing.

His landlord Jo, a large Negro woman in her sixties, could hear a bum cough in Highland Park. She loves to come and worry about Z in all hours of the day. Jo’s a real tough lady on the inside. Grew up hard and never complained once about the shit the city gave her; she’ll fight till she dies. People aren’t like Jo anymore; they just quit trying and leave for a new town. ‘No loyalty,’ she says. Jo will take in anyone but she gave up on Cutty, the only other flat mate Z had met. The others kept to themselves. Cutty was a dealer, probably a user too. Sometimes he’d hear him kicking walls and yelling cuss words. Jo didn’t come knocking on Cutty’s door anymore. Probably scared. Everyone is. Z’s lived with Jo for a year now. He’s got no family and neither does Jo so they became good friends. She cooks him dinner on her stove and talks about her church friends. She doesn’t mind that Z writes everything down on his notepad, Z thinks it makes her feel special.

She tells Z he’s too skinny and he should find a new job and make a life for himself. Jo had three kids but they all got into crime, drugs, and jail, and now she likes to mother Z. She says he’s a smart kid.

Z lays some fresh newspapers on his new couch, which he found in good condition on a Brush Park curbside, and reads his new book he pocketed from the downtown library yesterday. It’s that one about Booker T. Washington. No, not the wrestler. He heard Jo talk about him with her church friends one day. Z liked reading about famous people and powerful speeches. All the good ones suffered to inspire and he liked how big words made people puff up and go red-hot. You need a story to get those ruin porn fans listening. Z never had anything interesting to say but he knew people around him did. They just couldn’t get anyone to listen.

That’s why he liked Cavanaugh’s. The people that came there were honest. Don’t apologize. Don’t judge. Maybe they are the real America. Z enjoyed the frankness of their talk. Deindustrialization is the problem. Is that word in the dictionary? Infrastructure is collapsing and housing is shit, especially with all these tax cutbacks. Infa-infra-strut-cha. Z writes the words down and practices saying them. If he uses big words people will listen to him, they’ll say, “Hey, he gets it.” Economic deg-rag-agion… no de-grad-a shun…say it, right. We need a gawdamn revolution innis city, ere. Like the French revolution?

Z can’t remember when he went to his first protest, or what it was about. He can’t remember the one he went to last week either. There’s always a protest happening in the city and Z liked shouting with the crowds, even if he couldn’t hear what the speaker was protesting. The more bodies the bigger the impact. But lately Z’s been doing the talking and it makes him feel real good, like how Booker T might have felt after a speech. He collects the papers and gets addresses for upcoming protests. Doesn’t matter what it’s about. Rallies in halls, churches, outside office buildings, about corrupt politicians, urban renewal projects, economic inequality, black militancy, sexism, war, what about Middle America?

He starts small but he’s invisible. Z goes into hibernation and prepares himself for overt action. He starts marching for all kinds of causes. Cleaning up the parks, new roads, he even runs for city council. Jo might be the only person who voted for him. Then Z sees he’s going against society, he’s gotta run with it.

A few months back Z hears a real downtrodden guy talking to a friend in the bar. The guy works two jobs and he still can’t pay the mortgage. He starts telling the friend about how he can’t pay the bills anymore and now his wife’s gone and left him. Then all of a sudden he cries, no kidding, a grown man in tears. Maybe that’s when Z got his first spur to leading protests, when seeing people at their worst made him want to be their poet. This guy is the real America and Z’s gonna bring them all together.

A bit of low scale practice and now Z gets on the podium and addresses the blue collars. They’re standing outside City Hall. Z’s learnt how to picket. He tells them the mayor’s making grown men cry. No more foreclosure, we need new policies! One in three residents, triple the national rate, live below the federal poverty line. Z did his research. The bailouts and bankruptcies and economic crises hadn’t even happened yet. Where else in America will you find people so dispossessed? The crowds yell and cheer and Z loves it. He’s speaking for the people.

Z’s gonna be the new Martin Luther King, Jr and JFK. Z’s gonna be an inspiration to the people of Detroit.

We’re at our knees and the country is doing nothing about it, what does that say about America’s past? If they do nothing to help the cities get up, what does that say about America’s future? Stop downsizing, it’s time to start upsizing. People yell and stamp their feet in agreement. Gee, I hear this fella is the smartest boy we’ve got out here. He knows more words than a dictionary. City Hall was Z’s biggest march yet. Loads of people came. The blue collars related with Z, he told them he hauled crap for 3 dollars an hour for 16-hours a day. If he’s worse off than the people, the people will empathize. Z knows how they think.

When he goes back to Cavanaugh’s he feels big. Like a celebrity. Children are gonna look up to him. But the beer and back alley fog quickly erases it and one night Z realises his life isn’t his anymore, it belongs to the city. At night he cleans the tumblers, pours liquor, and listens to the people. Then in the day he tells their stories and gets attention from the masses. The people are getting recognition and so is Z.

Detroit police officers swapped their side arms for picket signs last week when they marched around City Hall to protest a new contract and pay cut imposed on them by Mayor Bing. Law-abiding citizens can’t wait any longer. It’s illegal in Michigan but the Detroit residents have endured public employee strikes countless times. In 1971, 1975, 1978 and 1986 that either stopped city buses from running or left trash piled curbside. We want the citizens to know that we’re not giving up on them, but we don’t want them to give up on us. I think the city government has given up on us. Hey, public service gets people angry, Z thinks. He hasn’t tried that angle yet. Push the unions and administration in a corner. Shake them up. Shoddy city administration and poor budgeting are haunting this city. The city’s budget deficit is more than $200 million. Structural debt is in the billions of dollars. Z starts talking with the unions. The mayor’s leaving the workers demoralized, disgruntled and disheartened, damnit!

Z won’t remember it now but it’s the people who informed his affections, the audacity of despair put him on the crate stage. The elderly African American couple evicted again over in Midtown can’t fight. The children and teachers aren’t heard. And the old Polish dockworkers sure don’t have enough charisma. Remember Sugar Man? You know, the Mexican-American from Detroit. Real poet, the guy sang about the cruelties facing the inner city poor but no one really listened. Tom the curious and James the weak weren’t saved, no one wanted to be active when the city first started to decline. Now the city’s stuck. Z tried to look for the poet in some rotted out shack but he’s nowhere now. Maybe the guy escaped from the crap. Not everyone gets that chance. And Z doesn’t think he has that chance, he can’t stop now.

Don’t ask us about our few bad neighborhoods, the city is backwards. Ask about our few good neighborhoods but even they are eroding fast in the next middle class exodus. How come we’ve got more people skipping town in the last two decades than the entire population of San Francisco? Crime. Why else?

Let me tell you the story of the innocent postman who was shot in the back by a robber. And the humble man was visiting his sweet gran too! Did I tell you he was a charity worker too? Spent every spare dime on the poor and desperate of the city. But it’s not the cold-blooded gunman’s fault. Cause in this city, that’s just like asking for a buck. You don’t tell people you’re from Detroit cause you’re proud, you tell them so they get scared and think, “man, don’t cross this goon.”

How about chronic unemployment? Did I tell you about the man that cried? This single dad of five had three jobs and he couldn’t even afford electricity. Wait, they’ve heard that before. Tell them the man’s wife is dead and he can’t afford the funeral.

Z’s stopped going to Cavanaugh’s and now he’s got no money for rent. He hasn’t had dinner with Jo in a long time and she doesn’t come knocking at his door anymore. But he goes to another protest over in Dearborn. He doesn’t even prepare for it now, the issue isn’t really the matter, just choose the words that bite the most.

We’re in the shadows of the white flight! Hold on. You know, in the 1950s after segregation ended? That’s a tense subject. Time to mend the divides. Stop living in a paradox.

Z’ll talk about anything. Politicians, those financial tsars, are using taxpayer’s money for gambling. Really? How does he know that? Better start a riot! Cavanaugh’s taught him how to stir. It takes a riot to instigate change, picketing doesn’t work. Strikes didn’t work. Nobody’s listening. Hey, remember the 1967 riots? The police vice squad officers raided on that after hours drinking club, people called it “blind pig.” Happened not far from Z’s flat, in that black neighborhood located at Twelfth Street and Clairmount Avenue. Instead of hassling a few patrons, the bastards find 82 people inside holding a party for two returning Vietnam veterans.

We’re still fire-scarred.

What’s worth salvaging in this dingy Rustbelt city anyway? Everything’s gone to the Sunbelt cities. Motown’s gone, it moved to Los Angeles. Now there’s no industry left in the former city of capitalism. All the colossal buildings and majestic hulks, theatres, cinemas, hotels, and stores are shells. The last customer left decades ago.

Z is at a local hall with the elderly who congregated to stop the mayor’s home evictions. He addresses them with wild and sensational fervor. Cast down your bucket where you are. The laws of changeless justice bind Oppressor with oppressed; and close as sin and suffering joined; we march to fate abreast. Hey, that’s the Atlanta Compromise Speech. You just repeated Booker T’s address word for word. But it’s one of the most important speeches in history, Z thinks. Why aren’t the people listening?

Z’s run out of stories. Not another story about the death and decay of Detroit. We’re sick of hearing about the problems in the Midwest. The ruin porn addicts never pay attention for long and the federal government just gets embarrassed. Maybe the city needs a major scale natural disaster. Then they’ll get real help. Maybe Z’s fate is already sealed, just another blight in the community. There’s no profit in it so turn the power off. Soon Z will be another burden boarded up in some abandoned row house. Who’s gonna get him out? And what are they gonna do about Detroit?

Like Z, Detroit isn’t gonna fade away gracefully. It’s noisily sick and dying melodramatically. And pretty soon it will expire as spectacularly as it once lived.

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