Arttist Date 51: Now I Know

There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood.  Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.

detroit 67My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.

The loss of my mother’s biological child.  One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it.  The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.

The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.

It was the summer of 1967.  The city of Detroit was on fire — literally.  Residents rioted and looted.  Police unleashed with unrestrained force.  Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.

My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.

She did.  Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs.  It felt close.  Too close.  And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away.  So they went.

Photo by Phil Cherner
Photo by Phil Cherner

I don’t recall any more of the story than that.  How it ended.  When it ended.  When they came home.  Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.

Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots.  They hypothesized.  But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain.  Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.

I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.

The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it.  That I needed to see it.  I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood.  I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.

The audience is mostly older – boomers and above.  Mostly African American or Jewish.  I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel.  And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people.  Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas.  Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”

It is the music of my childhood.  The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.

The couple behind me is singing.  They know every word.  During the performance, they respond to the actors.  More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either.  I like it.  I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.

Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.

This is what I learn:

Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.”  (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.  Artist Date 47.)

The raid itself was not unusual.  Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.

The aftermath.  Detroit Free Press photograph.  Public Domain.
The aftermath. Detroit Free Press photograph. Public Domain.

But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly.  And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city.  To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit.  President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.

Five days later, 43 people were dead.  More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested.  Half of those arrested had no criminal record.  Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.

Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

But I don’t see any of it.

Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe.  Who want something better for themselves.  Not unlike my own family.  In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.

Artist Date 47: Holding On To That Bull For 8 Seconds

I drive a 13-year-old Honda Civic Hatch DX.  They don’t make my car anymore.  From time to time I find a note on the windshield, someone offering to buy it.

In the glove box, in the side pockets, and behind the cup holders are stacks of CDs.

I grabbed them, haphazardly, when I left Seattle.  Three Dog Night.  Basia.  Mazzy Star.  Those were my ex’s.  Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Torch Song Trilogy are mine.  As is a disco mix my friend DJ Andy T made for me.

basiaI can listen to them over and over again without growing bored.  Singing along.  The familiar words keep me awake while driving long stretches.  Keep me from my thoughts.

And then I hit a wall.  Pulling out disc after disc as I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, looking for something I want to hear.   I come up empty.  No more Bonnie Raitt.  Annie Lenox.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  No more Dire Straits.  No more Gipsy Kings.

My destination for this week’s Artist Date – 47 – was easy.  To Laurie’s Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue.

I pass by here almost daily.  There is a white board outside with new arrivals written in dry-erase magic marker.  There are t-shirts in the window.  And inside there are records, books and CDs.  I can tell from peeking in, but I’ve never been inside.  Until Friday.  And then, just for a moment.

There is a hipster man-boy at the register.  Big curly hair, plaid button-up shirt and chunky, nerd glasses.  We nod at one another.  I think John Cusack, High Fidelity.

elvis costello

I am holding The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions CD.  $6.99.  I used to have this on cassette.  I remember singing along with Elvis to “Alison,” “Pump it Up,” and “Every Day I Write the Book.”  I remember my high-school crush giving me grief for buying “best of” albums.

My phone rings.  It is a call I have been expecting from a friend and mentor.  I drop the CD back in the bin and walk outside.  I will return later for it.

But I don’t.  During the course of our call, I find out she is moving away.  The stars have aligned and a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity has been presented to her family.  I am the first person she has told.

I am delighted for her.  And I feel the loss inside of me too.  I am acutely aware that our relationship will change.  I am tired of change, I think.  And yet, when things stay the same, I am restless and bored.

We finish our call and I go to Paciugo for gelato.  I order a piccolo cup – toasted coconut, sea-salt caramel, and cinnamon – and eat it walking home.  The sun is shining and the air is cool.  I am wearing gloves.  I tell myself I will go back to Laurie’s later.

But I don’t.

A friend comes over, and later, when I drive her home, she asks if I am looking forward to my Friday night alone.  Sometimes I do.  Especially this time of year, when night comes early and my radiator-heated apartment feels toasty.

I do not feel this way tonight.  I tell her so, bursting into tears.  By the time I pull over to her apartment I am sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.

I am so lonely.  She holds me.

I have been on the verge of tears all week.  This is not entirely unexpected.

Perhaps it’s because my ex-boyfriend – the one I always sort of held out hope for and thought “maybe one day…”– got engaged.

Perhaps it is because my friend and mentor is moving.  Or because I have begun to look for work in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.

Perhaps it is because I chatted online with my ex-husband today and that always kind of throws me off my square.

Or maybe it is because it is the first week in November.  That it’s just that way right now.  I don’t know.  I’m not sure that it matters.

All I know is going home by myself, to myself, is a really bad idea.  I know I won’t cook or write or take a bath.  I am pretty certain I will do something not helpful, like look up old lovers on Facebook.

I don’t feel like going back to Laurie’s either.  I don’t want to hear the chatter in my head.  And I don’t want to talk about it.  There is nothing more to say.  And knowing that is really something of a miracle.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_posterDallas Buyers Club is playing at the Century Theatres.  If I drive fast I can make the 8:30 show.  I make a beeline and arrive with time to spare.

I buy a ticket and claim a seat on the end.  I lay my coat on the seat next to me, joining the one belonging to the man sitting two to my right.  He is also alone.

I think about Tony, my first close friend diagnosed with AIDS.  I remember him cutting my hair in his kitchen and doing me up like a drag queen, full-well knowing I would never wear my hair like that.  But it makes him happy.  I remember smoking pot with him and eating empanadas in Detroit.  I remember that AZT made his mouth taste like metal and put him in a cranky mood.

But mostly, I get lost in the story unfolding in front of me.

I forget that Matthew McConaughey is Matthew McConaughey and not Ron Woodruff – a red-neck, homophobic, drug-addicted Texan diagnosed with AIDS.  I open my heart to this man who lived seven years instead of 30 days.

This man who befriended a card-shark, drag queen named Rayon.  Who smuggled non-FDA approved treatments into the United States for his Dallas Buyers Club.  Who in helping himself, helped others.

I cry watching him hold on to that bull for eight-seconds.  (See the movie.  You’ll understand.)  I cry when the screen goes black and silent white letters report his death.  Even though it isn’t a surprise.

I have gotten caught up in someone else’s story instead of my own.  It is what I had hoped for.

Driving home, I feel just a little bit better.  But I am still holding on by my fingernails.  Like a newly sober alcoholic counting the minutes before bed – congratulating himself and thanking God for making it through another day without drinking.

Holding on to that bull for eight seconds.  Holding on.

Artist Date 34: In It’s Proper Place

2013-08-11 15.45.12I hired a professional organizer.

I have admitted that so many areas of my life had become unmanageable, and then asked for help.  So why not here?  I’m tired of the stacks and stacks of paper that have no home.

I am, as Maggie – the professional organizer – said, “the tidiest, unorganized person” she has ever met.

We met last week for a consultation.  My assignment prior to our first paid meeting, this coming Tuesday, was to go to The Container Store and “just browse.”  My only guidance was to think of “boxes” – four of them.  In.  Out.  To Be Dealt With.  Want to Keep – Just Because.

We agreed I would take photographs of items that interested me, but that I would buy nothing.  It seemed like an easy Artist Date – Number 34.

I was mistaken.

I rode my bike over to The Container Store this afternoon.  Tossed my basket in a cart and began my work.  Up and down every aisle.

Almost immediately, I was overcome with sadness.  All around me, groups of people.  Couples shopping together.   Roommates shopping together.  Moms and dads and bound-for-college kids shopping together.  Together.

I remembered shopping here with my ex – when we moved to Chicago for his residency.  I felt wistful stumbling over the collapsible mesh cubes – the kind we bought to store our record albums.  He didn’t think they would work well, but I knew better.  Three of them sat under the Parson’s table, holding our music collection – his and mine.  I left them in Seattle.

Albums I bought in high school at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale.  The Specials, debut album of the same name.  Elvis Costello, “Punch the Clock.”  Howard Jones, “Human’s Lib.”  My mother’s copy of the original Broadway production of “Hair.”  My brother’s copy of Queen, “A Night at the Opera.”  There is a piece of masking tape on the front cover with his name and our telephone number written in magic marker.  I’m not sure how I ended up with it.

hairI knew every word to every song, having spent hours on my blue-shag carpeting, in my bedroom, singing along with the words printed on the album sleeves.

I don’t have a record player, so I left them.  Plus, they were too cumbersome to pack.  Funny thing is, it’s not the lost records that choked me up.  It was the damn mesh cubes.

And the laundry aisle.  I remember spending hours trying to find just the right laundry bin to collect my massage sheets and take them back and forth from my office to home, to be washed and folded.  First I bought a cart with the idea that I would take the train to and from my office.  With sheets.  In the winter.  I quickly gave up this environmentally-conscious fantasy and started driving to work.

I found a lot where they cut me a deal because I was a local business owner – $14 a day.  A steal, considering I was right off of Michigan Avenue.

Tony, the Palestinian kid who hooked me up, got fired right before I moved away.  I always felt badly about it – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I used a red, collapsible “laundry” backpack to haul my sheets the six blocks from the lot to my office.

I missed having someone to discuss options with today.  I suppose that is why I took photographs, to discuss them with Maggie.

I looked at fabric bins.  Metal bins.  Cardboard bins – some made of bright, solid colors, others printed with flowers and graphic designs.  Bins made of recycled paper.  I snapped photographs of each product and its accompanying card, describing the item and listing its price.

2013-08-11 15.38.34I got distracted by travel supplies.  Luggage tags.  Hanging dop kits.  (I need a new one.  Mine is torn.)  And Ziploc bags for creating more packing space – like the space bags I used when moving cross-country.  I stacked my dresses and trousers inside, while Michael used a vacuum cleaner to suck the air out.  We were giddy when the first was complete.  Shrink wrapped clothes.

I remembered that I needed hooks for hand-towels in my bathroom.  Milk crates for my prayer and meditation nook – to lift my deities and ritual items off of the floor,  and to be covered with a piece of fabric I bought in the market in Kigali.

I also remembered that Maggie and I discussed finding a solution that didn’t involve putting anything else on the dining table – which is also my writing desk, my art table, and where I spend about 80 percent of my time when I am home.

I looked at hanging solutions.  There weren’t many.  A few different kinds of folders that hang from the wall.  Some painted metal.  Some plastic.

Then I wandered into the Elfa department – custom solutions for the closet.  So complex there are employees specific to just this department.  I know people go wild for the yearly Elfa sale, as it is pricey.

And yet, open, wire drawers on casters seemed to make sense.  With a top to hold my printer.  I looked at other shelving units as well.  I remembered our conversation about rethinking how I consider my dining area.  That is it really more multi-purpose.  Think function rather than fois gras or fondue.  I serve neither.  But I do throw a hell of a dinner party.  And it needs to work for those occasions too – especially as Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner and for the past 19 years I have, more often than not, hosted a holiday meal for stray Jews and others.

I thought about my friend Tom who is going to string two lines of wire across the wall opposite the windows so I can hang photographs, cards and collages with metal clips – slightly reminiscent of the drying lines in the darkroom I once inhabited.

I picked up several catalogs, tucked them into my bike basket, and did a final sweep of the store.

I felt myself welling up the entire ride home.  I wanted to be excited but I wasn’t.  I was sad.  Acutely aware that this was yet another step in creating my home, my life, without my ex.  Acutely aware that we don’t talk much lately – my choice, to save both my heart and my sanity.  All of this necessary, but still painful – nearly a year after our divorce was final.  Time takes time.

I thought about something Maggie said.  That there is always something more under the disorganization – something else going on.  She believed the stacks of paper, the lack of “home” for my things, was me being afraid I couldn’t put my hands on something when I needed it.  A need to keep all of my things near.

My friend Kevin refers to this as my issue with object impermanence.  The notion that until a certain age, children do not believe in that which they cannot see.  Put a towel over your hand, et voila, you have no hand.  At least in their minds.

It’s like that with me and people sometimes.  If I can’t put my hands on them – see them, feel them, hear them – it is as if they were never there.  It’s better than it used to be.  At least to me.  I’m not sure what Kevin would say.

So this organizing business – finding a home for my things, learning to be ok with them in their proper place – maybe it will spill over into the other areas of my life.  That the people I can’t put my hands on anymore – for a variety of reasons –perhaps they too will find new homes.  Tucked away in my heart.  Never gone.  But in their proper place.