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 30: Among the Flora, Invited Out

Stephanie
Stephanie

One of my readers invited me on an Artist Date.  Number 30.

Actually, she’s a friend…and a reader.  Her name is Stephanie.  Last week, she sent me an email inviting me to the Bucktown Tree and Garden Walk.  Hers would be among the 80-plus featured.

I was touched, delighted that she had somehow become “involved” enough in my story, in my process, to join in, to help me along.

So Saturday morning I pedal my vintage Raleigh to her neighborhood.  The day is sunny and hot, but not humid.  A Chicago miracle.

I tie up my bike at Club Lucky and buy a ticket for the walk. In exchange for $5, I receive a map of the gardens with descriptions of each, access to a complimentary trolley, and a coupon for $10 my next meal of $35 or more.

I hear my name called.  It is a woman I used to know.  I didn’t recognize her.  She isn’t surprised to see me.  She heard I moved back to town.  That I am divorced.  Chicago feels like a small town.  It is comforting.

We embrace.  And I jump back on my bike, headed to Stephanie’s, forgoing the trolley.

Her partner Errol is on the porch painting, plein air.  She is inside sautéing onions and baking a pizza – snacks for the other artists expected today.

She gives me a tour of her home, its walls spilling over with her artwork, Errol’s and that of other creatives.  Her first still life hangs in the stairwell.  It is a pear.  Or is it an onion and ramps?  There are several, grouped together.  I don’t recall.  In some ways it doesn’t really matter.  Her raw natural talent is obvious.  It is the kind that makes me wonder why I bother.

Stephanie and Toulousse
Stephanie and Toulouse

I meet her cat Toulouse, and a black one whose name escapes me.  He is missing some bone in his head, which makes his face appear somewhat smushed.

I leave my helmet and my basket with her, and receive explicit directions to stop by Sam and Nick’s.  She points out their location on the map.  “Just tell them we sent you.”

On the way I stop at my first floral garden, (Stephanie and Errol’s was planted with art – some framed and hanging.  Other funky and environmental.  A striped sidewalk created with a power washer and wood planks.  Painted sticks growing out of the soil.  Their colors “changing” from orange to green depending on your position.  Like a painting by the Israeli artist, Agam.)

Marsha is watering plants.  She seems surprised to see me.  Actually, many of the garden owners do.  As if they have forgotten that the garden walk is today.

She shows me her zinnias and her tomatoes.  Nothing remarkable, but lovely. Sweet.  Growing.

Walking into the private space of a stranger, I am reminded of being in Amsterdam.  According to my Frommer’s guide residents intentionally keep their shutters open – proud of their homes, inviting a peek inside.

This is Marsha’s first season in the garden.  She moved in recently, leaving the suburbs and joining her husband in the city.  Her house is on the market and she is keeping her fingers crossed.  She gives me hope – seeing her in this new space, putting down roots, with a partner.  And also knowing that she had a life all her own before this change.  And I assume, to a certain degree, still does.

I don’t tell her any of this.  Instead I tell her about my recollections of Amsterdam, how I recently killed a cactus, and about being invited on an Artist Date by her neighbor.  I run my hands through a tomato plant and bring them to my face.  I love the smell.  I rub my hands on my neck, as if putting on the earth’s fragrance.  I thank her and say goodbye.

2013-07-13 12.31.31

A wading pool is set up at the corner of Hoyne and Moffat, along with a glass bubbler filled with ice water, cucumber, melon and strawberries.  A few chairs are perched in the shade of a tree.  There is a note, “Relax and Hydrate.”  I fill up my water bottle and keep moving.

I stop at Nick and Sam’s.  Sam is wearing a white bee keeper’s hat.  I go inside and talk with Nick about his artwork.  Striking etchings using photos from the Kinsey Institute.  He points out the racy elements because I don’t see them – not at first.

I admire his collection of roller-skate cases lined up on a shelf, each with a tag hanging from it – letting him know what is stored inside.

I visit more than a dozen gardens.  Some consisting of little more than sod on a double-wide lot – one with a basketball net and cement court, another with a large inflatable swimming pool.  Two toddler girls in matching hot pink bathing suits and white sun hats are wading in it.  Their limbs, deliciously chunky.

Others sit on top of garages, tucked behind homes.

I follow arrows and stairs climbing up.  Water spills out of the wall and is caught in a ceramic bowl, a chalice.  Suspiciously clean, striped pads sit on top of teak furniture.  Several blue umbrellas block the sun.  A man, presumably the owner, offers me a bottle of water from a cooler.  I feel like I am at a spa.

At another, an intruder.  I am greeted by a man eating his lunch under a wooden canopy covered with vines, listening to the radio.  His daughter hangs shyly behind him, swaying side to side, her head following her hips.

Most of the homes are noticeably without “hosts.”  Only a laminated card, with a number corresponding to the map, identifies them as part of the walk.

I had expected storybook gardens, like something from the south.  Manicured.  Dense.  Sweetly pungent.  Or wild and overgrown, with tall, smiling sunflowers – like my favorite one in Mendocino, a sleepy resort town on the northern California coast.  A sign implores visitors to photograph, but to refrain from picking.

Instead I encounter mostly neatly trimmed hedges, modest groupings of plants and flowers that clearly thrive, creative use of small space —bringing nature into the city.

2013-07-13 12.54.05I remember moving to Chicago the first time, in 2007.  I was heart-sick for San Francisco.  For pastel-painted Victorians, rolling fog and rolling green hills.  I made it my mission to take the most beautiful path I could wherever I went.  The one with the most trees, prettiest homes.  I had forgotten about that.

Eventually I settled into Chicago.  My surroundings ceased to be new.  And I ceased to notice them.  Until today.

I return to Stephanie and Errol’s to pick up my things.  A few of Errol’s painter friends are here.  They ask if I am a painter.  I shake my head.  I tell them that I am a writer, a dancer, a frustrated potter.  A girl on an Artist Date, being reminded of the loveliness all around me.