I got a backyard with nothing in it, except a stick, a dog and a box with something in it.
Never has a more vivid, perfect picture of Detroit been painted with words.
The city gets a bad rap – but you just can’t help rooting for it. It’s a town full of hard-working people. It’s a place that gets dumped on by snow each seemingly-neverending winter. And then it becomes a place of muggy, sweltering, stillness, leaving people to soak through their shirts while slapping away golf-ball sized mosquitos in the humid summers. It’s a city without any recent major sports victories to keep its spirits up. It’s the red-headed step-child of the Midwest. Maybe that’s why, despite all my terrible experiences there, I still have some fondness for Detroit. I live in Philadelphia, after all, which is the red-headed step-child of the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic. (Just ask anyone from New York, DC or Boston and they’ll be more than happy to confirm that.)
Anyone who has read a news magazine or website in the past few years knows that Detroit is a struggling city. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets. Abandoned houses stand dark. Jobs have evaporated. But it wasn’t always like that.
My mom’s family moved from Detroit to Pennsylvania when she was a teenager. I’m not really sure what prompted the move or if my mom missed her hometown. We only went to visit her relatives in the mid-West a few times. One of those times, I was around six years old. My mom decided we’d take a family road trip. Well, not my entire family: my dad somehow managed to get out of it. He probably looked like this, as soon as we pulled out of the driveway.
Nope, Jim got to soak up some quality solo house time while the rest of us took off for the 10-hour trek to Michigan. We piled a dangerous amount of luggage to the top of the car and then piled a dangerous amount of people into the yellow Subaru station wagon. In the front: my mom, who was driving. Her dad sat next to her. In the backseat: my brother Mike, my grandma, and my Uncle Eric. In the “way way back,” seatless and seatbelt-less, were my Uncle John and me.
Yup, I was a 6-year old child in the trunk area of a station wagon for a ten-hour car ride. And nobody questioned it. That is the beauty of having grown up in the 80’s.
I only remember bits and pieces from this car ride from hell. My uncle had long arms and legs and took up most of the space in the way way back. Pretty much every adult in the car, except my grandma, chain smoked the entire way. I remember being uncomfortable, bored, and antsy. Thank god I had the new Garfield book to help kill the time and ease the pain.
I also remember stopping for lunch on the way there. It’s the only stop I remember making, so either my mom’s family had bladders of steel or the rest of the stops were unremarkable. The lunch one, however, stands out.
We burst out of the Subaru, stretching our limbs and trying to feel human again. And then we went into an Ohio Burger King for some food that, while normally appalling, was completely satisfying because it was consumed during the course of a road trip.
We sat at our tables, zoning out. I slurped my chocolate milkshake, dreading getting back into the car. We gazed out the window at the large dirt mountain-ish thing on our right, and the dilapidated gas station and pothole-filled parking lot on our left. America the beautiful.
There we were. A bunch of people sitting in silence, digesting fast food. My grandma and grandpa sat on one side of the table, picking at fries that were spilled across the tray. My two uncles ate pie. My mom crumpled up the remains of her lunch and threw away the trash. My brother…wait…
“Where’s Mike?” my Uncle John asked, approximately .2 seconds before we saw a distant shape moving at the top of the dirt mountain.
We looked out the window to see my brother, sliding down the incredibly steep dirt mountain on his ass. He tumbled, he whooped and he smiled.
I have no idea how he managed to sneak away and climb the mountain, but he clearly had savored every second of it. I don’t know if my mom was furious with him for getting dirt all over his jeans or if she enjoyed the free entertainment. These were the days before we all had pocket computers to lose ourselves in. In the 80’s, you either engaged in discussion with the people in front of you, or you let your eyes glaze over and got lost in your own daydreams while they jibber jabbered around you.
My brother came back into the restaurant and my mom did the best she could to dust him off, but it was useless. He’d have to spend the next couple of hours in dirty clothes. He was relegated to the way way back with me and Uncle John was upgraded to the back seat.
When we actually arrived in Detroit, we met my mom’s aunt and uncle in a mall parking lot, like we were there to complete some sort of illegal transaction. We followed them back to their modest house, where the whole lot of us were staying. Other local family members poured into the house and soon dozens of relatives milled around, giving hugs. The conversations veered from “how are you” to “remember when.” We enjoyed local delicacies, like Vernors Floats, and my mom’s reunited family talked and laughed well into the night.
Because “grown up” talk was not super engaging for a six year old, I curled up in front of the TV with my Garfield book. The local news came on, announcing that a serial killer was on the loose in Detroit. It was then that I noticed a helicopter that had been noisily hovering over the area.
While my family continued their general merry-making and bonding over the next three days, I spent them sleepless, jumping at the tiniest sound, wondering how anyone could live in a town where a serial killer on the loose didn’t cause people to even bat an eyelash. I was preoccupied the rest of the trip, on the lookout.
I was very relieved when we finally packed the car back up (with some bottles of Vernors!) and began the drive home. Beyond that, though, I have zero recollection of the drive back. I must have crashed hard in the way way back, after a couple of long, sleepless days in Detroit Rock City.
Future trips to Detroit include such wonderful memories as contracting chicken pox, spending time with a great uncle who liked to make t-shirts with Christmas lights on them (and who would one day bequeath his house to me and my brother), and fighting my way past a bunch of hookers to get into my boyfriend’s house.
Like I said, it’s kind of hard to not have some fondness for that town.