Monday, August 28, 2017

Wrote a Novel


Fleeing the Renaissance Center and the International Alcoholics Anonymous Men’s Conference for a tobacco break, I descend the concrete steps from the glass atrium and walk down to the River Walk along the Detroit River. I stop along the railing, looking down into the river and out across the water to Canada, open my tin of Grizzly Wintergreen, and pinch a pouch of chewing tobacco in my bottom right lip. It is April, now, and things are beginning to come back to life. The river is no longer frozen and several coast guard boats from the U.S. and Canada patrol the waters along with a scattering of small fishing vessels and canoes. Sea gulls caw and wheel endlessly in the smoggy sky.

Walking south on the boardwalk along the river towards Hart Plaza and the Detroit Underground Railroad memorial statue, the view ahead looks out towards the Ambassador Bridge, its twin blue-green pylon towers dangling white suspension cables that form twin triangles of vertical suspenders, the casinos and red maple leaf flags of Windsor on the left, Cobo Hall and the Detroit Princess riverboat docked along the River Walk in the foreground on the right. I stop to admire the Princess. An old school riverboat painted white with navy and red trim, its four decks of picket fence balconies reminisce plainly for the post-bellum South of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi while simultaneously reminding me of the outfield facade of Yankee Stadium; a pair of crowned black smokestacks almost seem at odds with the rest of the boat.

Growing up, Detroit had been the butt of many jokes. As I began exploring other cities and towns my college buddies called home – Philly, Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, Chicago – I grew to resent the urban decay of my own hometown and its lack of opportunity, its reputation as a violent wasteland. But they were doing good things with Detroit. Besides the Renaissance Center and the revamped River Walk, both of which thoroughly impressed me, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert was leading the surge to revitalize Detroit’s urban core and bringing thousands of jobs to the Campus Martius plaza; soon my childhood friend Steve would be joining its ranks. The previous Fall, Mike Duggan, the father of my St. Michael’s buddy Eddie Duggan and the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, won the Detroit mayoral election in a bid to revamp the city from the inside out.

Other changes affected me on a more personal level. From Hart Plaza, I gazed out at Joe Louis Arena, its gray airplane hangar box roof rising over Cobo Hall and its rooftop parking deck, the monorail-style People Mover tracks wrapped tightly around the arena along the edge of the river. Forget Mississippi river boats and futuristic skyscrapers; Detroit’s identity was hanging plainly in the rafters there above the ice.  While the official announcement had yet to be made, however, those in the know within the Motor City hockey machine were privy to plans for an extravagant new stadium that would replace the Joe; in June of the previous summer, the Detroit Development Authority approved blueprints for a $650 million Detroit Red Wings arena at the location of Woodward and I-95 as part of a new entertainment and shopping district encompassing Comerica Park and Ford Field as well. Though it still required approval from Wayne County and the State of Michigan, the writing was on the wall: it was only a matter of time before Joe Louis Arena would be coming down, then it would be nothing but another photograph an old building in Detroit for the archives.

All my life I had loathed the urban decay of Detroit, but now that it was changing for the better I suddenly felt estranged from it. I felt one of my restlessnesses coming on, one of those somber states when I walked the streets or sat, aimless and depressed, longing to drive off into another life. I’m overcome with self-absorption; it’s a longing for expression with no pen, a sense of the years rushing by like so many summer fields. I put in a fresh pouch of chewing tobacco and turned to walk back towards the Renaissance Center, anxious over shirking my coffee chairman duties at the IAAMC. Walking back North, Bell Isle rose over the horizon, and behind it, Lake St. Clair where Bob Probert had died four summers ago.

I take the concrete steps up to the glass atrium at the foot of the marvelous GM skyscraper. Inside, the atrium reminds me of Willy Wonka’s factory what with its high glass walls and dome glass ceiling, all of the glass paneled in dijon gold. Majestic palm trees reach almost three stories high to the glass ceiling, while smaller ficus trees and ivy plants adorn the marble floors on ground level. Midafternoon sun spilling in from a cloudless sky, the white marble floor reflected the clean blue April sky so that it appeared almost water-like. I made my way towards the multi-level escalators that connected the atrium to the Renaissance Center, but promptly changed course when I saw one of the boardmembers of the IAAMC descending the escalators towards me; wearing an Ed Hardy button down and his hair in a pony-tail, he creeped me out and reminded me of Alfred the thirteenth stepper, somehow. I had no grounds for this prejudice but wanted to steer clear of him at any rate, and besides, I was in no hurry to get back up to the IAAMC. My anxiety only worsened as I entered the Renaissance Center, feeling ever out of place there.

 I continue on towards the basement level of the skyscraper, where the concrete walls resembled a Goldeneye-level bunker. Further into the interior there were General Motors cars on display like shiny Hot Wheels cars on raised platforms – red, white, blue, black, and maroon-colored SUV’s, sedans, pickup trucks visible from cyllindrical balconies and walkways from upper levels overhead; I wonder if they stayed up year-round or if they are from the auto show in some capacity. I find the stairs, climb them to the ground level, and slip out through the revolving glass doors to the North end of the building to the bustling Jefferson Avenue and across to the Millender Center Building.

Kiddycorner to the Rennaisance Center is the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at the foot of Woodward Avenue, the masculine yogi – the Spirit of Detroit Statue – perched out front with his palms facing the sky. Heavy traffic in both directions whizzes by on Jefferson, a neverending rush of honking taxi cabs, Detroit transportation buses, emergency sirens. I wait for the crosswalk to change from red to white, then cross Jefferson towards Coleman Young, trying my best not to think about my frequent trips to the records room in the basement when I worked for the law firm last Fall. At the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward, a twenty-four foot stone sculpture of Joe Louis’ fist divides the highway like a battering ram, another true symbol of Detroit’s identity.

Skyscrapers on either side of Woodward – One Woodward Avenue, the Guardian Building, the Qube on the left-hand side; Coleman A. Young, One Detroit Center, and the Vinton Building on the right – form an alley-way leading into Campus Martius Park ahead, where the skyscrapers open to blue skies. I make my way up Woodward, past the restaurants, eateries and pubs at street-level, and into view of Campus Martius, where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument reigns supreme: a multi-tiered granite and bronze monument, the top of the monument features a statue of a victorious Michigan as an Indian Queen – she wears a winged helmet, brandishes a sword in her right hand, and holds a shield in her left.

The park itself takes the shape of a round-nosed bullet pointing South in the direction of the Detroit River and Canada, with six skyscrapers – these are the Compuware World Headquarters Building, the Caddilac Tower, the First National Building, The Qube, One Kennedy Sqaure, and the 1001 Woodward Building, where I worked on the ninth floor at the law firm, clockwise from the top – surrounding it in the form of irregular angles suggestive of Times Square. Campus Martius is bustling with the liveliness in the fresh Spring weather. The Woodward Fountain at the park is flowing, the hot dog vendors are in business again, and pink and powder blue umbrella tables have been set out in diagonal rows across the green South lawn of the park.

I sat on a park bench, finding a fresh pouch of chewing tobacco from my tin, and gazed up at my former place of employment in the 1001 Woodward Building on the corner. I wondered if I’d ever get out, or if I was chained to this city, this town, this team forever. My phone buzzed silently in my khakis pocket. It was a text from Rusty, the co-chair of the coffee committee: “Hey Zac, what floor are you on? You have the receipt book right?”

Anxiously I made my way through the crowds of alcoholics on the third floor lounge. I did not see Art or Rusty anywhere. The idea was to look like I had somewhere to be or something to do, and in furtherance of this notion I was not immune to pulling out my receipt book and scribbling down jibberish. Not knowing anyone else, I pressed the elevator button and took it up to the fifth floor, where I knew I could find more privacy from the masses. I walked down the hotel hallway past a series of interior conference rooms where vendors were selling AA literature, big books, meditation guides, others AA-related tee shirts and sweatshirts, some selling sobriety trinkets and even jewelry. Outside of one of the conference rooms was a small marquee-style sign reading “AA meetings held on the hour, every hour” in white letters.

Figuring it would provide me with a good alibi, I duck into the room and find a seat at a table with several elder black guys, then text Rusty that I’m on the fifth floor in the meeting room. It is only 3:30 in the afternoon, and I have to stay at least through the 7:00 p.m. gala dinner tonight, for which Art had been generous enough to purchase my fifty dollar ticket. Most of the freshly sober guys could not afford it for obvious reasons, so I should have been grateful.

The hotel conference room consists of approximately eight tables, each of which has a candle and a big book on it, but only two of these tables are occupied. There are six or seven occupants seated between the two tables, almost exclusively middle-aged to elder black men who are laughing together like old buddies. They have streaks of gray hair in the beards and hair, underneath an assortment of old English D ballcaps of various colors – black, red, blue. The only other white guy in the room is a middle-aged man with a scarred face in a Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association jacket. He is quiet and subdued, sipping his coffee; I don’t recognize who it is, and in the spirit of anonymity, I pretend not to notice or care.

The meeting is incredible, maybe the best I’d attended since relapsing back in July – October. The older black guys tell riveting stories about growing up on the streets of Detroit around the Detroit Riots of 1967: skipping school, joining gangs, drinking and dabbling in drugs, playing small-time gangster and drug-dealer, in and out of juvenile facilities, in and out of jails and rehab programs, in and out of jobs, relationships, watching the decline of Detroit firsthand throughout the eighties and nineties, mass white flight to the suburbs, urban decay that seemed to parallel their own decrepit lives. I could understand that sense of conflicted nostalgia.

The man in the Red Wings Alumni jacket spoke briefly towards the tail end of the meeting.

“I really struggled after my playing career was over,” he explained, “but through sobriety I discovered that sometimes, what we perceive to be periods ending specific chapters of our lives are not periods at all but rather commas, or semicolons; what I thought was the final page in my story was truly a blank page, the beginning of another chapter.”


Friday, August 18, 2017

My First Love

My first love was a wicked twisted road
I hit the million mile mark at seventeen years old
I never saw the rainbow, much less the pot of gold
Yeah, my first love was a wicked twisted road

My first love was a castle in the sky
I never thought I'd make it till I had the guts to try
Then I sat up in my tower while the whole world passed me by
Yeah, my first love was a castle in the sky

My first love was a fearless driving rain
Scared to death I thought I'd never see her face again
They say God was crying so I guess he felt my pain
My first love was a fearless driving rain

My first love was a wild sinful night
I ran out with the big dogs
Guess I had more bark than bite
I know I won the battle but in the end I lost the fight
Yeah, my first love was a wild sinful night

My first love was an angry painful song
I wanted one so bad I went and did everything wrong
A lesson in reality would come before too long
Yeah, my first love was an angry painful song

- Reckless Kelly (Willy Braun)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Downstate -- August 1 - 5, 2017

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty five I was seventeen and running up one on one
I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I'm running behind
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don't know when that road turned, into the road I'm on
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I'm running behind
Everyone I know, everywhere I go
People need some reason to believe
I don't know about anyone but me
If it takes all night, that'll be all right
If I can get you to smile before I leave
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

- Jackson Browne, "Running on Empty," 1977