dollars and scents

Adventures in Detroit Gothic

A Personal Memoir

You’re exploring an abandoned church with your friends. Your cell phones go dead as soon as you step in the door, the vaulted ceiling soaring into blackness overhead. The dust is thick on the floor. Nobody’s been here in years. But when you step into the chapel, the candles are still smoking.

Steam rises from the sewer vents, thick and choking. You step around the opaque clouds, even as homeless people gather around them. You see a woman touch the cloud, the steam rising in curls through her melting, bubbling hand.

There’s a little girl at the Eastern Market who wants you to buy candles from her so she can afford to go to school. She’s very cute. You give her your last five dollars for a scented candle. She smiles and thanks you as she takes the bill from your hand. You stuff the candle into your bag, and when you look up again she is gone, and the little red wagon she’s hawking the candles from are gone. Nobody else has seen her. You take the candle home, and it will not light.

You’re exploring abandoned buildings again. This one’s a school, the desks in shards, the blackboards cracked, books scattered on the floor. You pick up a leather-bound yearbook and open it to a random page. A picture of the little candle girl smiles out at you. The yearbook is from 1973.

Between Six Mile and Seven Mile on the west side of Woodward, the streets are all one way, and they alternate directions. The streets going westward are burned-out husks. Charred remains of houses, roofs sloped in and collapsed, punctuate the weedy vacant lots. The streets are cracked, tall grass reaching through the concrete. The streets going eastward are all fine, with whitewashed houses and well-trimmed lawns.

You’re at a poetry reading in a cafe on Woodward Avenue, sitting right next to the plate-glass window that borders the street. The host of the poetry reading is reading a seemingly endless slam poem about police violence and gentrification. You watch outside as two young black men are stopped, handcuffed, frisked, have their car searched, and are eventually taken away by two white policemen. Nobody seems to care or even notice. There is nothing you can do.

The Discount Candle Shop on Gratiot sells candles to curse your enemies, candles to keep your man or woman, candles to call upon the devil and all the powers of hell, candles to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, candles to destroy your enemies without a trace. They sell twisted roots and powders that will help you summon dark spirits and fallen angels. Right next door to them, there’s a nice little church whose signs are almost always misspelled.

You’re driving around the east side, and you happen upon a street where no houses are or perhaps ever were. Thick, healthy trees are planted along the side of the road at regular intervals. A piece of clothing is nailed up to each tree, as crisp and clean as the day it was purchased from the store. You suspect this is another part of the Heidelberg Project, but you’re blocks away.

The church is boarded up. It serves no congregation. A statue of the Virgin Mary gazes at you from the window at the top, her hands folded in what might be a prayer or a warning.

The vacant lots that litter McNichols are overgrown with trees, tangled vines, sumac fronds, bright flowers. The plants are so thick you can’t see through them. The vines are intruding on the pawn shops and bars that border it. Subsonic roars emanate from the morass of vegetation.

Deep in the residential streets of the city, packs of wild dogs roam. These aren’t native coyotes or hearty mongrels–they’re pets gone feral, warring gangs of pampered pooches. You might see a poodle or a Chihuaha leading a pack of Dobermans and pit bulls as they roam over the neighborhood. Parents drag their children inside when the dogs are out.

The moment you head south of I-75 from downtown, the air tastes like copper and sulfur, like blood in your mouth. Gouts of blue flame jet up from twisted black chimneys. Your downriver friends live in tiny brick houses across from bloated tanks of noxious chemicals that tower above the houses. Some days, green clouds deposit stinging silver dust, and some days the air is yellow and makes your lungs go numb. 

Let’s not even mention Devil’s Night. Let’s not even mention the Nain Rouge. How is it that before any misfortune, residents of the city see this grinning red dwarf, the harbringer of flame? What sacrifice does the Nain Rouge demand? Why is October 30th the night when so many houses go up in flame? You have your suspicions.

Your favorite dance club features Day-Glo skeletons painted on the walls of an old ballroom, where you spin and twirl across patterned marble floors with faults cracking deep. Looking for the bathroom? Open the wrong door, and you’re in an even more ancient ballroom, with a dusty chandelier dripping from the ceiling and flowery plastic molding crumbling in chunks from the walls. The moonlight illuminates the tattered ribbons that hang from the ceiling. You wander the dusty corridors and find a bar tucked in a nook in the hallway, where men sit in trench coats and fedoras and smoke while a bartender in a vest and bow tie pours them martinis. Everything is tinted sepia. Only the throb of bass filtering distantly through the walls lets you know that you haven’t stepped back in time, or into a world of ghosts.

Old maps have red lines drawn through them, red lines that you don’t understand, that don’t really coincide with the boundaries of the towns as you know them–except for the red line that follows the boundaries of Eight Mile. There are walls that follow some of these lines, buried in layers of gentrification and de-gentrification like Roman ruins. You were born decades after the bricks of these walls were laid, but you still feel in your bones that these walls are your fault.

Your parents tell you stories about watching tanks roll south on I-75, towards the city, while downtown burned. They tell you about the factories shutting down and the economy grinding to a halt. They take you to look at the houses they escaped, the houses that have roofs caving in, bars on the windows, and graffiti on every square inch. This is what we escaped, they tell you, and you must be grateful.