Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Truth about God, the Devil,
and Tyler Parker

It was hot the summer of 1999, too. A hot wind would come out of the west and blast Detroit. They lived just a little east of the Ford River Rouge Plant – the same eight towering smoke stacks depicted in Charles Sheeler’s monochrome, entitled Criss-Crossed Conveyors from 1927, the same factory Diego Rivera immortalized in his Depression era frescoes. Many times Tyler had gazed at them in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Their color was vibrant you felt that Henry Ford must still be young and living. But Tyler had seen Ford’s grave at St. Martha’s. That old crank and anti-Semite was lying on his back next to his wife under six feet of earth. The stacks of his factory were still upright, however, and belching as much coal smoke as ever. There were refineries in the vicinity as well. You couldn’t blame those on Ford. On nights when they got groceries in Dearborn they would drive back into southwest Detroit and see the blue and yellow flames of a gas flare burning off methane. This is industry. This is what makes all the gadgets and machines you live with. It’s dirty. It used to be dirtier. Tyler tried to imagine what it must have been like in the Fifties and Sixties. The neighborhoods were said to be covered in coal soot particulate.
          Such reflections didn’t make him want to stay. His every third thought was of getting the hell out of Detroit.
          Motor City put much of the world on wheels at the cost of grinding up countless numbers of its own denizens. The neighborhood Tyler and his wife and their son lived in was an old Polish section. It had been home to many people with last names like Budzyn and Nevers. Tyler had read Thomas Sugrue’s book The Origins of the Urban Crisis. He understood that a lot of white flight took place because Eisenhower’s highways made it possible. Not giving home loans to blacks in the suburbs kept them trapped. Home-improvement loans to blacks were also unlikely. So the city rotted. Mexican Town was creeping outward. The Latinos were moving into dumps and rebuilding them board by board, one nail at a time.
          When the west wind blew in the heat it was like a devilish Simoom. Even the air conditioner pumped out a stench. If you didn’t have A/C and had your windows open it smelled like steaming tar was oozing down the street. You even found yourself pushing back the curtains, looking for road crews. There was nothing. The asphalt stink was invisible.
          Tyler told himself that Gary, Indiana used to be worse. But when he was carrying his infant around the house with the TV news on, telling you how asthma was much worse and prevalent among inner city kids, all he could do was think how he needed to get the hell out of Detroit.
          His master’s degree wasn’t finished. It didn’t matter. He was master of nothing anyway.
          It seemed a sin to leave the city because of toxic mash. You had to leave it in a truck filled with all the junk that had been produced by toxic-mash-making machines. He had worked for six months at a shop in Mount Clemens. His white co-workers were big on buying American. The were also big on trashing Detroit. “I never go south of 11-Mile Road,” he had often heard.
          Is there anything more American than Detroit’s trash.
          The whole ring of Detroit’s wagon-wheel roads should suggest a very American cycle of viciousness. Exploit and Move. Blacks were lured to the city by its need for labor. They were paid less than whites. They moved into homes and then the jobs moved to the suburbs. Blacks weren’t welcome.
          Now let’s blame the blacks for trashing Detroit. Blacks are evil, subhuman, right?
          And now Tyler too wanted to flee for something safer and cleaner.  
          It had never been his city, his fight. He had come here to learn about Michigan’s biggest city while he went to graduate school in English lit. His wife was teaching, making parish wages.
          Their next-door neighbor was a stripper who supplemented her income by turning the occasional trick.
          Tyler could look out his bathroom window and see her and her man on their back deck. In the midnight darkness he could only make out silhouettes. His window was cracked open for ventilation. He could hear her. They were both drunk. They staggered and struggled to embrace each other. He was trying to push her away.
          “No, baby, no!” She was telling him. She pulled her shirt over her head. She didn’t seem to be wearing a bras.
          “I swear. I didn’t do nothing.” She ran her hands through her long hair. It was blond but in the sodium light everything looked orange. She had a very good figure for someone who did nothing but sit around drinking beer all day. Her only other meals seemed to be cigarettes. How could she have two kids and look like that on such subsistence? Genes. Tyler had even seen her sister and mother. They had come to visit. The little boy was about three. The girl maybe five. Why the girl wasn’t in kindergarten wasn’t clear. Once, Tyler had called the police on her because she was alone with the kids. She was sitting on her back steps getting drunk while her kids played on the front sidewalk. The cops came. They talked to her and left. They had seen worse. But then later the kids were taken from the house. They seemed to be living with her mom.
          Tonight the young couple were alone.
          “C’mon, baby. I want you.” She dropped her shorts. She was now completely nude, not that Tyler could really make out any flesh but it was clear she was wearing nothing.
          “I swear, baby. I haven’t cheated on you all day.”

          She put her hand between her thighs and seemed to come away with something. She displayed it to the man. He was a fat goober, not at all bright. Now he seemed to be asleep on his feet. Was she showing him that she was on her period? How did that prove she hadn’t cheated on him? He seemed little more convinced than Tyler was. He just rubbed his big gut – apparently he was only wearing shorts himself. She tried to kiss him and he pulled away, as if she were filthy.
          “I didn’t do nothing. That was just Cecil running his fucking mouth.”
          Tyler knew about Cecil. To his wife Tyler referred to Cecil as the world’s ugliest man. His Polish genes hadn’t done him as many favors. He didn’t have many teeth left. It was impossible to guess the ages of these three. Cecil may have been as old as thirty-five. But he had the toothless girn of a seventy-year-old man. When he concentrated his smashed-down nose touched his chin.   

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