OUT OF THE FURNACE AND INTO THE MITTEN
We’d been wandering through the elaborate halls of the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan for about twenty minutes. Past the security guards, past the front desk, past the tour-info booth, up one ornate stairwell and then another, we’d poked our heads into a couple of open doors that said things like, “State Supreme Court” and “Janitor’s Closet” just in case there was something or someone interesting inside. No such luck.
We’d noticed a series of red-coated men, older, grey-haired mustachioed types, seated stoically at little wooden desks in hallways and around corners – the desks were lit up by banker’s lamps. I had noticed that two of the men were working on crossword puzzles, which day of the week, I cannot be certain.
After it became clear that these red-coats were the most interesting looking people around, coupled with RB’s interest in getting shots of people in uniform, we decided to talk to one of them. We stopped short and said hello. “I’m an old man, you gotta speak up,” he said. We explained what we were doing, and if he’d be willing to give his opinion about what’s going on in the presidential campaign and have his photo taken.
“Sergeants are non-partisan,” he said. “We don’t say shit to nobody. Not the press, nobody.”
Outside the building, we see a man in a wheelchair. He was cruising down the sidewalk at a decent pace, and we set off to intercept. After we turn the corner, cutting through a series of neatly manicured hedges, the man stops in the middle of the sidewalk. He stares at his phone. We approach and introduce ourselves. We tell him what we’re doing, talking to people, getting profiles, blah blah blah.
The man is only 19. He hails from East Africa. He is a refugee. His English is decent for someone who has only been stateside for seven months, and he is lost, but he tells us that he doesn’t know the candidates for president, but he likes anybody, because “US Presidents don’t murder everybody in their own country.”
Ahhhh perspective: you beautiful, unforgiving bitch.
He fumbles with his phone, and we ask him where he is trying to go. He tells us the name of the place – the Global Institute of Lansing. RB looks it up on the Google machine. Spying a church a couple of blocks down, he says, “I bet that’s it.”
We walk with the young man, asking him about his family, what he’s doing (student), and how he likes Lansing. He tells us that he really wants to be a DJ. We ask him what kind of music he likes and he says, “Gospel… and Rap.”
Around the back entrance to the First Presbyterian Church, a few more old, mustachioed retirees are loading shopping carts full of frozen food. We pass through the door, glide into the elevator, and guide our friend to his class. Upon reentry to the elevator, a non-mustachioed retiree tells us that the church just received its donation of about six thousand pounds of food from the Food Bank, hence all the old men wheeling shopping carts around. “It’s an extra big load, because we double up during the holiday season,” he says.
“That’s what she said” almost slides out of the gaping hole I call a mouth, but a twitch/reflex that I’ve developed, over the past few years, kicks in, and I bite down on my lower lip as hard as possible.
After our interaction with the refugee kid, and the old men sorting out all that food, my faith in humanity is restored.
TALES FROM THE HOOD
But, let’s not hold on to that faith too long. I’ve got a story for you. A whole lot of stories from Cap City, really, having spent the better part of seven years coming to the north side of this fair metropolis, I call this one: tales from the hood.
It starts with this young girl. Let’s say she was eight years old, maybe she was nine. She lived in abject poverty with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and her brothers. They lived right down the way, just a hop skip and a jump away from a place that I happened to call home at the time.
We may have crossed paths back then, when we were both a younger, I cannot say for sure. But it’s around that time – back when she was about eight – this story begins.
Most of the kids in the neighborhood came to the community center after school. Around eight pm, they all go home. Some of the kids have no electricity in their homes, some have their water shut off all the time, some have no clean clothes, no shoes, no backpacks, sleep fifteen to a house, have drunks and drug addicts as mothers and fathers, have siblings in gangs, and, for the most part, have microscopic examples of positivity in their lives.
The community center makes a promise to the kids. The promise is simple. If you keep coming down, then the people who run the place will do everything in their power, and I do mean everything, to help you empower yourself, better yourself, and escape and move on from whatever situation you come from. Some kids make it and some do not. The revolving door back out to the streets is constantly spinning.
Two of the boys that I was closest with in my early days at the community center didn’t make it out. One was stabbed to death a few years back, and, last I heard, the other is serving a hefty prison sentence for aggravated assault or something of that nature. Another guy was shot and killed a few years back, and another stabbed to death just this past year. The list goes on, but I’ll spare you any more tangents.
So, after a few years of coming down to the community center, this young girl disappears. The better part of a decade passes. And then, one day, she shows back up. She asks the man in charge, one of the greatest people I know, if he remembers her. The man searches his memory. The name rings a bell. “Where the heck you been?” he says. “I just got out,” she tells him. “Got out from what?” he asks. “Juvie,” she says, “they let me out when I turned 18.”
Turns out, when the girl was young, the only place she felt safe was at the community center. She used to come down to the community center to get away from her brothers and her mother’s boyfriend. She used to want to get away from them, because they were raping her on a regular basis. Her mother knew. She used to tease the young girl, saying things like, “You got a crush on your brothers, huh?”
So, the community center was an escape. I don’t know if she ever told anybody what was happening to her when she was younger, I don’t know if anybody followed up, and I don’t know if the abusers were ever convicted of these crimes.
What I do know is that one day her mother almost killed her. That when something smashed into her head she went unconscious and fell on the floor. Upon coming to, her mother yelled at her to clean up the rug, because she’d been bleeding on it.
I do know that one day, the house got raided for drugs. After the raid, Child Protective Services was called. After CPS was called, the young girl was taken away. She was up for foster care and adoption, and after waiting two years for someone to take her, to no avail, she became a ward of the state. The state sent her to Juvie, and there she stayed until her 18th birthday.
When she was released, the first place she came back to was the community center, because it’s the only place she ever felt safe. Last I heard, she was back at her mother’s place but trying her best to get out of there.
Now, this type of shit happens every day. This is just one person in one neighborhood in one city in our great country. She never did anything wrong. She was a victim. Every single person that was supposed to be there for her failed her, and then, when it came time to step up, the system failed her too.
Mentors, coaches, and volunteers in community centers, after school programs, and boxing gyms in any inner city across this country probably have hundreds if not thousands of these stories each.
So when I say that my faith in humanity was restored momentarily, please understand that I fucking mean it.
Over the past few weeks of talking to people in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan about the issues that they find important, I’m surprised to hear the words inner cities associated with the name Donald Trump.
Here’s a rich white kid, from a rich white family, who lives in a city with housing projects and neighborhoods as rough as the one I just described, who has had his entire life to do something for the inner cities and has done nothing. It’s not like he built Trump Tower in Cabrini Green or opened up a community center in Marcus Garvey Park.
Mr. Trump may have given some money to some charities over the years, but he’s never embedded himself in a community other than his own. He’s all pomp and pedigree. And I cannot figure out, for the life of me, how people are convinced that he cares one iota about the disenfranchised and impoverished, the defenseless and forgotten.
We pull The Beast over at Industrial and Tilden in Flint. There’s a bar. Across the street is the vast foundation of what used to be Buick City. Plants, shrubs, bushes, and trees have busted up through the split concrete – the land exists in this odd state of post-industrial-not-yet-fully-reclaimed-by-nature. The 235 square acres provide nothing to the scenery except a constant reminder of what was.
The bar, like the lot across the street, is way past its prime – a shell of it’s former self. Back in the day, when the plant across the street was still open, “you wouldn’t be able to get a seat in here,” one woman tells us. Today, it’s all seats. Gnarled carpet and dingy walls. Buck Hunter is plugged in and operational. There’s a pool table down at the far end. It looks and feels like my favorite type of bar – a forgotten dive, hanging on by a thread with the money gained from a squad of regulars.
Inside, we talk to the people. They ask us if we were with the reporter that came in there earlier. “No,” we say, “We’re our own outfit.” Apparently the week before, a documentarian had come through as well. An old man looks at me and says, “That’s how Michael Moore got his start, you know.”
They’re probably sick of people coming to the bar and asking questions – sick of outsiders.
How has the plant closing affected your life? The reporter asks.
It fucked everything up, what do you think.
How have things changed since the industry left? The documentarian asks.
Look around. You can’t tell?
Who are you voting for this year? We ask.
Fuck ‘em both.
But we start talking, and a guy named Walt starts talking back. Vietnam Vet. Stays up on politics. Tells us that there’s no way we can take his photo, but he’ll talk politics with us all day. He’s got a little belly, and he’s smoking a cigarette. He talks fast. A guy in the back of the bar keeps yelling at him to hurry up over to the pool table. Walt yells, “Ahh, shut up,” laughs and then keeps rapping with us about current affairs and politics.
“Yeah, Flint’s got a water crisis,” he says, “but I think Snyder is doing a good job for the state, you’re gonna have a slip up or two.”
‘Slip up’ feels a bit too soft, here, but what do I know?
He talks about being a lifelong republican but voting for Jennifer Granholm back in the day. Cops needing a lot more training, “Why do they have to shoot to kill all the time? Hit ‘em with the tazer first.” Walt thinks we need a strong president who’s going to run through congress and ignore all the special interests that are ruining the government.
He excuses himself to play pool. We continue the conversation with a middle aged woman and an older man.
“I think it’s a joke this year,” she says. She plans on watching the first debate that evening, because she wants to see if Hillary can handle trump. “If Bernie would have stayed, I think he could’ve done it.”
The old man sitting next to her says, “If I vote for anybody it sure ain’t gonna be Trump.”
We ask her about the water crisis, if her family was affected. She tells us that her house is on well water. She got lucky. But she questions who’s doing what about it now. She mentions a stretch of road right by the water plant that workers dug up, “and nobody’s out there doing shit the past two months.” They just dug it up to make it look like something was happening. She’s pissed mainly about the backed up traffic that it’s caused.
The city also has a problem with the garbage being collected. A lower bid was accepted, and a contract with a trusted company expired. Now there are problems with trash being collected. Reminds me of a situation in Detroit, years back, when it snowed and the city didn’t have enough plows to clear the streets. “Mayor Weaver is fine,” she says, “Not stupid Kincaid.”
I don’t know who Kincaid is offhand, but you know what? Fuck that guy.
“Flint’s going to hell,” the old man says, shaking his head. “Ever since the plants left, city went.”
“There’s no jobs for the 17 to 25 year olds here,” she says. She tells us that she sent her son down to Arizona to learn a trade, because there was nothing here for him.
RB takes his camera out. The old man says no photos in the bar. RB puts the camera away. I ask for a couple of beers. The old man tells me that this isn’t actually a bar, but a private social club. He says that the owner will be in tomorrow, and if we come back then, we can ask him about anything and take all the photos that we want so long as he says it’s okay.
But we can’t come back tomorrow. I thank them for their time. Walt walks back up to the front of the bar. He’s smiling. I ask him who won. “I did,” he says, laughing.
We return to The Beast. Climb in. Doors are shut. It’s late afternoon now, and we want to talk to more people. RB looks at me and says, “I just don’t understand why people stay when everything’s crumbling around you.”
It’s a fair question. How much can people take before they sell off all their belongings, pack up the car, and get the hell out? How strong is the sense of family and community that binds us to a city, a neighborhood, or a plot of land? How unimaginable is the opportunity that exists elsewhere for someone who has never left? How tall is the mountain of money that must be saved before one relocates? How much are you willing to take? How bad to things have to get? How big is the risk?
How do you know it will work out in the end?
Is staying put the better option?
Should you leave?
What is at the root of the anti-immigrant sentiment? Where does the nativist movement that’s bubbled up again, like some geyser that erupts every four years, draw its water?
Is it some inherent recognition or hatred for people who were willing to take bigger risks than you?
Left a family behind. Packed one bag. Crossed five borders. Worked, worked, worked. Did anything to make it, just to make it. Diving head first into the unknown for a myriad reasons. Seasonal work, sure. Texas, California, and Florida, sure. More work, more hours, need to send money back. Need to get my family over here. Willing to do anything to make it happen.
Been here forever. Three generations. This place is all I know. Factories shut down. Jobs gone. Folks still live here. Cousins, brothers, and sisters. On unemployment now. Working minimum wage. Can’t leave. Can’t just pick up and move. The jobs need to come back. The same jobs. The good old factory jobs. I shouldn’t have to leave. We shouldn’t have to leave. We’ve been here. They haven’t been here. They don’t deserve it.
But this is America. Does deserve have anything to do with it anymore?
After a couple more profiles in downtown flint, we head to Ann Arbor. Where I’m from. A liberal, educated, bubble that is immune to many of the economic trends of both the state and the nation.
We arrive at my childhood home. A warm house filled with love. A place where the lights were always on and opportunity always presented as something to be sought after and then seized. Where hard work was the gold standard. Where advantages were born.
My old man sits at the kitchen counter – a first generation American. Greek blood. My grandfather died when my father was three. His mother raised seven kids in Akron, Ohio. The older siblings dropped out of school to take over the family business, a candy store that also blocked hats and shined shoes. He went to the military, got his education through the GI bill, became a professor, worked all over the states, and eventually lived in Europe.
My mother sits at the kitchen counter. Immigrated to the US in the late 1970s. Comes from the French countryside, a tiny village – barely a dot on a map. Ridiculously educated. Total polyglot. She has read more books in her third language than I will ever read in my native one. Successful career as a teacher – thirty years at the same school.
I think about the members of my family that did what they had to do, so that I could be in the position to do what I want to do. How if you’re lucky enough to start off with the basics, then you’re already richer than most. Regardless of whether or not you can see it, the wealth of love in this life may be the only thing that trickles down.