Friday, October 12, 2007

To borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre, six in the morning is both way too early and way too late to be in Detroit. Still, the bus entered an eerily dark city at the crack of dawn and deposited us in its downtown. I can't think of another city with a million people that was so black, except perhaps for London in World War II. I was a little excited to be coming to Detroit, but it was plain eerie to enter a place without a single light.

The broad streets were completely empty and passing under the vast John C. Lodge Freeway, named after the younger brother of the senator so vociferously opposed to Woodrow Wilson's internationalism, was like hiding out in a bomb shelter. If the Chicago Marathon was an exodus of war-weary refugees along Michigan Avenue, downtown Detroit is the perpetual blackout.

I don't know why I expected breakfast from a city that had a single open restaurant on the Saturday night I was there. It was best to stay in the Greyhound station anyway, with its barbed wire fences, sentries, barking dogs and machine gun-toting guards. Well, at least the first one is true. The inside of this maximum-security compound was a bewildering mixture of 28 Days Later and an NWA music video. If I never go to prison, this was probably the closest I'll ever come. There were probably 200 people in there, almost all black and poor, with the exception of an old Amish couple. Playing on the television was something called Homicide in Hollenbeck.

Riyaad, doing what he does best when we arrive at a Greyhound station of questionable hygiene in a city of unquestionable skeeze, headed for the washroom. "How bad is it?" I asked, "this place is nuts". "It was about what I expected," he replied, "there's blood in there." Doing what I do best in any Greyhound station, I headed for the coffee machine.

(Sidebar: The Economist uses the price of a Big Mac in a locale as a measure of purchasing power. I use the price of a cup of coffee at the Greyhound station. A cup of coffee at the Toronto station is $1.56, just $65 cents in Detroit and $1.40 in Chicago.)

I'm not sure why I headed for the coffee machine in the corner. I thought I was going to get stabbed for my running shoes and copy of Augustine's Confessions. An old black man came up to me while I was there, claiming to be selling pins for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Furrowing my brow in a vain attempt to understand the situation, I gave him a dollar for a tiny American flag. "Errybody bin givin' fies and tens," he said with a sleazy grin. He then turned to the girl next to me and repeated, "ERRYBODY bin gi'in fies and tens, even twenties." He then helped himself to the other two American dollar bills in my wallet, though it would take until the end of the cup of coffee for me to realize what had happened.

I don't know much about the VFW, but I suspect that they don't hire drug dealers to solicit on their behalf at the downtown Detroit Greyhound station at 6 in the morning.

A mountain of a security guard then came over and repeatedly pounded his fist, speaking as black as anyone, telling the man to go "take yo hustlin' elsewhere, this is our turf." The dealer and his friends snickered at the man, called him an Uncle Tom and boasted that they made more money in two hours than he made in two weeks.

Maybe it's not polite to notice that just about everyone in there was black and pathetic, but it's certainly idiotic not to notice. It seems inhuman to allow a place like that to exist in the richest country in the world, certainly in comparison with places like Ann Arbor, less than an hour away. The crime (254 murders last year), poverty (the per capita income is half of Ann Arbor) and unemployment (14% in Detroit, triple the national average) produce a parallel world. It's a bizarre, bizarre experience to spend two hours anywhere in the First World and be unsure of whether anyone will care if anything happens to you. To have that happen in the heart of a major city is entirely something else.

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