Last Night, Night Before
Michelle J. Pearcy
Last night, night before
24 robbers at my door,
I got up and let them in and hit’em in the head with a rolling pin.
Ready or not, here I come.
You’re ‘it’. You have your eyes covered, face pressed against a tree. You’re the seeker, the person waiting for others to hide in the youthful game of Hide and Seek. So you recite this ditty aloud. They scramble to hide. As night fell, especially in summers, you were never fully able to roam the place you called home – Detroit. That luxury was denied of many of the Motor City’s denizens, not just children. You lived with the constant possibility of meeting the (mis)judgement of law enforcement. Not in the courtroom, but in the streets: judge and jury. Right there in the streets, sometimes as close as the alley or corner of the street on which you resided. Somehow despite being raised in strict emotional confines delineated by fear, it was a memorable youth. Children in your neighborhood adjusted and made play in spite of fear of missiles, brute force law enforcement, and depopulated neighborhoods. You made the most of what you had to work with. But, a deeper meaning of the ditty would penetrate your dream world and become a recurring existential drama that replayed over and over with the same nightmarish proposition: 24 robbers at my door.
A strong, faceless authoritarian force that methodically moved from house to house extracting children from their beds, leaving their parents impotent to intervene. It was a nightmare that had very little variation: a rumbling of the earth beneath your bed, an urgent boisterous rapping on the door, and the sound of rushing feet in cadence approaching your bedroom. The very fact that no one on a sweaty horse interrupted this sweaty, bleary dreamspace meant, after a few very upsetting awakenings that no one would save the children. The recurring dream did not arise from an overactive childhood imagination. It did not come out of nowhere. Some things can last forever, like trauma. The contents of an upturned hourglass are obedient to gravity, but a few things that simply defy time: hurt and love. They’re defiant and dismissive. The sense of loss of comfort, of safety that arose from thinking that even parents could not protect you remained with you all the remaining time you spent on the street where you were born: Taft Street, Detroit, Four, Michigan.
It was summer. You remember the smell of moist soil, of flowering trees and shrubs and the comfort of a carpet of thick blades of grass that engulfed you when you fell to the ground. You’d been circling and charging the hanging sheets on the clothesline hoping to dislodge a wooden clothes pin from the laundry line without being discovered. Clothespins doubled as all sorts of creative playthings: slingshots and finger pinchers and wrestlers, especially when two pins were entwined and bound by rubber bands and then let loose. The chaos of the bands untwisting mocked two wrestlers tumbling on the mat and as you would later compare, the old neighborhood entwined with the new.
It was at a time when a lot of change was taking place on Taft Street and in the world. It was at a time when zip codes didn’t matter much; it was when one number sufficed for postal delivery. It was a time when having a party line was no cause for celebration; it was when one phone line TYLER87105 was shared by two households. It was at a time when fish was sold from a truck, when a man yelling “FRESH FISH” from the top of his gills didn’t disturb the peace. It was at a time when milk and fruit juice with perfectly crimped tops made of paper were delivered in bottles and deposited magically in the milk chute, a place that doubled as a ready way into the house in the event you lock yourself out. It was at a time when garbage trucks picked up all sorts of discards, none of which were people.
It was a time when the only thing recycled was the washing machine’s roller ringer thingy when it failed to squeeze all the water from the wet towels and the cycle had to be repeated. It was at a time when coal was delivered by truck and the imperfect black gold was pushed in carts across perfectly laid planks on the grassy carpet of your backyard. The sound that coal made as it rolled down the chute into the bin in your basement made boisterous summer storm’s thunder claps sound like purring kittens.
Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right…
It was summer 1964 and Martha & The Vandellas’, one of Motown’s all-female groups invited Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore and DC, and, Don’t Forget the Motor City to dance in the streets. Across the nation, friction caused by teetering economies, Jim Crow mentality that was steadily migrating north from America’s south, mass exodus and divestment from city centers, growing entanglement in Vietnam, and intense brushes between law enforcement and black communities left many cities out of breath. It would be an exhaustion felt by Detroiters for an entire decade between the time The Vandellas’ dance call and some relief from the brutal way Detroiters were treated by Detroit police units. You were a child, but knew from adults’ conversations that The Vandellas’ call to dance was much more than asking people to do the ‘in’ dances like The Mashed Potato, The Monkey, and The Hitchhike. It was a call to action to challenge unfair treatment of those who lived in Don’t Forget the Motor City and all the other cities blistered by racial friction.
And, because there was so much going on in your own streets, you did not know that at the same time cities were being called to dance, 50,000 new soldiers and paramilitaries were marching into South Vietnam, all needing to be fed, clothed, paid, and armored. You also did not know that they landed in a land that most could not conjure in their bleariest dreams. You also did not know that their absence would leave your own streets so short of manpower and so robbed of spirit that if they returned from the war they would face so many new challenges. Despite the impact ratcheting up of military spending and outlays from the mid-60s until 1970 had on the economy, Detroit’s music industry remained healthy. While a war was being fought on the other side of the world and NASA was launching men out of the world, Motown kept so many communities grounded and rooted and as history would tell, became a renowned incubator of creativity that left a lasting mark on music, choreography, performance artistry, and style, worldwide.
And there you were, laying face up in the grassy carpet in your backyard just down ‘the Boulevard’ a few miles from Hitsville USA, the place where Berry Gordy and William “Smokey” Robinson and others at Motown Records were writing, practicing, teaching, and changing the world. Circling and charging hanging sheets on the clothesline was simple but dizzying fun. You fell to the lawn and looked into the summer sky and suddenly felt a rumbling beneath you. And, in that instant your place in the world changed. In the alley the kids scrambled and were running and jumping fences into neighboring backyards. The dance on Taft Street in Don’t Forget the Motor City usually took place in the alley. Really, your memory of the dance was that it was a chase more than a dance. It was a slow and deliberate chase. The uniformed grownup Hide and Seek seekers intended for their unmarked black sedans to be spotted before they slowly and intimidatingly marauded and cruised the alleys of your west side neighborhood. The officers were all or mostly white and did not live in Detroit, Four, Michigan. You could safely guess that they lived in the fringe neighborhoods of the City in insulated enclaves populated by their white brethren in blue. By the time nearly 500,000 people had migrated from the south to Detroit in the 1940s the demographics of Detroit had changed drastically and many white southerners seeking better paying jobs in the industrial North added to the resentment against a wide pool of black factory workers already in place since the Second World War. By the 1950s and after Detroit’s bloody race riots in 1943, may white southerners were recruited to the police force.
BIG FOUR!!! The clarion would call and all would scatter.
The Big Four’s sole purpose seemed to be to disperse the nucleus of the neighborhood. The unit practiced a broken policy of broken window policing even before the broken thing earned a name and became a thing. They were a special detail of the Detroit Police Department. Three plain clothed officers and one uniformed officer, the driver, in one unmarked black sedan.
The alley behind Taft Street, Detroit, Four, Michigan was a gathering place until plans for the interstate disconnected one community to keep another connected. Why wouldn’t planners and politicians graft a new artery for the new wave of ex-Detroiters to carry themselves back to the heart of Detroit’s downtown? The rumble of those plans were felt in your backyard and your alley long before the first cubic yard of concrete was ever laid on the new six lane highway. First things first: shut the alleys.
Alleys may have been publicly owned easements but were also the most intimate arteries of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Alleys were extensions of backyards and platforms for community conversation. Alleys hosted talk about plans to dislocate you from the campus on Grand River that contained three schools: an elementary, a junior high, and high school. Planners intended K through 12 education in one place. Instead, you were banished to an old building erected in 1899 until a new school was ready to occupy. “Old” and “new” were used to make distinctions in alley conversations. And, by the time you reached New McGraw School you were such a displaced second grader that neither the age nor the fate of any schoolhouse mattered. By the time you learned your way to the correct door to the second grade classroom and the correct hallway to the second grade classroom your school had been changed. Who can justify causing as much uprooting of small children as this? When New McGraw opened it was at the time when the U.S. lost the race for the first man in space to Russia. The new school’s aerial view oddly resembled a UFO.
Alleys were places where services were delivered and where communities recovered from disasters. They were wide enough for Detroit DPW and Detroit Edison repair trucks to skillfully squeeze by each other after a summer storm to collect downed limbs and power lines without taking out your cyclone fence. Alleys hosted rumors that the Sound of Liverpool and the famed five brothers of the Motown Sound would be doing something in the second floor space above the bowling alley on Grand River Avenue. The alley where you played was a connector to great fame and sheltered awe-struck children who patiently waited for hours based on a rumor that they may catch a glimpse of entertainers piling out of their own black, unmarked sedans before a concert at Olympia Stadium. Alleys were places were children could be children riding bicycles picking up impromptu games of softball or football. Alleys were places where teens practiced being grown. Where boys with processed hair kept in place with do-rags rolled dice against garage walls betting coins, trying miserably to mimic grown men. Alleys were places where a stray cat could wander into your backyard and your heart and become your first pet. They were places where the sound of your mama calling you home seemed to be perfectly dubbed over tracks of music wafting from the front room window of your Aunt Connie’s upstairs flat. Families lived together in houses with two doors in Detroit, Four, Michigan.
Come on and
Show me the way
To get to Soulville, baby
Show me the way to go home.
Soulville. As Detroiters left in droves in waves and settled in predictable concentric circles outside the city, Detroit- churched, Aretha Franklin who would later earn the royal moniker, Queen of Soul, sought the familiar. Although Soulville may only be a lyrical place to many, like Detroit, it was a place where music and food and love could be counted on. Ms. Franklin’s soulful cover of the song had been interpreted differently by Dinah Washington. Soulville was one of many Ms. Franklin recorded in a tribute album released the year after Dinah Washington’s death. Washington was much loved by Franklin and Detroit for her unique sound; so many were saddened by her too early departure at the age of 39. And now you think of it, you recall peering out of the window of your parents’ station wagon at vehicle after vehicle in queue along Dexter Avenue. It was a line of gawkers hoping to catch a glimpse of fame among the spectacle of friends and family mourning Ms. Washington at the funeral home. Dexter Avenue was he same street where Ms. Franklin’s father, Reverend CL Franklin, a civil rights activist had his church. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, led by Rev. Franklin earned respect in 1963 when he led a freedom march in Detroit that some called a prototype for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historical March on Washington for Workers later that year. Reverend Franklin’s effort brought out over 125,000 people to Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
When things were most uncertain in Detroit, a taste or touch or sound of Soul was always waiting to be experienced. For years, radio personalities like Wade “Butterball Jr.” Briggs used the airways as connectors of their own. Briggs was a 19-year old prodigy at Detroit’s first black-owned radio company, Bell Broadcasting. Drs. Wendell Cox and Dr. Haley Bell founded stations WCHB and WJLB in Detroit under the Bell corporate banner. WCHB’s memorable call was “1440 WCHB, Soul Radio.” Their aim was to create a full-service radio outlet for the black community; they were on target and enjoyed many successful years. One of the things that would stick in your mind was Bell’s radio personalities had a role in the live Motown performances at Detroit’s beautiful Fox Theater.
If you were lucky, you were able to join the single lane of humans that had forgotten they had toes in a cold queue that wrapped around two city blocks for the MotorTown Revue or Motown Talent Show. There was something completely just about first-come, first-served and year after year, you made sure you arrived earlier and earlier to join the queue for the best seats. The season around Thanksgiving was perfectly suited for the MotorTown Revue. The program was a feast of music and choreography and style from the sequined fitted dresses worn by favorites like The Supremes to perfection in fit of tuxedoes worn by The Temptations. Once inside the opulent Fox Theater your soles and your soul were warmed and you felt like someone special even if you were only one person among over 5,000 seated fans. When the spotlight struck the first sequin on a form-fitting dress, your sense of feeling returned in a rush of excitement. It was hard to stay seated being in the same room with most of your music idols.
There was always a message in the music that traveled the airways. By the mid-60’s the sound from the community male-look-at-me-now songs like Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, but in time resonated with drumbeat to Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud). There was no question that James Brown’s studio work turned anthem of self-love was a huge esteem boost for African American people and a legacy for his children and grandchildren. Along the same vein, Marvin Gaye’s songs of intimacy turned into to cries for understanding of what was going on in the streets of America and in Southeast Asia. Nina Simone sang Revolution I and Revolution II because she could see the things to come and knew too well the daily struggle as a black woman just to stay alive.
But, as hard as the black artists and radio stations strived to keep up hope and the community connected, the decision to block Detroit’s alleys marked the beginning of development of the new six-lane artery. It ushered in a new time that unraveled the west side neighborhood’s ties. Your family practitioner, Dr. Leland, would no longer walk around the corner to make house calls. Your family dentist, Dr. Saginaw, who shared the lavender-colored building with Dr. Leland, would be across town, and no longer a short half-block walk to dental care. Your local grocery store, John’s Grocery, would be the only building remaining on Taft Street after all the real estate had been taken for the interstate. Without the residents of Taft Street bringing their wagons full of pop bottles for deposit returns and buying new groceries and paying their tabs that John had deferred until his neighbors were able to make ends meet, meant he would no longer be able to make his own ends meet. Churches, libraries, schools and all sorts of social infrastructure would be disconnected by the coming connector.
Years later, after the new artery was grafted to connect the new suburbanite to her heart, downtown, Detroit awakened to a gray sky and felt different. For the first time it was difficult for her to see past the gray; it was as though the sun was no longer waiting to break through. She had not anticipated the impact of some of the decisions hosted inside the walls of Two Woodward Avenue, inside her City Hall. And between the lines of every motion that passed that closed her most intimate arteries, she began to feel as though something else was contained between the lines of each legal document.
Between the lines, from cover to cover
are anagrams of hurt and shame.
Of growing old in a world that hasn’t learned yet.
So long as my brother is not safe with
food on his plate,
a roof for his head
and soothing salve for his hands,
I am neither.
Detroit was nearly inconsolable because some decisions that had been made in her midst were already having repercussions. Neighborhoods were hurriedly being dispersed and the human glue was disappearing. Though decisions had been made that determined the extent of the new road, something else inside her borders was widening the chasm. Detroit’s police department was moving further from its citizens. DPD had been known as innovators as early as the turn of the 20th century. They hired their first black police officer, L.T. Toliver and shortly after, their first female officer, Mary Owen. Detroit had bragging rights for being the first city to use automobiles to patrol, a natural since the heartbeat of the automotive industry in America was right within her borders. Many of Detroit’s automobiles went from raw resources to assembled vehicles, including tires at Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Plant, whose population of workers easily dwarfed the size of some cities. At most points in the Rouge Plant’s history the number of workers exceeded 10,000 with nearly as many suppliers; one manufacturer had an entire economy. That was multiplied three times in the Motor City; General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.
1967. But along the way, the fleet-issued sedans made by Detroiters struck fear in the streets. The department’s history went from making arrests of incorrigible drunks and corralling animals to 1967 when scores of revelers in an unlicensed after-hour club where guests were celebrating two GIs that had returned home from Vietnam were rounded up, sparking a fiery resistance that resulted in marshal law, state National Guard and Federal troops, the loss of 43 lives, thousands of arrests, millions in property loss, and an even wider chasm between black and white, and Detroit and her suburbs. After the rebellion, S.T.R.E.S.S. (Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), another Detroit special law enforcement team, used decoys that pretended to be drunks to draw out potential robbers. The failed unit with the failed acronym was not the city’s only epic failed law enforcement tactic, the decade older Big Four was an even bigger failure. By the mid-1970s it was evident that the designers of such failed policing knew the exactly the stress exacted on the community. Police killings of residents were not uncommon and in 1974, Coleman A. Young, Jr. who was largely elected on a promise to end police brutality disbanded the stress(ful) unit as one of his first major initiatives.
One could only speak for the neighborhood one knew best, but it sure seemed some colonies of Detroit were being busted up to implement the ‘connector.’ In the time between the forced move from Taft Street and being settled your new neighborhood, you would go from being a cautious second grader to politically aware fifth grader. As a second grader, you survived the fallout of fear from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which routinely sent small school children to fallout shelters. These safe places were usually in the boiler rooms of schoolhouses where you practiced placing your head between your legs in case of a missile strike. Children relegated to the bowels of the schoolhouse to prepare for something that would never happen were never prepared for the apparent danger in the streets.
At a time when Detroit was challenged on so many fronts, the memory of her proud history began to dwindle, and Detroit awakened from her own existential dreams, over and over. One bleary-eyed morning, there was a stir beneath her, a rumbling. A voice resounded within:
Go there. Go to Second Baptist Church. 441 Monroe Street, Detroit, Twenty-Six, Michigan. You know where it is and when you get there, sit in a pew. Run your finger along the bottom of your dress. Sewn into the hem of your skirt are onyx treasures that you have somehow forgotten. Remember, you were the place where kidnapped and enslaved Africans decided to courage the journey. Every bit of spirit and courage of freedom from slavery you sheltered as a terminal in the Underground Railroad and every train or Greyhound bus ride from the cotton-picking South during Jim Crow with hopes of a good Detroit factory job still runs through your arteries. You have long stood for promise and hope from suffocation. You gave birth to more than the automobile industry and music. You helped bring hope to so many and labored so long and hard for them every day for a long time. Catch your breath, a new day will emerge.
A sweet jewel onyx
Of love eternal.
Of our hearts is one
Copyright (c) 2016
Michelle Joy Pearcy