The Paris of the West

Nonfiction / Cyan James

:: The Paris of the West ::

“Over here,” David says, “you gotta come see this!” Then he holds up a warning hand. “Only if you have a strong stomach.”  

I crouch beside him and peer into a concrete reservoir. In the play of his flashlight beam, a large ginger-colored dog floats head-downward in a stew of maggots and old bits of wood. The dog’s inner organs have burst. The dog’s center is a piece of knitting assembled from wriggling white maggot-worms.

I snap a couple photographs. “You’re not revolted?” David asks.

“No.”

I find deaths, including animal deaths, things to be faced, and sometimes have difficulty looking away from them.

David, his girlfriend, ten other people, and I are exploring the 40-acre grounds in Detroit, MI, where the Packard company once churned out 49,000 cars a week (and housed patients during the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919). The place was closed in 1956 and has slowly rotted since. Plants sprout from the floorboards. Squatters leave piles of blankets and shredded newspaper in not-so-drafty corners. Sometimes people fall or are killed and drown or are placed in places water has gathered and eventually freezes, leaving only these people’s feet sticking out of the ice.

 

The Packard Plant is now a Brownfield property (an abandoned industrial site another company would like to acquire), and also a dumping site for stray mattresses, busted-out TVs, and, today, a smashed red Ford pickup with a teddy bear left as a relic in the driver’s seat. Tin hangs in shreds through gaps in the ceilings. Almost every windowpane is cracked, punched out, or punctured with bullet holes. Gravel rattles under our feet, and those of us not smart enough to wear gloves soon get grit and oil rubbed into our palms. We need flashlights in the ambient dusk that filters down the elevator shafts. We need paper masks against the asbestos and lead paint dust. It’s a cluttered place: mirror fragments in the bathrooms, old boots in the corners, mustiness everywhere. Offices full of overturned desks—I bend to the floor and retrieve a notice of payment, the paper grimy, brittle, dated 1946.

David finds me wedged into a bathroom stall, one leg propped on a broken toilet, the other cantilevered into a windowsill as I try to photograph blue paint flaking from the bathroom walls. 

“I wish I had brought my camera,” David says. “I’m going to have to come back…”

We get each other’s numbers before we leave.

 

***

 

A few weeks later, David, Elise, and I meet again, this time to investigate the ruins of the Fisher plant. We climb over huge pipes and scale a water tower. The details—rampant graffiti, mounds of refuse and castoff, windblown building material—remain the same. We walk through dripping corridors and offices whose walls have been half ripped away. Iron hooks hang from runners in the ceiling. Tiny plants grow in damp wooden trestles. When I look through any of the windows, I see parking lots and similarly desolate buildings splayed, eviscerated, all around us.

We traverse broken glass and peer into long-dropping elevator shafts. There are no safety rails and no one to stop us. A gutted cafeteria. A hot-tar roof. Walls of crumpled marble. Shards of Art-Deco carvings. I feel lonesome and strange in the derelict rooms but something also feels home-like about them; something resonates.

I sit in the middle of a yellow-painted room, close my eyes, and listen to the wind toy with the building. It’s so peaceful I have a brief fantasy of camping out here for a week in summer when I won’t need much.

Every time David finds the edge of a sheared-off floor, he calls us over to stand next to it and get vertigo staring down. Elise says she wishes she had a scuba suit so she could explore all the shafts and underground tunnels now filled with rainwater and unknown trash. Vandals before us have stripped copper wiring and piping for its resale value, and have pulled much of the marble from the walls. But much still remains. And for now it is ours.

The savagery of Detroit is not confined to its killing ice. A gang-member here shot another in the chest. The man waited in the bushes until his victim was strapped onto a paramedic’s gurney before dashing out to deliver more rounds to his target’s torso right in front of the paramedics. The mayor funneled off city money for personal Escalades and hookers. The policemen do not pause at stop signs for fear of attacks, and they will advise people to blow through red lights to escape particularly dangerous stretches. White people do not walk on the West Side. Nobody walks on the West Side if possible—where West Chicago runs into Livernois Avenue, for example, one’s chances of running afoul of something bad top 1 out of 7. 

 

***

 

I once went to a casino late and came out with a few white friends. Our parking attendant, a black man, was waiting for us, hiding behind a car. As we passed he leaped out and yelled, and then doubled over laughing at us being startled. “I got you! I got all of you!” Actually, we laughed, too. You have to, when everyone’s mutual discomfort and bad assumptions get pulled out in the open.

But Detroit is not the Wild West or some lawless frontier—Detroit is what’s left after a plague (poverty) and an apocalypse (neglect).

 

David and Elise and I go to Mephisto’s, a goth-themed bar and club on Detroit’s outskirts. Black-clothed, chalked with the dust of the city’s decay, we sit in a smoky line. Vodka tonics and blue martinis. One or possibly two too many for him, David says. He leans from his barstool to whisper in my ear: “What’s your race?” Our wide-busted waitress pours another drink as electro-goth music rattles and whirs. “We think we can tell you now,” he says. He drapes an arm over my shoulder. “We’re…supportive of white interests.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not Nazis,” he insists. “We’re just really pro-white.” The bar is so dark I can’t see him clearly. We three like hard-edged music, death photography, abandoned building break-ins. Only two of us like racism, I think. I should probe and interrogate. I hold my tongue. I observe. I feel little wires crackle inside.  

 

***

 

Type the words “Packard,” “plant,” and “Detroit” into Google and the first hit used to be a Stormfront page with a photo essay and accompanying text claiming: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center—into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations, with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” 

I ask Elise if she believes in white power as well, and she says yes, she came to the conclusion on her own that the Nordic races should remain as ethnically pure as possible.  

 

***

 

Less than 23 miles away stands Michigan’s Holocaust Memorial Center. The visitor begins at placards and plaques and all the usual markers of museum-type knowledge. Then the pile of books burned. The clothing mounds taken. A boxcar in which you stand, surrounded by the noises of the rails trapped inside it and with the noises people make when they are packed bare elbows to bare torsos, no food in those torsos, lungs full of awakening diseases, noses running, bladders full, knees locked into standing positions while the boxcar jerks over the rails through Europe in December. Shadows of these people are cast against the boxcar walls as though you stand among them.

You continue the journey they made. You see camp conditions. At one point you must squeeze through a narrow passageway to proceed. Then a long metal catwalk over the bottom of an inverted glass triangle. The walls of the triangle and the pit below display huge photographs blown up black and white: naked bodies (dead). The stacks of people whittled down to piles of spines.

The bins holding the breath of those allowed to live left as words. Stories.

The bins of the teeth for those who did not live. Their breath traveled already far past dentition. 

 

I have been to that museum many times. After almost every time I go I afterward visit a large dim-sum restaurant and eat plates of small meat dumplings, all different kinds. I like the discrepancy: the rending history, the dim sum (little pieces of heart) salted on my plate. Dim-sum is carts and carts of serving dishes steaming delight and people sharing dishes and lazy Susans and “pass the soy sauce, please”; it’s shrimp and pork and beef and scallops and squid and chicken doing complicated dances together inside translucent wonton wrappers. Dim-sum is a balm.

 

Years afterward I look more into our modern systems of meat. It’s not good. It’s long boxcar rides and the wrong kind of food and hours upon hours of animals standing in their own shit. It’s open sores and high stress levels, and for what—my tongue?  

 

***

 

I have even worked in a chicken rendering plant. It was my first summer back from college, and I’d been laid off from the veterinary clinic because of the bad economy, and the only thing left in all that bad southern Washington economy to do was pick up shifts at the local Tyson plant, where they would give you a bundle including a blue plastic apron, blue plastic arm guards, a hairnet, yellow and blue earplugs, and gloves. This was your uniform. This is what you wore for eleven hours a day on shift, so that when you returned home the red lines cut into your wrists still hadn’t faded, and your ears still rang from the earplugs, and you weren’t sure how you had spent the last eleven hours, exactly, only that there had been pink mush and a fine-jetted mist of water frequently directed over shining machinery; there had been a march of chicken parts, some of which were still strung and spattered on all your plastic gear, which you would need to clean off before resting or eating, so that the yellowish, slightly rancid smell of chicken grease could pursue you all night, and the morning alarm clock would be augmented by the bitterness of bleach up your nose from the pan you soaked the plastics in—despite your best efforts, the plastic, now bleach-dampened, would still shine with grease you donned six days a week. You worked next to Vietnamese, Mexicans, Nigerians. You worked at chopping parts while wearing chain metal mesh; you worked at packing hearts and livers onto yellow trays; you applied stickers; you applied a dumb buzzing impatience as the clock swept around its slow revolutions. No talking, no music. Big tubs of reddish mush. The man who would steal smashed chicken heads that accidentally came down the line every once in a while so he could make soup at home. The man who tried to cop feels from me. The man who had immigrated here and given up his own future so his son could go attend college to be a doctor. The night schoolers. The single mothers. The woman who died while working the line. We were all there, repeating our motions and our thoughts day after day to pull chickens apart and wrap them in plastic and put them on freezer shelves for your dinner.

Even then I still ate chicken; I still ate meat. Because eating meat was normal in my environment. 

 

Some environments are now mostly gone, or perhaps left alive only in imaginations. Bergen-Belsen is one of these, we hope. Chernobyl is a changing environment. Coral reefs are an environment being extinguished. But you can now buy a sea burial—you inside your coffin becoming an artificial coral reef so that you may now in turn nurture shrimp and other crawling things.

 

Crawling is a pose enforced by slavery and by other kinds of subjugation.  

 

Crawl, because you lack the strength to stand. Crawl, because we have bound your feet into unreasonable shoes. Crawl, because you have only your ankles left; the wrists are tied and you cannot run. Crawl because we will not let you do otherwise. Crawl, bitch.

 

Even sugar has a sordid past. When Africans were shipped as slaves to Brazil to work the sugar plantations, they were manacled. As usual, for slaves. When you give enslaved people machetes to hack down sugar cane, you must exercise care and unmanacle their hands, and perhaps William Clark considered this when he brought his inherited slave, York, along with the rest of the expedition. Frank X. Walker considers what may have been going through York’s mind in his poem “God’s House”: 


          Where else but God's house can a body servant
          big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet and a bone handle knife
          so sharp it can peel the black off a lump a coal
          and the white man
          still close his eyes and feel safe, at night?

Rather than crawling, the sugar slaves started a dance. A whirling one, one that turns a human body into a pinwheel of jumps and swirls and kicks, kinetic as breakdancing and lyric enough to lure opponents within range. Clever violence hidden in an ebullient elegance of movement: capoeira. An art meant to kill when necessary and to bind a community when not. Something you can do with your wrists manacled, something you can tell the slavemaster is an innocent cultural practice. Something you can do to protest being a slave. A way you no longer have to crawl.

 

***

 

One hundred twenty-two miles from the Packard plant stands the sanitarium in Battle Creek, MI, where the founder, John Harvey Kellogg, had a series of fights with his accountant, his brother William Keith, over sugar and sometimes over slaves. John Harvey was a doctor who adopted several African-American orphans, but wrote that the races should be kept separate. He hated sugar, impure things, sex, mixed races.

He loved sunlight, fresh vegetables, fresh air, and chastity.

He advocated never masturbating, never eating meat, taking yogurt enemas, doing regular exercise, and otherwise establishing what he considered a healthy life. No corsets for the ladies. Electricity and radium-laced water therapy for those afflicted by nerves. Special vegetarian foods for those fattened on steaks and wines. Carbolic acid applied to the genitalia of the masturbators.

It was a trendy place frequented by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and anyone else looking for an excuse to spend time among the most influential minds of America and Europe.

John Harvey’s brother, William Keith Kellogg, thought it would be a good idea to add sugar to the corn flakes developed as a vegetarian food at the San. John Harvey thought sugar would addle everyone’s minds.

William Keith took the Kellogg name, put it on the cornflakes, and started officially selling it; and, even though they continued to live in the same area into their early 90s, that was the end of the brothers speaking to one another.

The San, along with its various advisable and questionable practices, lapsed into obscurity. Kellogg’s Cornflakes succeeded. One of its most popular cereals, Frosted Flakes, sells wildly, eleven grams of sugar in each serving. A tiger in your tank.

The San helped support research contributing to eugenic policies in America, and, eventually, in Nazi Germany. John Harvey Kellogg said breeding registries should be kept, and those unfit to produce America’s next generations should be excluded. One unruly child with three docile siblings looked to Kellogg and other eugenicists like evidence of the Mendelian (simple) inheritance of unfit characteristics. And this looked like a pattern of incompetence they could eliminate by enforced sterilization.

More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized to promote racial cleansing and more than 350,00 were sterilized in Germany. The U.S. sterilizations went from the early 1900s through 1970. I used to read dozens of these sterilization records daily as I transcribed mental institutional sterilization records into Excel databases while working at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

 

A white female, 16: “Irrational, tears clothing, bedding, complains of pains in head, temporarily insane during menses, noisy, restless.”

 

 A white male, 38: “Imagines Lord guides him in actions, accosts women on street, unable to care for self, dangerous at large, noisy, violent, wants to fight world.”

A Latino, 20: “Irrational, strange, cut penis with knife while in county jail.”

 

The women had their uteruses and ovaries removed, the men their testes.

 

More from Stormfront: “…decay followed the rapid demographic transformation of Detroit from a prosperous majority European American city into a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken majority African American city propped up by government handouts, band-aids and feel good charitable donations from corporations.”

 

***

 

They don’t want to harm blacks or Jews, David insists, they just believe whites should strive for racial purity. I press them harder: how did they get these beliefs? David says he usually hides them; he doesn’t directly answer my question. He says he grew up in Flint, MI., an area even more bleak and downtrodden than Detroit, but with a smaller percentage of black residents.

Michael Moore: “Sadly, a majority of Americans have written off Detroit, and for those of us who grew up in Michigan and still live here `heartbreaking’ doesn’t really describe it.”

 

At a Thanksgiving I held for a large, bearded, black-clad friend who became a mortician and for my Japanese language partner with her three-year old daughter (who forced the soon-to-be mortician to do many cute, embarrassing things like playing house), I told Elise I wanted to someday visit China.

“Why would you want to go there?” she asks, eyebrows raised as though I am slightly deranged. “It’s dirty, and it’s full of Chinamen!”  

 

My mother almost married a Chinaman. Her love for the culture is why I eat dim-sum, her romantic and cultural preferences transmitted to my taste buds. After the racism cataloged by the Holocaust Museum, dim-sum comforts me.   

 

Pork is one of the main ingredients in dim-sum, and the pig is also a useful animal for growing the organs we need for certain transplants. Your liver transplant may have started in a pig. You can put a piece of pig in your mouth, or you can sew a different piece of it into your body.

Racist pigs.

 

I attend an exhibit in Detroit at the African American Museum. This museum also forces you into uncomfortable places—you eventually walk down a plank into the hold of a ship recreating the conditions in which slaves were shipped to Brazil, to Jamaica, to Georgia. You see the narrow benches stacked high and the rings for the chains, and you read how if a ship went down, the chains would not be loosed, and you read how if a slave gave birth or died while giving birth while chained, she might not even then be unchained.

The ship tumbles you out onto the recreated streets of a cobblestoned American town. Then come the nooses and fires and the photographs of the lynchings Americans did while laughing. If you have a vivid imagination, you imagine how it must have smelled. Bodies still look like bodies even when they have become charcoal. People were lynched for looking at the wrong woman. For having the disease, drapetomania they called it, of wanting to run away. For trying to run away. For protesting. For not wanting to crawl any longer.

They used to sell postcard pictures of hangings you could send to relatives.

“This is where they lynched a negro the other day. They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. Shit, do you?”

It’s like this: the horror put together with the mundanity. Capped with a smiley face.

“Black people shouldn’t go,” an African American professor at an Ann Arbor community college told me. “But white people should see what really happened.”

I buy a book of these lynching photographs. Because they matter, and to look away or not want to look, to me, means you want to deny what we did. Sick at the stomach, nauseated, about to vomit—is this not exactly how you should feel looking at these photographs?

No one wants to look at these photographs. My friends want to look away. The same way they try to change the topic, especially if they are men, especially if I bring up sexism, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, the slave trade of both white girls and non-white girls in our own backyards and across our states and at our fucking Super Bowls and Olympics and anywhere else crowds may gather for pleasure.

I think less of them for it.

 

***

 

Elise and David leave town: he to New York where he makes black friends and slowly emerges not so racist after all. Elise migrates to Denver’s steam punk underground. Fewer black people there.

“Fucking miss you,” David texts me one night.

I visit Elise a year later on a summer road trip across the nation. She had shaved her head.  

 

The Packard plant has since been bought by a Peruvian real estate mogul who expects to pour some $350 million into it. Maybe it’ll host various related businesses, despite its now-tenuous connections to the rest of Detroit. Maybe it’ll host a go-kart track. Maybe it might even thrive.

It’s easy to knock Detroit. But it’s also easy to lose your heart among the tiny black holes of knocked-out windows and knocked-over civilities.  It’s not all back-lot shootings and corrupt drugs and armored Escalades. It’s got a clenched-teeth grit and vibrancy that makes me completely understand why someone like 23-year-old Drew Philp buys a house there for $500 and re-does the whole thing, despite having to wire his own electricity, despite someone trying to kick down his door in the night, despite the fact that the house next door, an arm’s length away, is one of the wrecks someone likely wants to burn for fun. “It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home,” Philp wrote on Buzzfeed.

Philp’s neighbors let him know he’s welcome even though he’s white. Some of them let him shower at their house before his own plumbing works. Some invite him to twice-a-summer hay balings. Some of them help him understand Detroit is a place where the hair on your nape never completely lies down, and yet you can feel warmer than you ever knew possible.  

 

Rich Wieske is one of Detroit’s quiet builders—he builds, in all things, with bees. A former commercial apiarist, he now raises bees on his own, and regularly loads white bee boxes into the back of his truck to distribute around Detroit to whoever wishes to host them. You can stand in a humming cloud of them and not feel particularly about to be stung…they want flowers instead; they make much more honey than they will use; they will seal their unclean spaces off with propolis, a resinous gum that can numb your mouth and serve as a preservative in embalming.

Detroit used to hold an estimated 2,000 hives in the city, each hive packed with 30,000 bees; Wieske says there are now somewhere between 500 and 600 hives.

I asked him, wouldn’t people vandalize the bee boxes?

He used to think so. But instead, people appoint themselves guardians of the bees. They man neighborhood watches to keep the boxes secure; they cheer when flowers arrive and the bees get busy; they cry when a huddle of bees fails to survive a Detroit winter. The bees, they say, are little sparks of happiness.  

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Biologists, hippies, and economists will all let you in on it: we are not alone. We are intimately connected through history—both as shared time and as shared genes—and through the ways we currently live and die, no matter what we think of each other. In this essay, I try to track many of the memories and mental threads Detroit, a city I deeply love yet struggle to comprehend, brings to mind.

A non-fiction piece feels like an opportunity to play with facts in a way usually reserved for fiction, and this piece in particular pushed me to hint at the richness Detroit encompasses without becoming too disconnected. Free association is at play here, though many of the subjects mentioned are geographically intertwined or chronologically overlapping.

It’s these connections I attempt to track while using personal memories that spanned a summer as a rough map. In these pastiche-style essays, I enjoy the chance to use white space as an unmarked place readers may inhabit with their own memories and associations. Maps lose their fun if every little thing is noted, and I find that writing loses its tang as well if too much is explicated. I’m not sure of this style yet—it’s like scenes flickering by seen through train windows—yet I find the form true to how our minds work, true to how one image leads us to stumble upon the next, and, finally, true to how the texture and sense of our memories are held together with the tacks of fact.

 

Cyan James earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she taught composition and creative writing. Her latest publications include The Harvard Review, Blackbird Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Oleander Review, and The Arkansas Review. She has attended several residencies and been awarded a number of literary recognitions, including three Hopwood awards. Currently she is completing a PhD in public health genetics at the University of Washington and is finishing drafts of an essay collection about death and a novel on B-52 bombardiers.