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Culture > Night Tripper

Don't mind the maggots

Our night columnist dials up the Motor City ... in Manhattan

Photo by: Laurie Smolenski
Yeah, Manhattenites love the D.
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Published 9/5/2007

Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is a crowded string of tired Laundromats, colorful vintage shops, endless bars and dingy tattoo parlors, punctuated by polished Vespas and passers-by toting guitars. Jazz rises from cellar doors at our feet. Ornate metal fire escapes hang from open windows, some brimming with potted ferns. It smells of garbage, sewer and exotic spices.

The mythical Max Fish is here, the brightly lit art-bar with multi-colored walls, two-dollar Pabst, and heavily graffitied bathrooms. Tonight, they juggle emo and new wave tunes to a mess of moppy-haired kids shooting pool. Outside of lovely minimalist Euro-style bistros, lovers drink wine at tiny street side tables, while rail-thin girls with chalky skin pile out of art boutiques. A bearded, begrimed white guy with a sign that reads "dreaming of a cheeseburger" rests on a sign post, backpack at his feet.

My sidekick Angie and I are on our way down the street to the Motor City Bar, a legendary haunt brimming with its namesake's memorabilia. We plan to scope out a Manhattan take on the D. Leaving Max Fish we meet a guy, who we'll call Bradley, a slight, darked-skinned graphic designer in town from California for business. Twenty-eight year old Bradley is Polish-Filipino-German-Italian and has black clothes, two full sleeves of intricate, all-black tattoos, and a deep gaze.

We watch Bradley blow annuli of smoke as he walks, and I notice an unmistakable icon etched on his right arm. It's our hometown skyline, complete with the Renaissance building.

"What's with the cityscape?" I inquire.

"That one's Detroit," he says flatly. "I was born there."

"Really..." I murmur, considering the irony of this timing and aware that Bradley doesn't know we share the same birthplace.

"Do you return to Detroit often?"

"Nah. Once in a while, I go to visit my aunts and uncles. I still got family there."

"Cool ... What do you do there?"

"Nothing. There's nothing to do in Detroit. Eat, drink, play pool, fart," he laughs.

I sigh, anticipating the too-familiar Detroit dialogue. "But Detroit isn't known for food, or for pool," I offer. Bradley spits his cigarette on the ground, grinding the butt with the tattered toe of his shoe.

"Detroiters eat. A lot."

"Really? I mean, Michiganians are pretty fat, I guess," I mumble.

"Michiganders," Angie corrects me, and we share a private chuckle.

Bradley ignores us and continues, "There's just nothin' to do there."

"I think Detroit is a hard place for a tourist, because much of what's going on I there is ... off the beaten path," I venture. "You have to know someone who lives there, or spend some time exploring the city." It occurs to me that Bradley is probably not really listening, or he'd have realized where we're from. I swap smiles with a fat woman in a dirty apron who whistles aimlessly in front of her pizzeria as we pass. Angie adds, "Especially in the summer, there is so much to do —"

Bradley cuts her off and turns to face us. "You know the worst thing? I hate going to visit my family in Detroit and hearing everyone bitch and moan about how bad things are getting. The economy, the schools, the neighborhoods ..."

Pessimism from an outsider is starting to really irritate me. "Ever think about why Detroit is that way, Bradley?"

"Yeah. There was this flight..." He looks up at us, perhaps calculating the extent to which he can bullshit. "Black flight —"

"White flight?" We retort in unison.

"Er, yeah, they all left ... and went to the burbs."

"Why do you think white people left?" I respond.

"'Cause black people were freaking out — there were some riots, the city was getting fucked up —"

Unable to tolerate such jowl-flapping, we interject, "Black Detroiters responded with a rebellion after decades of discrimination and marginalization from all aspects of the social and political spheres — housing, the job market—"

"Well, whose fault is it?" Bradley cuts in.

We both look him in the eye. "Maybe it's a lot of people's fault, man."

"And what does Detroit do now, take some communal social responsibility for its shittiness?"

Yes. Exactly, I think, but suddenly, Bradley bids us farewell and turns the corner. Perhaps he'd been planning to unfurl a monologue of his extensive historical knowledge, and was miffed that we had an opinion edgewise. I question why someone who harbors so much ignorance and disgust for Detroit would go to the trouble to immortalize the city on their arm.

In a moment we arrive at our destination. A simple "M" made of wrenches, the logo of the Motor City Bar, is etched on the glass. A doorman looks up from reading the newspaper with a flashlight when we enter.

Inside, the exposed brick walls are puzzle-pieced with Detroit signs, memorabilia and flags. The Woodward Dream Cruise, Red Wings, Doll Rods and Michigan license plates, Vernor's, "Bridge to Canada," even Joe Louis parking and directions to Greektown — it's all there. Scads of car emblems are stuck along the counter — Ambassador, Rambler, Neva. The bar's motor-head, Detroit native owners have created a vision reminiscent of some D-town nut's bedroom.

An ancient wooden I-75 sign rests like a relic above the bar; alongside a lustrous sign with a lighthouse and the words "The City Where Life is Worth Living" — the slogan for Detroit at the turn of the last century. The rear taillight assembly of a '60's Pontiac with glowing crimson taillights serves as a beer shelf. Also behind the bar is a white-board that logs drinks patrons have bought for friends, to be redeemed at a later visit. Clever system, but after paying eight bucks for a drink that would have cost me five at home, I'll pass. In the far corner, a massive old-fashioned Ford logo is lit in neon blue.

There is a car-seat bench and vinyl fifties diner chairs. They play oldies, the Commodores, Billy Joel. The main source of light is the skeletons of golden filament in the light bulbs that hang over the bar; the rest of the place is bathed in dim shadows. There are modish kids in little jackets, scrawny, inky-haired rockers, and jovial punk-rock spinsters. Behind them, a gigantic, black and white mural of a '67 Ford Mustang Fastback with rear louvers covers one wall.

We meet Jeff Russell and his beautiful girlfriend Marissa Rastelli, an affable young couple from Detroit. They now live in Florida and are passing through New York on their way back home. Russell is a muscular man with salt and pepper hair, a perpetual grin, gentle green eyes, and incendiary narratives of growing up on 6 Mile and Gratiot.

When we ask about his experiences as a kid in Detroit. Russell talks of the crack that hit his once relatively calm neighborhood in the very early '80s.

"Things changed nearly overnight," he says. "It suddenly became unsafe to walk outside at after dark." His school friends were never allowed to come over. Police no longer entered his neighborhood — they'd get shot at. "I had to bring a BB gun to the party store just to shoot off stray dogs," he adds.

Russell's eyes turn murky brown when he recalls his 13-year-old sister running home after she got mugged. "You got so used to hearing gunfire at night, it became like music."

It's well into the night when we part ways with Russell and Rastelli, feeling somber after hearing this impression of our city. Stevie Wonder's crooning our exit song.

"Your mom's pussy tastes so fucking good! She's at my house, while you here on the street!" A screaming cuts the muggy Manhattan air. We squint in the direction of the voice and see, perhaps twenty yards away, a throng of boys on bikes swinging imaginary punches in the air. Angie and I stop walking, paralyzed in disbelief. The kids are middle-school aged, most straddling cheap bikes, a few on foot, wearing baggy shorts and jerseys. "You fuckin' hun-gry, you broke ass motha fucka!" another prepubescent voice shouts.

We follow their angry stares across the street, where the cheeseburger-seeking hobo stands with fists balled. The boys flex their thin muscles, spit and swear and hiss, "You don't have a home, you dirty fuckin' loser!"

What are these kids doing out so late? Why do they condemn a poor man? Does somebody talk to them like that? Witnessing kids no older than 14, with such hatred and language and revolting insolence, drowns me in the vicious social realities of the city streets.

"I'll kick yer scrawny ass ..." The kids bang their bicycle tires on the ground, hurl him with obscenities, threats, insults, while homeless man stands silent, shuddering in the street light's sodium vapor glow. Ignorance, contempt, confrontation — the city haunts me with her transgressions and reality.

Night Tripper appears regularly in Metro Times. Send tips, quips, whispers and comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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