Friday, July 15, 2011

Motor City Series: Part 1

What do you think of when someone says "Detroit"? I bet some images come to mind of cars, violent crime, and vacant buildings. Some people see Motown as Ghostown. And to some extent, they are absolutely correct. Inside Detroit's city limits you can fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco and still have room to spare. (Don't believe me? Look below. ) With all of that space available, we only have a population of about 700,000. 2010 marks the first time in history when there are more people living in Detroit's suburbs than in the city itself.

When people visit the city, they sometimes ask me, "What is the good area of Detroit?" I would encourage such people to think of the city as more of an archipelago. There are good areas in different parts of the city, but often they are separated by underused land or decidedly rough neighborhoods. For example, I live less than a mile from one of the richest neighborhoods in Detroit: Palmer Woods. If you were to take a drive through it's streets, you'd see mansion-caliber homes available for a fraction of what they would be worth anywhere else in the United States. You can go for a run through there and feel the super high-class vibe.

Now if you were to go a little over a mile away, you could be running through the streets of Highland Park (a city within the city limits of Detroit.) If you've never heard of Highland Park, I can best explain it like this: most people who live elsewhere in the United States are afraid to go to Detroit... most people who live in Detroit are afraid to go to Highland Park. If you ever wanted to feel like you were "on the edge" of something, try taking a DDOT bus through that section of town. As you pass through that part of town, you will feel like a different person.

But if you keep riding that bus down Woodward, you will also pass through my favorite part of the city: Midtown, the home of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Wayne State's campus, some of the best bars and restaurants in the city (another post to follow on thoughts on those places), and the Main Library. If I live in the city, I will live in Midtown, because it is easily the youngest, hippest, and more innovative place in the city. But it is no Ann Arbor.

If you keep following that bus, you will hit downtown, a place with some really cool festivals, the Detroit Tigers, and some awesome restaurants. The Riverwalk along the Detroit River is fast becoming a great attraction as well. But while riding through the heart of Detroit, you will notice the lack of foot and auto traffic. The streets echo with the shadows of generations of Americans before us, and hold a small promise that tomorrow could be better than today.

What I'm basically trying to suggest is that Detroit City isn't what you might have initially conceived it to be. If you actually take some time to explore what it has to offer, this place is a veritable gold mine of opportunity (and challenges). There are major problems to be tackled, which I will cover in a later post, but I would encourage everyone to approach Detroit with an open mind and fresh ideas. I could have gone anywhere in the world... Boston, Chicago, etc... but you will never find another city that needs innovative and dedicated people as much as Detroit. If you are looking to "make a difference" with your life, I can't think of a better place.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Whole House Shook

The whole house shook. At first I thought that someone was doing construction in the basement. The first few times it happened, we were able to write it off as being something uncomfortable, an annoyance, something that would go away. After a while though, I knew that there had to be another reason for the way the house shook. I went down the stairway from our second story flat to the front foyer. Looking out of glass, coated on one side with silver to make it a one-way view, I saw a man on our front porch. He leaned over, staggered a little to one side, looking out on 7 Mile. He fell like a tree in slow motion, inching his way to the floor of our front porch. He curled up onto one side and closed his eyes.

Running upstairs, I told a community member that I was going out of the gate, the barrier between our safe JV house and the hood of 7 Mile. I grabbed my keys, phone, and clicker, and walked up to the front porch steps. He was still there, slumped over like a man sleeping on his side. A dining glass held a pale liquid inside on the landing; a cigarette pack and vodka bottle in a brown paper bag dropped carelessly next to it. I asked him if he was okay. At first he didn’t pay me much attention, he groaned a little and waved me on. I asked again if he was all right. He leaned himself up and looked at me. His face was tattooed in burned scar tissue. His knuckles were a deep red from the wounds, bits of burning skin that painted themselves on his arms, legs, neck, and forehead. The back of his head had a large wound on it, a scab of some kind.

I asked if I could sit with him and talk with him for a while. He looked so surprised, so shocked that I would take a moment to spend with him. He said that he was a Vietnam veteran, shot in the foot and in the chest. The first shot took off part of his toe. The other wound broke ribs and left a scar on his sternum. He keeled over in pain, reliving the war or experiencing the lingering pain, I don’t know. He beat his chest in a way that I’ve seen other men at the homeless shower program where I work sometimes. Was it a way to gain more strength? More encouragement? I asked if he had a place to stay. I don’t know why I asked that question since I was actually afraid of the answer. If he didn’t, I didn’t know any numbers to any shelter. I couldn’t invite him into my home since I share it with others… and I still didn’t know why he had shown up on our doorstep. He looked off for a long moment. He turned back to me and said yes… he had a place to stay. I don’t believe him. He claimed the place was over on Warrington, a place a few blocks away where I have run many times.

He stared out at me with blue eyes just like mine.Then he went on to describe the fire. How his memory is etched with the image of the fireball coming right at his face. How he held up his hands to cover his eyes. How the fire licked away at his face, scalp, and rest of his body. I still don’t know what caused the fire. I doubt I will ever find out. All I know is that his body was covered in the scars; the pain was his constant guest, permanent torment. One eye was hurt from the fire; he didn’t cover it well enough.

Why did he survive, he asked. A miracle of God, surely. But why did God leave him here, with this mangled body and a mind that doesn’t function well anymore? How did he get left like this? I imagined him when he must have been my age. The scars peeled away. The dent/scab on his head gone. His mind able to remember his own address clearly, instead of stammering and pounding his head as he strained to remember. Repetitions like a broken record, skipping over the same tracks.

I asked of his family. His sister was up near Traverse City, married to a doctor. He lives with an 70-year-old veteran of the Vietnam war and a woman with breasts that sag to the waist. She was there before he was. But he says he owns the house, paid cash for it. Another disconnect in the story. His 3,000 dollars from Uncle Sam go straight to the Vodka bottle. Why, I asked? He has no goal or purpose. God hasn’t made it clear yet why he is still alive. What can he do? The Vicodin pills come from the VA Hospital, enrolled him in a pain study, and try to let him get on with life. I bet that they just give him pills to help them sleep at night. This isn’t our fault, the government and society will say. He did his time, served his country, but this has fallen to him alone. Are we meant to be his keeper?

He remarked how he didn’t think that the world made men like me. That was the biggest compliment I have gotten all year. It also is the saddest thing I’ve heard. I want society- no, society is too vague a word… I want people to realize that we need to help. We need to step out of our comfort level and sit with the forgotten. If we don’t then who do we expect to help? Government? NGOs? Churches? I hope that this year has at least taught us that these remedies are limited. The most effective treatment of homelessness, mental illness, is to be present with them. To take a personal responsibility for something that is far too big and vague to be shuffled directly to us. Make this fight ours.

I hope I see him again. I hope he does actually have that house on Warrington. I hope there are more people in this neighborhood that will help him and others like him. He told me his name was Kenneth at the start of the conversation. At the end, he said he though my name was Kenneth. Maybe it was. Maybe it still is. He is my brother, my father, my family.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Welcome back

This is odd to revisit this blog after so much has happened. I will have to make a thousand entries in order to catch up to my current life. I've been to Chile and back again, the heart of Detroit and the border of the acceptable. My perceptions and thoughts on justice, health, and urban living have been shaped beyond what college or Ann Arbor could show me. I'm not satisfied with a normal life. I want something better. Getting to this point however, has had little to do with my actual design. I feel like this is all part of a book where the characters are set to show something, bring me to a deeper understanding of something. It all matters. I just need to pay attention to it and be willing to adapt.

More to follow.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The first step is always the hardest...

At the advice of several friends of mine who have taken that first daunting and exhilarating step out into the real world, I hereby dedicate this blog to all of the people out there that have enough time on their hands to keep track of my life and the inclination to do so.

Basically, this will serve as a public account of my (mis)adventures in the world during this final semester of college at the University of Michigan, my visit to Panama, and while teaching in Chile. While regular updates would of course be ideal, I expect my visits to this page to be of a more sporadic nature.

As of last night, I have my first indications of a job offer to work in Chile. The TeachingChile program has been very responsive to my application and to my questions about the program. If I worked through this option, I would be paid a regular Chilean teacher salary and could either live with a host family (for a price) or rent my own apartment. I would pay a fee to TeachingChile for matching me with the job offer, and would pay it only if I accepted it. I am kind of feeling under a little stress to get moving on the other English teaching programs in Chile so that I will have some options when DuocUC comes back to me with an offer. I want to consider the other programs that would place me in the Patagonia. Some programs include flight costs as well, which is amazing. There is just so much to do, and such little time to do it in... I feel like sometimes my brain might explode. Sleeping after analyzing the options can be difficult. Also, it tends to frustrate me when organizations do not reply to my e-mails in a prompt fashion.

My Honors Thesis is moving slowly right now. I am actually wondering how long this will take for me to get it done. Crafting my analysis of current international relations between Panama and the United States is a difficult task. I keep writing my argument and then reworking it to fit my constantly changing opinion.

Well, I would say that is a pretty good first entry. Until next time, adios cowboys!