Saturday, October 16, 2010

Detroit in the '70's

Like I've said, all my best stuff gets posted elsewhere. A few days ago a friend sent me an article about Detroit. It set off this long reminiscence about life when I was 19 or 20 years old.

"I moved there 37 years ago and huge areas of the city were already abandoned. I used to live in one of the semi abandoned mansions near Indian Village. 13 of us were renting a 10 bedroom house with servants quarters and horse stables for something like $150 a month. It was as insanely dangerous as the South Bronx or Alphabet City (Back then) but cheap to live, tree lined and you could get a two day a week student job in the car factories for union wages. If you were lucky one of your two days was Saturday so your pay started at time and a half. For a while there I was even living on my earnings working one day a week at Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue Assembly plant. It was the weirdest mixture of Industrial culture, apocalyptic urban collapse and '70's bohemianism.
Cheap rent, high wages but there were no grocery stores, drug stores or laundromats. You had to take a long bus ride to the suburbs to buy fresh vegetables or do your laundry and anything that wasn't left locked up with serious hard core locks would be missing when you got back. Everyone (except me and my friends) carried a gun and people got shot all the time. When I was living in a row house near downtown someone kicked in our back door while we were upstairs. We thought about going downstairs and then realized that who ever it was had heard us and they hadn't left. We figured he'd kill us if we went downstairs so we stood at the top of the stairs and cleared our throats until he left. (Ahem, ahem) There wasn't really anything to steal so he ended up loading a box with all of our groceries and stole the little radio that was our only source of music. Everything else had already been stolen earlier.
I find it amusing that some of the trendiest anarchist ideas being advocated by dreadlocked vegan trustafarians were originally developed by friends of mine in Detroit. They were mostly young autoworkers taking classes at the Harvard of the industrial proletariat, Wayne State University. I still sometimes hear from those guys and I don't think they're impressed with their followers.
A while ago I ran into one of my old radical roommates from those days, a (then) young Black guy who grew up in Harlem. Now he's a shop steward for the San Francisco City electrical inspectors. He's married to an old radical girl from back then. They own a house in an outer neighborhood in SF and talk about moving to the Sierras when they retire."

A little further reminiscing, My roommate Jim was a tall skinny hillbilly intellectual from some little town in upstate New York. He had a badass Mercury Cougar with alloy wheels and wide tires. He used to be a heroin addict. Then he was an auto worker. He said that factory work was like being a junkie. A year or two would go by and you couldn't remember anything but a couple of bad days and a couple of good days. All of the other days were the same. 

One morning we woke up and Jim's car was sitting in the alley without wheels or tires. The thieves had courteously left the car propped up on cinder blocks with a full tank of gas. We had already been robbed of our little radio and the house was so cold that turning on the furnace was more an act of defiance than a remedy for the cold. We gathered up our tiny collection of 8 tracks and went out to the car to get warm, listen to music and drink. We were having as much fun as we were capable of, even if we didn't know it. 



9 comments:

Birdsong said...

Not meaning to blow my cover, but somehow I knew this would be your next blog topic when you first responded to the article.

Nice work, my friend.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Sure do like the industrial work/junkie metaphor. I've seen the timecard and the damage done...

ish said...

It's hard to remember as a mortgage-paying middle-aged guy what youthful freedom was like. Though I'm not sure I was ever quite as free as you describe. I was more an observer and part-time participant in NYC's early 1980s alphabet city. That thin line between freedom and danger seems like more of a big deal to me now. My buddy David knew all the names of the junkies on his block, knew who to avoid, and which ways home. He's paying a mortgage now too. On that same block.

thanks Jon for the vivid picture.

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Ish, you know what, I have no idea what set that off. I was thinking about what little I know about gay New York in the early '80's. It seems like that would not be a good time to be young wild, free and coming into one's own as a gay man. It's true I was in a situation that did not allow me much access to the swinging '70's but "at least you got laid" was a pretty fucked up dismissal of life at the center of the AID's crisis. Sorry.

ish said...

Jon I took no offense. I actually count myself lucky I got a little taste of pre-AIDS promiscuity. Probably fortunately for me it was only a little taste but it was something!

Nazz Nomad said...

Whats wrong with abject poverty? Oh yeah, everything. At least Ramen Noodles are cheap.

urania235 said...

I lived 20 miles west of the Detroit border in the 70's, but I snuck down there on the bus whenever we could get away with it. It was exhilarating and scary. I will never forget those adventures.

Jon said...

I just had lunch with my friend Mary. She's from Lincoln Park. Now she's a lefty lawyer in San Francisco.
I didn't even go into some of my biggest memories. I was a 20 year old white boy driving a Detroit city bus on graveyards for a year. I'm glad I did it but it left me kind of thrill crazed.

FEEDJIT Live Traffic Feed