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Right to Go Left
Paul, Paul, get up, get up." This is my mother, shaking me awake around three in the morning on a midsummer night in 1989. Before being poked in the ribs I had been sleeping with the violent soundness of a sixteen-year-old boy and so had not, in my upstairs bedroom, heard the noise--a gunshot blast--that had awakened my parents downstairs. Me, turning away: "What the hell, Ma?" Her, pulling back the sheet: "Paul, you're got to go after your dad." Me, sitting up: "Jesus--what for?" "Some guys just shot out the windows to our truck. Your dad went after them. They have a gun. Get up." "Christ. Where're my running shoes?"
Ever the organized housewife, even at the witching hour, she already had them in her hands, and as I too had the drill down cold by this point--such things tended to happen quite a bit in our corner of Detroit--I sleepily grabbed for the baseball bat that leaned against my bedpost for just such a purpose. The bat was an aluminum Easton, thirty-two inches in length and weighing twenty-nine ounces, with a barrel, according to the bat's red lettering, two and a half inches in diameter: the B5 Magnum. The model name struck me as an unfortunate misnomer, as it was not, in fact, a gun, which would have been more appropriate to the occasion. A gun was what my dad had--and so did the guys we were chasing. On my bedpost hung a rosary blessed, in Rome, by Pope Pius XII, which I ritually ran my fingers over before falling asleep. I did so for a second time before running downstairs.
Though on past occasions I had had to give futile chase on foot, I was able, by sixteen, to hop in the car that I'd recently purchased with a combination of parental help and house painting money, my previous summer's earnings. I drove slowly at first, headlights off, stopping briefly in intersections to look up and down the dark side streets. After a minute or two of searching, I caught a glimpse a couple blocks up--toward 8 Mile Road--of the getaway car, which went streaking by. On its back bumper, with my father behind the wheel, was the chase car. They were both, I guessed, going about seventy, in cars not manufactured to go much faster: four-cylinder imports, theirs from Japan, my father's from Europe. But my father, who had raced go-carts, dune buggies, and dragsters for most of his adult life, was by far the better driver, able to get the most out of the little five-speed that was used, by and large, by my mother to run errands.
My father had amazed me throughout my childhood with his ability to spin 360s in icy intersections--it had something to do, I noticed, with violently jerking up the parking brake--and he remains the only person I know able to shift his way from first through fifth without his foot once touching the clutch. "It's how the European rally drivers do it," he once told me. "They never use their left foot. Their right heel is on the brake, and the ball of their right foot is on the accelerator." "But how do you know when you can shift that way?" "Without using the clutch to disengage the gears, you mean? Oh, you can hear it when the gears mesh." Car performance, and upkeep, was everything to this man. When he purchased a new car (new to us, I mean: we bought used cars), the first thing my father did was pull out the air conditioner. All those damn things did was use up gas, drain off power, and make it more or less impossible to work on the engine when something went wrong, stuck, as air conditioners were, smack in the middle of significantly more important components. "This is Michigan," he'd always say. "Eight months out of the year you don't need air conditioning anyway."
Whom to obey, where opinion diverges: Mom or Dad? My mother was always fond of pointing out that things, as she would have it, were replaceable, but that people were not. You can always buy another (blank), but you could never, never replace (so-and-so). This was Mom's theory, often stated, and the reason that she'd awakened me in the first place: to be sure to bring her irreplaceable husband home alive. But my father's stance, which went stoically unstated, because self-evident, was somewhat different and, oddly enough, of a piece with that of my favorite philosopher at the time, who sang in that summer's inescapable song--"You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me." That night, I sided with the old man and Axl. Instead of concentrating my efforts on calling off the chase, whatever that would've entailed, I joined in the pursuit, baseball bat--check--by my side. Despite many, much better incentives to rejoin the battle, these summer car chases, perhaps half a dozen in all, would be my farewell to vigilantism, that unfairly criminalized response to widespread criminality.
What with his white T-shirts, wiry build, and messy sideburns, my father looks, in family photo albums from the mid-to-late seventies, like every other young father of that era--which is to say, like Bruce Springsteen on the back cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Ten years later he had softened only slightly. Blessed with a helpful disposition and familiar with his hometown's every last alleyway, he could happily discuss directions in Detroit until doomsday. "Now remember," he said to many visitors over the years, as they put on their coats to leave, "at 8 Mile, there, you're gonna have to go right to go left." The phrasing of these directions was revealing of his worldview. Life is a list of things you have to do; one of these, on the major surface streets of Detroit, is to go right to go left.
This phenomenon is the so-called Michigan left, that traffic quirk that forces one, on busy boulevards particularly, to turn right initially in order to go left eventually. If you were to drive north on Kelly Road, an eastern divider between city and suburb, and wanted to turn left onto 8 Mile Road, the city's northern boundary, you would not, upon approaching the intersection, get into the left-hand turn lane, for the simple reason that there is no left-hand turn lane. There is a right-hand turn onto 8 Mile only, and those who would have liked to go left must employ the hairpin turnaround on the boulevard's far side, a full four lanes over, which occurs immediately after making the turn off of Kelly.
A good deal more than just two streets converge at this intersection. If you had continued going east along 8 Mile instead of doubling back, you would quite quickly have entered into Grosse Pointe, the old, well-to-do suburb to the east of the city, along the banks of Lake St. Clair. You would, too, have remained in Wayne County, the oldest in Michigan, for which the city of Detroit--settled, three centuries back, by the French--is the county seat. By taking the turnaround to the westbound side of 8 Mile you enter Macomb County, the working-class suburban enclave that, more than twenty years after first achieving national fame, still finds itself, every four years, beloved of pollsters and trackers of voting patterns.
At the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, the gas shortages, and the Olympics boycotts, Macomb County was considered a national political trendsetter, an area in which large numbers of ethnic Catholics and unionized blue-collar workers decided to vote against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Such voters would later be labeled Reagan Democrats--would, in fact, constitute a "movement," and the movement's epicenter was said to be located five blocks to our north, in Macomb County, which began (the past tense is important here) with the suburb of East Detroit. The suburb was not to be confused with the east side of Detroit, where we lived; it was a separate entity entirely, like East St. Louis. The residents of East Detroit voted in the early 1990s to change the town's name to Eastpointe, hoping that some of the sheen from Lakeshore Drive might rub off on their suburb, composed almost entirely of Muffler Men and collision shops, by simple virtue of no longer having the syllables de-troit in its name.
I knew that the guys with the gun would be headed to the west side, which meant that they would go to 8 Mile, which meant that, sooner or later, they would need to go right to go left. I knew too that my father, the most tenacious man I've ever met, would tail them every inch of the way. So I switched on my headlights, said a short prayer, and headed straight for 8 Mile, doing my best, in my little American four cylinder, to beat them to the anticipated spot.
It worked. Ten seconds later they went whizzing by, first the totally outclassed criminals, who would never shake the driver behind them, and then my father, revving the little Renault for all it was worth. The two cars were drifting, in tandem, to the far side of 8 Mile, preparing to take the turnaround that would direct them back toward the west. Knowing that I had no hope of catching them by following that path, I went left to go right--against the flow of what, hours before sunrise, was the nonexistent traffic. When I came out of the turnaround the criminals' car, which I was now facing, came to a stop, as did my father's car behind them.
What now? It will be interesting, I remember thinking, to see how this one shakes out. It was three in the morning, and we were three cars at a dead stop on the (then) East Detroit side of 8 Mile, with one of us--me--facing the wrong way. Come on, fellas, wouldn't it be better to settle this on our home turf, on the Detroit side? What next, we all drive east, to Grosse Pointe, where they really didn't want to be bothered with this shit at three a.m.? I would gladly have gotten out of their way if I could have secured a promise, then and there, that they would use the next turnaround to return to Detroit, where we all belonged.
Such a promise proved unnecessary. A few seconds later they panicked and plowed their little Japanese import over the curb of the median, slipping and sliding across the grassy island between the eastbound and westbound sides of the boulevard. After briefly bottoming out on the descent, sending sparks skyward, they tore back down the Detroit side street that I'd driven up only moments before. Unwilling to inflict similar damage to our own cars, my father and I took the next turnaround, and the guys with the gun took the opportunity to disappear back inside Detroit's northeast corner, the streets of which I knew much, much better than the back of my hand.
We drove around slowly for a bit, looking left and right at intersections, and eventually drifted south toward St. Jude Church on 7 Mile, where my father had gone to grade school and where our family still went to Mass. We always sat in the church's western alcove at Sunday services, in the pew directly behind the votive candles; my sister and I spent the majority of each service picking at melted wax, which burnt our fingertips before it cooled and hardened, blissfully unaware that the flames in front of us had been lit by those in various stages of despair. During Saturday-evening services in the fall and winter your fingers might grow cold gripping your songbook, but look at the light of the low sun reflecting off the stained glass; forget, for a second, about the spiderwebs in the upper reaches of the ceiling, and take a minute to appreciate the acoustics in the place; ignore the stiffness in your joints, and the lack of padding on the kneelers (the result of half a century's penitence), and acknowledge that your Savior suffered far worse, and in far less pleasant surroundings.
I hadn't lit a candle or even offered up a prayer entirely free of cursing, but St. Jude, the patron saint of the lost cause, answered my petition that night: there, up ahead, was the criminals' car, abandoned now, having evidently crashed into the parked Crown Regal on the corner. We would later hear that the car wasn't even theirs, but had been stolen earlier that evening from a house several blocks away. But still: the sight of that totaled car looked, to my sixteen-year-old eyes, like victory--for my father, for me, and for what I can only call, waxing euphemistic, our way of life.
It was a victory that would prove short-lived. The next summer, the car in which I'd challenged those criminals to a game of chicken would be stolen from our driveway, and because, like an attentive mother, I could recognize in my sleep the sound of my car's squeaky belts, its automotive wake-up cries, I got to the window in time to see it pull away. By no means a particularly nice car, it was, as my high school locker partner once put it, not without some appeal in an urban center.
Though the process was certainly cumulative, gathering momentum over the years and crimes, this event's aftermath capped, for me, the odd position of being white in a city that wasn't white any longer--a city where, when your car was stolen and a black Detroit cop happened, several hours later, to arrive on the scene, the quizzical look you were given said, "What are you doing here?"--as if, at seventeen, I were a doddering British farmer, stubbornly tending land in a country I insisted on calling Rhodesia.
To hell with this place, I remember thinking. Accompanying this, however, was another thought, this one hinting at the dawning of what I now realize to be a stage-one literary sensibility: I've got material.
What I hadn't realized at seventeen was that the words at my disposal didn't exactly do justice to the situations they sought to describe: not specific enough here, not accurate enough there, and in many instances entirely misleading. My Detroit experience was through-the-looking-glass on a basic linguistic level: those persons frequently identified as "minorities" were, in fact, the majority inhabitants of the city. Those persons often described as "disempowered" were, in fact, in power: the mayor, the chief of police, the city council. ("The 'powers that be' be black," as I explained to those not from these parts.) East Detroit became Eastpointe, even as it began to resemble more and more the city whose name it had discarded, and many of the stores on the Detroit side of Mack Avenue came up with wholly inappropriate names, calling themselves Grosse Pointe Furniture Refinishing, Grosse Pointe Cleaners, Grosse Pointe Day School, Pointe Towing, Pointe Nails, and The Pointe After, a sports collectibles store. When you were giving directions and told someone that he needed to turn left onto 8 Mile Road, you began, straight out of the box, by telling him to turn right. This, no one would dispute, was some kind of semantically confusing city, and so getting at the truth of my material--in words with meanings that slipped and slid like a stolen getaway car--would be no easy matter.
From the Hardcover edition.