Our friendship occurred years before Detroit burned. Years later I learned the word that describes what my best friend liked doing to me, or perhaps doing to himself. A telephone pole may have served as well, although now I understand that something like willing flesh was his preferred choice. I never said no, although willing may be overstating it, but he was my necessary friend, and his father lived in Detroit, the fabulous city across the river from Windsor. Whatever he wanted, I wanted, or at least, swilling in a hot fudge of emotions, allowed. Friends were hard to come by, and his father, a big man about town, so Daniel kept repeating, drove his Detroit boat of car over the Ambassador Bridge or through the Windsor-Detroit tunnel under the river on his monthly visit. When he stepped out of his white Cadillac convertible in his black suit, he stood bulky and tall, his eyes always hidden behind dark glasses with gold threads in the frame, rings flashing on several fingers as he opened his wallet to give a substantial allowance to his son, and Daniel disappeared for a day after winking at me. Left on the curb I caressed the shark fins of the car and wondered how many Detroit dollar bills made a wallet fat.
My large family (parents, six siblings, boarders) managed their chaotic lives in shabby houses, one not far from the open-air market where farmers sold their produce of the season, clucking chickens in wire and wood cages, hunks of bloody meat dripping like truncated corpses from terrifying hooks, and carp gasping in a barrel of water, which they’d kill by slamming a wooden mallet over their heads on a butcher’s block. People travelled from Detroit to shop at the Windsor market where Daniel and I often wedged ourselves between shoppers, looking out for the opportune moment to snatch fruit off a farmer’s stall on a Saturday morning. You could always tell Detroiters: something about the way they took possession of public space with their movie clothes, relaxed gait, twangy voices proclaiming the merits of peaches and potatoes, excessive friendliness with people they didn’t know from Adam, and money that all looked the same. Canadian money had a different colour for each denomination, including an orange two-dollar bill, terra cotta to be accurate, but my youthful perception couldn’t distinguish the difference.
In those days the words coloured and Negro were common, not Afro-Canadian or Afro-American. Or black, a term sometimes heard in the background, usually with pejorative intent, but not gaining general favour until the Black is Beautiful mantra repeated throughout the sixties. Because I hankered after Daniel and followed his lead wherever he chose to go, he was beautiful in my eyes—although I’m sure I wouldn’t have expressed my feelings in those terms. Because his father glinted in the sun and amazed me with cash and rings, I believed that Detroit was populated with beautiful black people, more beautiful than Windsor’s coloured people in my neighbourhood who were as poor as my parents and got clothes from the St. Vincent de Paul outlets or the reduced to clear bargain basement bins. My boyfriend Daniel, often sporting outfits from Detroit, was therefore beautiful. His father was beautiful. The Americans who came to the market, white and black, seemed to me easy and lovely, if also loud, and semi-divine: if not immortal, at least enlivened by good fortune. They lived in Detroit! I didn’t regard myself as beautiful—although during puberty, like every boy I became self-conscious about the shape and independent urges of my body.
Of course, other words could be ripped out of the lexicon of racism, and I remember when some kids called my sister a nigger. I never really understood the word, but knew it was so insulting and wrong that I blushed when boys in the schoolyard spat it out like diarrhea in a parking lot. Had they no manners? Were they brought up in a cowshed? We were all poor, yes, but my mother had warned me often enough, “If I ever hear you talk like that….” Well, you get the picture. Daniel, whose mother was white, hated the word, and once smacked me hard. We were tussling in the kitchen and he hurt me, so I threw it like a stone at his head. The look on his face made me fold into a cringe and I accepted his mother’s slap as just and proper, the sense of humiliation so deep I could hardly walk home, but I never used the word again. Following Daniel around after school the next day like a remorseful dog on a leash, wondering what he was thinking because he didn’t say much, tolerating my companionship, I remained silent, afraid of my own speech. I learned then not only how words could make the mind bleed and the heart sore, but also how I could never really get inside Daniel’s skin and feel the world the way he did.
Everyone was poor on my street and I was old enough then to understand the limitations of poverty. Poor but not like The Waltons. No wise elders spouted philosophical insights or consoling anodynes from their rocking chairs on porches. Fuck, bugger, bitch, cocksucker, get your shit outta here, fucking bastard, ass wipe: I heard those a lot, but like Oliver Twist did not repeat obscenities. The turmoil and rages of family life kept most of the neighbourhood kids out of doors and away from our overworked and underpaid parents. I don’t remember anyone spending much time in front of their black and white television sets with rabbit ear antennae. Our playgrounds were the streets, hydro fields, railway tracks, parking lots, alleys and riverbanks opposite the looming city of fables and big men. Because of Daniel’s Dad, I associated Detroit with rich people, oblivious to its actual economic conditions and racial tensions. Didn’t his father drive a Cadillac and own a fat wallet? Couldn’t I see phenomenal buildings thrusting up and bursting through the clouds, a city of great fortunes and Pashas on silken pillows? I didn’t know any wealthy people in Windsor, but of course they existed, just not in my neighbourhood or fields of investigation.
When not in school, I belonged to Daniel, he owned me. Often we climbed through broken windows into the abandoned house redolent with the stench of mouldy carpets, cat piss, clogged drains, and emptied bottles of drugstore rubbing alcohol consumed by hobos, rubbydubs as they were locally called, who often squatted in the premises until chased off by police. We explored the rooms, stripped water-stained paper off the walls, or wrestled in a second floor bedroom where a rusty bedspring leaned against one wall. He always wanted to win and get on top of me. And that’s where Daniel acted out his erotic urges and expanded my vocabulary although he didn’t use the word. He forbade anyone, even his mother, to call him Danny which he claimed was “a fucking baby’s name,” and he “wasn’t no baby.” He got me in a sleeper hold, wrapped his legs around my thighs to immobilize resistance as he manipulated my body flat down to the splintered hard wood floor. He rubbed against my buttocks or thighs or up and down my prone body. I could feel the boner under his jeans. Uncomfortable and hurting, anxious and close to panic, I nonetheless did not yell out. His breathing became faster and shorter, more like miniature explosions as intermittent syllables of broken words, the occasional fuck and yeah blurted out of his mouth, as he pressed and rubbed, then stiffened, shuddered, tightened his clutch around my neck as if he wanted to choke me to death, and came in his underwear. Frottage.
He rolled off and I remained face down, watching a spider tumble about a dust ball, uncertain of what I was feeling, but knowing from the sound of Daniel’s voice that he was happy. I remember wanting to call him Danny then, but I dared not rub him the wrong way and risk his rage. His hand on my buttock, he announced that his dad was coming for his monthly visit tomorrow, and I could stop by to see the Cadillac if I wanted, but I wasn’t to say anything about what just happened. He knew I liked it, didn’t I? I said yes, but I wasn’t certain what it was I liked. I didn’t have a boner myself on this occasion although I had been masturbating for a year already, had seen sexual episodes of one kind or another, so I knew what pleasant sensations a boner could lead to.
When we stood side by side on the river banks at sunset, watching the last rays of the sun splatter in ethereal rose and gold against the Detroit skyscrapers, particularly the Penobscot building rising above the dirty water like a Martian tower in a comic book, my face flushed and my breathing labored like Daniel’s during an episode of frottage. My mind stupid with fantasies, I wanted something to happen without fully knowing what. My hands delved into my pockets. Detroit gave me a boner. In my searches through paraphilia fixations, I have never come across a word to describe the erotic fascination a pubescent boy might develop for the unattainable city, a kind of longing for an ill-understood, maybe illicit paradise causing a hard-on. The immensity of the city stretched as far as the eye could see on the riverbank opposite, its cosmic splendor at night infiltrating my imagination and wet dreams of girls I knew in my class, especially red-haired Sophie who always wore huge ribbons pinned on the top of her head. Not only girls, but Daniel as well, and Batman who swooped me up between the towers that became a mesmerizing blend of Metropolis and Gotham City. Both Daniel and I ate up Batman and Superman comics although I retained a secret love of Classics Illustrated that I sometimes stole from the corner store. They cost more than Batman. Gulliver or Crusoe or Quasimodo, however, didn’t give me wet dreams.
In addition to plentiful cash and fancy clothes (I never met a poor person, black or white, from Detroit), I believed that Detroit had something to do with the unspoken and forbidden, the daring and even the criminal. Aside from shoplifting trinkets from the local Kresge’s or Woolworth’s and sneaking into the movies, I couldn’t define what the criminal meant. Snitching plums off a farmer’s stall or sneaking into a movie didn’t count, for that is what boys did. Perhaps Daniel’s father had something to do with the criminal, and I fell into his son’s way of admiring the big man from the big city across the river. Put a cape on his back and he’d be our very own Super Hero. Wondrous in his abilities, Superman nevertheless always seemed to me a kind of soft man, a marshmallow on steroids, a word unknown to me then, an essentially mild-mannered Canadian (Clark Kent) who wouldn’t look at you cross-eyed or take you into abandoned houses for a private wrestling match. Did he even get boners? It’s surprising to learn that the Canadian Joe Shuster, co-creator of the American hero, also produced a series of erotic sadomasochistic illustrations and stories (e.g. Nights of Horror, c. 1954). Unlike Superman, Batman simmered with subterranean passions and belonged to the night of the city, much like Daniel’s father who was as big as the dark, caped, masked superhero.
Daytime Detroit meant music studios, thousands of workers in busy car plants, baseball games, and cross border shoppers. Even in Windsor when Daniel and I bought cherry cokes, we inserted our nickels and dimes in a jukebox attached to the wall over each booth to hear music produced in Detroit studios. Daniel’s father owned a nightclub, so he said, which the son was forbidden to enter, and the father never went to bed before dawn, because “he had things to do after midnight,” the things never explained. Daniel’s conspiratorial whisper persuaded me that he, Daniel, knew “things” I didn’t, and not just because he was two years older than I. Windsorites often crossed the river to shop, returning home with goods they smuggled through customs. My oldest sister donned loose clothing so she could wear two new blouses and skirts under them, purchased at Detroit department stories for much less than she would have paid in Windsor, and not declare them. Everyone knew someone who spent Saturday night in Detroit, for the city’s skyscrapers and streets flamed with electricity and the beacon of the Penobscot Building not only warned low-flying planes to fly higher, but they also lured Canadian would-be revelers to join the party. Many parties. The same streets ruptured by riots, and their houses set on fire in 1967, and buildings I once passed by as a boy to this day stand in ruins.
Daniel took to splashing himself with cologne. I could smell his cologne, the same aroma exuding from his daddy’s well-suited body, as he pointed across the river and said his father lived somewhere in the shadow of skyscrapers, and he had a lot of friends and was too busy with his businesses to spend much time in a shithole like Windsor. Well, true, Windsor didn’t have high buildings that cut through clouds and tickled God’s ass, and the adults in my life didn’t pull out wallets thickened with cash, and the men didn’t wear rings with stones as big as my grandmother’s warts or the blue and red marbles on the Bible the Orthodox priest made me kiss when he came by to bless our impoverished circumstances.
Windsor didn’t have the Tigers or the baseball stadium where twice I ate American hot dogs loaded with chili sauce, paying little attention to the game, but dumbfounded by the countless number of people and the endless rush of sensations pounding my eyes and ears as Daniel screamed out his approval or disapproval over a player’s actions. His daddy had driven us over for a Sunday afternoon match in what then called Briggs Stadium, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, before the name change to Tiger Stadium, decades before the demolition. What remains today is a field of weeds and memories and the hopes of civic groups to do something with the grounds. His Father gave us both a ten-dollar bill to buy food. Ten dollars bought a lot. When Daniel and I went to Saturday matinées at Windsor’s Palace Theatre, we never needed more than a dollar for ticket (when we paid, for sometimes we sneaked in), popcorn, pop, and licorice. And we could frottage in the middle seats of the very last row, if no one sat next to us. Daniel rubbed my hand rubbing his seemingly permanent boner under his jacket as we popped popcorn into our mouth with our free hand while watching Disney cartoons or the newsreel before the second feature. We kept rubbing until Daniel either pushed my hand away or shuddered in his seat. We had to watch out for the usher with his flashlight. I remember thinking his boner was big because his father was big man in Detroit, the big city of sky high buildings, and Daniel was also American, it had to be big.
Detroit became a city of fantasies: unattainable, inchoate, alluring and dangerous, even if I didn’t understand it in those terms. When I masturbated or rubbed myself against the metal bedstead as brown as Daniel’s skin, I sometimes visualized frottage with Daniel in the abandoned house or movie theatre, but I also imagined his father picking me up over his shoulder and carrying me to the white Cadillac and driving me over the bridge or through the tunnel to Detroit. I’d be dropped off in front of the Penobscot building which towered above me and glittered in the sun, knowing that at any moment something tremendous and unimaginable could occur if only I waited. I stood like a supplicant under the arch of the entrance, waiting for permission to enter the hallowed precincts since the doors presented a rather forbidding religious aspect. Nothing ever happened in those dreams, which only exacerbated my longing for the otherworldly event. Or I trudged along Woodward Avenue, forever lengthening and widening the way streets do in dreams, or down side streets away from the main thoroughfare, streets of flames and riots, trying to find the address of a house that would open its doors for me and reveal an Ali Baba’s cave of jewels and red licorice sticks, big boners, and bottles of Wishing Well cream soda or cases of Coca-Cola in small glass bottles.
It was a city of tremendous buildings, beauteous caverns, humming factories that went on for miles, libraries whose shelves bent under the weight of books, of thousands of noisy fans standing for the seventh inning stretch in the Briggs Stadium. Something had to happen to me here. Or he carried me, always Daniel’s dad was carrying me, never my own father who sat glum as a toadstool at the kitchen table after work, staring at a newspaper and drinking a bottle of beer. He rarely spoke, and when he noticed my existence at all it was only to command me to go buy cigarettes, Player’s. My two half-sisters came in for a lot of stares as if he wondered who they were, and yes, there’s a story there, which I didn’t discover until I was older and wrote a novel about my complicated family.
Daniel once called me a “kind of brother,” and his mother Angie, whose hip slung out so out of kilter as a consequence of scoliosis that her left hand could scrape the ground as she walked, seemed especially loving towards me. She had worked as a housekeeper for a Detroit manufacturer in her youth before returning to Windsor to give birth to her son. Once, after riding over the Ambassador Bridge in the back seat of the Cadillac, Daniel sitting proud as a prince in the front next to his big father who drove with one had lightly resting on the bottom of the steering wheel, he took us to Michigan Central Station where he had to meet business associates delivering a package. I didn’t see the associates or the package, but I sat on a bench, agape at the interior. Compared with this magnificence, Windsor had a poky little hut of a train depot, but here I sat beneath the vault of a veritable palace, half-dazed with desire to be transported to a fabulous realm, and then return to Detroit to be greeted and embraced by Daniel’s father the way he embraced his son, loud and laughing, fingers flashing, a big man of a big town with loads of cash.
Windsor, as I’ve mentioned, had a substantial population of Afro-Canadians, or coloureds or Negroes, to use the epithets of the day, including my two half-sisters, but a child playing is more conscious of the action of the game than he is of complexion of the players. I sensed that only bad people somehow felt differently about black people than they did about white, except good people, as I knew, from the depths of their goodness dredged up and spat racial obscenities with shocking ease. With one or two neighbouring towns in the county, Windsor was the destination point of the Underground Railroad, and most of the coloured population descended from escaped slaves, and they all had relatives in Detroit, including my half-sisters as I later discovered. When the city caught fire and the sound of gunshots zinged over the river to the stunned crowds lined on the banks, we all thought about people who knew people, relatives, friends, countless associations and interrelationships, and perhaps congratulated ourselves in that self-righteous Canadian way that Windsor had not yet exploded in a civil war between the blacks and the whites. I was a university student in 1967, visiting my sister. Daniel had crossed over to join his father in Detroit not long after my family moved away from Windsor, except for one married half-sister whose skin was the colour of ripe chestnuts and who married a black farmer. I hadn’t seen Daniel in several years.
Although I am told it is making strides to recover from the devastations of the decades, we are mostly familiar with Detroit as a destitute city, its inner core bereft, many of its impressive palaces of capitalism now dilapidated, its public buildings victims of economic collapse, and the predation of vandals and weather, great factories hollowed out, residences burned, boarded, and otherwise abandoned. One has only to troll through various Internet sites or, even better, peruse the excruciating and fabulous collection of contemporary photographs, The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, a sorrowful depiction of the emptied buildings of a ruined city, the skeletons of Detroit. They compare the city’s dereliction to the collapse of ancient empires, and such monumental urban edifices like the Michigan Central Station to the ruins of Athens and Rome. They even use the word “mummification” to describe the process of urban decay. Before and after the great and deadly riots of 1967, Detroit was and is an inseparable part of American mythology, just as it is an inextricable part of mine.
It is saying the obvious that nothing lasts, that friends go their individual ways and lose forever what they had once possessed like the city of my childhood fantasies. Daniel, I believe, stayed in Michigan with his father. I don’t know what happened to him. The Central Station, the Book Depository, theatres, schools, residences are stunning and hopeless in their devastation, but once, at the height of empire, an empire torn apart and ravaged from within (no barbarians at the gates), the grandeur of Detroit fed into and stimulated a young pubescent boy whose hands played in his pockets on the riverbank. He stood almost hip-to-hip next to a beloved friend whose father paid our way into the Brigg’s Stadium and gave us ten dollars each. His nightclub apparently burned to the ground on the second night of the riots, my sister informed me, and his head cracked under the blow of a policeman’s baton. Like my favourite superhero, the dark Batman, he survived bodily harm.
To this day I have an “orange” two-dollar bill, no longer legal tender, as it has been replaced in Canada by a bright and shiny coin.
Author Bio: Kenneth Radu’s most recent book is Butterfly in Amber, a novel set in Montreal and Russia, released by in the spring of 2014 by DC Books. Radu has also published several collections of stories, including Earthbound, and Sex in Russia. He has twice received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best fiction. He lives in a village where his neighbours don’t know that he’s an obsessive writer of English. Working on new stories, he has also discovered the charms of the personal essay.
Artwork: Jill Kolongowski