A place for the perplexed: Part one

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by Emilio DeGrazia • August 25, 2008 • My good neighbor, who has yet to read one of my books, keeps asking me over for a cup of tea. Wants to know me better, he says, though sometimes I don’t know about him. He’s a Welshman, a Quaker, an interior decorator with a long past on sailing ships, and a vegetarian who loves tubefuls of Icelandic fishpaste. I haven’t asked him if he knows where I live, because he’s sure to say in my house. Yes, I do live there, even when I don’t. I’m uppity enough to get snooty about where I live. For me the name that goes with a new face I meet often slips away into curiosity about where the person is from, as if what matters most is placing the face. Think of poor Oedipus and the complex of place that surfaced with the tragedy of his life. Was he from Corinth or Thebes? Only when he figures out where he’s really from does his life make any sense.

Emilio DeGrazia (edegrazia@winona.edu) has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree, from which “A Place for the Perplexed” is taken. He lives downstream in Winona.

Accident of birth has kept me free––so far––of such tragic designs. I live in a nice house, have very ugly but still functional feet, and didn’t marry my mother. In the nick of time I was born into my luck just three city blocks distant from a different fate. Those three blocks created an inevitability that shaped, after all these years suddenly gone by, where I came from and still live.

Calhoun was my birthday street’s name, there in a rented upstairs flat that was no place in particular until I learned its name long after my eyes, for the very first time, were confused by the light. My first name came first (Emilio, eventually devolved into Emil, and variations on Amo), but other names followed unnaturally enough: Italian, Boy, American, Catholic, Student, Michigander (Wolverine, Spartan), Minnesotan (Gopher), SSN XXX-XX-XXXX, and a lot more, some not fit to print. Several were undreamt: Earthling, for example, or Cosmic Life-Form. Others—Dearbornite—didn’t ring as true as, say, Detroiter, though the house I ate and slept in was safely on the Dearborn side of the line. So who was I, bearer of all these name tags, and what do they have to do with my current place in life?

I don’t know how old I was when I first learned that Dearborn was different from Detroit, or that one of the boundaries separating one from the other was a street called Tireman, just three blocks from my house on Calhoun Street. Innocently I went to Dearborn schools, played in Dearborn alleys and parks, swam in Dearborn pools, bicycled on Dearborn streets, and breathed what seemed Dearborn air. My father worked in the Dearborn Ford Rouge Plant, a factory so monstrous that as a child I once was terrified to tears by the sight of its chimneys spewing out fire and smoke. Though the high fences surrounding it made the Rouge more forbidden ground than the Tireman line that marked the beginning of Detroit, I was proud of the Rouge. It was, after all, the biggest car factory in the world.

Big things mattered to me, so Detroit was home whenever Dearborn was too small. Now and then I’d bike across the Tireman line or bus all the way downtown to gawk at the tall buildings and Briggs Stadium, graying and askew home of my Tiger heroes. Though I left Dearborn forty years ago, I sometimes still say I’m from Detroit.

The mayor of Dearborn, Orville Hubbard, kept trying to tell me where I really didn’t live. For decades he promised to “Help Keep Dearborn Clean,” and in school we were taught not to throw litter on the ground. “Clean,” we eventually learned, was a misspelling of the word “White.” Dearborn was clean and Detroit was black.

I was thirteen when I saw the Dearborn police stop two teenage black bicyclists shortcutting it through a Dearborn street. One officer started writing on his pad, but the other just grabbed the boys by the nape and turned the trespassers toward the Tireman line. And later, after I too had moved on, I learned that 80% of the 60,000 workers in the Ford Rouge were African/Americans. Not one of them owned or rented a house in Dearborn. Many lived across the line in Detroit or nearby Inkster, the factory suburb with the suggestive name.

An occasional outburst of civic pride kept Dearborn very “clean.” In the mid-fifties a moving van parked itself on Argyle Street a half-mile from my house. A couple of African/American males started moving furniture into a vacant house while their wives and children waited in a car. I was part of the crowd that gathered, and I saw the owner of the house arrive to protect his property rights. It was his house, the owner said to the crowd from his front porch, so it was none of our business and we should go home. But the good citizens of Dearborn owned his house and proved it by their deeds. They threw stones through his windows, slashed the tires on his car, and sweetened the gas in its tank. The terrified landlord called the police, only to learn that all the cops were sick or out to lunch, and that the state police couldn’t come because it wasn’t their place. Finally, the movers (workers rather than renters) hurried away in the car, and the crowd, its righteous indignation dulled into the boredom of another exciting victory, drifted home to supper and a Tiger game on the radio.

Devotion to the big cat pro teams, stirred by national anthem strains, conjured pride for the city full of slums. In the Dearborn schools we also pledged our allegiance to an America that was mainly maps and picture-puzzles of the forty-eight states. But with grandparents who were wholly Italian and parents speaking only enough English to make them unAmerican, I was too Italian/American to be wholly American/American. My parents’ public outbursts into Italian, a language learned by heart from birth and banished to my silences as soon as I went to public school, embarrassed me. Why couldn’t my mom and dad let go of it, their foreignness, and just let me belong in that puzzle piece called Michigan where I was born? The Italian stayed with me as I cruised the neighborhoods, my heart heavy with longing for blond-haired girls. My Italian people, and their girls, were dark-haired, and the accursed Harold Dahl, with his blond smile and hair clipped as neat as a lawn, walked away hand-in-hand with Sandy, the blonde I adored from afar. There was something about his flattop cut and the squareness of his jaw. I was not like Harold, the “whites,” but certainly I was not one of Them, the black Others who lived on the Detroit side of Tireman. Eventually we figured out who we were not.

Thus certain lines, as invisible as thoughts and words, were sharply drawn. Had we lived in Corinth or Thebes there would have been stone walls to keep slaves in and enemies out, but for me there was only Tireman, the street easily crossed but harder for some to get over than the battlements of Troy. Little did I see how the Tireman line widened into freeways leading me away from smelly Detroit, my eyes too open with wonder to see that the 80% who worked in the Rouge were my slaves—built my schools and streets and pools. Dearborn sat on the vast tax base of Ford’s car empire. Lowrey School, my school through ninth grade, had three swimming pools and two gyms; Fordson High was an elegant neo-Gothic structure graced by hand-carved woodwork, European artwork, and Persian tapestries. Clara Bryant Elementary and Edsel Ford High, the newest schools, were classy in the most modern ways. We had technical programs funded by Ford, college prep and night school options, sports, choir, theatre, band and orchestra, and plenty of smiling teachers to go around. Every time I walked eager-eyed to school I dumbly entered a cornucopia funneling me toward college and career. So where did I, lower middle class kid, live? I lived where the money was.

A few blocks to the north and east, on the Detroit side of the line, were Mackinzie and Chadsey high schools. Whenever we ventured there we vaguely saw the stares on the black faces of the men, young and old, slouched as they sat on orange crates, porch stoops, and curbs. They stared a resentment into us we felt but couldn’t think through or believe. What’s eating them, we asked, these blacks wasting their lives? It was not our place to see how life was wasting them.

Especially after an absence of forty years, Dearborn homecomings are always troubling affairs. Cheerleaders, most of them male, inevitably surface to orchestrate a symphony of self-congratulations, and a few even point with pride at the art on the City Hall lawn. A stone statue of the late Mayor Orville Hubbard was erected there, Hubbard who personified the apartheid legislated by real estate agents, building inspectors, and living room silences. The Hubbard memorial is larger-than-life, a caricature that diminishes his actual corpulence and idealizes the white supremacist beliefs hard as stones inside KKK hoods and gowns. When the statue was new there was something as dreadful as Melville’s whale in its whiteness, especially in the pupils of the Mayor’s eyes, eventually browned, like the rest of him, by the bad air. The custard pie that history eventually threw in his face doesn’t show. Hubbard’s clean city has now browned into Arabic, a paradoxical result of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic public works. Unaware that many Arabic people share Semitic roots, Ford settled thousands of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in the Salina district of Dearborn, just under the smokestacks of the Rouge. From there the Arabic culture spread and became so prosperous that some of the streets of my old neighborhood have the vibrant feel if not the look of Damascus or Beirut. What are all these people suddenly doing in my place? As I drive slowly by the Hubbard monument he appears to turn my way and follow me with those eyes. Do I live in Dearborn? No, I say silently to myself, as even more silently I insist that Dearborn does not live in me.

But place is fate, shadowing me. Dearborn’s streets and schools and parks and pools, and its tax base, the invisible labor of thousands of black hands—all these turned me out, predictably, like a brand new Ford car unchained from an assembly line onto a road that led me away from my home town to college and then career in Winona, a small city just off Highway 61 on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River. Like Oedipus I learn again and again, usually too late, that I am not self-made: Where I came from is where I live too. A black man who passes me on the sidewalk is, in my view, still a black before he is a human being or even a male. And my ignorance of the Arab/Americans makes of them new Others even harder to fathom. It takes conscious effort to distance my own mind-forged eyes from those firmly set in Hubbard stone.