Saturday, January 31, 2004

"I don't have a problem with gay people, Jewish people, black people, or green people"

After a few days of feeling like I was never going to find my own kind here, I finally got dressed in my eighteen layers of silk longjohns, heavy socks, earmuffs, Dad's wool coat, the red fleece top, the grey hat, and so on. Seriously, for those of you who have never lived in a snowy clime, I have one critical piece of advice:

Pee before you get dressed to go outside.

Thus padded and thickened, I went for a little walk down Nine Mile Road. Detroit's northern suburbs, unlike San Francisco, are built on a perfectly logical round grid. Eight Mile Road, which of course was made famous by Eminem, is the ring that marks the border between Detroit and the 'burbs. It is eight miles from the center of the city, hence the name.

Incidentally, Eminem's mother was recently carjacked at a gas station. But I digress.

So there's Eight Mile, and then Nine Mile, and so on out to at least 23 Mile Road (according to my folks). Some of the mile roads also have other names. Long Lake, Square Lake, Walled Lake. Five Mile is also known as Fenkell, Eight Mile as Baseline. Fifteen Mile, where I went to high school, is also known as Maple. Sixteen Mile has at least three names, depending on where you are--it's a little like what the Japanese did to Tokyo after the war, when they changed all the street names to confuse invaders (I will reserve comment about horses and barn doors.) Then there are spokes radiating out--Woodward, Livernois, Coolidge, Greenfield, Southfield.

I am having to relearn all of this, and some of it is completely new to me. I grew up downtown, and didn't need to know the fine points of northern navigation. I knew how to get to Pontiac for teen night at Isis, where I admired the Goths but couldn't replicate the makeup. I knew how to get to school. Ferndale and Royal Oak were easy to find off Woodward, which runs like an arrow straight to the heart of Detroit. Rings and spokes: it's a bit like Burning Man. I suppose I could go farther with that, and assign clock positions to the spoke roads, just to make it easier for myself.

Anyway, I was walking along Nine Mile, which features a few big apartment complexes, a television station, and a shitload of snow, and I got yelled at by some yahoos in a big fancy new black pickup. I'm completely puzzled by what they saw. I mean, dad's overcoat. I looked about as female, from thirty yards, as a Christmas tree. Maybe because my hair was down. I dunno. But I've lived in a predominantly gay city for so long that to have a guy honk and yell "how much?" at me was completely alien.

And infuriating. It didn't help that my feet hurt, a situation created by the fact that I'd grabbed the wrong boots on the way out, and was in fact wearing our friend Tim's. With the hard plastic orthotics for his flat feet. So I stamped back to the apartment in a huff, wreathed in ice crystals, and demanded the keys to the car so I could drive to a gay neighborhood where I would feel at home.

The fact that I found such a thing was miraculous. One change Detroit has made for the better since I was a kid is that it's a lot more open. There's a women's bookstore now with an actual plate glass window, instead of vandalism-proof cinderblock. You don't have to drive way the hell out, or know a password, to visit a gay bar. And the batch of boisterous gay African-American kids that came tumbling into Java Hutt in Ferndale tonight weren't making any secret of what they were.

And when the blond, white, straight manager 86'ed them, he was very careful to tell them it wasn't because they were gay, oh no. I was torn. Sure they were loud. Maybe they were bothering other patrons, although it looked to me like people were more amused than anything else. But they were making me feel a little less homesick. And when he made the statement that opens this entry, I was incensed by his patronizing tone.

It's like, white, straight, and Christian are the default position. And like those of us who are anything different should be grateful to be tolerated. When I was growing up, Detroit was 60/40 black/white, which rather makes African-American the default around here. And the last census told us that soon enough, "white" will be the minority in this country.

I can't wait, personally.