November 04, 2013

Detroit I Hardly Knew Ye (a triplog)

Occasionally in the course of human events it becomes necessary to go to the Columbus Zoo for a series of off-site work meetings. I made Friday pain-free by taking the afternoon off and thus avoiding the team-building scavenger hunt. Instead my wife joined me at noon-thirty and we started off in a deli, talking to a spry 83-year old woman from Charleston, WV who tries to visit the Columbus Zoo three or four times a year. She's been to forty-nine states - just missing (by a whisker) the border of Arkansas. (My thought is if you're going to miss a state, Arkansas is a good one.) She vows to make it there one day and heartily recommends swimming to keep one young.

Steph and I then hurried to the Water's Edge Pavilion after lunch to join my group for some hands-on experience with animals. We encountered a leopard, a penguin and a bear cat ("walked into a bar..."), the latter the mascot of the University of Cincy. "They're in the mongoose family and smell like buttered popcorn or Fritos,” said the handler and indeed they do, but then so does our dog's paws.

Then we were off on our own, slipping out the back, Jack, making new plans Stan… Spent some time with the elephants, the tigers, a lioness. Also saw the kangaroos but their area was locked up. They can jump 25 feet high, which is nearly beyond my frame of reference. That's over two basketball hoops high.

Actual real "live" ruin!
Seeing animals so big, especially the tiger (our cat multiplied about a hundred times) and the elephants, surprises me anew in the way the ocean sometimes does: as an aspect of a limitless Creator. A breath of fresh air the way art often provides. The beautiful pattern on the back of one of the reptiles. The thickness of a python. The snake took me aback again, despite having seen it before. My mind must've constricted it - no pun intended - over time. I must have narrowed and thus circumscribed what is possible and this rendered me capable of surprise anew. That these animals are real and not cartoon figures was driven home. Their brethren are in the wild, as we speak.


My welcome to the Islamic Republic of Michigan (just a joke!) came via a huge mosque, seemingly a mirage transplanted from Saudi Arabia, just off I-75 north outside Toledo. A pristine and clarion building with the familiarly sharp-pointed minarets. The moment was reinforced when I turned on the radio and heard a station in Arabic. I listened uncomprehendingly for a minute until I realized it was an advertisement for “Mercy Cemetery”, identified as such by the only two words in English. There's some multiculturalism. Add to that the next station on the dial was in French, and it seems I wasn't in Kansas or Ohio anymore.

The sign welcoming me to the Detroit city limits was, appropriately, accompanied by a forest of factory smokestacks emitting white smoke as if announcing a myriad of Habemus Papams. (The Vatican should call on Detroit to help with their white smoke problem.) Often a stereotype is there for a reason, and this was no-bones Detroit: unpretentious to the max. A squat cylinder was painted red, white and blue and festooned with Motor City tackiness. I felt a bit of adrenalin, driving through a strange city that has the reputation of being Dresden, 1944. (Overblown by the media, of course, but still it's supposedly a moving train-wreck of a city, a city on the decline -- thus a sense of urgency: see it now or forever hold your peace -- a city where modern ruins are a major attraction and about which books and documentaries have been made.)

Through the miracle of Onstar I found my way to the hotel which was a series of six restored Victorian homes. It was almost like a bread and breakfast. I received a cardkey to the house and a room key. I made my way up and opened the door to a surprisingly large suite only to find an unidentifiable package of some sort on the bed. This was odd, I thought. Then I discovered an opened suit case and I realized – uh oh! – I was in someone else's room. Glad no one was in there and no one caught in a compromising position.

I hoofed it back to the office and they realized their error and gave me the right room and key. This room was much smaller but still pleasantly adorned with windows and a view of autumnal trees and a picture book Victorian mansion across the street with no less than five decorative pointy spikes scattered across the roofs, like the kind you saw on German WWI helmets.

It was now 3:30 so I headed towards the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which would be closing at the tender hour of five. Reports of the Christie's auction house checking out the wares helped motivate this trip. The bankrupt city wouldn't sell its treasures, would it?

But first I couldn't resist crossing busy Woodward Ave and walking through the Detroit Public Library. As is often the case with old public libraries, the glaring difference between the old wings and newer ones is pronounced and damning to modernity. The '70s-style wood-paneled new wing looked like a failure of imagination or money or both. The old part was soaring architecture of the type we rarely see anymore with large mural-size art and beautifully-tiled ceilings. Isn't there something impressive about how in previous centuries they cared not only about the walls and floors but ceilings? There's a quality of design then that seems to eerily parallel our moral and social decline. Art imitating life. The new wing looks more like a high school hallway or an institution of incarceration, those two being roughly the same.

On one of the main billboard near the entrance there were flyers for coming events and exhibitions. One was honoring the Emancipation Proclamation, and the other was a call to join “The Bookmunchers Club”. “Come chew on a good book!” it said, adding that “Anyone in grades 3-5 is welcome.” They are beginning with Bud not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and pictured a black man with a suitcase outside of what looked to be a factory. It didn't seem geared to grades 3-5 to me.

Around 4:15 I made it to the art museum and talked the guy at the front desk to let me in gratis since there was less than an hour left. He seemed non-committal until I mentioned I'd be back tomorrow. “You're on the honor system,” he said.

I walked past and immediately was struck by the pleasant indoor courtyard beneath me where you could have coffee or a snack. Definitely thought I'd have to hit that the next day, and visions of a bold roast coffee and iPad writing instrument danced in my head.

Then into the wondrous gallery of medieval Christian art. The works of Fra Angelico are stunning, a marvel. He paints like an angel indeed.

Saw an effigy carved perhaps in the 1300s of a dead German soldier. He probably would've been on his way to or from a crusade. They did carvings like this to commemorate the dead, to remember to pray for their soul. Now we cremate, leaving not even a tombstone to remember us by. Timely message on All Souls' Day. I thought about how odd that this image of a man, now dead for almost a thousand years, was once alive on earth with flesh like mine, and I thought about how much responsibility we have in our brief sojourn.

These medieval carvings, including those of saints or our Blessed Mother, have incredible detail and nuance of expression. The intelligence and knowingness of the sculptor comes through and I couldn't help but think about the seeming dichotomy between a people who were backward in ways medical and hygienic, but who were capable of feats of such devotional art and wisdom. It brings home again how little scientific advances and better sanitation have changed our innate nature. It's hard to feel superior to prior generations when you see what they were capable of in terms of art, architecture, writing, music, saintliness.  There was also part of a Gothic cathedral on display and I was drawn to the holy water font and I put my hand in the dry font and imagined all the hands, now long in their grave, who put their hands in that same font to bless themselves.

Later I happened across what I immediately christened in my mind as the tomb of the unknown saint. It was a reliquary of a saint's bone, the saint being unknown, and so I prayed briefly to him or her. Saw the benches from a convent of the 1500s, labeled “Nuns Sat Here”.

It's odd how art like this can alter your perspective of things that you've read about a million times. There was a scene of Jesus at the garden of Gethsamene, and he is praying that the cup be taken away from him, and just with the juxtaposition of many sleeping apostles in the painting you get the feeling that part of Our Lord's human reluctance was due to the poor support he was getting from those for whom he would be dying. I'd always imagined the scene was completely and solely motivated by the understandable desire to avoid the unimaginable pain and humiliation of crucifixion.

After the museum closed I jogged down Woodward to see what might be worth seeing. Came across my first ruin: the former Caribbean and American Bar and Grill, now marked with the cryptic graffiti “Vote NOBE! NCP”. I put my face through a cracked window and saw a ruined staircase, ala the ruins of the Titanic on the ocean floor. I then wondered what sort of asbestos and other bad things I was breathing in and recoiled. 

Walked by an old Catholic Church that might've been defunct. It's always a bad sign when the front door is locked despite there being a Mass going on (in this case 5:15 Saturday night). I would hate to miss Mass again today after missing on All Saints' Day, although admittedly the latter wasn't my fault. Our priest was jet-lagged after a trip to Italy, went to bed at 2pm and woke up at 7:30 for our 7pm Mass! That's the first time I went to Mass and there was no priest to be had.


Later at the inn, watched a bit of the Detroit City Council on the boob tube. (Sad, I know.) Boringly low-key. No drama, just a carefully coifed black man at the head, ticking off agenda items calmly. Certainly you'd never know the city was bankrupt. When public was allowed to speak at end I thought: “here come the fireworks!” But nada.


Breakfast at the main house: scrambled eggs, fruit, banana and peanut butter on banana bread. Some bacon or sausage would've been nice but hey the price was right. Killed some time reading in the pleasant Victorian drawing room with the quiet tick of the grandfather clock. Killed more time reading the Detroit Free Press, Sunday edition, on Kindle. Felt like I'd experienced a surfeit of journalism of late. The hotel provides free WSJ, NY Times and USA Today but not a local paper. Too much bad local news? Scares off tourists?

Then to 10am Mass, an adventure to be sure. Bad mass alert! Liturgically sensitive readers forewarned. Old Romanesque church built in the 1800s, the liturgy was full of surprises. First off, the church had an interesting layout: chairs were arranged in two large sections: up front around the altar and in back around a lectern. Everyone was sitting in the circle in the back and so I copped a seat there. Mass was late beginning; turned out the priest, a Capuchin, was late due to road construction (an exit was closed). He was young, thin and wore tennis shoes under his green robe.

A more eccentric place you'd be hard pressed to find. The main cross up front was two crossed planks with words on pieces of paper pasted to it: words like “racism”, “mental illness”, “loneliness”.
People were talking like it was a social event, and one elderly black woman came over and said I looked so much like so-and-so, and of course I had no idea who so-and-so was, much less was a I member of that family. An elderly gentlemen in front of me was exposing a distressing amount of the cleft of his butt.

Finally Mass started with a boom: a full drum/electric guitar set roared to life. This all felt like a cross between the non-denominational Vineyard service, a black Pentecostal one and the Catholic Mass. One black guy in back, wearing a baseball cap, would erupt with loud “Alleluia's” and “Amens” at irregular intervals and was quite startling. You don't normally hear a loud “Amen” during the first reading. He had large 3'by3' pads under his feet in front of his chair so that he could stomp without either hurting his legs or making as much noise.

There was so much to take in that I was a bit overwhelmed. One of the bigger surprises was how after the creed, everyone got up, gathered their coats and appeared to be leaving. Turns out it was a mass migration (no pun intended) to the altar! One lady came by, surely seeing my bewilderment at Mass being apparently over and when I asked what was going on she said that they like to “change things up” and move.

The homily was about St. Martin de Porres, whose feast is tomorrow. Zaccheus got a quick mention at the end, but you could tell the Capuchin had a heart for St. Martin, saying that he was at his grave in Ecuador five years ago, a flat marble grave that pilgrims lay on and grasp the rings at the front of it.

The petitions were extremely interactive. About a dozen people asked for prayers, including some gut-wrenching stories of cancer and terminal illness. Two for relatives going through “rehabilitation”.
Now settled in the new seat, I was game for whatever could be thrown at me. Oddly, there was no offertory collection from what I could see although a guy in front of me had an envelope in his hand. Naturally at the “Our Father” everyone held hands, and since there wasn't anyone to my immediate right or left it was a long stretch for me. Then came the Sign of Peace and you can't imagine it. Pandemonium. It was like intermission at a play but more boisterous. Everyone got up and shook everybody else's hand. I didn't move from my chair and still shook at least twenty hands. It went on like this for about ten minutes.

The responses to liturgical prayers weren't according to Hoyle either. No “and with your spirits”, but “and also with you”, although sometimes “amen” was the response. There appeared to be a lively variety although you could tell their hearts weren't much in the responses anyway.

The rousing “Amen!” played with electric guitar and drums was surreally jarring coming right after the somber eucharistic prayer. The mix of the popular and the sacred was sort of whiplash-inducing.

Eventually the “Lamb of God” was sung, albeit over commotion and talking. Then Communion. And then, without announcement, people just starting coming up to the priest and to other folks and meeting one-on-one. I've seen this before at the Vineyard, where people ask others to pray over them, so this wasn't unfamiliar. If I hadn't been to a Vineyard service I'm sure this would've completely and utterly confused me.

I headed out while the individual pray-ers were doing their thing. You can certainly see the catholicity of the Catholic Church in a place like this. And I think I shook the hand of Snoop Dogg. 


mrsdarwin said...

You make even a trip to Detroit sound lovely.

TS said...

Thank you Mrs. D!