Three Great Lessons I Learned from Detroit
Posted on April 18, 2013
After I graduated from Stetson University in 2007, I didn’t know what was next. I was dating my current wife, Heron, and we wanted to stay together. Well, I wanted to travel and see somewhere new, but she had to find a place that made sense with her work. So we looked at the options of where she could go, and we decided on…Detroit, Michigan.
Neither of us knew anything about Michigan, but we moved there anyway. My heroes — Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, — all said that if I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to travel to know places. So I figured, no matter what, Detroit was a new place, and I would surely be able to write about it one day. Yeah, I would find some job, and I would write at night — or even when I was at work. What did I know?
We moved to Detroit in the fall of 2007, and the presidential elections were underway. I can still remember McCain saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong, and then the economy suddenly fell off a cliff. Of course, the recession then pillaged the rest of the country, but what I found when we moved into Ferndale was that the recession was already there in Detroit. It was very hard to find work, and I ended up working at the desk of a YMCA, teaching guitar, and working as a substitute teacher in some rough schools. Now, I’m beginning, finally, to start to write about that experience. So here is a list of the greatest lessons I learned from my year in Metro Detroit — a city that I hold close to my heart.
1. Libraries and piano stores are safe havens.
I was out of work in Detroit for a bit, and it was tough to find a job. I thought because I had a degree from an excellent school in Florida that everyone in the city would want to hire me. Well, it’s difficult when everyone else is looking for a job, and they already know people there. So I had to find a headquarters to set up and look for a job, and it ended up being the Royal Oak Public Library. Every morning, I would drive over to the library, find a table, and look for work. I had no idea how to find a job, but I kept at it. And on breaks, I would read short stories by my heroes and search for an answer.
But what I noticed was that I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. There was free internet at the library, and the computers were always swamped with people. Homeless men and women from all over the city would be waiting for the library to open so they could use the computes and the bathrooms. I’ll never forget walking in with them in the morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hand; they held their change of clothes in a plastic bag. I really empathized with them. Of course, my circumstances were infinitely more stable, but I also felt like I didn’t have a home. And the library became a place of comfort for the lost and wandering.
I would also go on walks at lunch breaks, and I wanted to find a place to hang out where I didn’t have to pay money. What I found was that piano stores were a great place to relax. I would walk in and play the piano for twenty minutes, and then I would walk out and head back to looking for jobs. So no matter what happens to me in my life, I know I will always have piano stores and libraries.
2. Work is beautiful and can be art:
Many people don’t know this, but the Detroit Institute of the Arts is one of the best museums in the country. It might just be because of their amazing mural painted by Diego Rivera. It’s scales four massive walls, and it depicts men in the car plants, creating the machinery as the mural morphs to reveal that we are all also machines created by a similar assembly line. Seeing Rivera’s mural has proved to be one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. That’s one of the first times I understood that work was art.
Back home in Clinton, Massachusetts, I worked some jobs doing manual labor, and I knew very early on I needed to find a way to use my mind instead of my back. But while I was going through this process, working at a farm or picking stones out of the Earth, I met so many people who made this their life. And I don’t know how to articulate it yet, but those people who worked with their hands were beautiful. They seemed to be at peace with something that I wasn’t.
Philip Levine writes such beautiful poetry about work in his collection What Work Is, and his poetry has inspired me beyond, well, I can ever express. He is a true “working-class hero.” I was lucky enough to interview him at the LA Weekly.
And now I remember seeing that Van Gogh had painted people working in the fields. I remember the people wandering around in the cold in Downtown Detroit, the snow covering the cars and the streets, when I drove into a hip restaurant to apply for a job waiting tables. I remember working in the YMCA, watching gym towels spin in a washing machine. I remember the snow outside of the high school where I was a substitute teacher, right off of 10 mile in Ferndale, or some mile, way beyond the reaches of my consciousness. I remember that I gave out all my books to my students, hoping they would find solace in words.
3. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Probably the best lesson I learned from Detroit was that it wasn’t going to be easy…being a writer in this world. It was a shock to find a city that wasn’t opening their arms to me, because I thought I was some hot-shot. It was a shock to find that securing a real job after college was not guaranteed. It was a shock to find that when I went to apply for teaching jobs they laughed at me and my American Eagle collared shirts. It was a shock to find the darkness thicker than the snow, thicker than the memory of night back home.
I was just a kid who thought that I could wander into a city and become a writer…or a teacher, but no, Detroit said, nothing is handed to you. You need to work for it. You need to bust your ass. And you need to be thankful for your job at the YMCA or a substitute teacher. You need to be thankful that you can teach guitar. You need to be thankful that you can see this part of the world, no matter how tough it is.
In the end, I feel that I had grown a lot in Detroit, and I didn’t even have it that tough. I love that city, because there will always be a part of me, a young and naive part, still wandering into piano stores and libraries, trying to kill time.