The story of Hendrix and Detroit

The path to becoming a writer has been — and still is — filled with surprises, twists and turns, and entirely new cities. In 2007, my wife, Heron, and I moved to Detroit for her work, but we picked the city together because I thought it would serve for great writing experiences. Well, I could probably write a whole book about my experience in Detroit — fights in the YMCA, wandering around Detroit and rotting buildings, my downstairs neighbors who were victims of the languishing economy, my search for work and fulfillment during the beginning of The Great Recession — and I’m thankful for those memories. In the end, though, the greatest thing that came out of Detroit was Hendrix.

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The story I’m about to tell you is probably not the Hendrix you were envisioning. In fact, the Hendrix I’m talking about isn’t even human. It’s my dog. And he’s traveled the country with my wife and me several times, sticking his head out of the car as we drove through West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California. Or the times we drove back and forth from Detroit to Florida — through the hills in West Virginia and the flat lands of Ohio. He’s been with us through rejection and the first couple months of freelancing; he’s been there in the hottest days in Miami when we didn’t have air conditioning; he’s been there during our wedding planning; he’s been there for the last six years, serving as my writing buddy.

When I first met Hendrix, Heron and I were living in the top floor of a house in between Royal Oak and Ferndale in Metro Detroit. We had a little backyard that we shared with the downstairs neighbors. I had just moved to Michigan after traveling in Europe for two months, and I was looking for work. It was tough. So one day to get a break, I drove into Downtown Detroit and stopped at the  Michigan Humane Society.

For some reason, I thought getting a cat would make Heron happy. She had grown up with cats, and I could tell she missed home in Florida. I wanted to get her a present to make her feel more at home. So I decided on a cat — even though I was allergic to cats.

So I walked inside the pound, and there were a bunch of people standing around the reception area. There was a woman, and her three-year old boy was standing next to her. On the counter of the reception area, she had placed a pit bull puppy. Man, it was the cutest thing you would ever see in the world, and I knew, then, that a puppy would be the thing that made Heron the happiest. I changed my mind on this quickly.

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What I learned was that the woman at the counter was trying to give the puppy up for adoption. But what they were telling her at the desk was that they can’t accept pit bulls. I deduced that the dog would be put down if it was turned into the pound.

“Are you giving the dog away?” I asked.

The woman looked at me and then down at her son. “Trying to. You interested?”

“How does it work here?” I looked down at the young kid, and he looked up at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. It was worse than the puppy.

“Twenty dollars and he’s all yours.”

“Let me think about it,” I said. “I probably will take him. I will let you know.”

Something about her asking for money weirded me out. So I sat down on the chair and watched the puppy playing with the boy. The boy’s shorts were too big for him, and he seemed to trip over them when we walked.

That’s when the door burst open to the pound, and I saw something that I would never forget. A woman was holding a leash, and on the end of that leash, there was a dog who ran right towards me and jumped in my arms. His tail was wagging; his tongue was hanging out; and he gave me a kiss. He jumped off my lap, and then he rolled over and presented his belly for a rubbing. I rubbed his belly, and when I stopped, he popped up and went to say hello to everyone else in the place.

I talked to the lady with the dog, and she was saying that she had to drop him off for adoption. She said she was moving out of town, and she had to give him away. She felt awful about it.

“You want him?” she asked.

“So you’re just leaving,” I asked, “that’s why you’re getting rid of him?”

“He’s mostly been in the basement. Never had any attention.”

I looked down at the dog — whose name was Ed — and I swear to god he was smiling at me. A freaking smile.

“How much?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “I would have to pay to drop him off here.”

Suddenly I had the dog’s leash in my hands, and I had a dog. I brought him outside, and his tail was wagging like crazy, and I put him inside my Buick LeSabre. And I was about to drive away when I remembered the kid and the pit bull.

They were standing outside with the pit bull puppy. The kid was crying.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the mom. “I can’t take your dog.”

That’s when the strangest thing happened. The little boy reached back his hand, and what seemed to take place in slow motion, he punched me in the leg. A little kid, seriously, punched me in the leg. He was crying.

“I hate you,” he said. “I want puppy. I want puppy.”

I always felt bad about not taking that puppy. I always felt bad for that kid. But there was something else going on there — what type of kid knows how to punch at that age? — and I couldn’t have more than one dog. I wish I could adopt them all and give them all good homes.

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I drove away with Hendrix, still called Ed at the time, in my Buick Lesabre. I don’t know if it’s fate; I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence; but sometimes I think the whole reason I was in Detroit, besides learning some hard lessons about life and America,  was Hendrix. I never saw it coming.

My disappearance from the blog = completed memoir revision

It’s been almost a month since I’ve written a blog post, and this is a trend that’s going to end this week. My wife thinks I don’t really care about this blog. But no! I have been busy working on my memoir. And if you’re a follower of my blog, then you know it’s my mission, my journey, my goal to publish this book. Almost a year ago, an agent suggested a revision. I’m please to announce that the revision is finally finished.

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Well, at least this revision. I’ve been writing this book for almost eight years now.

To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s the last revision. You know what, I can say for sure, no matter what happens from here, I will still be working and editing the book. But it feels good. Now the waiting begins.

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It’s funny. As a writer, you need to learn to have extreme patience; you need to learn to accept all the things that are out of your control; and you need to learn confidence. Because there are so many ups and downs, so many periods of prolonged waiting, it’s essential to develop a strong belief in the self. I will make myself a white Russian — or two — as I’m waiting.

Speaking at a high school in Huntington Park: What do I have to say?

On Friday, I will be a guest speaker at Aspire Pacific Academy in Huntington Park. My friend, let’s call her Betty, was nice enough to ask me to participate and speak to the kids about journalism and writing. Betty informed me that I would be speaking to a mixture of the whole school, because the kids get to choose what topic they want to hear.

So, what should I say?

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When I was younger, I was in the National Honor Society, and I remember we had a guest speaker come in to speak to us at our ceremony. It turned out she was my old babysitter, and honestly, I have no idea what she said, specifically, but what I remember having a huge impact on me was that she told me she traveled all over the world; she went to Japan and other parts of Asia. Sitting in that chair in Clinton, Massachusetts, in the lobby of an Elks Club, I started to see the world as a much bigger place capable of being explored.

I hope that’s what I can help some of these students with…imagining possibilities. Because the hardest thing in the world is to dream big! The hardest thing in the world is in the face of an overwhelming majority forcing you to accept your place in the world is to think you can be something special. Because in reality, being special is only held to an elite few. A small percentage of our class. And for some, feeling special or unique or important can come into conflict with so many issues: race, class, physical appearance. It’s a battle out there for so many young people; the battle has already been lost for so many older people. But younger people can still be taught to imagine.

Now, I know that sounds like highfalutin bull shit. You might even say, if you’re Joe Clifford, hippies take the back door. (Don’t worry, he says it with love.) But as a former teacher, journalist, and author, my goal is to change perspective, to force someone to look at their world and self differently, to see the world as full of possibilities. And I don’t care if that’s lofty. I don’t care if that’s difficult. What I care about is speaking my mind and leaving this world a better place than I left it.

So, when was that moment for me when I truly embraced possibility? Maybe I can tell the kids about that time in my life? It wasn’t quite at The National Honor Society meeting. I need to think a bit more about this tonight and tomorrow. Maybe it will help if you tell me some of your memories and your moments. Hopefully, that will trigger mine. So stand by for the next post. Your comments are always welcome.

A Trip to San Francisco: Prison, Napa and more

On Friday, Heron and I flew into San Francisco to meet up with our family. I wanted to see San Francisco again. I haven’t been there since I read at Lip Service West, and it’s a city that reminds me so much of Boston…a place I once sort of called home. So below you will find  a documentation of that trip, and it’s my first attempt at writing in the BuzzFeed blog format.

Pumped to head to San Francisco tonight.

Our first stop in San Francisco was a walking tour in North Beach — the former stomping ground of one of my favorite writers…Jack Kerouac. We stopped at a bunch of Italian bakeries on the walking tour and ate pizza, linguini, homemade bread and macaroons and drank espresso. Our tour guide was Italian and grew up in North Beach. He told us the Italian flag is all over North Beach…but he said it’s hardly called Little Italy.

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North Beach church

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While I was in North Beach, I knew I had to stop at City Lights, but I wasn’t sure if we would have time. We had to meet Heron’s father at Pier 33 for a tour, and I led us off the trail to the bookstore. Of course, I ended up getting us lost and walking to Market Street, but that’s another story I will hear for the rest of my life…lol.

Then after North Beach…

I love all movies and books about prison — Shawshank, Green Mile, Oz, The Fixer. By examining prison life, it forces me to look at my freedom, and it causes me to wonder: With prison always looming in the background of our lives, can we ever be free?

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What’s amazing about the tour is that they give you a pair of headphones and an audio version of a former guard walks you through the prison. It’s amazing to hear   stories of the prisoners. On certain summer nights, the prisoners ould hear the sounds of freedom — laughter, girls and music —  wafting over from the San Francisco Yacht Club. Freedom was so close and so far.

I also didn’t realize that Native Americans, after the prison closed in 1963 , took to The Rock to occupy and protest their rights to land.

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We had a great time in San Francisco, but then on Sunday, we drove out to Napa Valley. I didn’t realize how close Napa was to the city, and the drive was stunning. We stopped for some cherries on the side of the road. On a recommendation, we visited  Mumm Napa for some champagne.

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Then we stopped at St. Supery and played a little bocce ball.

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In  the end, it was an amazing weekend. I picked up a book by Williams Gibson and Kenneth Rexroth, and I even got some writing in during the plane rides. The book is coming along. It’s nice to remember to be a part of the world, while I’m trying to create one in an office on a Mac computer. Let me know what you think of the new blog form. Your comments are always welcome. Photos were taken by my beautiful wife, Bianca Lapin.

Three Great Lessons I Learned from Detroit

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.