Sunday, July 31, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 2 - Zug Island, the Firemen, and the Police

A couple of days before my first book talk, I decided to cruise the Detroit Riot areas and look at the current state of some of the neighborhoods. There are still signs of the devastation, but much of the area has been cleaned up, the vacant lots awaiting reinvestment and redevelopment, thanks to Detroit mayor, Dave Bing.

One area I drove through was old Delray, now, all but a fading memory. Most of the buildings have been razed, but so have some of the rust belt industries. The Solvey Chemical works has been taken out, and Scott Paper is no longer there, but Zug Island's blast furnaces still dominate the skyline and the olfactory senses. One of the blast furnaces continues to operate, and coke oven battery #5 still belches out smoke and steam like clockwork.

In the past, I've been denied official admittance to the island to do research for my novel. I took another approach this time. Driving up to the security booth, I rolled down my car's window and waited for someone to come out of the shack. When I showed the security guard a postcard with my novel's cover and title on it, I knew I had his interest. By this time, a second guard wanted to see what was taking soon long. I pitched my novel for three minutes and they agreed to pass out a bunch of bookmarks for me at the plant. Then I turned the car around and left. If nothing else, my visit will generate some conversation.

Fresh from that success, I saw the only building still open for business in Delray, the local fire station. It struck me that the fire fighters are part of the Detroit riot story, so I walked into the fire hall. A fireman took me in to talk with the chief in his air conditioned office. "What's it about?" the chief asked.

Delray Firehouse #29
"That monstrosity across the street," I answered. I gave them my mini-pitch, which they were very interested in. They agreed to put some of my bookmarks in their mail room. The chief suggested I go to the area's main station house at the Southwestern Safety Center.

"Joe over there is crazy about anything having to do with Detroit. You should go over there."

The center has a police station next to the parking lot, so I went in there first with the same story. By now, I perfected my pitch. They took some bookmarks and wished me well. The fire hall was on the opposite side of the building, so I walked around and found someone polishing the chrome on a fire truck. "Hey!" I said. But before I got too far into my pitch, the fireman said, "Come into our lunchroom. The guys are eating back there."

Former party store and soda shop.
Six or seven firefighters were waiting around for the next emergency run. "Hey! This guy is an author and he wants to talk to you." At that, they all stopped what they were doing and politely listened. I left the rest of my promotional materials there with them. What an interesting day in the neighborhood!

I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to try and find the house I spent the first five years of my life in. I hadn't been back to the old place since we moved out in 1953, but it wasn't far from Zug Island. As I drove down Oakwood Blvd, I recognized a brick building and turned right. Then I saw the old soda shop on the corner of our street. It was now boarded up but not burned down. I remember my grandmother buying my younger brother and me penny candy there, and if she had enough extra change, she bought us ice cream cones too.

Home Sweet Home
I turned left and found our address--444 Bayside St. There it was, a vacant lot. All of the homes on this short, three block street were intact and lived in--but ours.

Sometimes, it is too late to go back home. Still, I can't believe I found the spot after fifty-eight years. What I wouldn't give for one of those ice cream cones now.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 1 - Duffield Public Library

Thomas Wolfe once wrote, "You Can't Go Home Again." I just returned from Detroit, and I wanna tell you, he was wrong. After more years than I care to admit, I flew into my hometown for a Zug Island mini-book tour and was warmly greeted with courtesy by everyone I came in contact with.

Detroit's Duffield Public Library on West Grand Blvd. was my first stop. It was 100 degrees outside and even warmer in the almost 100 year old building. An African-American woman in her fifties, walking on a wooden cane, braved the heat and climbed a flight of stairs where it was even warmer, just to hear me speak about the Detroit Riots of 1967.

I'm not going to kid you, this woman took me to school on the Detroit Riots. She was fascinating as she reminisced about being a twelve year old girl at the time.

"I was standing on my front porch watching people running towards the stores and others riding new bicycles in the opposite direction. I ran in the house and yelled up the landing to my mother. 'Mom! Why are all those kids riding new bikes?' She came down and looked out the front door; then she locked it. It stayed that way for a week. I remember it. It was hot, like today."

When my presentation was over, we kept talking as we carefully walked down the stairs and the ramp onto the steamy boulevard. My rental car was parked right in front of the library. "Can I take you anywhere?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I have a bus pass."

"I have new air conditioning and comfortable seats."

I think I made a friend. She needed to go across town to the main branch of the post office on Fort St., and she told me wonderful stories about the city as we drove through Detroit's almost deserted streets. She pointed out the new Motown housing development with streets named after Motown acts and stars. She told me about the gambling palaces that cleaned out some of the slums and then fleeced the people.

"You know," she said, "there are more churches in Detroit than anyplace."

"No. I didn't know that," I said as we arrived at the post office.

She thanked me for the ride and the conversation. I hadn't felt this connected to the city in over forty years. I am sad to say that I don't even know the lady's name. I hope she likes my novel.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Blast from the Past

I received an interesting letter the other day from a college friend of mine with a forty year old, yellowed news clipping in it dated March 15th, 1971. Our university newspaper, The Eastern Echo, interviewed me about a poetry reading I was about to give, my first of two. I had forgotten about it.

There I am in a photograph, twenty-two years old and looking gaunt, with my trusty companion, Blitz, who is wondering when we are going for our walk. I'm spouting off about one thing or another. The reporter asked me if I was going to pursue a writing career.

"It's something I'd like to do. If I can make a living at it, I will; if not, I'll do something else. Eventually, I'd like to write longer works like novels, but I don't have the control over my writing I'd like to have."

After thirty-seven years of teaching English language arts and literature, a great preparation for a writing career, I've finally written that novel, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel, and seen it through the publication process. It was a long time coming.

Prompted by that article, I dug out some of the poetry I wrote back then and read it with a mixture of amusement and humility. In retrospect, all that comes to mind is what a pretentious twit I was. But one poem in particular has withstood the test of time.


Looking back,
I saw my footprints
Glow and then melt
in the sand.

Washed away
by the metronomic mix
of breeze and sea,
It rushed at me.

Time doesn't pass in anything so glorious or regal as a "winged chariot," it is measured in the silent footfalls we make as we walk through life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Far Seems Shangri-La Now?

Being an author is something I've wanted to do since I was in junior high school. I spent more time in the bookmobile than on the sports field. One rainy Sunday in April, I began reading James Hilton's Lost Horizon and I was hooked. It wasn't a huge novel, and I read it in one day. But it was full of wonderful ideas and strange places to an eighth grader from Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

The novel touched the Shangri-La of my heart and soul. It wasn't until I was older, an English teacher as a matter of fact, that I discovered that this simple novel, which spoke to me on a personal level at age thirteen, was a cautionary and prophetic warning about the coming of World War II, or more accurately, the continuation of World War I. If you haven't read it, do! The restored version of the Ronald Coleman movie is marvelous as well.

Almost fifty years after my first reading of Hilton's classic, I've finally authored and published my own book, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel. I start a summer book tour in Detroit next week. My hope is that I can move readers the way I was moved by Hilton's words those many years ago.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

When the Concert Hall Met Tin Pan Alley at the Globe Theater

The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego continues to produce quality shows, season after season. Last week, I was fortunate to usher one of the final performances of George Gershwin Alone before Hershey Felder, author and performer, retires his one-man show Sunday, July 10th, 2011. He has toured with this show for the last fifteen years, but the performance is not lost to posterity, it has been preserved on video for future broadcasts. Hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" performed live was a moving experience.

Hershey Felder has performed on Broadway, at London’s West End, and over 150 theaters worldwide. He has been a Scholar in Residence at Harvard and is married to Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. The man can teach, write, act, perform concert music, and charm audiences with his easy manner and polished performances.

Collaborating for the fourth time with director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Hershey Felder brings his latest work to the Globe stage: Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein on July 22nd through August 28th. I am looking forward to ushering this one in a few weeks. George Gershwin Alone and Maestro: the Art of Leonard Bernstein are the last two shows (or movements) in a sonata of four one-man shows called “The Composer Sonata.” Two years ago, I saw the first two shows (movements). Beethoven As I knew Him, the first movement, followed by the intermediate romantic movement, Monsieur Chopin. I will have seen the entire “The Composer Sonata” performed live by its creator. What a thrill!

Don’t miss this show if you are going to be in San Diego this summer and you are a lover of fine music and virtuoso performances. Felder is a musical genius.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Computer Violation

Ever felt seduced and abandoned, even after you've loaned someone money? If the computer is an extension of the central nervous system, then I've been having a nervous breakdown for about a week. There were signs that things weren't right, but I didn't see them; finally my brain flat lined on Monday. Yes, my computer died. It clicked and stuttered before it seemed to say, "You know, it's over between us."

I took it to Office Depot where they "backed up my data" and sold me a bunch of services I didn't need. Finally, when they wanted to put on a gigs worth of more memory, rather than tell me a six year old computer with Windows XP isn't worth upgrading, I said, "Enough."
I felt like the Beaver: "Hey, Wally. Is Eddie giving me the business?"

So I took the computer to a better place, the Santee Recycling Center, and started all over again. My new computer has a burly one terabyte of memory on the hard drive, so I'm back in business.

Everything was going along smoothly until I took the thumb drive of my data, that Office Depot had "saved" for me, and entered it into the new computer. There was no address book, no bookmarks, and no emails on it. Nada! Stripped clean.  "#%$*!!!"

This time around, I got smart. I bought a new computer with Windows 7, and I purchased an off sight backup and recovery service. Over this Independence Day weekend, I plan to recover as many email addresses as I can and contemplate how dependent we have all become on rampant technology.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.