The Faint, Gray Areas


First Person

“‘It’s not black and white,’ a young doctor from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles had told me, in 1982, about the divide between life and death.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

I had been avoiding the research, the further reading, about my father’s death. After discovering that the Detroit Police kept appealing the lawsuit, trying to pin the “accident” on the fourteen-year-old they were chasing before he crashed into my father’s car, I became depressed, and stopped digging. This was two days before Detroit declared bankruptcy. Before I heard about a man, Dwayne Provience, who was suing the city of Detroit for “accidentally” convicting him of a crime he did not commit. Now the city was bankrupt and his lawsuit was frozen, like the nine years of his life spent in prison. Provience’s lawsuit is for police misconduct, similar to the one that my mother filed after my father’s “accident,” but that was the late nineties. Provience said he wanted to use the potential money to pay off the child-support debt that had accumulated during his time away and to help pay for his children’s education. The insurance cities rely on in incidents like this, “accidents” like this, is exactly what allowed me to afford college.

I put accident in quotes because now I know it all could have been prevented. Not prevented, perhaps, in the usual way accidents can be prevented, like leaving the stovetop unattended while the pasta boils over, but prevented all the same. To me there’s a difference between mistakes and ignorance, and an attitude toward life that says it’s already death. So why check a man’s snitch testimony against another man who’s (wrongly) accused of murder, like Provience, when it feels like everyone is a liar? Or, why put lights or a siren on during a high-speed chase if it’s in a dead city where there’s no one to warn? My father was once someone who needed to be warned.

Recently, on July 27, just four and a half miles from where my father’s “accident” occurred, two men were killed in a hit-and-run. Their names were James Van Horn and Michael Alson, or Dreadlock Mike. They were “homeless” men who were city fixtures in Detroit, like living statues. Van Horn was known for shouting “eat ’em up Tigers, eat ’em up” outside of Tigers baseball games, a green Hulk fist over his hand while he shook a cup of loose change. My friend Kelsey says these men were a part of her childhood growing up in Detroit, a part of her memories of the city. I liken them to a building that landmarked a location before the age when street names could be read, or local celebrities. “You’re in Detroit now,” their bodies, their voices, their faces said.

Van Horn’s and Alson’s deaths remind me of the classic metaphysical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a person kills two men without a home, and no one is there to witness it, has that person really committed a crime? Or, if a person kills two men without a home, does that mean that person has really killed anyone at all? If no, run. We can only hope for humanity, but it’s never been a guarantee, anywhere. Still I wonder, is this attitude of recklessness somehow filtered through to the water we drink? Will history continue to repeat itself in this place where too many of the buildings are now burned out? The city’s seal, depicted on the flag, which was created in 1907, shows buildings burning on the left and them being rebuilt on the right. The image is of a fire that almost destroyed the entire city in 1805.

Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, or “we hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes” the city’s motto, was bestowed by a French Roman Catholic Priest, Gabriel Richard, after that same early nineteenth-century fire. So, are we doomed to ashes and cycles of rebuilding from what can sometimes feel like near nothing? Lately, things feel different in Detroit, but I still find myself asking these questions. It’s mostly on the days when I get lost, like when I was trying to get back onto the highway and the paved road somehow turned into dirt, splattered with potholes and wooden beams studded with nails. The bottom foundation of one house looked identical to the ruins in Pompeii but instead of people sculpted in ash it’s as if they had melted and their clothes and things were all that remained, preserved. Almost like a tornado hit the block, sucking up the pavement, and the casualties, the bodies, eventually decayed into the overgrown weeds and grass where no one cared to bury them. Just six blocks prior, I had been driving past a family socializing out on their porch, a couple unpacking groceries from their car, and a man walking his dog. Where is everybody? I remember thinking.

* * *
 A couple of weeks ago I started to read and research again, in Holburt’s Laundry-Dry Cleaning in Port Huron, Michigan, a place where I used to come with my grandmother during prolonged stays at our family cottage on Lake Huron. Waiting during wash loads, I was reading The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion’s mourning was a safe place for me to start because her voice has always felt familiar, reliable. The laundromat was fairly quiet, even though it was full of people. The only consistent rhythm was my foot tapping midair as I nervously blinked back tears.

“Is this the wife,” he said to the driver, then turned to me. “I’m your social worker,” he said, and I guess that is when I must have known.

I thought of when my mother told me she knew. Reading this I felt a rush of anxiety and that seemingly unnatural yet normal lump in my throat. Am I deluded to imagine I can mourn the loss of someone I never met, twenty-five years after his death, five months before I was born?

This research project  was undertaken as a form of catharsis, but now I am terrified it will pull me to pieces. I am too familiar with the avoidance, walking around so angry all the time. Giving away that circumvention, that resentment, feels just like another kind of loss.

Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise have been paid …

At some point when I was only halfway through chapter two, I smelled lilacs. Drier sheets, I thought? But the smell felt fresh. It’s my favorite smell. I wondered if I was conjuring the smell, from my memory, from the time when I was in New York, in my Brooklyn apartment. A lover was reading Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” at my request, just weeks before my move back to Michigan. I lay on his chest, breathed in all my similar memories of New York. Trying not to become upset about the loss, the sadness I felt about leaving, I focused on the smell of the bouquet of fresh lilacs that rested only one foot away on my bedside table.

Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.
They remember the tree that died, the gully that splattered onto the hood of the car
They live by symbols.

Focus on the lilacs, I have to keep telling myself, and all those springs turning to summers when my mother would leave the kitchen window open and the freshly watered lilac bushes would perfume the whole downstairs of her house with love. During those warm months, when life becomes obvious with greenery in a city that’s most often painted as empty, over, obsolete. For as long as I can remember I personified Detroit: he was what killed my father. No longer do I want him to act as my memento mori. Rather, I need Detroit; only the city and its people can help me fill in the holes: what I do not know and what I could not know because of time and age, and memories that have slipped from my mother’s mind because they are much too painful to keep around.

… Dr. Hawking said that he had been wrong thirty years before when he asserted that information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved from it.

Most research days seem to end with me “singing the blues” (something I’ve been told my father used to say), about Detroit and death and the slow painful research involving a legal case in a city so poorly managed, for so many decades, that I don’t know how it didn’t bankrupt sooner. I just have to remember why I’m doing this. I have to go backwards in order to go forwards, or it wont be information, it’ll be me that’s swallowed and suffocated by a black hole from years of unanswered questions. Mostly all questions that start with that tricky, sometimes never-ending why?

This change of mind was “of great consequence to science,” according to the Times, “because if Dr. Hawking had been right, it would have violated a basic tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole.”

Lisa John Rogers is a writer currently based in Detroit.