Hanif Abdurraqib’s new monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory.
To begin with a fact that is entirely beside the point (unless you are the owner of a Michigan area code and a very particular type of pride): South Detroit is, in fact, not a real place, at least not within the flimsy geographical construct of the United States. Anyone beginning in Detroit and traveling south will, because of how the borders are drawn, end up in Canada. From a geographical standpoint, South Detroit is Windsor, Ontario.
The restaurant South Detroit, which is in Windsor, Ontario, was opened by someone with a slick sense of humor and a sharp eye for nostalgia and aesthetics. Since we are burdened with borders, it must be said that there are a lot of good reasons to travel to a border and then cross it. From Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up, the drive to Windsor, Ontario, is about four hours. Three and a half if you disregard the speed-limit signs posted along Route 23, where there are no blue-and-whites hiding along the high grass, and even if there were, they wouldn’t dare flick on their sirens and interrupt their downtime, reclining along the road. My friends and I would make the trip to go to the South Detroit diner in Windsor—passports and all. We’d wait in the long line clogging up the bridge to another country. The food at the diner wasn’t at all spectacular, and my pal Kyryn claimed they didn’t know how to mix a good cocktail—I don’t know much about drinks, so I took her at her word.
What South Detroit did have was a good jukebox. I like a jukebox that requires labor. I’m not aging into one of those fist-shaking olds who sits on a porch and bemoans the fact that kids these days don’t play outdoors or that people stare at their phones or whatever else gets said about the younger generations. But there is the fact that I prefer a jukebox, one that cannot be controlled by a phone. I believe in accountability everywhere, even as it so eagerly escapes much of our day-to-day lives. And so, I must ask for accountability at the jukebox, where people know what songs I’ve played, because they’ve watched me approach the machine and fumble for my coins and scroll through the options. They’ve watched me sit back down and glance eagerly at the machine as each song ends, if they’re watching closely. If they keep watching, they might see a half-smile leap from the edges of my mouth when the first notes of my tune arrives. The jukebox alone is just a vehicle for sound, same as any other. But when a person enters, they can attach themselves and whatever hopes they have for the night, to that vehicle, and it becomes something greater.
The jukebox at South Detroit in Windsor had nothing overly spectacular, if I recall. The space didn’t have enough room for people to dance organically. And so, the key was getting a good run of songs going. Something that might force people to push a table or two to the side or move a couple of chairs. Wherever the desire for dance is born, there’s a moment when it spills out of the body, and I love a space that can be restructured into a temple for movement.
I know how this sounds, the idea that someone would cross the border into another country just to play some songs on a jukebox at a place named after a mistake some singer made in a song once. But you must know, of course, that South Detroit no longer exists. On my third or fourth trip there, in 2015, the lights were off and there was no one buzzing inside. If you are from a corner of a city where places close down, you know the difference between a place that is closed, and a place that has closed. It’s a feeling, mostly. Not just wondering if you’ve come at the wrong time or the wrong hour, but beyond that: the knowing that there hasn’t been anyone inside of a place for far too long.
So, of course, this isn’t just about jukeboxes or dancing, this is about longing for a place that both no longer exists and never did. This is an ode to an imaginary place, torn down. I am from a part of a city that might as well be an imaginary place. I cannot show people all of the things that made me. The basketball courts I played on are cracked now, and no one hangs nets on the rims. The hill I rode my bike down has been leveled and the church that sat at the bottom is gone. The Dairy Queen that I’d pop into at the end of those bike rides was a chicken shack for a while, then a check-cashing place for a while, and now it’s just another empty building. A sign with nothing on it. Even the streetlights have been taken from the blocks I once ran down, attempting to get home before the beams of streetlights flickered and coughed some fractured brightness along the pavement. The streetlight people were another marker of that pop song I’d push into the juke at South Detroit in Windsor, where everyone knew all of the words. I am finding the distance between memory and belief to grow shorter by the year. I am constantly using memory to convince myself that I’ve lived and experienced something. That my belief in the world has been shaped by some magic I’ve been a part of, even if I can’t go back to all of the places that magic sprung from. If the old bar is a new bar, or nothing at all. If the pool hall is an organic juice shop. A singer names an imaginary place in a song, and I can’t help but think of all of the places I once touched that are no longer real.
Once, on a drive back from Windsor, a friend asked, “What is the point of the song if we don’t know what we shouldn’t stop believing in?” And another said, “Yeah, what is the feeling we should be holding on to, exactly?”
The only way to answer is to measure how many things we love have been made into ghosts, and how much time we have spent grasping at them.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.