In her column, Detroit Archives, Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
When I went to my parents’ house the other day, in what has become a popular area of Detroit, a group of white twenty-somethings walked by in all beige—capes and boots and leggings—looking like they might have wandered away from a Burberry photoshoot. Less than two miles away, in a part of town with far fewer white faces, my father went to gather the last of his family’s belongings from his childhood home. “Check for Aunt Cora Mae’s photographs,” I asked him. But whoever bought the property after it went into foreclosure had already cleared the upstairs out and put a padlock on the door.
The last time we drove around his old neighborhood, he recited the names of his neighbors, repopulating empty lots with a litany of remembered faces: “A guy named Jeffrey Martin lived here. There was a house about here, that’s where Danny Collins lived. And you cross Forest, that’s where Rodney grew up.” As he spoke, the streets came back to life with the remembered sound of boys screaming with laughter.
Halfway between the house where he lived as a child and the one where he lives now, there’s a street called Goethe. When my father was young, he and everyone he knew pronounced the word phonetically, “Go-thee.” Later in life, he went on to learn German and began to pronounce the street with all the necessary “r” sounds. Whenever we cross it, it is as if we have located the exact intersection that would determine his life’s trajectory. A life filled with detours to places like Los Angeles and Sarajevo, only to return. That street is an inception point, ushering him into a bigger world. The discrepancy between these worlds has taken on a greater significance now that his childhood home sits on a largely vacant block, where squatting families power flat screen TVs with giant extension cords that reach out to whatever house still has electricity.
If we’re being accurate, the threshold that more realistically marks where my father stepped into the larger world was the Detroit Public Library, located at 5201 Woodward Avenue. While he attended school at Wayne State University, he worked as the manager of the page pool at the main branch. For as long as I’ve been alive, my father has told me stories about a guy named Kurtz Meyers, who was the head of the library’s music and performing arts department. Kurtz is the guy who suggested that my father perform in the opera Aida when Leontyne Price came to town. Kurtz took him on a trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. When Johnny Mathis was on tour, Kurtz said, “Why don’t you go over there and say hello?” My dad, who might never have done something like this on his own, walked across the street and knocked on Mathis’s door.
In the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection, which I’ve accessed online, there is a photograph from 1967 of Kurtz Meyers looking straight at the camera. He is white, gray haired, and modestly dressed, in a suit with a thin tie, surrounded on either side by four exquisitely dressed African Americans, three of whom are decked out in furs. Two women, gazing down at pictures on the table in front of them, are Eloise Uggams and Eva Jessye, from a touring company of Porgy and Bess.
The photograph was taken by my father, who had recently become curious about photojournalism. He walked his negatives over to Life magazine’s Detroit office, and his career began. They directed him to go to Newsweek, where he would work for the next twenty-five years.
What this archival photograph captures is not just an encounter between a music librarian and a crowd of touring musicians, but the gaze of a mentor to his mentee. The look on Kurtz’s face is specifically for my dad. It is one of such quiet delight. He seems to be saying, “Get a load of this.”
In his life as a photojournalist, my father would interview black artists and actors to collect their life stories before they were forgotten by history. In 1991, he sat in Rome with a man named Al Thomas, who reminisced about touring with Porgy and Bess in Moscow. It is as if, all those years later, my father was still chasing Eva and Eloise.
Back in the sixties, my father was near the entrance to the library when he picked up the phone at the guard’s desk and called the loan bureau desk. He wanted to talk to the cute Italian girl who manned the phones. He asked her out. She was my mother.
One recent winter day, I ask my parents to take me on a tour of the library where they first met. I’m surprised by how extraordinary the space is. Designed by Cass Gilbert and opened in 1921, the building was constructed in the Italian Renaissance style. At the Woodward Avenue entrance, you pass through bronze doors, and you’re greeted by a mosaic by Frank Vega depicting Copernicus. Above the grand staircase, ceilings designed by Frederick Wiley show figures from Aesop’s fables. The arched, painted windows in Strohm Hall stand almost three times the height of a human being, letting in light through depictions of the zodiac.
My parents reminisce about what other couples met for the first time at which elevator: their friend the Jamaican choreographer who went on to world renown, the lady who dated the Motown artist I’m not allowed to mention here, their friend Mary, who passed out tampons and repaired the flag every day until it began to shrink. They’ve made such a mythology out of this place, this cast of characters. In person it’s at once larger and smaller than I imagined. They seem at a loss as to how to beckon it all back on cue. My dad points to a cart and says, “When he was a page, your uncle used to curl up on one of those things and read.” It is a point of pride for my father, who respects my mother’s brother deeply, that he was once my uncle’s boss.
When I ask my uncle what he remembers of the library, he recalls glass floors. “Light came from the floor up. It was not clear, it was frosted, foggy.” He would turn off the lights and walk around with just the floor lights on, spooky, glowing underneath him. There were floors and floors of stacks unseen to the patrons. “But the rooms are so tall,” I say, thinking of the majestic space where a mural of a man’s upturned face and neck spans three arched sections, majestic as the Sistine Chapel, a triptych called Man’s Mobility by John S. Coppin. My uncle remembers a maze-like place full of wonder behind and below, floors stacked in a way that brings to mind Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”
As we walk past an enclosed area, the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, I notice a flyer for an upcoming lecture on Lionel Richie. I’m a child of the eighties, and the sight of Richie’s album covers, especially Can’t Slow Down—white room, white pants, small fro, backward chair—transports me right back to the gray carpeted living room where I choreographed dance routines as a kid.
On the night of the lecture, I return to the library with my parents. The music librarian, Romie Minor, reads from a binder full of laminated pages. He tells us that when Lionel Riche was a child, his grandmother played Bach and Mozart for him. Later, he studied to be a priest. But, “he was not priest material.” A man in the back of the room laughs.
There are folding chairs for around thirty. Eight of us are here.
Romie Minor says, “Let me play this one for you.” He puts a CD in a boom box situated on a desk at the front of the room. As the music plays, a woman in a yellow pantsuit says, “There it is.”
When we walked into this book-lined room, Minor was prepping. At the top of the hour, he picked up a microphone and began to sing “Oh No,” by the Commodores. “I’m going crazy in love” he spoke-sang, then leaned over to the woman in the yellow pant suit, who cooed back: “over you.”
My dad picked up his camera. We were in the same room where he snapped that picture from the archives fifty-three years ago.
Over the course of the evening, Minor described the highs and lows of Richie’s career. A slideshow with album covers played on a television standing on a rolling cart.
The audience thrummed:
“That’s a jam”
“This music represents about two-thirds of my kids. That’s how they got here.”
“Lord have mercy.”
“Can’t remember my address but I remember that.”
When “Easy like Sunday Morning” came on, almost all of us sang. The curator’s manner was quiet but totally hooked in. He held court with the audience without raising his voice, or really even modulating his tone. This contrasted beautifully with his body language, which was similarly contained, but with flourishes. When a new song came on, he threw his hands out like he was splashing water. In a monotone, he punctuated the gesture: “Crossover hit.”
A library security guard, who’d wandered into the lecture on his break, closed his eyes. He said, “I spent a lot of time on the dance floor to that one.”
Minor started to talk about the tension within the Commodores when Richie began to get famous. The library audience was definitively team Lionel. They responded to each fragment of Commodores versus Richie gossip with an elongated, “Mmhmm.”
When “Endless Love” played, and Diana Ross sang “bum bum bum” with Lionel Richie, a member of the audience in a beret impersonated an electric guitar.
“I don’t know what he was doing out on the road,” the curator said.
“Yes, you do,” somebody responded, insinuating something salacious.
I got emotional when the curator put on “Night Shift.” It was the Commodore’s first hit without Lionel. It is one of my favorite songs of all time, and I’m not alone. In an interview for the radio program On Being, Claudia Rankine talks about the time she sang “Night Shift” from start to finish with a stranger on a plane. At one point, my mother calmed my father as he panicked about his blood sugar, and I blurred my eyes, wondering what their young selves would have thought about this glimpse into their future.
As we listened to “Hello,” Minor told us an anecdote about the song’s famously melodramatic music video. Apparently, Richie disliked the bust that the fictional blind student sculpts of his likeness. He claimed it looked nothing like him. “But she was blind,” the director explained. My dad stage whispered: “So she was sculpting his voice.”
I told my mother that our parking meter was about to expire. My dad raised his hand and explained that we shouldn’t be surprised that America’s greatest export is our culture. He told the story of being in Berlin as the wall came down. How the East Germans sang black American music, and called out to him in solidarity. “Anyway, we’ve gotta go,” he said. The talk was far from over. I apologized a bit too profusely, cheeks burning, as we all got up to leave.
On the way out, I saw the security guard, who had since returned to his shift near the exit. “Do you go to these talks often?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he said.
My mother had recently told me about the time when she was in the library basement on a break, and a security guard, a man she liked very much, came down to eat his lunch. He put his plates away, stabbed himself, and later died. “It was awful,” she’d said.
That night, I thought of the security guard we’d met, working the remaining hours of his night shift. Ordinary life continues on in this city despite all its extremity—water shut offs and casino lights, Burberry-draped hipsters and foreclosed homes. And amid all that, there’s a small room of people chuckling quietly at the main branch of the public library while listening to albums on a cold winter night.
As we left the building, we passed the reception desk. My parents restaged their first conversation:
“I was here.”
“No, you were over there.”
“And I called.”
“Yeah, I picked up the phone, and I said, ‘Who is this?’ And you were standing right over there.”
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan Writers’ Program.