Lizzie was the youngest host on my trip to put out towels for me. It think it might have been her mother’s idea. Lizzie is a friend of a friend I know through the Episcopal Church, and (like me) she’s the type of person who is mad enough to enjoy spending two weeks in a convention center discussing church politics every three years. Lizzie lives with her roommate Maria in a little apartment on the Wayne State University campus. Both are students, which explains why they’ve opted to live in a place that only has one real bedroom, with Lizzie sleeping behind screens in the living room.
My first night in town we went to the casino. It may seem like a strange destination for three young college-educated women to select, but Maria had a plan. The casino has a VIP club that anyone can sign up for. When a person signs up, they get a free spin on the prize wheel. There are no duds on this prize wheel – you’re guaranteed to win something. And if you’re already a member (like Maria), you get a bonus spin for each new member you bring to sign up. Lizzie and I both signed up and we got four spins between the three of us. We collectively won $30 in free game play, and Maria took us straight to the nickel slots. She said the trick was to cash out every time you won anything, since the machine automatically spends your winnings before it spends the rest of your free game play. There was a time when cashing out at a slot machine would have meant a pile of actual nickels. These days it’s a printed slip of paper you can exchange with the cashier. The three of us sat at our machines pushing colorful buttons and printing slips for 10-20 minutes. Lizzie and I had no idea how the machines worked, but it was fun all the same. By the time we had used up our free game play, I didn’t have anything (I had won the smallest amount in the free spin), but Maria and Lizzie each had a stack 15 to 75 cent winning slips.
Armed with just over $12 in slot winnings, we went to Greektown, the area directly below the casino. Maria took us to the Astoria Pastry Shop and used our winnings to secure delicious treats for all three of us. Sitting at a little table in the shop we ate our pastries and discussed our success. Parking at the casino was free, which meant our entire evening cost us nothing. Maria explained how she loves to take people to the casino to spin the wheel. Most of the time she gets free game play, but there are other prizes, such as a nice dinner at the casino restaurant. Personally I was amazed that signing up for the VIP club had no consequences. I never received a single phone call or email from them asking when I’d be back.
The next morning Maria and Lizzie headed off to class while I walked over to The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It had been less than a week since the City of Detroit had declared bankruptcy, and a recent appraisal of the city-owned art was making people nervous. Lizzie explained that appraisals happen all the time, but she was still a little worried that the collection was going to be packed up and sold. She recommended I check it out while I still had the chance.
The DIA is free to locals, and I had to make a point to declare myself a tourist in order to get them to take my money. The fee was low, and the audio guide only $2 more. With my map, audio guide, and walking tour in hand, I went straight to the bottom floor and began my exploration of the art. I had only gotten through half the museum when I realized I was about to be late. Lizzie and Maria had invited me to sit in on their choir class. They were supposed to be performing a Dave Brubek opera for the jazz festival that weekend, and this was one of their last rehearsals.
I speed-walked from the museum to campus, scarfing down a hot dog on the way to keep my stomach from growling during the class. I was the only audience member for this particular rehearsal, though no one questioned my presence. While the music was enjoyable, I was more entertained with the feedback the conductor was giving to his students. One does not often hear the accusation that “you’re moving to quickly on the diphthong.” In order to help everyone better understand the complexities of 5/4 time, he had us all try to conduct along with him. Everyone failed at this, including me. It’s hard to un-train the Western Ear.
That evening Lizzie and I drove over to see the old Michigan Central Station. The massive, abandoned building is close to downtown but years away. It almost doesn’t feel real – like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. You don’t usually see buildings that big in such a state of disrepair. In any other city, the property would be too valuable to go unused, and the structure would get torn down in favor of something more profitable. But in this section of Detroit, it’s just not worth it.
In its day the train station was the primary way to get in and out of the city. Before airplanes and interstates, everyone who was anyone arrived by train. You can still see it in the grand, geometric lawn that stretches out in front of the station. It is meant to impress. It’s the kind of first impression you want to give as a city. It’s the view you want visiting presidents to see.
Lizzie and I walked up and down the station fence taking pictures. She sighed. “I do believe the city is improving,” Lizzie said, looking up at the broken windows, “but this is proof of how great we once were, and how far we’ve fallen. I mean, this used to be the first thing you saw when you came to Detroit.”
About 100 yards away was the other feature we had come to see. Back in the fall of 2012 a group called Urban Put-Put ran a Kickstarter to build a small and unusual mini-golf course in a vacant lot near the train station. Maria had told us about it, and she and Lizzie spent most of the day texting and Facebooking friends to see if we could scrounge up some clubs and balls, as the outdoor course is BYO. We hadn’t managed to acquire the equipment, but thought it would be fun to look at the course anyway.
The formerly vacant lot was overgrown once again. We stomped our way through the high grass and weeds to explore the course. The holes were interesting and different, with old bicycles secured in concrete and car frames filled with pipes. As interesting as it might have been to play the course, it was in no condition to be used. Too much had been destroyed with time and covered by the uncaring force of natural growth. No one had played there in a while. It was unlikely anyone ever would again. Lizzie and I didn’t say much about it, but the punchline was clear: yet another “Detroit Rebirth” project turned sour. It hadn’t even lasted a year.
We drove back towards downtown. The jazz festival was in full swing, and we ended up parking farther away than originally planned. Per Maria’s suggestions we got dinner at Lafayette Coney Island (not to be confused with its rival and next door neighbor, American Coney Island). Lafayette is the kind of place where they look at you funny when you ask for a menu, because there are only about four things a person can order there. We both got the classic Coney Island Hot Dogs (aka chili dogs), and headed over to the festival.
The Detroit Jazz Festival has been going on for over 30 years and still draws a huge crowd. Lizzie had heard that Macy Gray would be playing that weekend, but we didn’t realize she would be there that evening. In fact, as a nearby patron explained, she would be playing at the stage directly in front of us in less than an hour. We secured a few uncomfortable bleacher seats with good views and waited for the show to start.
Macy Gray was playing as a featured singer for the Dave Murray Big Band, and it was a match made in heaven. The band was great and Macy was hilarious. “This is a love song about us,” she told the crowd, “all 3,000 of us.” When Macy left the stage at the end of the first set, most of the crowd cleared out. Lizzie and I weren’t sure if they thought she wasn’t coming back, or if they were just nervous about the rain. Either way they were right, because the downpour started less than five minutes later. From our position pushed up against a nearby building trying to stay dry, we could hear them announce over the loudspeakers that the festival was officially over for the night. When the rain stopped, Lizzie and I considered the pros and cons of trying to get to the car. Was the storm really over or just taking a break? Could we get to the car before the next drenching? We took a chance and we made it. Well, almost.
The next morning Lizzie, Maria, and I went to Eastern Market, one of the largest farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen. Maria and Lizzie weighed the prices of perspective vegetables against how much they wanted good quality cheese, and I ate an entire pint of raspberries by myself, as is my custom. We passed by a pair of buskers playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” on the banjo and upright base, and I couldn’t help but laugh at all the things people had told me about Detroit. I had asked Lizzie the day before if she was ever worried about crime near the college or downtown. She told me that there was really only one crime that happened near her, and that was when thieves would snatch iPhones out of the hands of unsuspecting Freshman.
“Because they text and walk at the same time, and they hold their phones way out here,” she told me, holding her hand far in front of her face. She said they call it Apple Picking.
I’m sure that there’s a lot of Detroit Lizzie isn’t privy to and that I never saw. But the Detroit reputation is powerful, and I can’t help but find it laughable that I spent my time there eating pasties, listening to jazz, wandering through the art museum, and eating fresh fruit at the farmer’s market. Every city has its good side. And Good is the only side of Detroit I saw.