Dear Tyrone Williams
May 11, 2013
Adventures of Pi made me think a lot about Detroit.
As you know, I was born in the Motor City. I am child of the auto industry. My grandfather worked as a draughtsman for American Motors. My mother worked in Lee Iacocca’s secretarial pool at Ford. My father worked at Ford, too, in the leasing division. I remember him bringing home these shiny adhesive Mustang logos when I was a boy. I stuck one to the shell of my pet turtle.
We moved to California in 1971.
I remember returning to Detroit for my grandfather’s funeral in 1977. That was the first time I ever experienced death. There may have been an open casket, but my memory of the event, which is entirely fabricated, is of my grandfather lying on his back in a dark suit on a long white pedestal topped by a clear plexiglass box, almost like something you’d see in an art gallery. I think we may have visited my grandmother one or two times after that.
I returned alone in the late nineties. I was working on a collaborative artist’s book called The Box Project. I drove around Lake Erie for three days, stopping in each city to collect objects to bring back to Buffalo and place in the boxes we were making. I picked up a rusted scrap of steel and a shard of glass in Detroit.
I remember riding the People Mover that afternoon. What a strange trip that is. You can’t enter or leave downtown, you simply ride around in circles, just high enough to see into the windows of the enormous buildings and realize that they are all empty.
I also visited Old St. Mary’s Church in Greektown, where my parents were married in the summer of 1967. The ceremony took place in the middle of the riots. On the day of their wedding, tanks flanked both sides of the church. Much to the chagrin of my father’s Brooklyn Irish relatives, alcohol had been banned from public events, so the reception was a bit of a dud.
I was born in October of the following year.
When my first book came out, Ted Pearson introduced me to James Hart, who invited me to read in Detroit at the Woodward Line series, which is run by James and Kim Hunter. I was happy to see Kim appear in your poems. The last time I read there, Kim let me sleep at his place. I remember eating cereal in the morning with his family before driving back to Buffalo.
I am not sure where I am going with this. I started to write something pretentious like, “We live in the ruins of America.” Then I deleted it. Then I guess I just wrote it again. I have felt that way at times. I don’t think there is a city that has suffered as badly as Detroit during my lifetime. Buffalo is right up there, though, if you are keeping score.
When I first moved there, I was shocked at how empty it felt. Like everyone had just walked away one afternoon. It felt haunted, even more so when later I saw photos of Main Street at the turn of the twentieth century. The city had streetcars and the sidewalks bustled with people going about their business.
Where had they all gone?
I have been sitting on this letter for ten days since I wrote that question. Each morning, I open the document, reread it, make a few corrections. I keep asking myself if that is the end of the letter, knowing it is not. It needs a coda.
It’s nearly summer here in North Haven, Connecticut. My mother is visiting for the week. Yesterday, we tore out the shower in our bathroom. In the evening, we lit a fire in the backyard fireplace and roasted marshmallows. Then we watched Mad Men. Then we went to bed.
Adventures of Pi rests on the desk next to my laptop. I am pretty sure the cover photo is the same one you use for your Facebook profile. I remember you are standing on a beach somewhere, the ocean at your back. You are wearing a turquoise shirt with a collar. A small wave breaks over your right shoulder.