Here’s a non-secret: I work in Detroit.
And as long as we’re sharing non-secrets: Detroit is riddled with crime and poverty.
That was obvious, wasn’t it?
But, here’s a second secret: the suburbs of Detroit are riddled with crime and poverty, too.
The suburbs are surrounded by racism, in our hearts…and that’s both a crime and a poverty, isn’t it?
It’s a crime that not five miles from our homes children are dealing with hunger and drugs and broken families and failing school systems.
And it’s a poverty that we don’t know the names of those children, their faces, their stories.
I could rant forever, right? Who cares?
Instead I’ll just tell you two stories.
Last Sunday Julia texted me early in the morning, “What are you doing today?” and I was cleaning the house from a rousing party and going to mass, but I wanted more so we decided to bike together…to Detroit.
Julia, being an Amazon, biked from her house, several miles to my house and then we headed out together.
And it was a perfect day for biking—just perfect. There was a light wind and a blue sky with puffy, fluffy summer clouds full of bursting light and shadows. We started in the suburb where I live and we rode past the residential houses, past the new shopping center, past the quiet cemetery, and into the city where the roads were potholed and broken glass bottles more prevalent.
But it was still a perfect day for riding, and we commented back and forth. We talked about how last year, this time, we were in Spain. We talked about Marcus who would sew our feet (the Camino is a different world, OK??) and that time half the group almost died on the dragon route (we laughed about this now…not so much then) and then we talked about local music, friends we have…and how perfect a day it was for biking.
At one point we passed a park with a person who had a blanket-y thing around their waist…and that’s it. And we weren’t sure if said-person was a man or a woman, but we weren’t sticking around to find out, so we just kept riding.
And eventually I said, “Want to leave this main road and take a more secluded road where I see pheasants when I leave work during the week?”
And Julia said, “Yeah, I’ve never seen that road before.”
So we turned and the day was still perfect for riding, and even though now there were more potholes, there were more vacant lots exploding with waist-high Queen Anne’s lace, so all was good.
At one point a man on a bike started approaching us and I thought, “Oh no, here’s potential trouble,” but, then I saw he was wearing a suit and I realized—he was probably coming from church and here I was, being judgmental.
We rode on. We rode past the financial district and through the college campus and we were almost to the river (our goal) when a woman called from the side of the road, “Hey, give me something to eat!” which didn’t make sense, because there was a guy ten feet away passing out food and we were pretty clearly not with him, but, in that second I looked away from the road (dun dun dun!), and a few minutes later I said to Julia, “Hey, how does my back tire look?” and she was like, “So, we should probably stop.”
A piece of glass was throwing shade on my game. Flat tire.
So we called my mom, who was generously on stand-by, and walked our bikes to the nearest park.
There were other people in the park, but not where we were, so we just parked our bikes and climbed some trees.
(My first time!! My first time every climbing trees! Julia was like, “Oh, you could probably climb a tree. Just find one that looks like it wants to be climbed.”)
After we were done climbing, we noticed a garden nearby. A garden! Near the edge of a park surrounded by business buildings!
Now, I love gardening, and Julia has some country in her blood, so we looked at all the plants and noticed how well they were growing in the broken-glass-filled, sandy “dirt” and remarked on the impressiveness of the situation. There were beautiful tomato plants and giant flowers and peppers, almost ripe summer-peppers.
As we were looking, a man approached, and I was instantly wary. He was carrying beverage (cough) in a brown paper bag, his clothes looked worn, his skin a bit weathered. We gave him space to pass.
But then he was like, “Hi, do you like this garden?”
I said, “Yes. It’s beautiful, do you know who planted it?”
He said, “I did. I planted it.”
Then he proceeded to tell us how he planted it with a man who visits the city, how he waters it from a jug he carries to a nearby building’s spigot (he pointed the building out to us), he showed us how he had tied up the tomato plants; the baby peppers, just about ripe; and the large cucumber, still ripening, hidden under the vines.
We complimented all of it, shared our names. His name, he told us, was John.
“Do you need anything?” John asked us, “Because if you need it, you can take it. That’s why it’s here, so that people who need it can take it. The only thing we ask is that you don’t destroy it.”
We shook hands and John left, with his paper bag-ed beverage and his worn clothes and my mom pulled up and we left.
We told my mom about John and the garden and the things he told us, and I was slapped across my face with my own prejudice. When he walked up at first, I was wary…but, he turned out to be one of the coolest people I’ve met this week.
So. That was story #1. From Sunday.
On Monday I was handling the public, which is something I do for a living.
Someone from the suburbs contacted my place-of-employment and (see how obscure I’m trying to remain) said, “I like this one thing that you’re doing. The problem is that it’s in the city, and I don’t want that. Move it to the suburbs! New opportunities! Yay!”
I forwarded this person to a coworker, because I wouldn’t have handled that well. I would have said, “Your prejudices will only hurt you!” I would have talked about John and the garden and the vegetables growing from dirt filled with broken glass. I would have told him how John walks back and forth with a plastic jug to an old spigot, back and forth across the street, over and over again, just so those passing through can have a tomato, “if they need it.”
That’s story #2.
Bonus story. Every spring flocks of folks from the suburb descend upon the city for sporting events. Namely the baseball games. (Go Tigers). Opening day is a big deal, and, truthfully, I love the excitement and the promise of a new baseball season and spring and sunshine.
But, after everyone is hammered and the game is over, they go home to the suburbs…and the city is trashed. Garbage and filth everywhere.
Now then. Last week I got off of work as a game was getting out.
I park in a structure that feeds onto a one-way road. The road is one lane wide…not very busy (but featured in the latest Transformer’s film. Fun fact. The set transformed it into an Asian byway. ANYWAY). Along the road is a giant, no-longer-habited office building. The architecture of the building juts in and out for decorative purposes. The original architect intended decoration, undoubtedly, but, now that it’s abandoned, the homeless have discovered that the jutting sides shelter them from the wind and the sun, so they lie there and sit there as they pass through. There are never very many, just a transient handful: some days there, others not.
When I left the parking structure after work, I saw some crowds from the Tiger’s game…and, two young men urinating along the building.
This is a problem I see with Detroit. If the news that goes out is, “It sucks, it’s trash, it’s worthless,” then people believe that and that’s how they treat it. People will come and litter and urinate…and leave.
That’s your bonus story.
I guess the take-away here is this: there are people who will look at sandy dirt filled with glass shards and plant tomatoes and flowers and summer-peppers.
And, first of all, there are people who will never see those flowers because they’d rather stay far away. Their loss. (Their poverty).
There are other people who will tear the supporting poles off of the tomato plants, litter and leave. What a crime.
But, people like John will continue to walk a tired old jug of water back and forth and back and forth across the road, to water tomatoes for the people who need them.
We don’t need to be afraid. We don’t need to be crippled by fear. We don’t need to be destructive. We can be enriched through new experiences, new friendship, new flowers. We can meet John, admire his sunflowers (“not as tall as I thought they’d grow”), listen to him tell about gardening.
“All I ask,” John said to us that day, “is that you don’t destroy it.”
Don’t destroy it.