Monday I went running. I ran the farthest I’ve ever run, which isn’t actually far, only five miles, because Christine is training for a half-marathon and I’ve been training for the halves of her half-marathon so that when she runs the loops twice, I only run them once. Don’t judge. It’s my own form of support, OK??
It was dark out when I started running, because (and you know how passionately I love summer more than winter) winter is coming so the darkness comes, too. But, the night was perfect with a warm overtone and a soft breeze, so I headed out.
I ran through the neighborhoods surrounding our home, tree-canopy over the streets. Sometimes dogs barked at me, occasionally someone I passed would say, “good evening.”
I’ve worked in Detroit for six years now, but I live in the suburbs (and, I might add, I run in the suburbs). I note how differently I approach things now than the way I did when I was younger and more naive, when I didn’t work in the city. I’m more aware of my surroundings, more alert, more likely to place distance between myself and someone who looks suspicious, even if “suspicious” just means “is also outside, walking, as I am.” I scan their face, their mannerisms, their clothes quickly. I could tell you details on every man who passed me on the sidewalk last night, which is probably why, when I’ve been required to give police reports downtown, the police always say, “Wow. That was a good police report.”
This area in Michigan is well-noted (disgustingly so) for racism, for racial divides, for segregation years and years after we’ve all been told that skin color is no basis for decisions. I know things that make me sick. I know that prominent suburban cities won’t allow buses to stop in them…since buses, in this area, mostly carry the impoverished of the city. You know, I’ll just call it like it is: white people live in the suburbs, mostly. Mostly, black people live in the city. And a lot of white people want it to stay that way. It’s so much more stupid when it’s written out, isn’t it? It makes me want to shake people. To say, “THINK ABOUT THIS. You’re being STUPID.”
But, I didn’t know that when I was a child. I did know that my mom used to work at the State Fair. I didn’t know that the State Fairgrounds rested on the Detroit-side of Eight Mile, the road that divides the city from the suburbs. One day we visited my mom’s old workplace, the State Fairgrounds. I remember that my youngest brother, Josh, was in a stroller, so he was probably less than a year old. And her old coworkers came out. I didn’t note that they were black women, but they all commented on our “big, blue eyes,” and I stared into Josh’s face, trying to figure out what made them noticeably, notably blue…not realizing it was just because they were blue, and for no other reason. Pale-faced kids being loved by Afro-American women.
The reason I know I’m good at making police reports is because I have made a few. One time a man hit me on the street, in broad daylight. He was larger than I was, maybe the size of two of me. My body smarted when his hand smacked against it, but deeper than that was the hurt knowing: someone hurt me…just because he wanted to. Another time there was a man who would follow me, every day, to my car a few years ago. And it was weird at first, but then it became unsettling and scary, so I made the report. My coworkers responded. Even years later, I never walk to my car alone and security keeps my profile on high alert. Then I get in my car and drive to the suburbs, and I run through the neighborhoods overly cautious to situations that are much more tame then my mind believes them to be.
I often think about the other girls, though. The urban, dark girls who have no car to enter, no home safely on the other side of Eight Mile to drive to. They probably don’t have the luxury of running, like I do.
At the turn of the spring into the summer my car needed to visit the shop, so I was car-less for a day or two. For certain times, there are buses that run from my particular suburb into the city and back again, and I went to that bus station to be carted downtown. I approached the bus station as the sun was rising and a large, large man was there, shouting at the other people waiting in line (should we compare sizes in terms of me? If I’m one of me, and the guy who hit me that one time was two of me, this man is three of me. New standard of measurement: Nells. Take note, America. It’s not like the rest of your measurement system makes sense anyway).
I sighed. I tried to stand with someone else between us, but, the large man spotted me.
“Hey,” he said, “don’t I know you?”
“Yes,” I replied, softly.
“How?” he asked.
I looked around at all the other people at the bus stop. They were trying to steer clear of him, too, but in this situation, I knew they’d step in if things got out of hand. They looked disinterested, but I could tell they were alert.
I exhaled, “I lector at the church you go to,” I told him. It’s my church, too.
“Oh,” he said, matter-of-factly, looking around, “I guess you’re prettier when you’re not in church.”
I love the city. Every morning I drive into it–when the day is still young–and I assess my heart. I say, “do I still love the city?” And, I always do. When I see the skyline outlined, I know I’m where I’m supposed to be. I miss it when I’m away. When I’m in the country, surrounded by the nature I love so much as well, always in my heart I think about the concrete and the cement and the other concrete…and how much I love it.
On Wednesday evenings I’ve started volunteering, for two hours, with a super nice/ kind guy from the church (hi, Tim!), to keep the church doors open for those who want to pop in and pray.
Only: it’s never that easy, it’s Detroit. (Can that be a new slogan for the city??)
There was the one time we needed to call the ambulance and, in the same night, we were visited by the guy who was almost shot by his girlfriend, etc. etc.
Last night a looooooooooooong-winded guy (“Michael”) collecting bottles stopped by and talking to us about: movie theaters, heaters in the city, the death of Robin Williams, porn, race-track gambling, people who die, and on and on. I was sitting on the step of the church, Tim was standing, and I was staring into the face of this mentally-unsound man, who just needed to share. And I thought about the verse with Jesus being in the least of our brothers and, I knew it was true.
Today, after mass, John met me outside.
“Oh,” he said, “hi!,” and “Do you like the opera?”
“I do!” I said, “I love the opera.”
“Well,” he said, “here’s the opera schedule for this year,” and he handed me the glossy pamphlets with the crayola-bright images. “There’s even an option to see what goes on backstage, too. You could take a tour.”
“Thanks,” I said, “that sounds like a lot of fun.”
The deacon at the church told me that the large man, the one the size of three-Nells, is bi-polar. When I rode the bus with him that one time, I picked my seat. I sat on the aisle seat. I sat selfishly, kind of. I didn’t want to scoot over to the window, have him sit next to me. I didn’t want to smell him or talk to him for the entire bus ride down.
So, he sat a seat ahead of me. And he talked about his family and their lives and all this stuff, a seeming never-ending stream of stuff.
I thought to myself, “I wish my car was fixed.”
Then I caught myself. It was a stupid wish. You know why I wished it? Not because I missed my car. Not because I wished he had more reliable forms of transportation. But because I didn’t want to deal with him. Please, may the selfishness strike you. In that moment, I would rather put my fingers in my ears and close my eyes and say, “La la la la” because I would rather pretend problems didn’t exist. In that moment, I would rather he live his life, far away from mine, so I wouldn’t be “inconvenienced” to sit and listen and open my hard. Stupid, stupid me.
I can’t live that way.
Sometimes I talk about moving to the city, because, I really want to. And people say things like, “Don’t you know it isn’t safe?” and “But it’s a food-dessert, no place for groceries!” and “Your car insurance will go up.”
And I just want to say, “I KNOW! I KNOW that all of these injustices exist! And that’s what kills me! Aren’t you outraged by this? Shouldn’t there be grocery stores in the city?? Shouldn’t children have safe places to play? What are we going to do about this? And I can’t start by just putting my fingers in my ears and closing my eyes–people will still be riding uncomfortable buses, even if I’m pretending they’re not.”
On Wednesday, Tim and I talked about all of these things, and more. There are so many questions in Detroit. But, we know one thing: what we love is the diversity of our little city-church. We love the older people on fixed incomes, and the suburban families, and the homeless people who drop in, and the people like us–young and educated. We love the new life in the city. But, we’re afraid, too, of this: that the mass exodus of white people from the city, leaving it with lines racially-drawn, will simply reverse itself as the white people move back and those who stayed, faithful, for so long, like the elderly John and Kenny and Marie-who-teases-Tim and Cora who lectors will all be forced to leave since, God bless them, seniors on forced incomes can’t afford fancy new apartments. These beautiful differences? They are our strength, not something to fear. I treasure them. And I don’t want the city to lose the reality of hardship and love and grit. I want the senior citizens–they have so much insight. I want the homeless–they remind me of my own frailty. I want the other young professionals–we need to try, together, to make the city beautiful.
Oh, hi, I just wrote a manifesto on racial problems that have plagued my city for generations, and now I’m here to say: I don’t know how to address them.
Thanks for reading.
Pretty much, though. 🙂
One thing came to mind, though, of something a heroic woman named Sister Peggy told me once in El Salvador, a place also riddled with injustice, violence and pain.
“Remember,” she said, this white-haired spit-fire, “you do not come here with answers. You merely come here to suffer with the people.”
Compassion. It means, “to suffer with.”
I have zero answers. But, I’ll listen to a simple Michael tell me his memorized nonsensical script, “First you’re a know-it-all, then a genius, then an expert, then on-top-of-the-world! Incredible! Say, ‘incredible!'”
Sometimes I’ll shop, too, at the neighborhood markets charging terribly high prices for sad produce.
I’ll volunteer with Tim to listen to the stories and sit on the step and say “hi” to the people who pass by our church, and pray with those who ask to pray.
I don’t come here with answers. But, I’ll try my hardest to suffer with those who know injustice. Christ have mercy.
Ya’ll should be praying for me, is what I’m saying.
Because hardship and injustice are real and I want to be living in love and freedom and justice, but sometimes it’s hard/ scary to even know how to do that.
K, thanks. ❤