We took a road trip to Detroit.
I didn’t know how badly I needed a road trip. I wasn’t even sure I had the resources to survive a road trip. I’ve been running on empty for a while now, and it’s been showing in my snarky attitude, my tooth-grinding, and my general malaise. But now? I feel better.
JJ and Julia and I were the first wave of road trippers. (Well, second wave, counting the bride and groom who led the charge a few days earlier.) We pulled out of Raleigh after work, hoping to get a few hours up the road by nightfall. We landed at a log cabin restaurant in the middle of northern nowhere, Virginia. It was a labyrinth inside and kind of dark and spooky. We had some road beers and shared everything on the menu and declared it a success.
Day 2 was all classic car trip. We had some gas station snacks, and drove through some mountains, played some car games, and saw some scenery. And y’all, ‘Merica really is beautiful.
Our spirits flagged for a few minutes in the middle, but JJ found some old CDs in the console labeled only by Sharpie numbers. “I totally made those,” I said. “Like, a couple of years ago for a party. Let’s see what’s on them.” Turns out, I’m really good at road trip CD’s. We had an epic singalong. Here we are for Bohemian Rhaphsody. I am sparing you the video version. You’re welcome.
We were unilateral in our decision to detour an hour or two so we could stick our feet in a Great Lake. We found one. We took some selfies, and got back in the car wet, and we hit Detroit in the late summer evening.
Our group expanded. JJ’s lovely wife PPJ arrived from her work conference by air; the next day, we cruised through downtown to a Tigers game. Bride, groom, friends, and family were already there. I bought an expensive beer from the first guy I saw, because he was conducting all of his transactions as Detroit blues songs. “A shandy for the eye candy…” he sang to me. I tipped him big. And then I drank a beer in the summer sun and hoped for a grand slam on the field.
I love all baseball stadiums, everywhere, but this one was even better than usual because it had a gorgeous skyline and a crowd of people I love. Also a carousel made entirely of tigers.
I hiked around the stadium, and was determined not to settle for the wrong t-shirt, so it became an epic baseball shirt quest. Once you’ve made something like that into a metaphor about all of your life choices, you can’t back down. In the end, it cost me a few innings, but I got what I wanted.
And then we drank Motor City Ghetto Blaster beers and rode a ferris wheel made of baseballs.
At this point, I already loved Detroit.
It kept getting better. We left the stadium for a walking tour, and found the best ever vintage store in a neighborhood called Corktown. I bought a 70’s macramé poncho, which is as amazing as it sounds. Better still, it was COLD up there, and I actually needed that poncho as soon as I bought it.
Veronica and Jason got to town just in time for our first course, which was tater tot nachos and poutine fries, which we ate in a beer garden next to an abandoned train station. It was a whole big mess of happiness.
Then it was swank cocktails at a fancy bourbon bar, and Italian dinner & back to our sweet house with ducks in the back yard in a neighborhood that’s seen better days, but is on its way back.
The next day was a whirlwind of sightseeing and pre-wedding activity. We made a beeline for the Art Institute, which is a treasure, and the Diego Rivera frescoes are mesmerizing. We were all bordering on hangry, and also bordering on late, by midday, but we bought hats and earrings from an African market and made straight for Polish Village.
The neighborhood of Hamtramck, the bride’s father told me later, used to be the third largest concentration of Polish people in the world. As in, Warsaw, Chicago, Hamtramck. We ducked down the stairs of this unassuming spot,
And found every single person in Detroit, already seated and eating.
We lined up at the bar and ordered All of the Food. You never saw so many pirogues. There were potato pancakes, and kielbasa, and all kinds of other stuff. And Polish beer. “Pint or boomba?” our sever asked. “Boomba,” I said, because when someone asks you a question like that, you always go “boomba.” I had no idea what that meant, but as it turns out, it’s a goldfish-bowl sized beer.
We had a huge time, and then the bridesmaids peeled off and the wedding fun began. Whole other story.
And so: I did not know that I would love Detroit. If anything, it’s in much worse shape than I understood. I was prepared for boarded-up houses; I was not prepared for boarded-up neighborhoods. I expected blight; I did not expect huge public buildings to be crumbling in view of the interstate. We drove through miles of empty streets, and parts of the city felt like a ghost town.
And yet: every single person we met in Detroit was lovely, from shopkeepers to wait staff to the guy who sang me my beer at the baseball game. People on the street are friendly, and fun, and glad to be here. There are layers upon layers of history, and it shows in the architecture. There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of possibility.
Detroit’s been hit hard by changes, mostly beyond its control. The recession, sure, and the collapse of the auto industry for a while there, but also just changes in the fabric of America, and large-scale shifts in how and where things get made.
There are huge gaps to be filled in, but there are also pockets of revitalization and entrepreneurship and energy happening all over the place. It’ll take time for these nodes to grow, connect, and heal the empty urban spaces of the city- but my crowd of Southern friends all left rooting hard for Detroit.
Veronica and Jason saw a t-shirt that I’d have bought, if I hadn’t spent all my money on the metaphoric Tigers shirt. It says, “Detroit Hustles Harder.” What do YOU do, when the chips are down and you’re a long way from what you want, and the only way out is through? Hustle harder, people. That’s what we do. It’s my new mantra.
I left for Detroit on empty. A few days of road tripping, car singing, good food, bad jokes, traipsing around the beautiful and gritty streets, and spending time with people I really love-
and I’m full again, for now.