May 24, 2010
Dear Big Fox.
I spent last night in the city and finally got my father to talk about growing up in Detroit. He drove me by the house where he was raised, a duplex across from the baseball diamond in Clark Park. As we passed what are now taquerias and supermercados, he talked about Bagley being a different type of shopping center. For once, there was no judgement in his voice. His old neighborhood has stood the test of time, changing hands from immigrant group to immigrant group. Before Grandma Mary occupied the duplex on the park, she had a difficult time finding a landlord that would lease to a single woman with three kids. As you know, Grandma Mary had already been married a few times before she met my father’s father. Aunt Mary’s father was a young sailor named Hernandez whom Grandma Mary fell hopelessly in love with while still living in Windsor. Grandma Mary also met my father’s father in Canada, where the lout remained after being deported for rum running. My father does not talk of his father, but the family rumor is that once the Ambassador Bridge was built between Windsor and Detroit, he would occasionally walk across to visit my father, his brother, and Mary. You can still see the bridge from the stoop of the Clark Street house.
My dad always describes himself as a “mean” kid. While we are eating at one of the Mexican restaurants on Bagley I ask him if he was mean like me. “Meaner” he says and tells a story about smashing the windows out of his Uncle Joe’s new car when he was refused a ride. Mom interjects, “Uncle Joe was mean, too. I am sure he did something to deserve it.” It is not like Mom to defend my father in this way. I think she was caught up in his nostalgia. I noticed she would sometimes try to take the reigns of the story away from him, connecting who was related to who, how many siblings my grandma had, who was first to traverse the sea in the infamous Queen Mary. I let her talk, but direct my questions at Dad. He was talking in a low voice and acting like he couldn’t hear, a trick of his to get out of engaging in a conversation. I just had to pull at the right strings to get the stories flowing. I take after my dad in many ways, we both like to tell grandiose stories about ourself.
All my father’s cousins tell me we look alike. Steven looks like mom’s side of the family with my dad’s coloring, mother’s ruddy skin. As we get older we look more like brother and sister. I take after the Connor women, that ivory skin. The red hair could come from anywhere, our mom’s kin kicking up dust from the South or the Irish cop who is rumored to be my great-great-grandfather. “The Connors are a bunch,” my dad says. “A bunch of liars!” mom confirms. The lies and exaggerations from my paternal family are not meant to harm anyone, they are not those kinds of lies. I come from a family of charmers. They tell lies to amuse themselves, to amuse others, to keep from being bored. They are a bunch of distracted storytellers.
If nothing else, this craft is something I come by honestly.
I love the city. Even hearing its name announced over the speaker at Chicago’s Union Station made me tear up a little. If my father ever had any patience with Detroit, it has long since left him. Mom always claims an allegiance to Downriver, something I will never know or feel. The history of this city is the history of us, Detroit’s illegitimate biographers.
Your birthday was last week, May 20th. I am sorry this is coming to you late. I know you will always be there for me, especially when I need you most, when I am not looking for you, when I am being reckless.
May 12, 2010
My crib was located in my parent’s office between two clunky industrial desks and their second phone line. Late night calls from tenants were the lullabies I learned to ignore. I was relocated to the bedroom at the end of the hall, furthest from my parents at age 3 because of my habit of talking through the night. I would pretend I was a radio DJ and record hour upon hour of incomprehensible babble into the small Sony Walkman my father had bought at Service Merchandise. While the next room, occupied by my then teenage brother, was a cave like habitation reeking of sweaty gym socks, acne medicine, and the spit drained from his clarinet, my room was a bright explosion of toys, a canopy bed, and rainbows. My mother had learned early to only put wallpaper on the ceiling as my brothers would lie in bed, peeling, and eating the paper like two glue starved addicts.
My childhood bedroom may have been friendly but three major drawbacks haunted me. Outside my window was an ailing birch tree which, after a too-early-in-life viewing of Poltergeist, I was convinced was trying to kill me. I would sit guard most nights, vigilantly watching for any movement from the tree’s peeling white trunk which I was sure would indicate its dark intentions. Even when playing outside on sunny days I gave the dying tree a wide berth, always veering close to the protection of the ever healthy maple trees that spotted our front yard. ”It is no surprise,” I would try to get my mother’s attention as she was making fruit salad, “That in Scottish folklore, the birch tree is closely related to death and spirits returning from the grave.” She would shoo me away, “You have been watching too much Scooby-Doo.” She obviously did not take our Celtic heritage as seriously as the musty 1977 edition of the World Book encyclopedia where I had gleaned this knowledge did.
The other two situations that irked young me concerned my brother’s room. The lesser, but more sensible and practical, concern was that he possessed a window mounted air conditioning unit. Our house had baseboard heat which crackled like lobsters (or so I imagined) every time it was turned on. Baseboard heat made central air nearly impossible to install. My mother insisted the lack of air conditioning would “build character” in me, but my brother was granted a loud and clunky a/c unit as a filter to the outside. He was allergic to everything in nature and had debilitating asthma. That a/c unit acted as a ventilator to his room/bubble.
More vexing was the bloody skeleton costume my mother had stowed in one of my brother’s two matching closets. These closets butted up to the north wall of my bedroom. The bloody skeleton costumes was nothing more than a pressed plastic mask and vinyl tunic. The thing was more psychedelic than scary, the blood was neon pink and mounted on the skeleton’s shoulder was a goofy-faced mouse, on its head a day-glo candle. On my insistence, my mother had bought it at the drugstore around the corner from my Uncle David and Aunt Mary’s house for $2.99, but the closer it got to Halloween the more I panicked. I believed that if I put the costume on it would melt to my body and never come off. She reluctantly squirreled it away in my brother’s closet, hoping I would change my mind and bought me a Velma Dinkley costume instead. (please note: this past winter I decided to only dress like Velma Dinkley. I now own ten wool skirts, a bunch of knee socks, and several orange cable knit sweaters)
Knowledge that the costume lurked one sheet of drywall away prompted me to move my bed to the south wall. When I took a break from my nightly marathon conversations I would have nightmares in which the bloody skeleton costume would leave my brother’s room in search of me. When I was finally discovered cowering under my rainbow cloud Pegasus comforter it would crawl into bed next to me, stealing all the covers, pushing and kicking me to the ground where, of course, the monsters that lived under my bed would have an easy go at my liver, spleen, and other internal organs.
Children who are scared of everything are very inventive and effective in the traumatizing of other children. Around August, I would start setting up my haunted house ride. Neighborhood kids would line up to take rides in my little red wagon down the hill in our backyard. Wake boards would turn into tombstones. Barbies would be decapitated, mutilated, and tortured for other’s enjoyment. I would throw a mixture of berries picked from the bushes, red food coloring, and corn syrup on my unfortunate customers. I would poke them with branches from the evil birch, hoping to entice the tree to take them and not me. I would tell them horribly gruesome stories about phantoms in the creek, specters in the woods, and corpses buried in the walls of their bedrooms.
I was a bully of words and images early on. The words I learned to speak came razor sharp. When the other kids picked on me for having flaming red hair, I gave them a tongue lashing that peeled the paint off of our matchbox cars. I belittled my peers for believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny while filling their minds with ghosts and goblins. I swore like a sailor, not grasping the words I used, but knowing they were bad.
Besides fear, I was filled with rage. I overflowed with unnameable, unfathomable anger. I had words for every rotten experience an elementary schooler can imagine, but I could not unlock the reason for my hate and malice.
Words were weapons, but sticks and stones break bones. My bullying came from being bullied. My first default “friends” before school started were a set of twins who lived in a colonial catty corner to ours. Often they devised games where I was their “slave.” They would tie me up and hit me with jump ropes. They would take my shoes and hide them. They would pointedly exclude me. This exclusion made me pliable, wanting to please.
At this time the girl twin, my sole female friend, favorite game to play was “Madonna.” This game involved one of us being Madonna and one of us being Sean Penn. The rules of the game involved whoever was Sean Penn hitting whomever was Madonna after which we would “kiss and make up.” This meant simulating sex by grinding on top of her pretty princess bed. My friend always wanted to be Madonna. She argued that she looked more like Madonna. There was no arguing about how I looked nothing like Sean Penn as I half-heartedly slapped her around. I hated being Sean Penn, but I did not want to be Madonna either. I hated the game. When I said I did not want to play, did not want to wrestle around on top of the pink roses that dotted her bedspread, that I would not be Sean Penn she pulled her trump card. ”I will tell your mom,” she said.
“Tell her what?” I asked as there were a hundred things to tell her. I had snuck a fishbowl full of tent caterpillars into our garage despite this act being strictly forbidden. I had willingly and gleeful taken a dump that looked like chocolate soft serve next to the creek. I had purchased a pair of molting, mounted stuffed geese from a garage sale and repeatedly ran over them with the banana seated bike I had inherited from Steven James and Mark, bending one of the wheel’s rims. I walked up to K-mart and purchased useless doo-dads with quarters stolen from my father’s slot machine. I crossed Farmington Road to buy candy from Efros. I strayed further and stayed alone longer. As a child, my most frequent and debilitating nightmare involved my mother spontaneously combusting at school after being told that I was an ill-behaved and mischievous child, ie the truth.
“That you don’t even try to fit in. That you talk too loud. That you are weird. That you spend too much time alone. That the other kids don’t like you. That you talk funny,” she was proud of herself, but I was sure these were things my mother already knew. That I felt in her touch when she tried to brush my hair and I would pull away. That I saw in her face when she looked at me as a visitor who had stopped by unannounced, like a ghost, like a phantom, a mirage. That I heard in her voice when she told me to just try, try not to stick out so much. That there was no bloody skeleton costume trying to melt onto my skin, that trees do not move, that little girls should not say “fuck” and “shit” or pretend to be radio DJs and talk all night long.
“Fine,” I said, resigned, balling up my fist, ready to deck Madonna real good. My heart wasn’t in it though. I was just dreaming of that year’s haunted house.
This is part of a much longer piece centering around our house on Vicary which I wrote for NBV #33 and will probably never ever be put out. Not sure I am ready to “unpack” some of this childhood trauma revolving around abuse from neighborhood kids, the death of Mark, and general emotional estrangement from my family.