One day, I started writing about my trip to work each day down John R., the street that runs through Detroit, parallel to Woodward, the city’s East-West divider. A paragraph turned into an epic poem, just havin’ fun.
I had lived on the Highland Park end of this street since my 50’s childhood and remember when the downtown part of it was part of Paradise Valley.
In the 90’s I moved back to the old house, that sits on a corner of John R; on the way to work each day I began to see a young girl with red hair.
I’ve never been sure why it’s called “John R”.
several years and a few thousand dollars ago.
my then-husband and I moved back to my old ‘hood.
The community was built about a century back
for execs of the first Model-T Ford plant,
the plant still stands – though still, for sure
just a few blocks away from our front door.
no extreme makeover, and the work isn’t fun,
But you can easily see that even dis-repaired
the beauty of the house is still clearly there.
it’s a classic, even falling all apart at the seams,
a stucco behemoth in the Mission-Style,
built by the first disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright
(in fact, a house built by him is just nearby).
back in the mid-fifties, first Blacks on the block;
the streets, homes and lawns so familiar to me
that on a day of perfect weather it can seem to be,
as if I don’t happen to be outside,
but in a tightly sealed globe of memory and time.
every house and tree familiar as lines of my palm.
I’m close to my job – no rush hours for me.
I walk out the house, drive onto John R street;
Twelve minutes most days, though I’ve made it in nine,
when I’m running real late and make every light.
There’s a lot of good memories on the drive,
same route my Daddy took back when I was five,
in his whale-sized Buick with the gills on the side.
like an big ocean-liner it was quite a ride
With the giant fins that made the car look sweet,
as we drove to his record shop on to Hastings street.
Sometimes he’d stop, and to defy my Ma,
we had hamburgers for breakfast at the Piquette diner,
the old wax paper in a greasy bag kind.
I pass a cop station that was there in those days,
with its red-brick stables where police horses graze.
How I’d beg my dad to let me see the giant things,
nostrils flared big as baseballs as they studied me.
And even today, if I’m not running late,
I watch their slow, quiet movements in the noise and haste.
I pass rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods like mine
That were once great places all lush and fine.
With grand homes and lawns back in the day,
and even with the problems of the last decades
some of the city’s awesome housing stock stands today.
I pass the leafy neighborhoods of old auto barons,
majestic brick as well as giant sandstone mansions;
and over the years the transition was seen
when these became the homes of Detroit’s elite
a rich Black professional’s and working man’s town,
The people of the auto and the Motown sound.
These years however, time has brought on change,
and there are now suburbanites who are less afraid
of the Black center city than their parent’s day,
who are tired of commuting from such long, long ways
and are glad to renovate an old, majestic place.
Some of the blocks I pass are scarred and maimed,
one house gone for each three that remain,
‘hoods barely left standing since crack had its way.
The blocks look bombed, blown asunder in war;
Yes, battles were lost against jobs that have gone
and the drug trade that came and made itself at home.
But some houses have lawns and new bright paint,
owners still try to “make a way from no way”.
The Blessed Sacrament is one of the first things I pass,
a magnificent cathedral where the Pope held Mass,
and where at night crack hoes rest at the stairs
flagging down the tricks who are diving pass.
Those blocks pass and there are hip new lofts,
a Potemkin urban village with a gentrified gloss,
the quasi-quaint homes of the artsy classes,
surviving next to the impoverished masses.
John R makes a curve past Northern High,
where I long ago marched, my fists held high,
as I raised my voice up into the Sixties sky.
I see school kids from blocks harder hit than mine;
Unlike middle class black kids from down the way,
they’re not chauffeured by folks on their SUV’d way,
but some maneuver the streets un-chaperoned,
bold and boisterous, to hide the fear being alone.
So on the way to work, in my daily world,
is where I first saw the red headed girl.
She had a freckly face, all tawny and gold
what folks in the South used to call “Redboned”.
Hair red like my Daddy’s old Georgia clay,
as the bricks of the stables where the horses grazed,
or the fires that burnt half the neighborhood away.
Her hair matched the fiery trees in fall,
and beamed against the winter snow like blood;
and in the last gray and cold of spring‘s hard mud,
her head was a small, bright crimson bud.
She walked by herself almost every day,
and I’d slow down to see if she was safe on her way.
For the days are gone of nice lonesome walks to school,
like Hansel and Gretel all alone in the woods.
Oh, how I worried for her, for I surely know
how the vultures hover for the innocent souls.
How could she be allowed walk to school alone,
was there no one grown to walk her to and fro?
I wondered if her mother was a red-head too
Why didn’t she take her red-head child to school?
Did she work with a schedule that didn’t allow,
or was she down on Woodward Ave., broken and wild
turning tricks on their way to suburban domiciles?
Did her father wear red cornrows, was he freckled and fine?
Was his red-head in jail like so many young guys?
Or did her red hair appear from nowhere known,
nameless genes raising brows and innuendos?
Red heads can inspire such a primal awe,
arising so often from family unknown,
For sometimes there are no obvious kin
to explain the fragile skin and all that melanin.
They seem to constitute their own carotene race,
across the boundaries of colors and states.
Each time I passed, I’d pray she was alright,
I was relieved when I saw her walking down John R.
for winos walk our streets like Thriller at night,
and crack-heads skither ‘round in ceaseless connive.
But year after year the girl seemed fine as she walked,
an orange-red blossom on a tall, thin stalk.
One day I turned the Holbrook curve on John R.,
a car hugged the curb as she walked ’round;
she ignored a shouting driver, who wouldn’t pull off.
I followed as she rushed and grabbed her books close;
I leaned on my horn and the man drove off.
Never looking back, she began to flee;
I thought of what could happen,
and was filled with relief.
It made me wonder about all the folks unseen
like angels in my life who had watched over me.
I hadn’t seen her for a year when an autumn day,
I was on the way to work in the usual way,
when ‘round the John R corner her red head came,
striding tall and red as a chestnut bay.
During summer she’d grown up hot-house style
all legs and hair done up ghetto-style,
a pubescent wonder, her red hair piled high.
Oh, my how fast the pass of time!
a child turned woman during work-bound drives.
It’s been quite a while since she was in my view,
I wonder if she, like so very few
had beaten the odds of ‘hood and hue.
And was able to succeed like only some can do.
I’m a bit afraid to look for her too hard,
for fear stats and environment had won out.
I don’t to see want her freckled face dope-fiend hard
or her red-head turned street-addled and wild.
No, I choose to think she strides ‘cross college lawns,
with a bag full of books, red dreadlocks long.
She’ll never know that I watched her grow,
as I passed her by every few days or so.
And maybe she thought her safe passage was luck
but sometimes there was a lady driving in a truck
who decided to take her foot off the gas
and slowed down to make sure that she had safely passed
I think of her in my real mirror’s view,
as she walked along John R Avenue,
her hair a red afro, or braided tight,
a copper halo of urban light.
Whenever I think of her carnelian curls,
I say a little prayer for the Red-Headed girl.
I passed a John R. duplex one June morning, and there on a porch was the girl with red hair, standing still while a lady helped her to adjust her graduation Cap and Gown.