Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit


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The Temptations and Industrial Detroit

The Temptations are among the greatest of the mid-century masters of Sweetness. Though many of their tunes have been Big Chilled into the innocuous background music of baby boomer middle-age, believe it or not, in those early years, their process headed, tight suit wearin’, lean, street dressin’ was as scary-sexy to older, middle class white (and even black) audiences then, as Hip-hop acts are today.

But unlike the current objects of mainstream fascination/repulsion, there was a subtle yet powerful tension created by the apparent paradox of their “fast-life” personae and their pleading, cajoling declarations of love lost and found.

The search for and promise of lifelong devotion – the “Dream Come True” – emanated from these men – the “New Negro” men of those times.

They had roots in the rural South with new lives in the industrial North, like the dudes on the corner of 12th and Pingree – mouth-rolling toothpicks, stingy-brimmed hats cocked “ace-duce”; with a new icy attitude called “cool“ designed to hide the stress and tension of a new kind of hard, urban life.

They were not at all like the previous generation of singers – say the Mills Brothers with their harmonic, wholesome crooning, or the Drifters’ doo-wop paeans to love. Despite Berry Gordy’s polishing and presentation, the Temps looked, on the one hand, like street-corner hustlers – hostile and inscrutable; and on the other, like stolid, dependable brotha’s hitting the clock on the afternoon shift at Chrysler.

Lead singer David Ruffin wore thick, gumpy glasses and STILL looked cool. Up to that time, most singers would rather go on stage stumbling half blind, rather than appear with specs – especially the thick, awkward frames of those times.

He doubtless proved a blessing to the optometry business in the ‘hood back then; my little brother was finally convinced that our genetic nearsightedness was not the end of the world, once the girls said he looked like Ruffin.

Paul Williams, who always felt, to us, like the “soul of the group”. He sang “Don’t Look Back” at the Michigan State Fair, and, in the audience,  my Mom and I watched the tears run down his face with unabashed emotion on the “The Impossible Dream” – a lounge cliche when sung by others, but for him, it was a stirring Negro anthem for those hot-house Civil Rights days and times.

The cool, basso profundo of Melvin Franklin made us –  kids of the sixties – accept “Old Man River” as more than an anachronistic  river-boat song; but an ode to the South of our fathers, a remembrance of Delta days  as Black men toiled in their new, Northern cities. Eddie Kendricks sang “like a woman” in his career falsetto, yet the songs he led were the fanciful poesy of black  male loving that established the group from the beginning.

“The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could ‘a been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could ‘a been some perfume”*

In this song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do, written by Smokey Robinson, Eddie had a voice so limber that the word “feet” in the stanza above had five syllables. His voice was always gossamer, fairy light, and he was known to be a quiet, gentle man, yet he could look like the dude on the corner who might cut you, with his lean 12th street looks and brotha’ on the corner stance.

When I was a child, the Temptations and the kings and queens of Motown rode the streets of Detroit like a magic carpet, driving Easter egg colored Cadillacs, wearing suits in matching pastels.We’d see the Supremes shopping at J.L. Hudsons, or the Miracles at a school dance.  I remember the Originals singing “Baby I’m For Real” at the Arcadia skating rink on Woodward Ave. Everyone had someone they knew who was “one of the Temptations cousins” or “my sister-in-law’s brother’s uncle’s friend”- or some other convoluted degree of Motown separation that was emblematic of Detroit’s connection to our homegrown heroes. The “made for TV” movie about the Temptations has become an urban classic, but it in no way does it capture the edgy, gifted complexity of the group, or the times.  

The Temps had the look of both the hustler on the corner and the auto worker, sugar-sharp at a union hall cabaret. Kendricks and Ruffin, lithe and cold-blooded, the rest – and their replacements – proletarian thick and church deacon sharp. They were reflections of the new factory Black men – sweet enough to talk up on a woman, “game” enough to catch her – and with money enough to keep her comfortable, Detroit style –  in a large brick home with two sharp cars.  

Only years, faded memories, and mainstream acceptance have rendered the Temps’ music into innocuous the oldies of soft-bellied men. For they were saber-sharp back in the day, and behind the scenes a few were as edgy and difficult as many a rapper of today.

One does not have to dig deep into their discography for songs that have not been worn into tiresome oldies, but in addition to their many lush B sides and lesser known hits, there’s “Temptations in a Mellow Mood”, an unusual collection of show tunes and standards. One song on this unlikely album that I’ll never forget  features Eddie Kendricks’ glistening lead on “Try to Remember” from – of all things – the musical “The Fantasticks”, which he turns into his own beautiful, wistful beckoning to remembrance.

 

All too many of today’s young Black men cannot experience the virture of “sweetness” and the musicality that came from an urban culture that had as its cornerstone the church, and the security – or at least the possibility –  of a “good” job and a nice car to boot. There are few economic enticements to bolster their appeals to love. Unlike during Motown’s early days, the music of all too many of today’s young men does not allow for such vulnerability —there is no job at Ford (or Chrysler or GM – or anywhere at all, for many) in their future – in the same way that there was in those long gone Detroit days.

Today, pride, anger and machismo alone – morphing all too often into violence – must suffice as a facsimile of manhood, for all too many young men.

The Temptations and other sweet-singing groups of their times reflected a generation of young Black men freed from the defacto shackles of the Southern sharecropping life. Their new, quasi-affluence on the assembly-lines of urban Detroit permitted them the luxury of the glorification of romance. The end of that industrial domination marked the end of that sweetness.

Dennis Edwards, who lead the group in it’s first Grammy win, was the next inheritor of the lead voice after David Ruffin’s exit from the Temptations. Edwards can be said to personify the shift in not only the group, but the urban culture as a whole; for not only were love songs a part of his legacy but “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” exemplified the startling shift into the social tumult of the times.

After their early, prolific years and various personnel changes, the Temps emerged in the 90’s with “For Lovers Only” with a stunning lead singer, the late Ali Ollie Woodson. With “Some Enchanted Evening” the lead single, it was  redo of American standards with a nouveau-Temptations treatment,  befitting their maturity, longevity and stature. They were , for a new generation, the Grown Men of love.

The death in 2010 of the magnificent singer Ali Ollie Woodson marked the end to yet another incarnation of the Temptations;  his replacement, the birth of another. They will doubtless sing on, with many – if not most – of their current audiences neither knowing or caring who is in the group, as long as they can sing the Temps repertoire. Nor, it seems, does it matter, for the Temptations exist as a phenomenon, an entity, regardless of personnel. Their music, though an expression of love eternal, was born of a specific – now gone – time and place; they are songs of  Black, urban proletarian men, who, with their historically evolved blend of strength and sweetness, expressed love on behalf of an entire English-speaking generation.

Marsha Music

 

 

All photos from Temptations albums.


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The Techno Fest and the new “Movement” of Detroit

Photo by 2010 Kresge Arts Fellow Corinne Vermuelen, with her generous permission.

Prologue: I wrote this piece in the early 2000s, after the first two or three Electronic Music fests on Detroit’s riverfront.  After years of undergound raves and a start at Joe Louis Arena in the 90’s, the Techno Fest on Hart Plaza started in 2000. An attendance estimate for this first gargantuan event was 1-1.5 million*, and though some mainstream sources opined that the estimate was inflated, I was there and I didn’t doubt it one bit. However, the attendance in 2012, years after the imposition of entry fees, dropped to 107, 343.* (*Wikipedia estimates) But the numbers in 2015 were way back up to more than a million, again, though alas, I never went after they began charging fees after the first few years – way out of my budget. 

So here I was, in the youth of my old age, looking at another generation take its place in the musical history of Detroit – and I was absolutely clear that their presence marked not only a massive dance party, but a sign of  the future of the city. (Btw, this was one of my submissions for which I was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, in 2012.)

                                                    The Techno Fest And The New “Movement” In Detroit

Detroit is the home of the annual Electronic Music Festival, aka Techno Fest – now officially named “Movement” – held on Memorial Day weekends on Hart Plaza. It is one of the seminal events in Detroit as it transitions into a new, post-industrially-dominated city.  From the inception of this festival in 2000, the “movement” that was taking place on the Riverfront was not only to the music, but a synergistic spark in the movement of young whites not only coming to – but  remaining in – Detroit.

Detroit is an overwhelmingly African-American city, yet for this event, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. After decades of their parents’ fearful avoidance of the city, a new generation of suburban kids is not only refusing to be afraid of the urban center, but refusing to leave, setting up residence in downtown lofts and apartments, partying in downtown clubs, and skateboarding in the night on Woodward Avenue.

At the first festivals, there were enough black Detroiters to give the Techno Fest – as it is known – the edginess and cool to make for an exciting musical event for the whites who have come to the city, for up to this point the blacks in attendance have been mostly members of the Detroit’s black cultural and musical intelligentsia. Techno music, with its pan-continental DJs and audience, is not viewed as a “black” dance music of choice in the ‘hood – rap, hip-hop, and the new R&B were the genres that were marketed to blacks.  Doubtless, the African-American founders of techno music, accustomed to mostly white audiences in the US and Europe, were glad to see so many brothas and sistas here in their home town, dancing to the music that they created.

On the other hand, too much hip-hop and rap throughout the festival weekend runs the risk of attracting too many of its fans from the ‘hood – which might make this neo-hippie fest a little too “diverse” for comfort to the whites who are pouring onto the plaza; so a balance is necessary.  Fans come to the Techno Fest from many miles away – not just the suburbs but from Australia, France, Japan, Germany; backpacks full of provisions for this new electronic Woodstock.  During the festival, thousands of kids – mostly white – rest and hang out near a monument on the promenade dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a massive bronze sculpture of a group of slaves fleeing toward freedom to Canada, in plain sight across the river. Only those familiar with the intense divisions between Detroit’s city and suburbs truly appreciate the lovely irony of this scene.

The music could be heard from three main stages and a dozen booths at once, banging off the high-rise buildings that rim the plaza, The DJs use the archetypal beats and sounds of R&B, funk, disco and pop culture – the building blocks of our contemporary aural heritage – to create transnational dance genre. Multiply these samples and sounds by tens of thousands of culturally recognizable beats, phrases and riffs, rearrange them into new configurations, and they are as creative as the original makers of the music from which they sample.

The turntable technicians transform electronic sounds into music, and many, with their sampling, display a prodigious knowledge of the vocabulary of modern cultural sounds. Detroit’s Motown sound developed in part from the relentless rhythms of the mechanized clash and clang of assembly lines of the auto plants in which Berry Gordy and his contemporaries toiled. Today’s youth grew up with different sounds – the ambient noise of video games, computers, cell phones; technology with its hums, bells, bleeps and blips, the aural wall that surrounds today’s environment. All of this electronic sound engendered a musicality that is based on – but is inevitably unlike – the sounds of the rock and roll generation.

Techno music evolved from black middle-class Detroiters able to afford – or hustle up on – the turntables, electronic equipment and voluminous libraries of vinyl record collections that were the original tools of the DJs craft.  I remember when my young brother and cousins – Lawrence Battle, and Bruce and Carl Martin – among that first group of  DJs in Detroit,  were suddenly immersed in sound snippets of records that we grew up with, and lugging car loads of milk-crates filled with records to weekend parties.

Masters of the Dance

On the last day of the first Techno Fest, a new element changed the character of Movement, so that its final day was different than the first. The police had abandoned bag checks and let the crowds pour in, and they showed no sign of thinning. For the first time all weekend, pouring into the main entrance was a growing phalanx of bristling “young Black males”. The mostly white crowd had gradually become “Blacker” and it wasn’t clear what this would mean. These new arrivals crowd the plaza in excited agitation, some with the sullen defiance of the unwanted, the mask to hide their fear of being unwelcome, that their presence is cause to tighten jaw lines and police lines, both.

It is understood that this festival is not for them, but rather for the visitors, though doubtless, Techno’s founders are gratified that, finally, the music that they created will have an audience of Detroit boys from the ‘hood. Over the three days of the festival, word has spread through Detroit that the music is “live” and worth risking the possibility of suburban and police hostility. They know that their arrival is akin to crashing a gigantic private party; nevertheless, they come. They flow into the bowl of the plaza; and the air crackles with their young black maleness. Yet instead of fleeing – as may have happened a decade ago – the young suburbanites jelled into a concentrated mass of excitement and awe.

The festival had blown off the hook – it was electrified. The black youth crowd the plaza, huddle in tight, dark circles. No cute rainbow-hued costumery and Hackey Sack looks for these new arrivals – they are from the shirtless, bedraggled school of urban poverty. They felt out the crowds, spotted locations, sized up adversaires as they worked their limbs into cudgels or stood stock-still in Zen concentration. They were the Masters of Dance and they had come to take their rightful positions. The battle had begun. It was a war, not of weapons, but of strength, grace and mental acuity. The crowds parted like the Red Sea as these new participants step into the whorls of dance that had formed in the ocean of people.

Bass was bumpin’ bass through to the bone marrow. These new dances defied any concept of what was known as dance decades ago but then again, this is not the movement of courtship – as in the Motown days – but of power, motor skills, and muscular control. Their bodies replicate the movement of computerized machines, and it is not romantic, nor really sexual. Thirty years ago black dance broke out of partnered confines into robotic motions of machinery and mime. After they had been embedded in the dance lexicon of the Black community for years, Michael Jackson displayed these moves to the world.

“Poppin’ & Lockin’” the abrupt, mechanized, stylized imitation of robots, is familiar now to generations of Black dancers, mastered even by small children in the ‘hood. Body waving, Breakin’, Moon Walking, Runnin’ Man, Robot and Tickin’ – the bizarrely elegant quivering of every joint and muscle at conflicting angles – all these dances grew from hip hop’s beginnings. Most dancers at the Techno Fest displayed their mastery of  “Jittin” , a matrix of extreme, skillful foot and legwork, with its origins in Detroit.

The great racial rhythmic divide doesn’t exist in the same way as in generations past, what with music videos, MTV, BET, et al, and  exposure to black music at exponentially higher levels than previous generations. The white kids, most as segregated as ever in real life, are profoundly integrated regarding music and dance – even if they are learning moves that black kids mastered almost 40 years ago. The first Techno Fests were the bar exams of  dance.

 Dance Wars on the Plaza

The white kids who could “Lock” and Break Dance had dominated the festival’s dance circles and entertained the crowds all weekend – but with the arrival of the Detroit dancers they now stand back in humility and awe. The blacks have come to “take them to school” – and they all know it.  Many of the suburban boys rarely got a chance to see – in real life – the rippling pop of brown limbs and muscles and they study these moves with as much concentration as college entrance exams. Emboldened by attention and recognition, the black dancers from the city challenged one another to ever more physical flights of daring and skill.

The suburban kids and visitors were mesmerized by this urban drama. The blacks were sure of their dominance, suffering no fool gladly to step into the ring with them unprepared, but they were generous as well. The white kids who proved their mettle and went toe to toe with the brotha’s are given respect – smug, serious nods of approval, or wild high-fives, as each dances into the ring and out again.  Dancers strip from the waist up, every visible muscle like rhythmic pythons under the skin.

Added to the layers of consciousness, physicality and race at the festival, there were the whites whose forebears would not or could not flee from Detroit –  the white boys from the ‘hood, lighter facsimiles of the young blacks; skin color alone differentiated them from their darker neighbors; indistinguishable in speech, dress and attitude. They too were stars in this game of bravado and skill and their combination of  urban-ness  in white bodies makes them fascinating bridges between the two worlds – humble enough to accede leadership to their dark brother mentors in the ‘hood, but cocky in their dance mastery and urban skills in comparison to the suburban boys.

Then came the girls from the ‘hood. All weekend the moves of most of the white girls approximated Brittney Spears’ hip-hop lite, and they stepped back in excited incredulity to watch the arrival of the “ghetto fabulous” home-girls. The allure of these new arrivals is primordial; the suburban girls – some of them probably real stars in their hometown schools and malls – are agog at the nubile finesse of these brown, urban females.  There is nothing coy about their moves; this is the hard core “booty shake” of Senegal via Luke Campbell and the East Side of Detroit. Their rhythmic undulating was intense and incredible to behold. As their bodies roiled they stared straight ahead in the dead seriousness of trance. After minutes of these pelvic machinations, they collapsed in childish giggles – just young girls havin’ fun.

The boys from the ‘hood danced in tandem, transferring waves of rhythm to one another, staging mock vignettes, sexual simulations and Chaplinesque parodies for the crowds. Watching this populist art unfold, it is clear that there is a deep, adult intelligence at play in this display of skill and wonder. The battles intensified all over the plaza and black, white, yellow and brown dancers established victories in recognition of their mastery – they are the Shaolin warriors of dance. There were no guns shot, no violence – dance alone was the measure of will and negotiator of the social contract.

At the edge of Hart Plaza the huge, dark figures of the Underground Railroad sculpture stood larger than life; massive, bronze figures fleeing from the ancestors of some of these very young people in their ceaseless, ecstatic movement on the plaza. I stood and reflected that during my own youth such an edifice would be unthinkable; much has changed within my lifetime. This statue of slaves on the verge of freedom stood in the midst of a scene that years ago was only a dream – kids of all colors dancing in Detroit’s dark night.

Photo, on the sculpture on Hart Plaza: by photographer Corrine Vermuelen, Detroit, with her generous permission.

__________________________

Epilogue:

The fact that there is now an admission fee for entrance – and a steep one, by Detroit inner-city standards –  virtually guarantees that the innumerable circles of young, Black dancers from the ‘hood – schooling their young visitors and reveling in the partnership of dance – will never be seen in the same numbers again.

But let me tell you,  it was a beautful sight to see.

Me in a moment with DJ Spooky, who performed at the first, and subsequent Techon Fests. This pic is not at the Fest, but at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where during the Q & A, he and I had a….shall I say…. difference of opinion, regarding his redux of the movie Birth of a Nation. But afterwards, as you can see, all was well.

 

 


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Ode to John R. – The Red-Headed Girl

 

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”.

***
This all started when we moved to my family home,
several years and a few thousand dollars ago.

 

Much too big for my Ma, she decided to move
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.

 

 
Renovation fever left before our work was done
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.
  
All oaken doors, floors, and mantles and beams,
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).
My family moved here in the core of Detroit
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.
Some blocks unchanged since I was a child
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.

Marsha Music

Epilogue:

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.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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The Death of Isaac Hayes and Memories of a First Date

I received an email from an old friend; my first boyfriend, in fact.

P

He had moved to the South few years ago, after retirement, and when he heard the news about the death of Isaac Hayes, he emailed me an anecdote that he had posted on one of the websites he frequents.

P
 
It was about the day, almost 40 years ago in Detroit, when we went on our first real “date”, to see Hayes in concert. He wrote that it was November 30, 1969; How he knows this, I don’t know, but I’ll take his word for it. I decided not to reply right away, but to write about that day, and send it to him.

____________
 
Memory being what it is, I’d always remembered that first date was our going to see Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, two new artists on the music scene at that time.
 
But, we were both right. Roberta and Donny were the opening acts for Isaac Hayes that night. It was to be a concert of the “new music” – not the Motown sound, the soundtrack of our town – but the new hip, “conscious” soul.
 
 
Roberta‘s sweet “Strumming’ my pain with his fingers” was sweet, exhilarating, but downright odd back then. Donny, in his “apple cap” and turtlenecks, made bassed-up dance songs about “the Ghetto” – before the term was a prejorative – on LPs mixed-up with madrigals, blues and cowboy songs. We classically trained orchestra and band students loved him.
 
 
Isaac’s Stax Soul sound was familiar, like the Southern Blues of our fathers, but funked up for our new, hip times. We knew he was something altogether different – in a day of sharp-suited Temps, Tops and Pips, Isaac broke on the scene with chains draped on his buck naked chest. A thrilling, disconcerting next step into some new realm of Negritude.
 
 
He turned his masculinity upside down, posturing like Mandingo while singing sweet songs of women (Walk on By), children (Never Can Say Goodbye) and white country boys (Phoenix); so secure was he in a Black manhood that he was helping to define.
 

Heck he even sang silly stuff – Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymstic. I was chagrined in later years, when one of my sons knew him only as the voice of a cartoon, but I was delighted when he met Hayes and asked him to record his voicemail message – so I could hear Isaac Hayes every time I tried to call my son

But I digress.

My boyfriend had gotten tickets for the concert -to be held at the regal Masonic Hall, and I had been getting my outfit together for days; the excitement had rubbed off on my mother, who not only agreed that I could go on the date, but gathered up all her gumption and drove me to the rough and tough part of the East Side, to get my hair done at “Dicky’s”, the premier barbershop of Detroit at that time.

 
It was Afro-chic for girls and women to get our hair done in barber – not beauty – shops in those days, and despite all the long-haired styles that were driving both black and white barbers out of business, Mr. Dicky had taken the ‘fro to it’s beautific, architectural heights and making a whole new career out of Black is beautiful. You had to wait in line for the privilege of getting your cut and “blown out“ for the night.
 
 
 
His barbers were masters of the ‘Fro, cutting styles straight out of Ebony and Jet, with such precision that my hair stood around my head in a centrifugal halo, the Afro Sheen sprayed on ‘til it glowed.
 
 
 
I had made my outfit myself, sewing furiously for days; a pair of extra-wide bell bottoms with a green halter that exposed waist, back and arms – might as well had on a swim top. In November? I now wonder how.
 
I was a Black Power mermaid, all pubescent curves and a ball of hair.
 
It never occurred to me that this first date was a passage of sorts not just for me, but for Momma too. It was she, after all, who had brought the Isaac Hayes record home, playing it on the record player in our oak-beamed den; stepping out of her characteristic reticence, cigarette in hand, popping her fingers and singing to herself. My brother and I loved Isaac Hayes, in part, because she did; he was someone the grown folks liked whom we could share. He was a bridge between Motown smooth and Southern, Stax Blues.
 
 
Or maybe we were just getting older, our teen ears now understood the meaning of songs about love lost and found. And I suppose that all kids have a time when they realize that all parents have an inner life obscured from their familial gaze
 
 
Mama’s strict church upbringing – though she’d been distant from church for years – made her shy away from really dancing, but she‘d shimmy around the den and raise her famously pretty hands when Isaac sang “By the time I get to Phoenix”.
 
 
It was the longest record we’d ever heard, it even had a Part 1 and 2! The AM radio stations couldn’t even play the whole thing, and we started listening to the new “FM” in order to hear all the new extra-long records and rock LPs.

 

It was a country song, a “cross-over” hit by Glen Campbell, and we knew it well already because in those days we listened to all kinds of music – most often on CKLW Radio, broadcasting from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

 

It was a stunning incongruity that Hayes – who called himself “Black Moses” – remade this country song as an urban ballad, with its Hammond B5 intro and plaintive soul wails. He, the Ultimate Black Man, all big nose and bared chest and draped in chains, revealing both heartsick vulnerability and the power of the Black male.

As Hayes moaned about making it to Albuquerque, having left his woman behind, I worried as to what invisible audience my mother sang, for she and my dad were often in the midst of drama, involving Johnny Walker Red, slammed doors and separate beds. But, being young and in love, I could care less that my mother was helping me to get dressed, so that I could go to see her favorite new singer sing her new favorite lovesick song.

My date arrived. In the email he’d sent to me last month, he said he’d gone out with “the prettiest girl in the world” – and at that moment, 40 years ago, I felt like it. He surely was the cutest guy, with an Afro even bigger than mine.

Mama stood on the porch, looking out on John R street, and waved us goodbye with my little sister and both brothers. We’d doubtless conspired to keep this date thing WAY under Daddy’s radar; he was known for meeting potential suitors at the door with his .38 caliber father figure.

My boyfriend and I walked to the Woodward bus. Yes, neither of us could drive, and in those days – unlike today’s couch potato kids – we were used to treking miles at a time. We walked and took the bus everywhere, all day long.

I held onto the rail of the bus really tight so that my hair and outfit wouldn’t get mussed. I was very aware of a guy across the aisle snickering at my date and I all dressed up, in a city where autos were a birthright. I snuggled closer to my date to pledge my allegiance to our pedestrian love.

We arrived at the grand, old Masonic Temple, and were surrounded by a crowd of late 60’s Black humanity. There was nothing like Detroit back in the day. Folks of every shade of cream, brown and black, everybody “sharp as a tack”, vibrant and young and full of Temptations cool and Sly Stone funk, hip talkin’’ jive walkin‘, “dressed and pressed“.

A group of local black militants, whom I had seen outside our high school, were there too, passing out leaflets on the struggles of the day. I nodded at them in smug, grown up recognition, and told my date – “let’s talk to those people when we get back to school” (we did – and kept talking to them for the next few decades)

I don’t remember much of the concert. I remember Isaac Hayes was smaller than I thought he would be. I had thought he’d be 8-feet tall from his double-faced album cover and stretched out form. But no, he was a regular-sized guy.

I remember the “wah-wah” guitars, a new thing back then, and Donny Hathaway in his apple cap and maple syrup voice. And Roberta, who sang such a different type of music we weren’t sure what to make of her; not saucy like the Supremes, not soulful like Aretha, but something new.

We felt all smooth and grown up listening to her sing; a new hip mix of Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and maybe Edith Piaf, too.

_____________

These things came back to me when my friend wrote to me about the death of Isaac Hayes and our first date, back in the day. I had just heard too, that the comedian Bernie Mack had died, and I thought about that old superstition, “death comes in threes”.

I began writing this story, and my friend’s wife called. Her husband, my friend, the guy of my first date, who had become like an elder brother to me after all these years, had had a heart attack. He lay in a coma, a thousand miles away.

Immediately, my memories began to rearrange themselves around this new shock. I had never even thought of him – more “fit”, I thought, than any of us in our circle – leaving this earth before me. In fact I counted on him saying droll and clever things about me at my own “home-going”, whenever that might be.

He was trying to leave this world and I had the feeling that he would be taking sizable chunks of me with him, in the form of a million memories,  critiques of me, down through the years. He was on life support. My mind flashed to my mother, dying on a respirator this year, her frail body still working but her lungs unable to breathe.

I talked to his wife each day about his progress, trying to reassure her that it wasn’t his time to leave, when I wasn’t so sure about that myself. fter many days, he began to recover; thank God he is better now, and eventually came back to Detroit.

So I write this so he will know that I remember, too; that years ago when we were young in Detroit, with Afro’s like dark cotton candy, we went to see Roberta and Donny and Isaac Hayes, on a crisp, 60’s night, under a Detroit moon.

And I am glad that he has not joined Donny and Isaac and Bernie Mack, all gone too soon.

Marsha Music

[first posted on the BelleLettes forum of ThePuristS.com, Oct, 08]


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Waiting for Steveland

At the annual, Holiday, Motown Review, it was pandemonium when we heard the trumpet’s blare, the horn’s fanfare, the introduction to “Fingertips” – the signature song of Little Stevie Wonder.
For he might be blind and he might be a genius – different and exotic in our eyes – but like all of us young ones who’d stood in line in the snow with our parents or older cousins during the Christmas vacation- he was a KID.

***

Stevie Wonder is not his real name of course, but Steveland Morris. In fact his name at birth was not even Morris, but Hardaway, he was given his stepfather’s name in childhood. He was not born in Detroit, but moved here as a child from Saginaw, an hour away. He was not born blind, but lost his sight due to oxygen depravation as an incubated, premature infant.

He was not my age, but just a few years older and his ever-present wrap-around shades disallowed even a peek at his hidden, sightless eyes. He moved in a rhythmic bob and weave on some still, invisible axis, pulling sound like a satellite from the dark around him; an unfathomable existence that we imitated but never mocked.

He was led onto the stage and for the only time in our well-mannered young lives we could openly stare at a blind human being. He was called a genius and we never questioned this title as we watched him tread his unseen path to every instrument on stage and play like an adult virtuoso.

His dancing lacked the precision turns and moves of the other acts, but was instead a rhythmic clap and wobble, awkward and ecstatic. We held our breath terrified he’d fall into the orchestra pit when he hurled himself from the piano to the edge of the stage.

Always, before he stepped one last dire inch, he’d be snatched back from certain catastrophe, though perhaps this too was a choreographed performance, each hop to the abyss carefully counted out in Stevie’s genius head.

His blindness was a profound thing, a multiplier of his already extraordinary gifts, though it was clear that he played and lived much as a sighted child. I was fascinated with the blind and deaf Helen Keller and was endlessly curious about the signing and speech of my own deaf cousin.

My early interest in the deaf and blind coincided with the emergence of Little Stevie Wonder, perhaps a reason he left such an imprint on my heart. Regardless of how the blind and deaf joke at themselves, few things bother me more than jest at their expense.

No matter what acts performed at the Motown review, in my mind he was always The Star. Each year during the holiday season, in line in the freezing cold, I was always glad to wait once more for Stevie.

***

My father’s record shop was just blocks away from the Motown studios. I always called him when I got home from school; one day someone who was clearly not Daddy answered the phone.

“Joe’s Record Shop” said the strangely familiar voice.

“Who is this?”

“This is Steveland”.

“Stevie Wonder?????”

“Yeahhhh”.

To my astonishment, he said a few more cool-boy-in-high-school kind of things in that Signed, Seal. Delivered voice. I dropped the phone in my excitement; it bobbed on its cord and I hung up, stunned! I was shocked to be on the receiving end of this bona-fide heart-throb conversation.

I called right back but by then it was Daddy’s voice; his young guest had apparently been playing on the phone long enough.

“Daddy, who was that???”

“Well it was Stevie Wonder, didn’t he tell you?”

I begged my Mama to get in the car and take me to meet him but at that moment, probably knee deep in dinner cooking, she had no such time, and it was probably in the days when we only had one car.  I had been exposed to more than a few artists by that time, but I’ll always remember that phone call with Stevie.

***

Over the years of afro’s, braids and locks – on he and I – my love for Stevie has never waned, regardless of his hits or popularity. He pioneered innovations for the blind from his work with computerized sound and was recently willing to try radical surgery to restore his sight, though it was determined that it would not be successful. His birthday song became the anthem of a national holiday; Signed, Sealed, Delivered was  the clarion call for Barack Obama.

Still, I was not alone in ridiculing his rather loopy metaphysical ramblings that were increasing in songs he wrote after a near fatal car crash in the early 70‘s. But one anguished, sleepless night his latest record played in my headphones through haze of drink and psychic pain, and in a songwriting conceit that few achieve without controversy, he sang as the Voice of God into my fevered mind:

“You will know, troubled hearts will know, problems have solutions, so I made it so”.

I listened to this mystical musing and in an epiphany became willing to consider – finally – that some Higher Help might fix my troubled life; it was the beginning of the end of my hopelessness.

I keep a magazine photo of Stevie in a special place, a reminder of that night when some Other Voice used his to speak to me through headphones in a song. Finally, the Gospel According to Stevie made some sense to me, after years of waiting for that too.

A old, worn copy of a surreal magazine photo of Stevie, that I've had for years.

In the summer of 2001, Stevie Wonder, who had been living in Ghana, West Africa, came back to headline Detroit’s Tricentennial Celebration. No event equaled the excitement of the chance for Detroiters to see him again.

Almost a million people packed the Riverfront for his concert; but of course that many people means that in order to see, you had to have a seat many hours before the concert began.

I didn’t of course, so I pushed my way as close to the stage as possible, which in fact wasn’t close at all. The sight of almost a million was terrifying, til I realized that the multitudes were oddly peaceful, a synthesis of urban souls so remarkable we looked at each other stunned that we could get along in such close Detroit quarters – old folks, suburbanites, crack-heads, kids. We pushed and shoved, laughed and danced – and waited for Stevie.

I tried to find a place where I too could view the stage, but folks were packed so tight that I could barely see; I burst into tears like a child. Finally, surrendering to the immensity of the crowd, I watched with others on giant screens from a block away, and the hundreds of thousands partied as if we could see him in the flesh, satisfied just to be a part of the multitudes on such a glorious night.

I realized the real “wonder” was not just Stevie, but Detroit’s polarized humanity dancing in peace “without incident”, singing his songs still, after 40 years.

I had waited to see Stevie on that hotter than July night with almost a million others, just as I waited in the cold during holiday week as a child. And as long as we’re in both in the land of the living, I’ll still not mind waiting for Steveland.

Marsha Music

[originally written for thepurists.com, BellesLettres forum in 2003]
 
 

 

 


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Musin’ on the Motown Review

 I remember the holidays of my childhood. During the Christmas countdown my Momma And Her Sisters shopped in a frenzy of  yule-time acquisition; the intensity of their excursions should have obliterated all of our belief in the North Pole. 

We were taken to visit Santa, nevertheless, at a Winter Wonderland created each year at the Ford Rotunda, a legendary automotive building –  for this was Detroit after all.

When the Rotunda burned down in the early 60’s (in my child’s mind, the end of the world, I thought there would never be Christmas again) our visits to Santa switched to the biggest, best downtown department store.

At the J.L. Hudson’s Christmas extravaganza I was on best behavior, standing proudly next to the elegant Colored women who worked the elevators, some of the most beautiful ladies in Detroit, regal and serious performing their floor-to-floor labors. That they weren’t allowed to work the sales floors I didn’t know ‘til I was older, and many such things had changed for us all. 

I remember Christmas Eve vigils, nearly sick with excitement, hot chocolate and cookies at the ready, even after I, the eldest, made them disappear to insure my younger sibling’s continued belief in Santa – a noble sacrifice indeed.

Unable to wait for parental rising, there was the 5 a.m. race downstairs. We swam in the wrapping paper of Hot Cars and GI Joes, Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens, and for me – books, always books. We visited cousins in our new Christmas clothes, opened more presents and ate under Grand Mamma’s firm church gaze, that warned that we best not forget “the real meaning of the day”.

With the exception of a squabble over a sibling’s gift, or later years of toppled Christmas trees from too much paternal drink – traumatic then, now fading into that hazy place where, if one is lucky, unpleasant memories go and are softened into funny family anecdotes – our Christmases were idyllic indeed.

But few of my holiday memories are better than the Motown Revue.

***

In an annual Christmas week ritual of the 60’s, for a few years Motown’s “Cavalcade of Stars” staged shows for throngs of Detroiters, black and white, who lined up around the Fox Theatre. It was better than the movies, the circus and Ice Capades wrapped up in one.

Standing in line we shook with cold and anticipation as we waited in our new coats and dresses, crinolines starched tutu stiff and quivering like antennae. Excited boys pulled loose from grown-ups, finger-poppin’ and Temptation Walkin’, imitating their favorite singers on the icy sidewalk.

Finally the doors burst open and the show began. Some of the artists were famous, some new; grueling bus tours, concerts and the Motown machine were molding them all into professionals.

The Contours, one of the earliest Motown groups, clowned and sang in the old soul way, a doo-wop vaudeville that was smoothed out of Motown’s newer acts though we loved them just the same.

The Marvelettes were fine with hair piled high, fringes shimmering in the lights. They sang “Mr. Postman” with the counterpoint claps and we thought they were as good as the Supremes – though of course there was no use arguing, the Supremes were the Supremes.

There was light eyed, light skinned, light voiced Smokey, he and his Miracles made the girls swoon and scream, though I assimiliated my Momma’s judgment, that he could neither really dance nor sing so well, but was still a genius.

“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid”, a cultured if ungrammatical lyric, one line out of thousands that Smokey inscribed. We danced to his intellect, sang to his rhymes; each new record proof he was a gifted urban bard.

Then there was the moment when the incredible 4-Headed Microphone appeared onstage, heralding the coming of the Temptations. The medley of their songs began and they took the stage: the sleek, dark archangels of cool, archetypal urban Black men, symbols of the Motor City.

Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, Velvelettes and Vandellas, took and shook the stage. We applauded the “stars”, though they performed at local clubs and high schools and roller rinks, and could be seen outside the headquarters of Motown, or driving around town in pastel Cadillacs.

We knew each word and nuance of all the Motown songs, and endlessly choreographed our “routines” as if we would one day, in some fantastic emergency, be asked to perform. Still, the Temps, Four Tops, Supremes and all were almost a generation older than us; we were way too young for affairs and heartache, or the sweet seductions and lost loves of their songs.

No matter, we loved them, and their popularity had exploded across the land. Before us was the Sound of Young America, the hopeful, young America of John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, and we cheered them on in our hometown Detroit.


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Jolene

2-women-new-yorker

Cover of a New Yorker Magazine

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene. We were 17 and I had lied to get hired; we couldn’t legally work in the plant for another year.

          She was white, from somewhere around “Taylor-tucky”, a name that mocked the southern roots of working class whites of the suburb of Taylor, Michigan. I lived in Detroit (still do). I was black, and I still am, as a matter of fact. Without the factory we’d never have met.
           We were young and shapely then, which now, I’m not so much; I don’t know about Jolene, I haven’t seen her since those days in the ’70’s. She had just been hired at the plant, and – like they say it is, in prison – you depend on those who know the lay of the land, even if it’s just a day more than you.
           The factory, on a barren industrial stretch off of I-94,  was a mechanized hell of extreme temperature, convoluted steel, and people at all levels with power, the wielding of which – for us – never did bode well. Women wore hairnets for “quality control”, but mostly to prevent decapitation; the long-haired guys wore them too.
          I wore old-fashioned braids weaved to my waist; the specter of hair and heads caught in rolling gears was so horrific, we all wore the ugly nets in willing resignation; just one more theft of our outside, normal lives.
          Jolene and I circled each other with cat-like territoriality, two girls used to inhabiting the center of any attention. After a while, we relaxed in the knowledge that our appeal could be divvied up without threat – there were plenty of male eyes for the both of us. We became friends, revolving around each other like planets, the type of friendship that burns too hot to last.
          Jolene was blond, the type of blond that’s white in childhood, that leaves a fuzz of white on the arms and brows white as snow–what they call tow-headed. She had high cheekbones from a Nordic ancestor, or maybe some long ago blood of Native America that gave her face high hills and low valleys in all the right places.
          She had a mole near her mouth and perfect teeth and she laughed all the time at everything when she wasn’t mad about something. She was as beautiful as the mod girls in my teen magazines and proof that good looks were not exclusive to the rich and high class.
          Ours was a work-hours friendship, walking our fast, hip-rolling walk down the cement runways of the packing lines, lithe and nubile. We flaunted our tiny waists and drum-tight thighs and switched past the high seniority ladies with tired feet and eyes, who had left their younger bodies back in some other lifetime.

We ate in the lunch-room, laughed and drove men crazy and pretended we didn’t know. We held court with the tradesmen and machinists, flirted our way through the long, hard overtime days. Even so I was dead serious, in ceaseless examination of my surreal, hard surroundings – Alice fallen onto the wrong side of the looking glass, wanting to know just where and why I had landed.

I was forced into the blue-collar world by pregnancy at 16 and a hard-headed refusal to return to school –  my post-sixties rebellion against the strictures of formal education, but also – though I’d never admit it – the humiliation of too-young motherhood. These were the days when there was still shame in such a thing.

The prospect of the factory met with the dismay of my businessman father and my mother (whom at that point, had never worked a day in her life except a brief stint in his employ).

Mine had been the first black family on the block in Highland Park, a then prosperous “suburb” in the middle of Detroit. My father was a record shop man amidst white bankers, salesmen, doctors–the solid middle class, in the days when that term didn’t apply to blue collar folks, before proletarians had stock options and portfolios. As more of “us” moved into the neighborhood, my Talented Tenth peers were preparing and poised for success in the form of a piece of the professional American pie.

The bottom line is, working in a factory was not exactly what was expected of me.

Jolene was a young mother too. Though for me, young and unwed meant abandoning my destiny–for Jolene, from the poor and working class “down river” suburbs,  it meant not escaping hers. If work in the plant was for me the fall from grace, for her it was the height of good fortune, key to a future other than trapped in a trailer home.

***

There were a handful of blacks in the plant, among them Miss Loretta, a bashful, hard-working woman from Down South who called our job at the plant the “plant-ation”; Indiana, small and yellow, who could work faster than anyone but fell behind on purpose so they couldn’t her wear out like the machines.

Fast Freddy dressed like a Technicolor pimp before he changed from his dancing clothes into his uniform each day; years later he had a 6-page spread in GQ magazine – largest in its history. There was brown-skinned Edna from Yazoo City, Mississippi, bright and funny, with sad eyes blacked from a husband’s fists, before she finally got tired of it and he went to jail.

Big, slow, tie-tongued Bob, who never missed work; he was so soft-hearted that any woman so inclined could take all of his money, and we often did. Fine as wine Lynnette, who looked like a movie star and knew it; who dreamed to be a flight attendant and leave us behind in the factory (which eventually, she did).

In the plant, the Blacks were an island in a sea of  suburban white and they kept their eyes on me, lest I prove to be too smart and fast for my own good or theirs, causing trouble with my brick sh…house body or rebelling against the ways that they’d learned to survive.

I was unaccustomed to the whites of the working class, and I eyed in amazement these folks at the plant too – Willadean with a Tennessee twang and black-dyed hair, who knew the most important things one could have were good work shoes and a good man.

There were white men born in towns Down South that had aimed dogs and hoses on brown girls like me, bikers in full regalia with chains on long wallets holding money and Zig-Zags, for long days of work and nights of play.

There were engineers and machinists, exacting and smug in the security of their skills, who more or less looked out for all of us–the machines and people–and we grudgingly looked up to them, even if some of them spent hunting season with the supervisors.

I managed a wary co-existence with all my new co-workers at first, then settled into the realization that they were all “just people”. Eventually, I became their leader. But that’s another story.

***

We wore skin tight, high-waist Levis, denim corsets that noosed our torsos into tight circles small enough for a man’s hands to wrap around and touch fingers front to back. Even childbirth could not destroy our strong, young curves; motherhood only gave us more of what got us in trouble in the first place.

Our jeans were threadbare in all the right places that implied rubbing against all the wrong things. We were locked together in beauty and failure and rebellion. We never buttoned our uniforms; the white lab-coat hems flew behind us as we sashayed down cinder block halls. We raced past the women with wisdom and seniority to get to the source of real attention – the guys we looked right in the eyes as we smoked cigarettes on the loading docks, letting them think they were smarter than us and might have a chance, never letting on they were wrong on both counts.

Bra’s burned on TV and we didn’t wear them, proud that no one could make us, and mostly, because they stood quite nicely on their own. A supervisor, Phil, had his eye on Jolene and I, and when we’d burst into his office to report a mishap on the line or stomped about some new imposition on our lives he’d sit up, unable to tear his eyes away from breast level, calling us “High Beams” as if he was being original. We’d roll our eyes and swivel back to our machines, letting him know that whatever he was thinking, it was out of the question.

When the line broke down or shut down early, we jumped in cars and hit the gravel road behind the plant, and flew to the bar where we’d we stay til last call. By closing time we’d be knee-deep in beer and Southern Comfort and 7-Up, or Jack Daniels with a Pepsi chaser (this was back in the days when I still ruined my liquor).

By closing time we’d be sloshed and stumbling, the bar full of eye-lined, hard-drinkin’ women and wanna’ be cowboys chained to assembly jobs and wives who read Harlequin Romances. Sometimes we’d sing, drunk and off-key:

“You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille…with four hungry children and a crop in the field….I’ve had some bad times been through some sad times, But this time the hurt it won’t heal…You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille”

The jukebox was full of those Kenny Rodgers songs, and ballads of Elvis and Patsy Cline. Some barmaids could fight you like a man, and, by night’s end,  sawdust and sickness lined the bathroom floors.

I know I was watched by some God I didn’t believe in at the time, on those nights after last call–a drive home to the Far East Side cold drunk on a coal black highway, hand over one eye to keep the center line of 1-94 from blurring into two.

That I didn’t die or kill, I now attribute to a force miraculous.

***

It was June – suddenly summer – and I’d been at the plant for six months. The weather turned glorious and I left it outside each day while I went in for the afternoon shift at three. Day after day I was missing the summer, getting off work at midnight, or two or three a.m. I should have been graduating, going to the prom, and here I was, punching a clock.

In an awful epiphany, it occurred to me that there was no more “summer vacation”, like in school, year after year since kindergarten. In this new world of work you might get a week off,  or two, but certainly not a whole summer. This revelation was a bad surprise, and hit me very hard.

Jolene and I were working in separate departments, and the summer heat combined with the inferno inside turned the plant into a sauna. Grease oozed from the gears of the conveyor belts and even up out of the bricks in the floor; both working and walking were a dangerous proposition. We toiled in a steam bath of production quotas, eight, ten, twelve hours a day.

Some vomited in the heat, some passed out, the supervisors handed out salt tablets. From the catwalk, you could see waves of heat quavering over our steaming heads; in the flat and flickering fluorescence light the sweating, moving limbs and machinery were a vision of a different kind of hell.

Angry conflicts spit into the air at the smallest provocation or supervisory order. There was talk of a walk-out but no one dared to face the wrath of the company and union both. Still, out in the parking lot on breaks and at lunchtime, parties sprang from trunks of cars and the backs of station wagons; 8-track tapes played Willie Nelson, Bowie, Marvin Gaye; the beer and weed hidden from the security guards – who got high among themselves.

In this cauldron of heat, rage and music, love affairs bubbled up among single and married alike; furtive grapplings behind storage rooms and rows of stacked wooden pallets, full-blown trysts during the midnight shift in motel rooms on the way home.

The next day was still hot – and you still went back to work.

***

One day, during a break-down on the line, I slipped away. Not far of course, for the line would start up and I’d better be there, or else. I hid behind boxes and machines to furiously read a page or two of Flaubert, Hegel, Hershey.

Not just me, for in the plant there were real scholars. Some discuss issues of the day like career diplomats from their designated spots in the lunchroom, while others study in silent, desperate reading, their brief and hungry moments of escape.

I looked for the best route to dodge the foreman and slipped through the back of the line, tipping careful on the oil-slick floors past the press where a lady had lost two fingers–one in one year and one the next, past the maintenance tool shed, over a skid of supplies, past bins of packing boxes, around the hi-lo shack. Finally, drenched in sweat, I reached my destination, the railcar dock.

Away from the suffocating heat in the plant, it was a fine June day of a hot and bright new summer. I blinked in the clean, clear sunlight, I could smell the hay used to pack equipment and the blue wildflowers and wheat that grew along the railroad tracks. The plant was built on old farmland and there was still a rural beauty to anything that had escaped the industrial maw.

The dock was a massive barn, high and open ended so train cars could be maneuvered in and out on tracks embedded in the floors. A car would be uncoupled, unloaded and emptied of raw materials, then days or weeks later, hitched up and rolled back down the tracks.

The train was a mammoth thing, wheels higher than the top of my head; a sleeping mastodon of black steel. Sometimes a car would be bright red or yellow depending on the cargo, or huge tankers filled with oil.

Young guys, restless and trapped in the plant on the hot summer days, would climb up the sides, twenty feet high, and smoke a joint on top of the car, unseen by nosy supervisors or worrisome chicks.

I listened closely; I was lucky today, all alone. I walked the length of the car and snatched off my hairnet, to feel the breeze blow cool through my braids.

A beam of sunshine from a vent in the roof made a square on the floor ahead of me, and I watched the motes of dust and grain float in a tube of light from the sky to the floor. I walked over and stood in the patch of sun, as if that square of floor-bound light held the last vestige of my life long-ago.

Suddenly, reality and self-pity swirled around me like snow in a globe–my ruined life, friends at proms and graduations, going to summer parties before running off to college, and here was I, a teenager with a child who refused to let parents or welfare help too much, now paying the price for my young lust and pride, defiant and rebellious, tying my fate to those who labored.

I looked into the light but the sun held no answers, I let the sweet June heat replace the steam-bath that I had left on the line. I saw myself, movie-like, from outside myself; a dark, lonely seraph in a column of defeat and light. In a few minutes, it was time to go back to the line.

Well, I thought, I’ll stick it out a while longer, then decide what to do.

A dozen summers later I was still there.

***

I started out telling you about Jolene. It’s been three decades since we met, and,  actually, there’s not much more to say; we stayed friends for a while before she was fired, or walked out of her own accord;  her pretty smile didn’t make up for her smart mouth after maybe too many beers or too much anger about a direct order she didn’t want to follow.

I wonder if she started going with a man, the kind you couldn’t be with and stay beautiful; you had to turn brittle and hard and ready to take a whippin’. I wonder if her face got that punched up look of too many schnapps and bar-fights, if her pretty teeth were gone; if she added many children to that first one, if she met up with cocaine.

Or, if her life turned different than the one she had; if it took an unexpected turn. She maybe ended up a lady with a cultured laugh and high cheekbones, with white-blond hair and pearls. In my memories she’s still young; raw and beautiful as the hills.

I don’t know what happened to her; after those first years of seniority I never saw her again. Even now, when I see a white-blond woman of means – or of no means – I think, sometimes, of Jolene. There’s not much more to tell about her.

So maybe I told you about her so that I could tell you about me. For looking back, of course, my life was not near over, my factory days were clearly no defeat. It was just another row of pieces in the puzzle of my life, a twelve year long stop in my journey of years.

Maybe I just wanted you to know that once I was young with a waist so small a man’s hands could fit all around, with thighs like congas and hip-length braids that blew in the breeze. Once upon a time I had another life.

I once worked in a factory with a girl named Jolene.

by Marsha Music

[This was originally posted on the BellesLettres forum of ThePurists.com, then, in 2002, published in the online magazine Counterpunch, thanks to editor Jeffrey St. Clair and music critic Dave Marsh. It was subsequently published in the hard-copy anthology Serpents In The Garden: Liaisons with Culture and Sex. It is a true tale about working in a suburban Detroit factory, years ago, when I was young.]