Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A View of the Verses

The humor Doug Savage taps into with his cartoon, Savage Chickens, is sheer poetry.
Check out his work by clicking (note I didn't say clucking) here.

I've been on a bit of a streak as of late. I haven't been writing here, but I've been writing. I started work on a memoir, and have been dabbling in poetry - something I haven't done since high school. Take a look at some of the pieces. Hope you enjoy them.

(My mom has a habit of sleeping at her dining room table or in front of her computer in an uncomfortable looking chair. As I watched her sleeping one afternoon, and "Shopgirl" - a kind of melancholy romance - simutaneously played on TV, this poem came to me. It's a combination of the way my mom's sleep looked to me and the mood of the film.)

Hibernation

Arms coiled about her,
like a shield from harm,
an empty approximation ofembraces long past.

Clothing drips from her frame,
her body flows to one side,
a futile dry run at pouring away
her exhaustion, her worry,
her pain that refuses to pass.

Sleep overtakes her
as she sags in her chair.
Breath coming in tentative
gulps of air, like voiceless sobs.
Her body constantly shifting
in vain attempts at comfort.
That brings little relief from
the loneliness borne of
love long past.

Never to return.

A Self Portrait

(I've been feeling a bit lonely lately, but that's partially my own design - and fault. While I've always been a bit of a loner, I find I've been isolating myself more nowadays. This poem comes out of the conflict between wanting to be alone, yet sometimes wanting companionship.)

I do not fear solitude.
The silence, sometimes deafening in its quiet,
is also a blanket of peace and calm that surrounds me.

I do not fear the cliché of having
cats about my feet.
My feline companions do not complain,
do not take advantage,
do not lash out in anger,
or betray my trust
in some unspeakable, cruel way.

I do not fear the words
Alone.
Solo.
Table for one.
By myself.
Some try and use them as
weapons of mass destruction
upon my ego,
my pride.
But I take comfort in being able
To follow my own path.
Come and go as I please.
Answer to no one.
Indulge in my own unique pleasures.

Alone is a badge of honor,
not a source of shame.

What I fear
is that one day I may lose the grace
to embrace my solitude,
hold it close to me,
and that I shall
cry out in vain
for a companion who cannot come
because that companion
does not exist.

The Ballad of Lil' Man

(This poem is a true story. I met Lil' Man coming home from work this summer. We need more like him in our neighborhoods.)

Lil’ Man had a plan.
Ball in hand, he would:
Make a run,
turn and gun,
and drive it to the hole.

There was no basket
on the barren street corner
Didn’t matter, no stress.
He would handle his business,
making his points much bolder.
Lil’ Man was going to be a legend
on that corner.

So he went for his shot.
Driving the lane,
strong and plain,
made his turn, held his spot
Let the ball go, and made his shot….

Way off target! He missed.
Lil’ Man’s friends tried to diss.
He wasn’t hearin’ it.
Held up his head, turned a little red,
but he was not gonna cry.
Not one tear would he shed.

“Hey ma’am,” he said instead
in a proud tone,
Adding as much bass
as a six year old can own,
“Can you bring me my ball?”

As it rolled across the street,
I kept my smile discreet.
Put my car in park,
got out, and did my part.
Taking the ball back to Lil’ Man.

Standing tall against the teasing,
I couldn’t hold back,
watching him summon his pride.
I was cheesing, my grin bright and wide
As I walked to Lil’ Man.
“Here you go, sweetie. Be careful.”
“Thank you ma’am,” he said, grateful,
as he reached for his ball.
“Umm ma’am, are you a teacher?”
he asked, eyes wide and eager.

“No sweetie,” I said with a smile,
thinking all the while:
“You’re the teacher on this street,
showing your boys to go for your dream
no matter how big it seems.
Add grace to your defeat.
Don’t let taunts beat
your soul away,
Exercise care and thought,
instead of acting out
on the spur of the moment.

As I drove away from the block,
Lil’ Man gave a quick shout,
of “Thank you!”
before going back to the corner,
to hold it down at the basket,
and be the dream’s owner
once again.


Sight Lines

(This is the poem, a tribute to my cousin - a very gifted painter - came to me one day, almost as though it were being dictated to me by some spirit. I've posted this before, but I thought it would be good to repost it with some of my other work.)

When you look at me,
perhaps you see a man
of quiet, calm demeanor.
A wit that’s quick.
Wisdom that’s plain and simple.

But I hope that you see,
when you look closer at me
43 years of a story that has at its heart
a love of the art of the oil,
the canvas and the brush.

A love of charcoal and pencil that glide across
paper with all the skill I can muster.
Of watercolor and ink,
every type, every color,
a conduit for me
to tell you the stories
I want you to see when you

Look at me.

If you only see what’s on the surface,
then you miss the crux of my story.
The strength of my father, who let nothing;
not the hatred that came with the struggle for integration,
nor the tyranny of a gradually immobile body,
keep him from moving, striving, creating.
That pride he lovingly passed along to me,
and I pass on to you
when you look at my canvas.

Look closer. There it is.
The knowledge I glean from the voices of
Malcolm,
Cockburn,
Amiri.
The faith nurtured in me by
Nomine Patris, Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
The visual representation of the melodies of
Bird,
Monk,
Duke,
Basie.
My interpretation of the gifts of
Caravaggio,
Rembrandt,
Bacon,
Freud,
Delaney.
The eloquence of Baldwin.
The flow of Fassbinder.
A lyricism rivaling the story of Panchali.

I know you see green when you look at me.
Not envy, but in my roots.
Planted by the nurturing hands of Cecilia and C.T.
Blossomed in the greenhouse of creativity on Kirby,
Made whole in the ivy that surrounds me
(which, by the way sports a vivid red, black and green
in the midst of all that blue).
Growing in the park that thrives in the heart
of the Empire State clear through to my soul in Motown.

Don’t look past all this when you look at me.
If you do, then you’re looking at,
but don’t really see
My pride.
My knowledge.
My struggle.
My love.
It’s right here.
It’s me on the canvas.


More later, as the inspiration strikes. In the meantime, come and visit me on Facebook. New friends are always welcome.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

A View of Remembrance


Today, my thoughts inevitably turn to fear and hope.

The fear in my mother's voice, a twisted wail of grief, anguish, disbelief, and anger, as she described to me the collapse of the towers: "They fell! The towers are gone! They're gone...they're gone...they're gone...." The hope that the the victims so randomly struck by the swift and sudden chaos, the first responders bravely doing the work we so often forget puts their lives at risk, died bravely and without undue suffering.

The hope that my cousin, who lived in New York at the time and sometimes visited a friend who had a studio in one of the towers, was out of harm's way. The fear that he and his friend had been hurt or had perished. The hope that came with relief as we learned he was nowhere near the madness that was downtown New York City, mixed with the fear grief brings when we learned his friend died in the collapse of the towers.

The hope that thrived in the hearts of people in the Trade Center towers who jumped to their deaths, fearful of the horror of dying in the raging flames surrounding them and facing the fear of unknown suffering as they plunging towards the ground below. The fear in the hearts and minds of the people trapped in the Trade Center towers, in the hallways of the Pentagon, on planes traveling anywhere unsure of what terror was in the skies and hurtling toward the ground and unsuspecting victims, unable to do anything to stop the senseless violence.

The hope of the passengers in the plane that crashed into an open field in Pennsylvania that their inevitable deaths would save others from their fate, that they would not die in vain. The fear they shared of being powerless to save themselves from unspeakable evil.

The hope that today, as we move through our daily routines, we all take some time - even just one moment to remember those we lost on this day. The hope that we all take some time - even just a moment - to help someone in need in remembrance of the loss and to build the hope that we can still have the capacity to love and care for one another, not giving into the fear of distrust and hate that can easily arise after such a catastrophic loss.

Remember the fallen on this National Day of Service and Remembrance. Embrace the hope of a new peace and reject the fear being promoted that to serve is to disgrace the memory of those we lost.

More later, but know that fear breeds contempt. Hope springs eternal.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A View of the Sight Line

A tribute to my cousin Richard on his birthday.


When you look at me,
perhaps you see a man
of quiet, calm demeanor.
A wit that’s quick.
Wisdom that’s plain and simple.

But I hope that you see,
when you look closer at me
43 years of a story that has at its heart
a love of the art of the oil,
the canvas and the brush.

A love of charcoal and pencil that glide across
paper with all the skill I can muster.
Of watercolor and ink,
every type, every color,
a conduit for me
to tell you the stories
I want you to see when you

Look at me.

If you only see what’s on the surface,
then you miss the crux of my story.
The strength of my father, who let nothing;
not the hatred that came with the struggle for integration,
nor the tyranny of a gradually immobile body,
keep him from moving, striving, creating.
That pride he lovingly passed along to me,
and I pass on to you
when you look at my canvas.

Look closer. There it is.
The knowledge I glean from the voices of
Malcolm,
Cockburn,
Amiri.
The faith nurtured in me by
Nomine Patris, Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
The visual representation of the melodies of
Bird,
Monk,
Duke,
Basie.
My interpretation of the gifts of
Caravaggio,
Rembrandt,
Bacon,
Freud,
Delaney.
The eloquence of Baldwin.
The flow of Fassbinder.
A lyricism rivaling the story of Panchali.

I know you see green when you look at me.
Not envy, but in my roots.
Planted by the nurturing hands of Cecilia and C.T.
Blossomed in the greenhouse of creativity on Kirby,
Made whole in the ivy that surrounds me
(which, by the way sports a vivid red, black and green
in the midst of all that blue).
Growing in the park that thrives in the heart
of the Empire State clear through to my soul in Motown.

Don’t look past all this when you look at me.
If you do, then you’re looking at,
but don’t really see
My pride.
My knowledge.
My struggle.
My love.
It’s right here.
It’s me on the canvas.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

A View of Paralysis

"Real Life Adventures" is a strip that captures the humor in all manner of awkward situations.
Click on the comic to see more adventures and learn more about the artists.

"I love how you feel. You don't know how long I've been waiting for this."

Whispered in my ear in a tone as soft as gossamer, he pulled me closer - a caress as firm as it was gentle. We'd been in my living room doorway for almost 15 minutes. One kiss hello had led to several kisses. I wanted to say something witty and clever in return, give a response that was equal parts flirty, funny, and full of the attraction I was feeling. Instead, all I could manage to say was a barely audible "thank you" that was more blush than burn.

It scarcely seemed to matter to him. He smiled and leaned in for another kiss, pulling me just a touch closer towards him, and ever so subtly grinding into me to show that no, it wasn't some object in his pocket and yes, he was quite happy to see me. And as good as it felt to be touched, desired, wanted, I could scarcely move. The intimacy of the moment clashed with the sudden realization that this man was as attracted to me as I was to him had paralyzed me.

We were going to dinner, my date and I. We'd met for coffee a couple of times before, quick dates lasting an hour or so, just long enough to decide whether or not we wanted to see each other again. Each meeting ended with a lingering kiss good night that felt good but a bit perfunctory. This time, he told me he wanted to pick me up at home, open doors for me, give me a good night kiss at my front door at the end of the evening.

"I can't wait to see you again," he said. "It's going to feel so good to kiss you."

I didn't believe him - rather I didn't want to believe him. Being open to that feeling of desire also meant being open to the possibility of being hurt again, and I'm not ready to go there again.

When he arrived at my door, I had no choice except to believe. He greeted me with the long, lingering kiss he promised. Then another. And yet another. It was my first date in months, and I looked forward to seeing him again. When he kissed me, it was so easy to respond in kind. My date was an attractive, desirable man and it felt good to desired by someone like him.

Still, I could feel myself holding back out of...what? Fear? Definitely, but of what kind? Moving too quickly? Rejection? The possibility that perhaps the attraction he said he had for me was a lie? It was hard to say, especially since his kiss and his embrace was so convincing, so real.

I had to pull back after a moment to catch my breath and gather my feelings. I tried to look at him, but could barely make eye contact. What was I seeing on his face? Part of me saw the look of a man enjoying an intimate moment with a woman he wanted to get to know better. Another part saw the leer of a man who simply wanted a somewhat easy lay and had the perfect opportunity right in front of him in an emotionally conflicted date. Which one was right?

I didn't know. I reached out and caressed his cheek with a hesitant smile, as though I'd be able to read his thoughts with a simple touch. He didn't let go. Returning my hesitant smile with a brighter, more confident one he leaned in for yet another kiss.

"If we keep this up, we're never going to go to dinner," I said.

"Don't worry," he replied. "We have plenty of time." I could barely make out the end of the sentence, the words blurring into a tender kiss.

I relaxed a little more, doing all I could to enjoy the moment and let go.

More later, because learning to move past the fear is a series of small, incremental steps.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

A View of Appearances


Chantay Savage - I Will Survive


The day seemed picture perfect.

I was out on the water, taking in the sun and enjoying the view of the lake and all the posh homes along the lakefront from a pontoon boat. Invited to an appreciation luncheon with other assistants, it was a rare midday treat. A chance to kick back, relax, enjoy a tasty beverage, and have fun with some of my colleagues from work.

And it was nice. The sky was as blue as the water, bright and clear - as though it had been painted. Looking out on the water, the rays of the sun almost looked like diamonds bouncing off the soft waves. Lily pads dotted the surface of the water, and tall pond grass swayed softly in the light breeze. There we sat, about 20 of us, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and the camraderie of the day. All manner of people were along the shore - grilling burgers and corn, taking a quick swim, sitting on chaise lounges to catch some rays, working on their homes, or watching a boat load of laughing women sipping from plastic disposable cups watch them. Almost on cue, a swan glided across the water, its feathers so white it was almost invisible in the light of the sun.

"The turtles eat them, you know. We've got snapping turtles in the lake, and they just pop up and pull the swans under the water and eat them. It's sad sometimes, watching a mama look for her babies and they've just been pulled under."

The woman driving the boat said this matter of factly, catching all of us off guard. A flurry of "No way!" and "You're kidding!" rushed from our mouths like a quick gust of air. A couple of us looked down at the water, as though we expected a turtle to leap out of the lake and pull one of us in as easily as our captain said one grabs a swan. How can something that seemed so benign and harmless be suddenly so threatening?

Just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving.

Much like our hostess, the captain of the pontoon boat who seemed so happy and together as she greeted her guests. Every year, the group of us gets together for an appreciation lunch thrown by our bosses. This year, the hostess offered her home on the lakeshore as an ideal location. A tent was erected on the backyard lawn next to her tiki bar. A buffet lunch was set up in the garage that was so organized and clean, it seemed as though it had never held a car. Her home was beautifully appointed - floor to ceiling windows that provided a view of the lake made for a magazine spread, perfectly coordinated furnishings, decorations lovingly selected to highlight and enhance the newly renovated home. A photo album dedicated to chronicling the work done to transform the house from a timeworn one story ranch to a three story modern showplace sat on the granite island in the kitchen. It seemed perfect - a reflection of a couple's love, hard work, and dedication to each other.

Appearances can be deceiving. Our hostess showed us the photo album and took us on a tour of the house fighting back tears the entire time.

"I thought we were building a life together," she said, choking up. "I don't understand how all of this happened. I don't know how much longer I'll be here."

Her story came out in unexpected quick bursts during lunch as the guests arrived. If you asked her for a drink, to use the restroom, or the name of the caterer, you were as likely to get the expected answer ("Sure, the tiki bar is to the right...just go up the stairs and it's the first door on the left...you know, I can't remember, let me get you a card...."), as you were a sudden rushed confessional:

"I'dlovetotellyoubutIjustcaughtmyhusbandsleepingwithanothermanand
Ithrewhimouthow'boutadrink'causetodayisallabouthavingfun," followed by a self conscious laugh and an abrupt change of subject to the weather or the week at work. The life she'd been building with her husband had been snapped up and pulled under with the discovery of his infidelity and deception. He'd been cheating on her with other men and women the entire time they'd been together. When caught, he offered no apology, no explanation, nothing. What seemed like the perfect relationship had all been a lie.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Just like that, a lunch that usually about the usual conversations - demanding bosses, challenging workloads, the upcoming busy season, and promises to keep in touch - turned into fellowship and sisterhood. We shared our stories about relationships gone wrong, how we healed, said it was okay to cry, and really got to know each other. We offered names of lawyers ("Girl, he helped me out and I know he'll help you...."), books to read, invitations to girl's night out whenever she needed, shoulders to cry on, whatever she needed to get through, get by, get past the hurt and shock. Our hostess was grateful and seemed surprised by the support she received. The end of her marriage is still new - the confrontation she shared in a sudden stream of consciousness confession had only taken place a couple of months earlier - but we were all old friends, willing to talk when she couldn't, listen when she could, hug and laugh to make the pain go away.

As we sat on that boat, floating through the water, I looked at the homes and families along the shore. It all looked so picture perfect, houses that anyone would covet, parents and children playing in the yards, boats in slips ready for a sail, swans swimming past proudly displaying their grace and beauty. I looked at my hostess, trying her best to stay cheerful as she pointed out homes, telling the stories of her neighbors and the lakeshore. She was smiling, punctuating her stories with a quick laugh or an off the cuff joke.

Appearances can be deceiving though, because every once in a while she'd quickly wipe away a tear or her voice would crack just a little - her heartbreak peeking through ever so slightly, like one of those unseen turtles in the lake taking a quick peek out of its shell to grab the little bit of happiness she occasionally set free.

More later, but not before I say to my friend that this hurt will pass and everything will work out. Stay strong, hang on, don't let this hurt steal your joy. You will survive.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

A View of Coloring Outside of the Lines


Actual conversation at the Concert of Colors:

Clown: Did you hear about that actress who got stabbed today? Her name was Reese...Reese...oh what's her last name?

Me: Witherspoon?

Clown: No. With a knife.

Click of the camera just as I groan. Did you know it's possible to play a rim shot on an accordian?

More later, and here's hoping my colorful friend didn't steal that bit from Michael Rosenberg.

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A View of the Colors

"Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue. I can sing a rainbow...."

So the other day, I was clicking through my daily website reading list and came across an interesting article in the Detroit Free Press.

It was supposed to be a lighter side of the news piece about Detroit's sister city relationships with seven other cities across the globe. The piece, written by Michael Rosenberg, read like a bad Jerry Seinfeld routine:

"What exactly does it mean to be "sister cities"? Do you gossip about male cities? Can you borrow each other's outfits? In the '80s, did the mayor of one sister city send a mix tape to the mayor of the other sister city?"

I'm not sure what the point of the article was supposed to be, but the gist of it seems to be that Mr. Rosenberg doesn't think sister cities serve much purpose. I'm not even sure if he truly means that, or if he was trying to be funny because he also said he didn't think the idea of a brother city would work either.

"Brother cities would never call each other. Occasionally, the mayors would play golf together, but when they were done, they would go back to their cities and everybody would ask what was going on in the brother city, and the mayor would say 'I don't know, I didn't ask, but I putted great.' "

Are you laughing yet?

Me neither.

In case you didn't know it, Detroit's sister cities are Chongqing, China; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Kitwe, Zambia; Minsk, Belarus; Nassau, Bahamas; Toyota City, Japan; and Turin, Italy. The oldest and most active sister city relationship is between Detroit and Toyota City, with student and cultural exchanges going back almost 50 years. I'm proud to say that I'm part of that history, having been part of the student group that represented Detroit in Toyota City back in 1984. My group spent just over one month visiting Toyota, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nagoya, learning about the country and its culture as guests of Toyota City and seven host families. We learned about language, history, food, music, religion, pop culture, family dynamics, geography - it was a total immersion into life outside of the comforts of home for both us in the group and the families who hosted us.

It was an invaluable experience, one I'll never forget.

My guess is that Mr. Rosenberg's indifference to a sister city program may come from the recent reports of the abuse of emergency funds by Detroit officials, with money being used as a personal piggy bank by the Kilpatrick administration. Back in 2006, Kizzi Montgomery, an intergovernmental liaison for Mr. Kilpatrick, used about $5,800 to take the Japanese delegation from the Detroit/Toyota program on a trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario - a blatant misuse of the emergency fund. It's sad that the program has to suffer a blow to its reputation because of the actions of a corrupt administration. Looking on the sister cities page of the City of Detroit website, it appears the exchange program only exists on a technical basis, and that trips between the cities have been suspended.

In light of this, I'd like to make a recommendation to Mr. Rosenberg to check out next year's Concert of Colors. The yearly event is hosted by ACCESS (The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services), offering a plethora of music, dance, food, community activism, information exchange, and much more across all cultures. Here's the best part - admission to the event is free.

At this year's Concert of Colors, I saw an East Indian dance troupe from the School of World Music & Dance:

video

Watched an enthusiastic crowd help an Afro-Cuban singer with the group BombaRica celebrate her birthday by dancing in a conga line:

video

Caught an excellent show by the band Yo La Tenga. The main stage artists had a ban on any photography and recording, so here's a clip of the band in action that I found on You Tube.



Talked local politics and found some gorgeous jewelry that I could not resist at the Beads, Baubles & Gems of Southfield booth - a custom jewelry merchant created by two sisters. Take a look and give them a call if you'd like a trinket or three at 248-910-2047.



I also caught up with old friends (What's up Beth, Kathy, Chris, B.J., and John!), got a chance to explore the Max M. Fisher Music Center - home of the Concert of Colors, had a great dinner at Union Street (I recommend the Lobster & Cilantro Pizza), and had a wonderful time learning about all the cultures that make Detroit so great. I didn't even scratch the surface of everything there was to do at the two day event.

It was like a mini sister city exchange program in the space of two blocks. Start here, Mr. Rosenberg, and you'll learn that establishing relationships and cultural exchange across the globe is as pretty as all the colors of the rainbow.

More later, but remember all the cool kids shun xenophobia. If you can't travel abroad, check out one of the local ethnic festivals in your area. Enjoy the music, the people, the food and the fun - and if you aren't careful, you might learn something before it's done. (My apologies to Bill.)

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A View of Can't See For Looking

Continuing the theme of what do you see, take a look at the picture below. What do you see?















Some people see what's in this text, which is from an e-mail making the rounds on the web. You may have received it from a friend like I did this week:

Recently, Michelle Obama went to serve food to the homeless at a government funded soup kitchen.

Cost of a bowl of soup at homeless shelter: $0 dollars.

Having Michelle Obama serve your soup: $0 dollars.

A person who is receiving government funded meals while taking a picture of the First Lady using his $500 BlackBerry cell phone: Priceless.

Pretty funny, whether or not you're an Obama supporter, liberal, conservative, or just don't care one way or the other.

But look again at the photo. What do you see?

I'll wait.

Keep looking.

There. Did you catch it?

What homeless shelter do you know of that serves Mushroom Risotto? Or uses romaine lettuce?
There's more to this photo than meets the eye. Anyone willing to laugh, but look past the obvious could've merely typed in the phrase, "Obama serving in a soup kitchen" into the search engine of his or her choice. Once they did, they would've received a link to one of my favorite sites, the Urban Legends Reference Pages. This site dedicates itself to clearing up all sorts of internet rumors, urban legends, half-truths, and stories that seem to good to be true but sometimes are true.

This photo op, according to the good people at Snopes, falls under the half-truth category. The photo was taken back in March 2009 at Miriam's Kitchen, a social service agency in the Washington D.C. area. It's a privately funded organization, not taxpayer or government funded as stated in the e-mail. Moreover, it's not clear if the person with the cell phone is homeless, a volunteer, a guest, or staff member. Nor is it clear if the phone is a BlackBerry device, or if it's worth $500. Not only that, cell phones aren't necessarily for the affluent anymore given the proliferation of pay as you go phones available in many convenience stores throughout the country.

It's like my mom used to say all the time: Sometimes people can't see for looking. For another example of this, check out this story about President Obama checking out a woman's backside during the recent G8 Summit.

Or is he?

More later, and keep those eyes peeled y'all.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A View of What Do You See



"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." -Quote from "The Matrix."

This post is the fault of two people - City Council members Ken Cockrel, Jr. and Martha Reeves. During a discussion of the sudden proliferation of billboards in the city promoting Colt 45 malt liquor and what (if any) action should be taken, the two made observations that were the living embodiment of the famous quote from "The Matrix."

Mr. Cockrel noted while he was critical of the advertisements, the breweries wouldn't target our community so heavily if the residents weren't so quick to buy the product. "We also have to check ourselves," he was quoted as saying. "I see a lot of people buying 40 ounces."

Ms. Reeves, on the other hand, decided to focus on aesthetics. She was unhappy about the way the billboards made Billy Dee Williams, who's portrayed in caricature in the advertisements looked. "He's ugly," she's quoted as saying.

Blue pill. Red pill. When you look around you, what do you see?

After reading this story, I decided it was time for me to take a look around, go down the rabbit hole if you will, and really look at my world. My drive to work takes me up Woodward Avenue, the main artery of the city. The thoroughfare passes through business districts and residential neighborhoods. It's a major transportation hub for commuters - whether by car, bus, bike, or on foot. People of all walks of life travel on Woodward.

It was also the site of my last post, the story of Jane and her daily drinking binges.

Where better to see what the world sees? I chose to study all the billboards on a stretch of Woodward between Six Mile Road (McNichols) and I-696. It covered roughly an equal distance in both the city and the border suburbs of Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge. There are several intersections along the way with a variety of businesses, meeting places, and gathering spots along the way.

My first stop was at the intersection of Six Mile Road (McNichols in the city) and Woodward. This is the border of Detroit and Highland Park, just south of the first mile of paved concrete highway in the world. The area was used for major location shooting during the making of the 2008 Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. It's also a snapshot of two cities in decline; surrounded by neglected residential areas, abandoned businesses, and vice. The main businesses at the intersection are Deja Vu, a strip club (their slogan is "1000's of Beautiful Girls and Three Ugly Ones"); Uptown Bookstore, an adult bookstore which features a walk-up window where patrons can purchase lottery tickets without having to enter the store:

There's also Snethkamp Chrysler Jeep, a dealership spared the threat of closure during the recent bankruptcy filing; and a Valero gas station that has a buffet soul food restaurant inside its lobby. There's also a taxi garage, a dry cleaners, two additional adult bookstores (one stays open 24 hours), a motel that advertises hourly rates, a bar, a Powerhouse Gym with attached physical therapy center, a recently closed beauty supply store, a candy shop, a hip-hop clothing & music shop, a couple of barber/beauty shops - all mom & pop operated - and three churches. There are several billboards in this area. The largest is over the gas station - one of the Colt 45 ads the Council was debating. There's also a very large billboard on top of Deja Vu promoting the club. There are smaller billboards over the garage selling motorcycles, $1 soft drinks at McDonald's, auto insurance, and the services of personal injury lawyer Sam Bernstein ("Injured? We come to you!").

On the northwest corner, is a billboard guaranteed to catch the eye:

It's positioned so that's it's easily seen by all commuters in all directions. It's next to an apartment building, right at the edge of one of the residential neighborhoods and just at the entrance to Palmer Park. The billboard promotes a service, but when you look at it what do you see? What does it say to you about the target audience for the product? The neighborhood in which it's located? What sort of feeling do you get as you view it?

Now combine those answers with the description of the neighborhood. The businesses located nearby. The other billboards surrounding it. Now what do you see? How do you feel?

Now add this fact to your thinking: Not more than a tenth of a mile away, in the shadow of La Dolce Vita (an upscale restaurant); an abandoned and vandalized landromat, and a small mosque, is a second Colt 45 billboard - smaller in size but identical in content - posted over a campaign ad for a City Council candidate.


Abdullah Bey El-Amin is being reported as the first imam to appear on a Detroit ballot. His billboard talks about making Detroit great again, and asks the community to demand good leaders. It's completely overshadowed by a caricature of Billy Dee Williams selling alcohol.

What do you see when you look at this photo? How does this photo make you feel? Does the position of the alcohol billboard positively or negatively impact your opinion of El-Amin? Does it impact your opinion at all? What does the juxtaposition of these advertisements make you think of the community where they are displayed?

About a mile north is the intersection of Woodward and Seven Mile Road. This intersection is a bit unique, in that its the meeting point of a residential neighborhood and a business district. Among the businesses you will find in this area are the Palmer Park Golf Course, a BP gas station, a McDonald's restaurant (an online search shows it may be up for sale), an ice cream parlor, Dutch Girl Donuts (some of the best donuts in town), and the Goldengate Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant and holistic treatment center. On the northwest side of the street is the southern border of the Palmer Woods neighborhood, an upscale community in northwest Detroit. The east side of the street is more working class, decaying as you continue further east. There's a construction site for a church that's been in the works for years now, and more abandoned or burned out businesses. It's also part of an area on the east side of the city being plagued by a serial rapist who has attacked four young women and attempted an attack on a fifth. As of today, he's still at large.

The billboards in this intersection include public service announcements for a drug treatment center and the upcoming primary election displayed, advertising for senior citizens housing, and another appearance by Billy Dee's Colt 45 billboard. That's three identical advertisements for the same product on the same side of the street in a mile span.

Looking at these facts, what do you see? What does this tell you about the community? About its residents? About the way the business community views the neighborhood?

The next major intersection is a biggie - it's the border between Detroit and its northern suburbs at Eight Mile Road. The Eight Mile rhapsodized in Eminem's movie. The Eight Mile Road that Coleman Young so famously told criminals to hit and keep going after being elected to his first term as mayor back in 1973 - a line that many feel sparked the ongoing animosity between Detroit and the suburbs for the past few decades.

At this intersection is a fly-over for traffic continuing north or south on Woodward, and turn around local lanes for those needing to access Eight Mile Road or any of the handful of businesses and homes in the area. On the north side of the road, there's Ferndale. There are a couple of auto dealerships, a cleaning supply store, a White Castle restaurant, a diner, and a hotel with hourly rates. On the south side is a Catholic church, the Green Acres neighborhood, a Chinese restaurant, a cemetery, a lawn supply shop, another hourly rates motel, and the northern end of the Michigan State Fairgrounds. The future of the Michigan State Fair is in limbo - the state is cutting funding for the fair after this year, and there's been talk of eliminating the fair completely. The northern end of the grounds have been empty for years, and plans for a shopping center have materialized and fallen apart. The most recent plans include the possibility of a Meijer store, but nothing has been finalized.

At this intersection are three very large billboards. One advertises the services of the Detroit Medical Center. One is a promotional billboard for Motor City Casino's Sound Board concert venue. The third is for WADL-TV's "Classic Comedy Block" of afternoon programming. A third of the bottom is covered in very large, very bright graffiti.




Here are some questions to ponder: How did the graffiti artist (or artists) get up on the billboard - which is brightly lit at night and positioned for maximum viewing - and paint without being noticed? If someone did notice, did they report what they saw? How come the billboard has been allowed to stay up without being cleaned up? Why vandalize this particular billboard? How long did it take to tag the billboard? Was more than one trip required?

There's is a fourth large billboard on the southwest corner of the intersection advertising the gourmet burger menu at MGM Grand Casino's Bourbon Steak, but the way it's positioned only allows for viewing when traveling south on Woodward. There's also a small, building mounted billboard on the northeast corner of the intersection advertising Everfresh juice, but it's not very visible either.

If you go a bit further north, you reach the intersection of Woodward and Nine Mile Road in the heart of downtown Ferndale. There are almost too many businesses and services to mention: two churches, three cemeteries, a gas station, two theaters - The Ringwald and the Magic Bag - a post office, a bank, a car rental agency, an insurance agency, a drugstore, a cellular phone store, Metro Parent magazine's offices, a school, a self-storage facility, an optical shop, and numerous restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. I know I'm leaving out some places in this list, but you get the idea of how it's thriving. I only saw one completely empty commercial space passing by - and it's being renovated for occupancy. Two other spaces north of Nine Mile are about to lose their tenants - the stores are in the process of holding going out of business sales.

The billboards in the area were for businesses like Body Morph, a fitness training facility (there were two for this company - one to consumers and one recruiting sales & fitness workers); TNT Televison, for a new show called "Dark Blue"; a public service ad advocating smoke free workspaces; a promo ad for Panera Bread; an advertisement for an upcoming Demi Lovato/David Archuleta concert.

I only saw two billboards advertising liquor - one over the Magic Bag Theatre for Molson Beer, and one over Flagstar Bank for Corona Beer.

Here's what I didn't see: Abandoned, boarded up buildings. Fields or lots choked with overgrown weeds. Garbage on the streets. Graffiti. Billy Dee Williams with his can of Colt 45.

In all of the neighborhoods, I saw people who were friendly - offering a smile and saying hello when spoken to. I saw people going to work, or hanging out with friends. Below Eight Mile, I only saw African-American people walking along Woodward. Above Eight Mile, the majority of people were white. There were more people jogging, walking dogs, or bike riding above Eight Mile. Below Eight Mile, there were more people waiting for busses.

No one spoke until spoken to. No one asked why I was taking notes or pictures. Very few people looked up at the billboards until they saw me taking pictures.

Here's a question to ponder: When they looked up, looked around, what do you think they saw? Do they see what's around them - and what do they think about their surroundings?

I think both Ms. Reeves and Mr. Cockrel had, in their own way, good observations. The image of Billy Dee and his can of Colt 45 are ugly, in that it promotes a way not to notice the world around you. Colt 45 "working every time" is an escape from reality - a red pill of sorts. The idea that people need to pay attention to what they consume and that marketers will only target areas in which consumers demand the products they sell is also on point. We create the reality in which we live.

Still I think both Ms. Reeves and Mr. Cockrel missed one point: What we see is often what we think we are. And the billboards I saw when I looked around my neighborhood were one bitter blue pill to swallow. We've got a lot of work to do to improve our point of view folks.

More later, but not before I invite you to take the journey I took up and down Woodward Avenue. Take a good hard look all around. Get out of your car and take in the neighborhoods on foot. You might be surprised at what you truly see when you do.

I should also mention that the links and pictures included in this post are not necessarily endorsements for products, services, or candidates by me. They're just snapshots of what I saw in my journey down the rabbit hole.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

A View of It Happens Everyday


I hop in my car at the end of a long work week. It's Friday! Time to enjoy a relaxing weekend. But first some errands, just like I do everyday. Stop and get gas, pick up some potting soil and a new planter for an office plant that needs more space, think about picking up something for dinner before deciding to cook something when I get home.
I'm driving down Woodward, just like I do everyday, enjoying some music, happy to feel a cool breeze coming through my windows, when I see something I don't see everyday.
There was a woman on the corner of Woodward and Glendale. She was slumped over in a wheelchair, her right hand grazing the pavement. Her hair fell forward in her face, her feel slack on the sidewalk. She was wearing black knit shorts, worn down flip flops (or should I say a worn down flip flop - one had come off her foot), and a black and white plaid shirt that was almost completely open. The way she was positioned in the chair and the way she was slumped over, it was hard to tell if she were male or female.
The driver in front of me blew his horn in an attempt to rouse her. She didn't move. At that moment, the light changed and it was time to move on. Just like drivers do everyday. I had to pull forward and drive through the parking lot of the gas station across the street in order to circle back into the parking lot she was in front of and call the police.
As I was on the phone with a dispatcher, a woman walked by the woman in the chair. She tapped her on the shoulder, and for the first time since I'd seen her, the woman in the chair moved. It was a slight nod of her head, just enough for the passerby to assume she was okay. She kept on walking. The dispatcher told me an ambulance and a squad car was on the way - someone had called a couple of minutes earlier. I hung up the phone, turned off the car, and got out.
"Ma'am? Are you okay?" I asked walking toward her. She barely moved. I noticed an old bandage about six inches long taped on her leg. It looked like hadn't been changed in several days.
"Ma'am? Are you okay?" I got a bit closer. By now, I could see that she hadn't had a bath in at least a day or two. The bare foot was ashy and dirty, almost black on the bottom. She looked up slightly and murmured something, but I couldn't hear what. She looked old and neglected. Her teeth were ragged, her lips dry and a little chapped. She barely opened her eyes.
I started to go a little closer, but I was afraid to touch her. I didn't know what was wrong with her. Was she having a seizure? Hypoglycemic? High? Combative? I didn't know what to do.
Fortunately by this time, the ambulance was pulling up. At the same time, a man was approaching the corner. He was shaking his head.
"She does this everyday," he said, as the EMT was walking up to the woman in the wheelchair. Almost simultaneously, the EMT spoke to the woman.
"Jane (not her real name)? Have you been drinking again?"
"I had to put her out of the gas station," the man standing next to me said. "She comes over to the gas station and hangs out with the other drunks. We have to throw her out everyday."
The second EMT asked the two of us some questions about her. How long had she been there on the corner? Just a few minutes. The two men she'd been drinking with wheeled her across the street and left her on the corner before they took off. How much had she had to drink? The men had thrown away and empty fifth of vodka before wheeling her away from the gas station. How long had it been since a call went in to 911? When I talked to the dispatcher, it was 6:44. The dispatcher told me she'd received a call about the woman at 6:38.
"I don't know why she's in that chair," the man next to me said. "She can walk, you know. She lives right across the street.'
By now, the woman was sitting up a little straighter in her chair, though she was still slumped over. The first EMT buttoned up her shirt as he asked her what she wanted.
"I just want to go home," she said. Her words slurred. The EMT stepped back, flinching from the smell of alcohol on her breath. The second EMT began unloading a gurney from the back of the ambulance. At about this point, a squad car arrived.
"Jane? Are you okay?" The police officers knew her by name, too.
"It's the usual," said the first EMT. "She's had a lot to drink today."
The man next to me worked at the gas station across the street. He said this happens everyday. Jane comes to the station to panhandle and drink. She has too much and gets kicked out, passes out, or both. The police and an ambulance show up, get her some treatment, then take her home.
"It happens everyday," the man from the gas station said. Shaking his head, he walked away. I asked the EMT if he needed anything else from me. When he said no, I began to walk to my car. I looked back, and I saw them preparing to put her on the gurney. The cops and the EMTs talked to her and each other, handling her with care, trying to joke with her and each other.
I got in my car and headed down Woodward towards home. Just like I do everyday.
More later, but I can't help but wonder if she's okay. And I hope that the same thing that happens to her everday doesn't happen to her tomorrow. If you know anyone who has a drinking problem, please get in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous, your doctor, or trusted adviser for assistance on how to help that person; and Al-Anon to get help for yourself on how to cope with a loved one's addiction. Keep your eyes open as you go about your day-to-day affairs, and don't be afraid to provide any assistance if you see someone in trouble or something that isn't right - even if that assistance is simply calling 911. For every person who stopped, there were at least ten who kept on going as though nothing was wrong. Everyday will just keep happening the same as it does unless we try to do just one thing a little different.

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