I was driving home after a party one night with my right hand covering my right eye while the left held the steering wheel and attempted to keep the car on the road. It wasn't easy to keep that piece-of-shit Ford Escort from bouncing off curbs. It was February and the roads were icy and the tires were bald. This wasn't the West, and I never learned how to drive wretched roads streaked in ice and snow. We must've hit the curb at least a half-dozen times along Woodward Avenue after it narrowed into downtown — after heading the wrong-way on one-way streets doubly obscured by the snow and that steam that spews from Detroit's manhole covers — on our way to Beaubien Street, where we lived.
Riding shotgun was my girlfriend Jenna, who was mostly passed out. She was in a foul mood too, and had that grudging jaw. When I swerved to avoid what I thought was a duck and slammed into a giant pothole, which was momentarily sobering enough because I realized there was no duck wandering across the below-freezing Detroit street, Jenna's head bounced hard against the passenger's side window. That got her going about my shitty driving. Then she went off on the blue-hairs stepping from the garish Greektown Casino into idling shuttle busses at 2 a.m., armed with shoulder-bag oxygen tanks. At this hour the buses and the casino's pulsing arteries of gold and its phallic neon sign provided the only lights in downtown Detroit, lights that delivered those old folks to places far from the city's wreckage. That they are even here at this hour in the morning was always a wonder.
We made it home. No matter how drunk we were on any given night, or whose eye was negotiating the actual roadways, no matter where we were in Detroit, we'd always managed to pull that dented Escort into that ugly, dark, pot-holed parking lot and stumble into our building. It was miraculous. Of course, it never hurt our chances that Detroit traffic laws were optional— city cops had better things to do than surveil city streets for drunk drivers. After closing time on any given night you'll see rusted-out jalopies and silver SUVs and aging pimp Caddies all swerving on the streets like herrings fighting upstream. A drunkard's paradise.
I should've been dead though. Death was an entertainable option for me because I wasn't grateful for being alive. That made me a real gentleman. I stopped giving a shit in a city that didn't give a shit. Detroit can do that to you the same way the booze can do that to you. An old meth dealer back in Arizona, this guy called Jesus, once told me during one of my five-day speed benders that if you don't give a shit about living you're pretty much invincible.
My general attitude toward life directly reflected the city of Detroit, which is a ruin, really. All jagged edges and cold hard lines and darkness. It's the most god-forsaken failure of a once-great American industrial giant that you could ever dream up. In spring and summer and fall, you can actually taste the city's desolation. The wind carries particles of wood and rust from husks of abandoned houses and crumbling auto factories, so you're actually breathing into your lungs the city of Detroit, and sometimes coughing it up. It gets into your blood that way, your nervous system. That sense of diminished achievement and failure gets inside of you, and mostly when you're unaware. So you move around the city with this oppression in your system, and it floats all around you too because anywhere you look in Detroit you see decay — in its population, in its infrastructure, in its quality of life. After a while, you sputter and stop like a car after someone dumped salt into its gas tank.
In wintertime things get smaller, insular. Detroit is surrounded by lakes and waterways so it already feels like an island, and when those waters would freeze over I'd feel walled in. When the sun dropped at 5 p.m. each day, I'd begin to long for things that feel unnatural and unattainable, like racing through the Sonoran Desert on horseback or appreciating in person the intricate beauty of the Mexican Elstreak butterfly or staying stoned for long days on a warm beach down in Mozambique, even though I was never a stoner or a butterfly enthusiast or a fan of riding around on horses.
Those unattainable longings drove me to drink more, and earlier in the day too, and it became my normal. Move to Detroit when you're already in the dumps and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. I was drawn to this city. I moved here from Phoenix for a journalism gig at the Detroit Weekly. But I also moved here because the city, to me, is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. It's a city so bent on demonstrating to anyone who'll notice that no matter how great something is, all that is created within it will crumble and die. It's absolutely godless.
It didn't take long for entropy and the loneliness of the city to creep in, and when it did, it ping-ponged inside my skull like the yap of a freezing bulldog in an abandoned factory.