It’s the kind of thing you wish you could have dreams about, but don’t — standing at God-view hundreds of feet above the twisting disorganization of downtown streets, birds and cars below moving in sluggish patterns, the monuments of the city little more than chintzy replicas of themselves.
On a Friday night, just before dark, the unobstructed view of side-lit buildings at this level has the potential to restore any wavering faith in Detroit and force the realization that the city’s dizzying beauty goes too often unnoticed. And all this for the cut-rate price of a few flashed business cards, some small talk with a bored security guard and the willingness to abandon every shred of common sense that might prevent a person from stepping out onto a fire escape that’s a good six-second fall from the pavement.
I resolve that this is the kind of thing I’m going to do every Friday night, and, at least for the moment, I’m fully confident that I’ll make good. It’s time to start driving around town looking for things to climb.
Without talking about it, it seems like my immediate company on this evening agrees. As if the ear-popping express elevator ride that earned us the view from the 32nd floor wasn’t enough, we decide it is absolutely imperative to climb the rusty fire escape until we reach the top.
There is a bird. It is circling, 20 feet away. It circles closer and we see that it is a raptor — a falcon or a hawk, I’m not sure. Someone comments that it is “showing off for us” — an analysis that in retrospect seems absurd, given the mental capacity of a bird. Behind it is the Ambassador Bridge, Michigan Avenue stretching out farther than the curve of the planet and haze of Downriver factories. We pause to bemoan the fact that the place we are standing is the most ideal location in metro Detroit to A) get laid (we are a trio of mouth-breathing dudes) and B) kill a few beers and smoke a joint (this, of course, is a distant second).
I lead the charge up the rickety stairs to the next flight with my head down, giddy with adrenaline. Through the metal grid, I see the People Mover, more ridiculously useless-looking than ever, rolling toward Cobo Hall. As I approach the next plateau, I hear laughing from my compatriots on the landing below. And that was the moment when my feelings about the expedition drastically changed. Two stairs from the landing of the 34th floor, I raise my head.
Less than an arm’s length from my face is the largest, angriest, most horrifying creature that I have ever seen. As I make eye contact with the bright orange eyes of the stunningly enormous, predatory beast, I am completely frozen in fear. Except for a Julia Child falsetto, I can’t do anything at all until, out of pity or boredom, the bird finally takes off. Clearly, we had encroached on its aerie.
The rest of the night is spent doing things that happen on Friday nights. Go to a show. Drink too much. Eat late-night food and wake up smelling like a bar and fighting a jackhammer headache. At least that’s the plot for the rest of Friday while listening to Man and the Lanternjack tear apart the newly reopened Alvin’s. After the show, everything is going according to schedule until the 1990 Escort coughs to a halt halfway to the diner. At the time, the car seems like the least of my problems — the craving for a gyro omelet isn’t something you can just push to the side of the road and worry about in the morning.
A day of car headaches passes and Saturday night ensues. Thankfully, the Detroit Cobras are playing at the Old Miami — walking distance. Go to a show. Drink too much. Walk home.
I’ve never thought of myself as a rubbernecker. I don’t crane to look at car crashes. I’ve never been gripped by the morbid fascination that draws people to “Faces of Death” or “Rescue 911.” But as I’m walking home from the Cobras show, I smell smoke and hear shouting. Curiosity wins. Halfway home, just south of Willis at Cass, I detour down a dark alley to investigate.
The alley is lit by a warm glow from fire. Thick smoke pours out of a row of second- and third-story windows. It’s not the familiar smell of cigarette or campfire smoke, it’s the smell of couches and curtains and toys and beds and stuff burning. Peoples’ stuff. It occurs to me that it might be the smell of people burning. Adrenaline forces sobriety. The fire department is nowhere to be seen.
There’s a crowd of 10 or so, mostly staring at and shouting to Walter Walton, a 58-year-old resident on the third floor who’s dressed only in boxers, socks and an undershirt. The largest flames are coming out of the window below him. He is a broken record yelling for help, telling people he can’t breathe and that he doesn’t want to die. It’s not the kind of thing you wish you could have dreams about, but you do, anyway.
Five minutes pass. The rubberneckers are dumbfounded. This is where you start to imagine doing heroic deeds, breaking through doors and grabbing babies. But the cops show up. Two cops block the entrance of the building to thwart any potential heroism. The other two just stand with the rest of us, and one of them has decided to help Walton by blinding him with his Maglite.
Walton doesn’t need the light. Walton is in danger of becoming a light. He leans his torso out the window for fresh air, but the flames from below are so high he retreats into his apartment. When they die down he leans out the window again to be blinded by the flashlight and scolded by a newcomer to the growing crowd who is holding her manicured hands by her mouth and shrieking, “Don’t jump, baby! Don’t jump!” It seems like it’s been an hour, and still no fire department.
Walter disappears into his apartment. He is tired of this shit. It’s clear that despite the crying heckler, he intends to jump. Seconds later a metal chair comes through the window, raining glass onto the heads of those who are closest. His feet hang out the window and one of his socks starts on fire. He disappears inside again in horrifyingly jerky motions. Ten seconds.
He comes out again, perches himself on his window ledge like a little kid at the edge of a pool. The heckler screams. The cops shines his useless fucking light. Walter jumps. For one second, Walter Walton is flying.
It takes Walton about three-quarters of a second to reach terra firma. From my vantage point, it seems like five minutes.
While he is falling he is waving his arms the way you would if you were about to land in a pool. But instead of water, he lands on pavement and glass. When he makes contact with the ground, feet first, it makes the sound of 10 rim shots on 10 snare drums. It’s an unimaginably loud snap followed by nothing. He just lies there. He is alive. All of a sudden he isn’t afraid of anything.
It is amazing to me what you see in this city. Walton was not badly hurt. He and the three others who jumped from their apartment windows to the pavement all lived — and it barely made the news.
From that creaky fire escape, it probably didn’t look like anything. I’ll go back there and try to see the burned building. I’ll go back there until I memorize the sight of Detroit from that height, until I have a thousand pictures of myself at the top of the city, until I drink beer there and get laid there and exhaust it for everything it is worth.
But after seeing Walter Walton jump — the singularly most tragic and horrifying and disturbing and beautiful thing I have ever seen in this city — I know it will be impossible to be as amazed by it.Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org