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When Your Hometown Is Evil Incarnate

I don’t say “I’m from Detroit” unless:

  • someone tries to bullshit me on what repairs my car needs
  • I’ve just been told “go to Hell” (the implication being, been there done that)
  • people are having a grand time trying to place my accent — for some reason, no-one has ever guessed right, so I just give up after a while and tell them this is 30 years of living in and around Detroit talking.  Thank you for guessing that I’m maybe Irish, but the truth is gonna make you make an “Ugh” face.

Saying “Detroit” makes everybody make the “Ugh” face. If you live there, it’s your resting face: Either you’re constantly consciously aware of how much of a deliberately-constructed torture-machine of poverty and racism and environmental awfulness it is, or you’re unconsciously aware of it and your Ugh face is hiding a half-inch behind a desperate Midwestern smile.

It took two years after I moved away for my face to reconfigure away from the constant pained expression of a person trying to live a life among a seething ruin after rubbing shoulders every day with people on the absolute edge of desperation. And no, I don’t mean the homeless and the addicts. There are far more, and equally desperate, people in southeast Michigan who are still, for now, managing to live indoors. You won’t notice them unless you live there, and they outnumber the ones wandering the street by a wide margin.

Since I was a tiny child, I’ve been trying to say, “Oh my gods y’all — This is where the whole country is headed if we don’t wake up…this right here is industrial capitalism’s next phase!  Let’s stop and change while we, while anybody, still can!”

But after you grow up a while, you realize that telling people doesn’t matter: they either know it full well, and think it’s worth it  – probably because they’re wealthy, or privileged enough that they think they will be one day – or don’t simply don’t care (because, I’m guessing, it feels inevitable…or maybe I should say “they’ve bought the lie that it’s inevitable”).

I’ve now lived in Boston almost a decade, and while my inner Cassandra will still come out in heated discussions, I’ve mostly given up on sounding the warning-siren of Detroit.

It’s tiring and depressing, and if I’ve ever opened anyone’s eyes to what Detroit’s absurd segregation, its grotesque violation of one of the most gorgeous natural environments in the world, or aggressively anti-human city-planning means to the rest of us, I’m not aware of it.

If you’re not from Detroit, you don’t think it could happen to you, and/or you’re buying the perennial line about how “making a nice expensive spot in the middle of downtown will fix it.  And if you are, you’ve probably given up – or will soon.

I’m an expat / refugee of Detroit, and I gave up SO MUCH to get out.

After 30 years I finally realized that if I ever wanted to be mentally “okay” (never-mind healthy, just…okay), I had to get away from the constant background scream of hopelessly-flailing-against-awfulness that is the D.

The biggest thing I gave up was being near my family — my only family in this world; we’re a small handful and we’ve always been very close. I had high hopes that I could “get them out” too, once I was established here, but my older parents and mentally-disabled brother (who, I stressed, could have reasonable health care here — hell, if they were homeless in Boston, their options would be better than in Michigan) just weren’t up for that kind of life-change, and they’ve decided to stay.

I talk to at least one of them every day on the phone. I travel back to D-town four or five times a year (my spending every holiday in Detroit is a fun “you’re so hardcore” joke for my friends here), and every summer they take a vacation (their only one) to come visit me and Boston. The pain of that separation is a little easier now, for the most part, but not really.

I have survivor’s guilt.  I miss them like crazy, and I hate that if something bad happened I’d need to make an 800-mile journey to reach them. I struggle with the moral implications pretty much daily:  Is it okay for me to have done this, to have found myself a home that makes me incredibly happier and miles healthier, and to have left my loved ones behind in Hell, USA?

I’m not going to talk, here, about the details of growing up in Detroit; about what the background of intense violence, racism and poverty does to a person – though maybe I will later. This one is about getting out, and where that leaves you…partially because I’m sick to death of the sensationalism around it, and can’t quite handle yelling about the realities of it yet.

I hate Detroit, still, the way you hate an ex-lover; instead of Ugh-face I now have Rage-face, but at least it’s not a constant thing.

It’s SO difficult to have your hometown, the place you grew up and will forever know best, be the embodiment of modern evil; to feel like you’re walking into Mordor every time you go back; to have a wonderful family Christmas and then gasp with relief when it’s over and you can leave, even though your chest burns because you won’t see your family again for months.

I left my daughter there too, Band. My only child. I’ve always shared joint custody of her with her (thankfully awesome) dad, and when I left I had to decide if seeing her every holiday and having her live with me here in the summer would be enough for both of us…and that, I think, is probably the worst and hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.

But eight years on, I still feel like I made the best decision I could. Her situation is pretty well-protected from the worst of it: She lives in a rural area safely far outside the city, in a nice house, and goes to a great school with her three half-brothers, and again, we talk almost daily (she’s a teenager now, and getting too busy for daily :P) — and we have a great relationship. She loves Boston, and I’m SO glad she gets to have more and broader experiences than I did…my hope is that she won’t feel trapped in Michigan, and won’t have to make a decision to either stay in shit-town forever, or rip her life in half to get out and have a chance at happiness. Also, she isn’t stuck there with one of her parents being a miserable, grotesquely depressed mess, like she would have been if I’d stayed. That was definitely my experience — my Mom hated Detroit too, with every breath, but she never could stomach the hard change of leaving, so we never did.  And now she seems resigned to dying there and just…hating it the whole way.

I guess we all do whatever we can to do better, to provide better for ourselves and our kids, any way we can. Sometimes that means cutting your own roots, and giving yourself a chance, however much a long-shot it is, to grow in better soil, to be nourished instead of constantly poisoned by where you live.

It’s important to say this, before I wrap up this topic (which I’ve needed to get off my chest for so long now; THANK YOU BAND I’M SOOO GLAD YOU’RE BACK) — and that’s that I carry a dark fear with me always, a terrified certainty that at some point, I will likely have to give up my better life here and go back to D-town.

Everyone in that place is precarious, and like I said, my parents are aging and my brother needs pretty constant care and support; and we’re all we’ve got, really. I’ll be in a better place to help them thanks to the good career and vastly better health (physical and mental) I’ve been able to cultivate here in Boston — but I very well might need to give up all my progress here in order to give them that help, and I know that if they really need me to, I will.

So every time I walk back into Detroit, I know that I might get trapped there again someday. If I think about it too long, I’ll start shaking and crying, so I try not to. But that’s another angle that may be helpful to remember for all survivors of nasty situations:  A lot of the time, you don’t just get to leave your Hell.

People who got stuck there for a while can get out and never look back, but those of us who were born and raised in Hell can sometimes never get free.

Detroit is a place I’ll live with, even if I don’t live in it, for the rest of my days.

And it’s so hard to write that, because the rage, the ungodly anger at everyone who caused it and is keeping it going and is punishing all of its people with it every day, has never let me go.  It’s even somehow scarier, now that I’ve gotten some reprieve from having that rage as my resting-face, to contemplate being immersed in it again…but it’s not a dragon I can slay; it’s too big.  It’s my hometown.  It’s in my blood and my voice and my life, no matter how hard I work to cut it out of them.

Fuck you, hometown.