carl ballou licensed
Once Upon a Time in Detroit
by Gary Glauber

At 24, I took invincibility in stride,
drunk and still driving a rental car at midnight
into a town I’d never been to before,

heading the sixty miles I needed to cover
in record time and never once worrying about it.
Pointing the sedan in the right direction,

I ate up that random highway’s asphalt miles
like I had been to the feted Motor City
a hundred adventurous times before.

I was driving American, feeling every inch
a patriot of horsepower privilege, a Mitch Ryder song
appropriately blaring from the car’s radio.

I was to be shown how nice this town
with the less-than-stellar rep
could actually be. The gray-haired

officials in their fancy tailored suits
showed up to ensure me major improvements
were currently in the offing.

The impeccable politicians included me
like some wealthy insider, privy to their racist,
anti-Semitic jokes in conversational passing.

They treated me to a superb lunch at
their private dining club, featuring all
the spoils of the automotive patriarchy.

The Super Bowl is coming, they assured me.
The first ever to be held in the northern U.S.,
further evidence of the coming turnaround.

Once, in the 1950s, Detroit had been
America’s wealthiest city, hands down,
back when the auto industry was booming.

Since then, there had been myriad problems:
arson, crack cocaine, urban decline, race riots.
But I saw no signs of any of that.

I saw the shiny new urban renaissance.
Here is where it was all happening.
Life was damned good, they swore.

While this inside society of old guard elite
were busy moving mountains, I was being
housed in the fanciest new downtown hotel,

assigned the loveliest young woman
from the mayor’s office whose sole duty
was to make sure I was entertained.

She called up an equally fetching friend
and next thing, we were out in Greektown,
breaking plates, downing ouzo, shouting “Opa!”

Bottle after empty bottle fell like
things shot down in a carnival sideshow,
and still they urged me to have another.

They took me to the DIA museum
with its impressive antique cars
and beautiful Diego Rivera murals.

We visited the Henry Ford Museum
and the Edison Institute in nearby Dearborn:
the history of cars elevated to exquisite art.

They made me feel important,
rather than the pretender I was,
an up-and-coming trade mag editor

staving off cockroaches and loneliness
in a small excuse of an apartment
back in Park Slope. Not quite Mr. Bigshot.

But in Detroit I was being escorted around
like visiting royalty — a whirlwind treat
for the senses, a rollicking frenetic joyous time.

All this in exchange for a nice write-up
in the glossy “meetings and convention” trade mag,
to help them drum up some sizable business.

Hangover encroaching, I returned to
the hotel’s penthouse Presidential Suite.
An incredible array of floral arrangements,

gift baskets, and a Steinway grand piano
awaited in a space 15 times the real estate
of my tiny Brooklyn studio.

I spent the ironic night alone in a giant bed.
No piano accompanied the stupor
that the alcohol and luxury provided.

Detroit unsafe? Detroit ugly?
From my perspective, it had been
one of the best nights of my life.

Wanting money and respect again,
they’d invested millions on lipstick
and band-aids for the American Dream.

Meanwhile I promised to deliver the goods,
which I did enthusiastically, dutifully.
I loved the carefully curated Detroit I saw.

It was a treat for the senses,
fun and fantastic, a promising destination
for any future Fortune 500 convention event.

I believed it because I experienced it,
and, yes, the Super Bowl came to cold Pontiac
but the renaissance never seemed to take.

When Detroit later declared bankruptcy,
18.5 billion was owed to some 100,000 creditors,
all of whom believed the same story

I took with me in my heart to print:
that the Motor City was coming back
bigger, shinier, fully resurrected.

But Cinderella’s coach turned back to a pumpkin —
no matching glass slipper was found;
not all stories have a happy ending.

PHOTO: Detroit, Michigan, skyline and the Detroit River (shot from under the MacArthur Bridge) by Carl Ballou, used by permission.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I read that July 23, 2020 was the 53rd anniversary of the start of the 1967 Detroit riots. My visit to Detroit happened in 1981 or 1982, and my personal history was far removed from that event. Still, I will never forget that trip.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The 1967 Detroit Riots were a series of violent confrontations between black residents and various law enforcement bodies that lasted for five days and resulted in 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. For more about these events and their effects, watch a 2017 PBS report here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gary Glauber is a widely published poet, fiction writer, teacher, and former music journalist. He champions the underdog while negotiating life’s absurdities. He has three collections — Small Consolations (Aldrich Press), Worth the Candle (Five Oaks Press), and Rocky Landscape with Vagrants (Cyberwit) — as well as two chapbooks, Memory Marries Desire (Finishing Line Press) and The Covalence of Equanimity (SurVision Books), a winner of the 2019 James Tate International Poetry Prize.  Another collection, A Careful Contrition (Shanti Arts Publishing). is forthcoming soon.