Jimmy Zizmo’s funeral was held thirteen days later by permission of the bishop in Chicago. For nearly two weeks the family stayed at home, polluted by death, greeting the occasional visitor who came to pay respects. Black cloths covered the mirrors. Black streamers draped the doors. Because a person should never show vanity in the presence of death, Lefty stopped shaving and by the day of the funeral had grown nearly a full beard.
The failure of the police to recover the body had caused the delay. On the day after the accident, two detectives had gone out to inspect the scene. The ice had refrozen during the night and a few inches of new snow had fallen. The detectives trudged back and forth, searching for tire tracks, but after a half hour gave up. They accepted Lefty’s story that Zizmo had gone ice-fishing and might have been drinking. One detective assured Lefty that bodies often turned up in the spring, remarkably preserved because of the freezing water.
The family went ahead with their grief. Father Stylianopoulos brought the case to the attention of the bishop, who granted the request to give Zizmo an Orthodox funeral, provided an interment ceremony be held at the graveside if the body were later found. Lefty took care of the funeral arrangements. He picked out a casket, chose a plot, ordered a headstone, and paid for the death notices in the newspaper. In those days Greek immigrants were beginning to use funeral parlors, but Sourmelina insisted that the viewing be held at home. For over a week mourners arrived into the darkenedsala , where the window shades had been drawn and the scent of flowers hung heavy in the air. Zizmo’s shadowy business associates made visits, as well as people from the speakeasies he supplied and a few of Lina’s friends. After giving the widow their condolences, they crossed the living room to stand before the open coffin. Inside, resting on a pillow, was a framed photograph of Jimmy Zizmo. The picture showed Zizmo in three-quarters profile, gazing up toward the celestial glow of studio lighting. Sourmelina had cut the ribbon between their wedding crowns and placed her husband’s inside the coffin, too.
Sourmelina’s anguish at her husband’s death far exceeded her affection for him in life. For ten hours over two days she keened over Jimmy Zizmo’s empty coffin, reciting themirologhia . In the best histrionic village style, Sourmelina unleashed soaring arias in which she lamented the death of her husband and castigated him for dying. When she was finished with Zizmo she railed at God for taking him so soon, and bemoaned the fate of her newborn daughter. “You are to blame! It is all your fault!” she cried. “What reason was there for you to die? You have left me a widow! You have left your child on the streets!” She nursed the baby as she keened and every so often held her up so that Zizmo and God could see what they had done. The older immigrants, hearing Lina’s rage, found themselves returning to their childhood in Greece, to memories of their own grandparents’ or parents’ funerals, and everyone agreed that such a display of grief would guarantee Jimmy Zizmo’s soul eternal peace.
In accordance with Church law, the funeral was held on a weekday. Father Stylianopoulos, wearing a tallkalimafkion on his head and a large pectoral cross, came to the house at ten in the morning. After a prayer was said, Sourmelina brought the priest a candle burning on a plate. She blew it out, the smoke rose and dispersed, and Father Stylianopoulos broke the candle in two. After that, everyone filed outside to begin the procession to the church. Lefty had rented a limousine for the day, and opened the door for his wife and cousin. When he got in himself, he gave a small wave to the man who had been chosen to stay behind, blocking the doorway to keep Zizmo’s spirit from reentering the house. This man was Peter Tatakis, the future chiropractor. Following tradition, Uncle Pete guarded the doorway for more than two hours, until the service at the church was over.
The ceremony contained the full funeral liturgy, omitting only the final portion where the congregation is asked to give the deceased a final kiss. Instead, Sourmelina passed by the casket and kissed the wedding crown, followed by Desdemona and Lefty. Assumption Church, which at that time operated out of a small storefront on Hart Street, was still less than a quarter full. Jimmy and Lina had not been regular churchgoers. Most of the mourners were old widows for whom funerals were a form of entertainment. At last the pallbearers brought the casket outside for the funeral photograph. The participants clustered around it, the simple Hart Street church in the background. Father Stylianopoulos took his position at the head of the casket. The casket itself was reopened to show the photo of Jimmy Zizmo resting against the pleated satin. Flags were held over the coffin, the Greek flag on one side, the American flag on the other. No one smiled for the flash. Afterward, the funeral procession continued to Forest Lawn Cemetery on Van Dyke, where the casket was put in storage until spring. There was still a possibility that the body might materialize with the spring thaw.
Despite the performance of all the necessary rites, the family remained aware that Jimmy Zizmo’s soul wasn’t at rest. After death, the souls of the Orthodox do not wing their way directly to heaven. They prefer to linger on earth and annoy the living. For the next forty days, whenever my grandmother misplaced her dream book or her worry beads, she blamed Zizmo’s spirit. He haunted the house, making fresh milk curdle and stealing the bathroom soap. As the mourning period drew to an end, Desdemona and Sourmelina prepared thekolyvo . It was like a wedding cake, made in three blindingly white tiers. A fence surrounded the top layer, from which grew fir trees made of green gelatin. There was a pond of blue jelly, and Zizmo’s name was spelled out in silver-coated dragées. On the fortieth day after the funeral, another church ceremony was held, after which everyone returned to Hurlbut Street. They gathered around thekolyvo , which was sprinkled with the powdered sugar of the afterlife and mixed with the immortal seeds of pomegranates. As soon as they ate the cake, they could all feel it: Jimmy Zizmo’s soul was leaving the earth and entering heaven, where it couldn’t bother them anymore. At the height of the festivities, Sourmelina caused a scandal when she returned from her room wearing a bright orange dress.
“What are you doing?” Desdemona whispered. “A widow wears black for the rest of her life.”
“Forty days is enough,” said Lina, and went on eating.
Only then could the babies be baptized. The next Saturday, Desdemona, seized with conflicting emotions, watched as the children’s godfathers held them above the baptismal font at Assumption. As she entered the church, my grandmother had felt an intense pride. People crowded around, trying to get a look at her new baby, who had the miraculous power of turning even the oldest women into young mothers again. During the rite itself, Father Stylianopoulos clipped a lock of Milton’s hair and dropped it into the water. He chrismed the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead. He submerged the infant under the water. But as Milton was cleansed of original sin, Desdemona remained cognizant of her iniquity. Silently, she repeated her vow never to have another child.
“Lina,” she began a few days later, blushing.
“Not nothing. Something. What?”
“I was wondering. How do you . . . if you don’t want . . .” And she blurted it out: “How do you keep from getting pregnant?”
Lina gave a low laugh. “That’s not something I have to worry about anymore.”
“But do you know how? Is there a way?”
“My mother always said as long as you’re nursing, you can’t get pregnant. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what she said.”
“But after that, what then?”
“Simple. Don’t sleep with your husband.”
At present, it was possible. Since the birth of the baby, my grandparents had taken a hiatus from lovemaking. Desdemona was up half the night breast-feeding. She was always exhausted. In addition, her perineum had torn during the delivery and was still healing. Lefty politely kept himself from starting anything amorous, but after the second month he began to come over to her side of the bed. Desdemona held him off as long as she could. “It’s too soon,” she said. “We don’t want another baby.”
“Why not? Milton needs a brother.”
“You’re hurting me.”
“I’ll be gentle. Come here.”
“No, please, not tonight.”
“What? Are you turning into Sourmelina? Once a year is enough?”
“Quiet. You’ll wake the baby.”
“I don’t care if I wake the baby.”
“Don’t shout. Okay. Here. I’m ready.”
But five minutes later: “What’s the matter?”
“Don’t tell me nothing. It’s like being with a statue.”
“Oh, Lefty!” And she burst into sobs.
Lefty comforted her and apologized, but as he turned over to go to sleep he felt himself being enclosed in the loneliness of fatherhood. With the birth of his son, Eleutherios Stephanides saw his future and continuing diminishment in the eyes of his wife, and as he buried his face in his pillow, he understood the complaint of fathers everywhere who lived like boarders in their own homes. He felt a mad jealousy toward his infant son, whose cries were the only sounds Desdemona seemed to hear, whose little body was the recipient of unending ministrations and caresses, and who had muscled his own father aside in Desdemona’s affections by a seemingly divine subterfuge, a god taking the form of a piglet in order to suckle at a woman’s breast. Over the next weeks and months, Lefty watched from the Siberia of his side of the bed as this mother-infant love affair blossomed. He saw his wife scrunch her face up against the baby’s to make cooing noises; he marveled at her complete lack of disgust toward the infant’s bodily processes, the tenderness with which she cleaned up and powdered the baby’s bottom, rubbing with circular motions and even once, to Lefty’s shock, spreading the tiny buttocks to daub the rosebud between with petroleum jelly.
From then on, my grandparents’ relationship began to change. Up until Milton’s birth, Lefty and Desdemona had enjoyed an unusually close and egalitarian marriage for its time. But as Lefty began to feel left out, he retaliated with tradition. He stopped calling his wifekukla , which meant “doll,” and began calling herkyria , which meant “Madame.” He reinstituted sex segregation in the house, reserving thesala for his male companions and banishing Desdemona to the kitchen. He began to give orders. “Kyria, my dinner.” Or: “Kyria, bring the drinks!” In this he acted like his contemporaries and no one noticed anything out of the ordinary except Sourmelina. But even she couldn’t entirely throw off the chains of the village, and when Lefty had his male friends over to the house to smoke cigars and sing kleftic songs, she retreated to her bedroom.
Shut up in the isolation of paternity, Lefty Stephanides concentrated on finding a safer way to make a living. He wrote to the Atlantis Publishing Company in New York, offering his services as a translator, but received in return only a letter thanking him for his interest, along with a catalogue. He gave the catalogue to Desdemona, who ordered a new dream book. Wearing his blue Protestant suit, Lefty visited the local universities and colleges in person to inquire about the possibility of becoming a Greek instructor. But there were few positions, and all were filled. My grandfather lacked the necessary classics degree; he hadn’t even graduated from university. Though he learned to speak a fluent, somewhat eccentric English, his written command of the language was mediocre at best. With a wife and child to support, there was no thought of his returning to school. Despite these obstacles or maybe because of them, during the forty-day mourning period Lefty had set up a study for himself in the living room and returned to his scholarly pursuits. Obstinately, and for sheer escape, he spent hours translating Homer and Mimnermos into English. He used beautiful, much too expensive Milanese notebooks and wrote with a fountain pen filled with emerald ink. In the evenings, other young immigrant men came over, bringing bootleg whiskey, and they all drank and played backgammon. Sometimes Desdemona smelled the familiar musky-sweet scent seeping under the door.
During the daytime, if he felt cooped up, Lefty pulled his new fedora low on his forehead and left the house to think. He walked down to Waterworks Park, amazed that the Americans had built such a palace to house plumbing filters and intake valves. He went down to the river and stood among the dry-docked boats. German shepherds, chained in ice-whitened yards, snarled at him. He peeked into the windows of bait shops closed for the winter. During one of these walks he passed a demolished apartment building. The façade had been torn down, revealing the inner rooms like a dollhouse. Lefty saw the brightly tiled kitchens and bathrooms hanging in midair, half-enclosed spaces whose rich colors reminded him of the sultans’ tombs, and he had an idea.
The next morning he climbed down into the basement on Hurlbut and went to work. He removed Desdemona’s spiced sausages from the heating pipes. He swept up the cobwebs and laid a rug over the dirt floor. He brought down Jimmy Zizmo’s zebra skin from upstairs and tacked it on the wall. In front of the sink he built a small bar out of discarded lumber and covered it with scavenged tiles: blue-and-white arabesques; Neapolitan checkerboard; red heraldic dragons; and local, earth-tone Pewabics. For tables, he upended cable reels and spread them with cloths. He tented bedsheets overhead, hiding the pipes. From his old connections in the rum-running business he rented a slot machine and ordered a week’s supply of beer and whiskey. And on a cold Friday night in February of 1924, he opened for business.
The Zebra Room was a neighborhood place with irregular hours. Whenever Lefty was open for business he put an icon of St. George in the living room window, facing the street. Patrons came around back, giving a coded knock—a long and two shorts followed by two longs—on the basement door. Then they descended out of the America of factory work and tyrannical foremen into an Arcadian grotto of forgetfulness. My grandfather put the Victrola in the corner. He set out braided sesamekoulouria on the bar. He greeted people with the exuberance they expected from a foreigner and he flirted with the ladies. Behind the bar a stained glass window of liquor bottles glowed: the blues of English gin, the deep reds of claret and Madeira, the tawny browns of scotch and bourbon. A hanging lamp spun on its chain, speckling the zebra skin with light and making the customers feel even drunker than they were. Occasionally someone would stand up from his chair and begin to twitch and snap his fingers to the strange music, while his companions laughed.
Down in that basement speakeasy, my grandfather acquired the attributes of the barkeep he would be for the rest of his life. He channeled his intellectual powers into the science of mixology. He learned how to serve the evening rush one-man-band style, pouring whiskeys with his right hand while filling beer steins with his left, as he pushed out coasters with his elbow and pumped the keg with his foot. For fourteen to sixteen hours a day he worked in that sumptuously decorated hole in the ground and never stopped moving the entire time. If he wasn’t pouring drinks, he was refilling thekoulouria trays. If he wasn’t rolling out a new beer keg, he was placing hard-boiled eggs in a wire hamper. He kept his body busy so that his mind wouldn’t have a chance to think: about the growing coldness of his wife, or the way their crime pursued them. Lefty had dreamed of opening a casino, and the Zebra Room was as close as he ever came to it. There was no gambling, no potted palms, but there was rebetika and, on many nights, hashish. Only in 1958, when he had stepped from behind the bar of another Zebra Room, would my grandfather have the leisure to remember his youthful dreams of roulette wheels. Then, trying to make up for lost time, he would ruin himself, and finally silence his voice in my life forever.
Desdemona and Sourmelina remained upstairs, raising the children. Practically speaking, this meant that Desdemona got them out of bed in the morning, fed them, washed their faces, and changed their diapers before bringing them in to Sourmelina, who by then was receiving visitors, still smelling of the cucumber slices she put over her eyelids at night. At the sight of Theodora, Sourmelina spread her arms and crooned,“Chryso fili!” —snatching her golden girl from Desdemona and covering her face with kisses. For the rest of the morning, drinking coffee, Lina amused herself by applying kohl to little Theodora’s eyelashes. When odors arose, she handed the baby back, saying, “Something happened.”
It was Sourmelina’s belief that the soul didn’t enter the body until a child started speaking. She let Desdemona worry about the diaper rashes and whooping coughs, the earaches and nosebleeds. Whenever company came over for Sunday dinner, however, Sourmelina greeted them with the overdressed baby pinned to her shoulder, the perfect accessory. Sourmelina was bad with babies but terrific with teenagers. She was there for your first crushes and heartbreaks, your party dresses and spins at sophisticated states like anomie. And so, in those early years, Milton and Theodora grew up together in the traditional Stephanides way. As once akelimi had separated a brother and sister, now a wool blanket separated second cousins. As once a double shadow had leapt up against a mountainside, now a similarly conjoined shadow moved across the back porch of the house on Hurlbut.
They grew. At one, they shared the same bathwater. At two, the same crayons. At three, Milton sat in a toy airplane while Theodora spun the propeller. But the East Side of Detroit wasn’t a small mountain village. There were lots of kids to play with. And so when he turned four, Milton renounced his cousin’s companionship, preferring to play with neighborhood boys. Theodora didn’t care. By then she had another cousin to play with.
Desdemona had done everything she could to fulfill her promise of never having another child. She nursed Milton until he was three. She continued to rebuff Lefty’s advances. But it was impossible to do so every night. There were times when the guilt she felt for marrying Lefty conflicted with the guilt she felt for not satisfying him. There were times when Lefty’s need seemed so desperate, so pitiful, that she couldn’t resist giving in to him. And there were times when she, too, needed physical comfort and release. It happened no more than a handful of times each year, though more often in the summer months. Occasionally Desdemona had too much wine on somebody’s name day, and then it also happened. And on a hot night in July of 1927 it significantly happened, and the result was a daughter: Zoë Helen Stephanides, my Aunt Zo.
From the moment she learned that she was pregnant, my grandmother was again tormented by fears that the baby would suffer a hideous birth defect. In the Orthodox Church, even the children of closely related godparents were kept from marrying, on the grounds that this amounted to spiritual incest. What was that compared with this? This was much worse! So Desdemona agonized, unable to sleep at night as the new baby grew inside her. That she had promised the Panaghia, the All-Holy Virgin, that she would never have another child only made Desdemona feel more certain that the hand of judgment would now fall heavy on her head. But once again her anxieties were for naught. The following spring, on April 27, 1928, Zoë Stephanides was born, a large, healthy girl with the squarish head of her grandmother, a powerful cry, and nothing at all the matter with her.
Milton had little interest in his new sister. He preferred shooting his slingshot with his friends. Theodora was just the opposite. She was enthralled with Zoë. She carried the new baby around with her like a new doll. Their lifelong friendship, which would suffer many strains, began from day one, with Theodora pretending to be Zoë’s mother.
The arrival of another baby made the house on Hurlbut feel crowded. Sourmelina decided to move out. She found a job in a florist’s shop, leaving Lefty and Desdemona to assume the mortgage on the house. In the fall of that same year, Sourmelina and Theodora took up residence nearby in the O’Toole Boardinghouse, right behind Hurlbut on Cadillac Boulevard. The backs of the two houses faced each other and Lina and Theodora were still close enough to visit nearly every day.
On Thursday, October 24, 1929, on Wall Street in New York City, men in finely tailored suits began jumping from the windows of the city’s famous skyscrapers. Their lemming-like despair seemed far away from Hurlbut Street, but little by little the dark cloud passed over the nation, moving in the opposite direction to the weather, until it reached the Midwest. The Depression made itself known to Lefty by a growing number of empty barstools. After nearly six years of operating at full capacity, there began to be slow periods, nights when the place was only two-thirds full, or just half. Nothing deterred the stoic alcoholics from their calling. Despite the international banking conspiracy (unmasked by Father Coughlin on the radio), these stalwarts presented themselves for duty whenever St. George galloped in the window. But the social drinkers and family men stopped showing up. By March of 1930, only half as many patrons gave the secret dactylic-spondaic knock on the basement door. Business picked up during the summer. “Don’t worry,” Lefty told Desdemona. “President Herbert Hoover is taking care of things. The worst is over.” They skated along through the next year and a half, but by 1932 only a few customers were coming in each day. Lefty extended credit, discounted drinks, but it was no use. Soon he couldn’t pay for shipments of liquor. One day two men came in and repossessed the slot machine.
“It was terrible. Terrible!” Desdemona still cried fifty years later, describing those years. Throughout my childhood the slightest mention of the Depression would set myyia yia off into a full cycle of wailing and breast-clutching. (Even once when the subject was “manic depression.”) She would go limp in her chair, squeezing her face in both hands like the figure in Munch’sThe Scream —and then would do so: “Mana!The Depression! So terrible you no can believe! Everybody they no have work. I remember the marches for the hunger, all the people they are marching in the street, a million people, one after one, one after one, to go to tell Mr. Henry Ford to open the factory. Then we have in the alley one night a noise was terrible. The people they are killing rats, plam plam plam, with sticks, to go to eat the rats. Oh my God! And Lefty he was no working in the factory then. He only having, you know, the speakeasy, where the people they use to come to drink. But in the Depression was in the middle another bad time, economy very bad, and nobody they have money to drink. They no can eat, how they can drink? So soonpapou andyia yia we no have money. Andthen ”—hand to heart—“then they make me go to work for thosemavros . Black people! Oh my God!”
It happened like this. One night, my grandfather got into bed with my grandmother to find that she wasn’t alone. Milton, eight years old now, was snuggled up against her side. On her other side was Zoë, who was only four. Lefty, exhausted from work, looked down at the spectacle of this menagerie. He loved the sight of his sleeping children. Despite the problems of his marriage, he could never blame his son or daughter for them. At the same time, he rarely saw them. In order to make enough money he had to keep the speakeasy open sixteen, sometimes eighteen, hours a day. He worked seven days a week. To support his family he had to be exiled from them. In the mornings when he was around the house, his children treated him like a familiar relative, an uncle maybe, but not a father.
And then there was the problem of the bar ladies. Serving drinks day and night, in a dim grotto, he had many opportunities to meet women drinking with their friends or even alone. My grandfather was thirty years old in 1932. He had filled out and become a man; he was charming, friendly, always well dressed—and still in his physical prime. Upstairs his wife was too frightened to have sex, but down in the Zebra Room women gave Lefty bold, hot looks. Now, as my grandfather gazed down at the three sleeping figures in the bed, his head contained all these things at once: love for his children, love for his wife, along with frustration with his marriage, and boyish, unmarried-feeling excitement around the bar ladies. He bent his face close to Zoë’s. Her hair was still wet from the bath, and richly fragrant. He took his fatherly delights while at the same time he remained a man apart. Lefty knew that all the things in his head couldn’t hold together. And so after gazing on the beauty of his children’s faces, he lifted them out of the bed and carried them back to their own room. He returned and got into bed beside his sleeping wife. Gently, he began stroking her, moving his hand up under her nightgown. And suddenly Desdemona’s eyes opened.
“What are you doing!”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“I’m waking you up.”
“Shame on you.” My grandmother pushed him away. And Lefty relented. He rolled angrily away from her. There was a long silence before he spoke.
“I don’t get anything from you. I work all the time and I get nothing.”
“You think I don’t work? I have two children to take care of.”
“If you were a normal wife, it might be worth it for me to be working all the time.”
“If you were a normal husband, you would help with the children.”
“How can I help you? You don’t even understand what it takes to make money in this country. You think I’m having a good time down there?”
“You play music, you drink. I can hear the music in the kitchen.”
“That’s my job. That’s why the people come. And if they don’t come, we can’t pay our bills. The whole thing rests on me. That’s what you don’t understand. I work all day and night and then when I come to bed I can’t even sleep. There’s no room!”
“Milton had a nightmare.”
“I’m having a nightmare every day.”
He switched the light on and, in its glow, Desdemona saw her husband’s face screwed up with a malice she’d never seen before. It was no longer Lefty’s face, no longer that of her brother or her husband. It was the face of someone new, a stranger she was living with.
And this terrible new face delivered an ultimatum:
“Tomorrow morning,” Lefty spat, “you’re going to go get a job.”
The next day, when Lina came over for lunch, Desdemona asked her to read the newspaper for her.
“How can I work? I don’t even know English.”
“You know a little.”
“We should have gone to Greece. In Greece a husband wouldn’t make his wife go out and get a job.”
“Don’t worry,” Lina said, holding up the recycled newsprint. “There aren’t any.” The 1932Detroit Times classifieds, advertised to a population of four million, ran to just over one column. Sourmelina squinted, looking for something appropriate.
“Waitress,” Lina read.
“Men would flirt with me.”
“You don’t like to flirt?”
“Read,” Desdemona said.
“Tool and dye,” said Lina.
My grandmother frowned. “What is that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Like dyeing fabric?”
“Go on,” said Desdemona.
“Cigar roller,” Lina continued.
“I don’t like smoke.”
“Lina, please. I can’t be a maid for somebody.”
“Silk worker. That’s all it says. And an address.”
“Silk worker? I’m a silk worker. I know everything.”
“Then congratulations, you have a job. If it’s not gone by the time you get there.”
An hour later, dressed for job hunting, my grandmother reluctantly left the house. Sourmelina had tried to persuade her to borrow a dress with a low neckline. “Wear this and no one will notice what kind of English you speak,” she said. But Desdemona set out for the streetcar in one of her plain dresses, gray with brown polka dots. Her shoes, hat, and handbag were each a brown that almost matched.
Though preferable to automobiles, streetcars didn’t appeal to Desdemona either. She had trouble telling the lines apart. The fitful, ghost-powered trolleys were always making unexpected turns, shuttling her off into unknown parts of the city. When the first trolley stopped, she shouted at the conductor, “Downtown?” He nodded. She boarded, flipped down a seat, and took from her purse the address Lina had written out. When the conductor passed by, she showed it to him.
“Hastings Street? That what you want?”
“Yes. Hastings Street.”
“Stay on this car to Gratiot. Then take the Gratiot car downtown. Get off at Hastings.”
At the mention of Gratiot, Desdemona felt relieved. She and Lefty took the Gratiot line to Greektown. Now everything made sense.So, they don’t make silk in Detroit? she triumphantly asked her absent husband.That’s how much you know. The streetcar picked up speed. The storefronts of Mack Avenue passed by, more than a few closed up, windows soaped over. Desdemona pressed her face to the glass, but now, because she was alone, she had a few more words to say to Lefty.If those policemen at Ellis Island hadn’t taken my silkworms, I could set up a cocoonery in the backyard. I wouldn’t have to get a job. We could make a lot of money. I told you so. Passengers’ clothes, still dressy in those days, nevertheless showed wear and tear: hats gone unblocked for months, hemlines and cuffs frayed, neckties and lapels gravy-stained. On the curb a man held up a hand-painted sign: WORK iS WHAT I WANT AND NOT CHARiTY WHO WiLL HELP ME GET A JOB. 7 YEARS IN DETROIT. NO MONEy. SENT AWAY FURNISH BEST OF REFERENCES.Look at that poor man. Mana!He looks like a refugee. Might as well be Smyrna, this city. What’s the difference? The streetcar labored on, moving away from the landmarks she knew, the greengrocer’s, the movie theater, the fire hydrants and neighborhood newspaper stands. Her village eyes, which could differentiate between trees and bushes at a glance, glazed over at the signage along the route, the meaningless roman letters swirling into one another and the ragged billboards showing American faces with the skin peeling off, faces without eyes, or with no mouth, or with nothing but a nose. When she recognized Gratiot’s diagonal swath, she stood up and called out in a ringing voice: “Sonnamabiche!” She had no idea what this English word meant. She had heard Sourmelina employ it whenever she missed her stop. As usual, it worked. The driver braked the streetcar and the passengers moved quickly aside to let her off. They seemed surprised when she smiled and thanked them.
On the Gratiot streetcar she told the conductor, “Please, I want Hastings Street.”
“Hastings? You sure?”
She showed him the address and said it louder:“Hastings Street.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know.”
The streetcar made for Greektown. Desdemona checked her reflection in the window and fixed her hat. Since her pregnancies she had put on weight, thickened in the waist, but her skin and hair were still beautiful and she was still an attractive woman. After looking at herself, she returned her attention to the passing scenery. What else would my grandmother have seen on the streets of Detroit in 1932? She would have seen men in floppy caps selling apples on corners. She would have seen cigar rollers stepping outside windowless factories for fresh air, their faces stained a permanent brown from tobacco dust. She would have seen workers handing out pro-union pamphlets while Pinkerton detectives tailed them. In alleyways, she might have seen union-busting goons working over those same pamphleteers. She would have seen policemen, on foot and horseback, 60 percent of whom were secretly members of the white Protestant Order of the Black Legion, who had their own methods for disposing of blacks, Communists, and Catholics. “But come on, Cal,” I hear my mother’s voice, “don’t you have anything nice to say?” Okay, all right. Detroit in 1932 was known as “The City of Trees.” More trees per square mile here than any other city in the country. To shop, you had Kern’s and Hudson’s. On Woodward Avenue the auto magnates had built the beautiful Detroit Institute of Arts, where, that very minute while Desdemona rode to her job interview, a Mexican artist named Diego Rivera was working on his own new commission: a mural depicting the new mythology of the automobile industry. On scaffolding he sat on a folding chair, sketching the great work: the four androgynous races of humankind on the upper panels, gazing down on the River Rouge assembly line, where auto workers labored, their bodies harmonized with effort. Various smaller panels showed the “germ cell” of an infant wrapped in a plant bulb, the wonder and dread of medicine, the indigenous fruits and grains of Michigan; and way over in one corner Henry Ford himself, gray-faced and tight-assed, going over the books.
The trolley passed McDougal, Jos. Campau, and Chene, and then, with a little shiver, it crossed Hastings Street. At that moment every passenger, all of whom were white, performed a talismanic gesture. Men patted wallets, women refastened purses. The driver pulled the lever that closed the rear door. Desdemona, noticing all this, looked out to see that the streetcar had entered the Black Bottom ghetto.
There was no roadblock, no fence. The streetcar didn’t so much as pause as it crossed the invisible barrier, but at the same time in the length of a block the world was different. The light seemed to change, growing gray as it filtered through laundry lines. The gloom of front porches and apartments without electricity seeped out into the streets, and the thundercloud of poverty that hung over the neighborhood directed attention downward toward the clarity of forlorn, shadowless objects: red bricks crumbling off a stoop, piles of trash and ham bones, used tires, crushed pinwheels from last year’s fair, someone’s old lost shoe. The derelict quiet lasted only a moment before Black Bottom erupted from all its alleys and doorways.Look at all the children! So many! Suddenly children were running alongside the streetcar, waving and shouting. They played chicken with it, jumping in front of the tracks. Others climbed onto the back. Desdemona put a hand to her throat.Why do they have so many children? What’s the matter with these people? The mavrowomen should nurse their babies longer. Somebody should tell them. Now in the alleys she saw men washing themselves at open faucets. Half-dressed women jutted out hips on second-story porches. Desdemona looked in awe and terror at all the faces filling the windows, all the bodies filling the streets, nearly a half million people squeezed into twenty-five square blocks. Ever since World War I when E. I. Weiss, manager of the Packard Motor Company, had brought, by his own report, the first “load of niggers” to the city, here in Black Bottom was where the establishment had thought to keep them. All kinds of professions now crowded in together, foundry workers and lawyers, maids and carpenters, doctors and hoodlums, but most people, this being 1932, were unemployed. Still, more and more were coming every year, every month, seeking jobs in the North. They slept on every couch in every house. They built shacks in the yards. They camped on roofs. (This state of affairs couldn’t last, of course. Over the years, Black Bottom, for all the whites’ attempts to contain it—and because of the inexorable laws of poverty and racism—would slowly spread, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, until the so-called ghetto would become the entire city itself, and by the 1970s, in the no-tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital Detroit of the Coleman Young administration, black people could finally live wherever they wanted to . . .)
But now, back in 1932, something odd was happening. The streetcar was slowing down. In the middle of Black Bottom, it was stopping and—unheard of!—opening its doors. Passengers fidgeted. The conductor tapped Desdemona on the shoulder. “Lady, this is it. Hastings.”
“Hastings Street?” She didn’t believe him. She showed him the address again. He pointed out the door.
“Silk factory here?” she asked the conductor.
“No telling what’s here. Not my neighborhood.”
And so my grandmother stepped off onto Hastings Street. The streetcar pulled away, as white faces looked back at her, a woman thrown overboard. She started walking. Gripping her purse, she hurried down Hastings as though she knew where she was going. She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. Children jumped rope on the sidewalk. At a third-story window a man tore up a piece of paper and shouted, “From now on, you can send my mail to Paris, postman.” Front porches were full of living room furniture, old couches and armchairs, people playing checkers, arguing, waving fingers, and breaking into laughter.Always laughing, these mavros.Laughing, laughing, as though everything is funny. What is so funny, tell me? And what is—oh my God!—a man doing his business in the street! I won’t look. She passed the yard of a junk artist: the Seven Wonders of the World made in bottle caps. An ancient drunk in a colorful sombrero moved in slow motion, sucking his toothless maw and holding out a hand for spare change.But what can they do? They don’t have any plumbing. No sewers, terrible, terrible. She walked by a barbershop where men were getting their hair straightened, wearing shower caps like women. Across the street young men were calling out to her:
“Baby, you got so many curves you make a car crash!”
“You must be a doughnut, baby, ’cause you make my jelly roll!”
Laughter erupted behind her as she hurried on. Farther and farther in, past streets she didn’t know the names of. The smell of unfamiliar food in the air now, fish caught from the nearby river, pig knuckles, hominy grits, fried baloney, black-eyed peas. But also many houses where nothing was cooking, where no one was laughing or even talking, dark rooms full of weary faces and scroungy dogs. It was from a porch like this that somebody finally spoke. A woman, thank God.
Desdemona took in the soft, molded face. “I am looking for factory. Silk factory.”
“No factories around here. If there was they’d be closed.”
Desdemona handed her the address.
The lady pointed across the street. “You there.”
And turning, what did Desdemona see? Did she see a brown brick building known until recently as McPherson Hall? A place rented out for political meetings, weddings, or demonstrations by the occasional traveling clairvoyant? Did she notice the ornamental touches around the entrance, the Roman urns spilling granite fruit, the harlequin marble? Or did her eyes focus instead on the two young black men standing at attention outside the front door? Did she notice their impeccable suits, one the light blue of a globe’s watery portions, the other the pale lavender of French pastilles? Certainly she must have noticed their military bearing, the high polish of their shoes, their vivid neckties. She must have felt the contrast between the young men’s confident air and that of the downtrodden neighborhood, but whatever she felt at that moment, her complex reaction has come down to me as a single, shocked realization.
Fezzes. They were wearing fezzes. The soft, maroon, flat-topped headgear of my grandparents’ former tormentors. The hats named for the city in Morocco where the blood-colored dye came from, and which (on the heads of soldiers) had chased my grandparents out of Turkey, staining the earth a dark maroon. Now here they were again, in Detroit, on the heads of two handsome young Negroes. (And fezzes will appear once more in my story, on the day of a funeral, but the coincidence, being the kind of thing only real life can come up with, is too good to give away right now.)
Tentatively, Desdemona crossed the street. She told the men she’d come about the ad. One nodded. “You have to go around back,” he said. Politely, he led her down an alley and into the well-swept backyard. At that moment, as at a discreet signal, the back door swung open and Desdemona received her second shock. Two women in chadors appeared. They looked, to my grandmother, like devout Muslims from Bursa, except for the color of their garments. They weren’t black. They were white. The chadors started at their chins and hung all the way to their ankles. White headscarves covered their hair. They wore no veils, but as they came forward, Desdemona saw brown school oxfords on their feet.
Fezzes, chadors, and next this: a mosque. Inside, the former McPherson Hall had been redecorated according to a Moorish theme. The attendants led Desdemona over geometric tilework. They took her past thick, fringed draperies that shut out the light. There was no sound but the swishing of the women’s robes and, from far off, what sounded like a voice speaking or praying. Finally, they showed her into an office where a woman was hanging a picture.
“I’m Sister Wanda,” the woman said, without turning around. “Supreme Captain, Temple No. 1.” She wore another sort of chador entirely, with piping and epaulettes. The picture she was hanging showed a flying saucer hovering over the skyline of New York. It was shooting out rays.
“You come about the job?”
“Yes. I am silk worker. Have lot experience. Farming the silk, making the cocoonery, weaving the . . .”
Sister Wanda swiveled around. She scanned Desdemona’s face. “We got a problem. What you is?”
“Greek, huh. That’s a kind of white, isn’t it? You born in Greece?”
“No. From Turkey. We come from Turkey. My husband and me, too.”
“Turkey! Why didn’t you say so? Turkey’s a Muslim country. You a Muslim?”
“No, Greek. Greek Church.”
“But you born in Turkey.”
“And your people come from Turkey?”
“So you probably mixed up a little bit, right? You not all white.”
“See, I’m trying to see how we can work it,” Sister Wanda went on. “Minister Fard, who come to us from the Holy City of Mecca, he always be impressing on us the importance of self-reliance. Can’t rely on no white man no more. Got to do for ourself, understand?” She lowered her voice. “Problem is, nobody worth a toot come for the ad. People come in here, theysay they know silk, but they don’t know nothing. Just hoping to get hired and fired. Get a day’s pay.” She narrowed her eyes. “That what you planning?”
“No. I want only hire. No fire.”
“But what you is? Greek, Turkish, or what?”
Again Desdemona hesitated. She thought about her children. She imagined coming home to them without any food. And then she swallowed hard. “Everybody mixed. Turks, Greeks, same same.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear.” Sister Wanda smiled broadly. “Minister Fard, he mixed, too. Let me show you what we need.”
She led Desdemona down a long, wainscoted corridor, through a telephone operator’s office, and into another darker hallway. At the far end heavy drapes blocked off the main lobby. Two young guards stood at attention. “You come to work for us, few things you should know. Never, ever, go through them curtains. Main temple in there, where Minister Fard deliver his sermons. You stay back here in the women’s quarters. Best cover your hair, too. That hat shows your ears, which be an enticement.”
Desdemona instinctively touched her ears, looking back at the guards. Their expressions remained impassive. She turned back, following the Supreme Captain.
“Let me show you the operation we got going,” Sister Wanda said. “We got everything. All we need is a little, you know, know- how.” She started up the stairs and Desdemona followed.
(It’s a long stairway, three flights up, and Sister Wanda has bad knees, so it will take some time for them to reach the top. Leave them there, climbing, while I explain what my grandmother had gotten herself into.)
“Sometime in the summer of 1930, an amiable but faintly mysterious peddler suddenly appeared in the black ghetto of Detroit.” (I’m quoting from C. Eric Lincoln’sThe Black Muslims of America. ) “He was thought to be an Arab, although his racial and national identity remain undocumented. He was welcomed into homes of culture-hungry African-Americans who were eager to purchase his silks and artifacts, which he claimed were those worn by black people in their homeland across the sea . . . His customers were so anxious to learn of their own past and the country from which they came that the peddler soon began holding meetings from house to house throughout the community.
“At first, the ‘prophet,’ as he came to be known, confined his teachings to a recitation of his experiences in foreign lands, admonitions against certain foods, and suggestions for improving listeners’ physical health. He was kind, friendly, unassuming and patient.”
“Having aroused the interests of his host” (we move now toAn Original Man by Claude Andrew Clegg II), “[the peddler] would then deliver his sales pitch on the history and future of African-Americans. The tactic worked well, and eventually he honed it to the point that meetings of curious blacks were held in private homes. Later, public halls were rented for his orations, and an organizational structure for his ‘Nation of Islam’ began to take shape in the midst of poverty-stricken Detroit.”
The peddler had many names. Sometimes he called himself Mr. Farrad Mohammad, or Mr. F. Mohammad Ali. Other times he referred to himself as Fred Dodd, Professor Ford, Wallace Ford, W. D. Ford, Wali Farrad, Wardell Fard, or W. D. Fard. He had just as many origins. People claimed he was a black Jamaican whose father was a Syrian Muslim. One rumor maintained that he was a Palestinian Arab who had fomented racial unrest in India, South Africa, and London before moving to Detroit. There was a story that he was the son of rich parents from the tribe of Koreish, the Prophet Muhammad’s own tribe, while FBI records stated that Fard was born in either New Zealand or Portland, Oregon, to either Hawaiian or British and Polynesian parents.
One thing is clear: by 1932, Fard had established Temple No. 1 in Detroit. It was the back stairs of this temple that Desdemona found herself climbing.
“We sell the silks right from the temple,” Sister Wanda explained above. “Make the clothes ourself according to Minister Fard’s own designs. From clothes our forefathers wore in Africa. Used to be we just ordered the fabric and sewed up the clothes ourself. But with this Depression, fabric getting harder and harder to come by. So Minister Fard he had one of his revelations. Come to me one morning and said, ‘We must own the means and ends of sericulture itself.’ That how he talk. Eloquent? Man could talk a dog off a meat truck.”
Climbing, Desdemona was beginning to make sense of things. The fancy suits of the men outside. The redecoration within. Sister Wanda reached the landing—“In here our training class”—and threw open the door. Desdemona stepped up and saw them.
Twenty-three teenage girls, in bright chadors and head scarves, sewing clothes. They didn’t so much as look up from their labor as the Supreme Captain brought in the stranger. Heads bent, mouths fanning straight pins, hem-covered oxfords working unseen treadles, they continued production. “This be our Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class. See how good and proper they are? Don’t say a word unless you do. ‘Islam’ means submission. You know that? But getting back to why I run the ad. We running low on fabric. Everybody out of business seems like.”
She led Desdemona across the room. A wooden box full of dirt lay open.
“So what we did was, we ordered these silkworms from a company. You know, mail order? We got more on the way. Problem is, they don’t seem to like it here in Detroit. Don’t blame ’em myself. They keep dying on us, and when they do? Ooowhee, what a stink! My sweet Jes—“ She caught herself. “Just an expression. I was brought up Sanctified. Listen, what you say your name was?”
“Listen, Des, before I became Supreme Captain, I did hair and nails. Not no farmer’s daughter, understand? This thumb look green to you? Help me out. What do these silkworm fellas like? How we get them to, you know, silkify?”
“It hard work.”
“We don’t mind.”
“It take money.”
“We got plenty.”
Desdemona picked up a shriveled worm, barely alive. She cooed to it in Greek.
“Listen up now, little sisters,” Sister Wanda said, and, as one, the girls stopped sewing, crossed hands in laps, and looked up attentively. “This the new lady gonna teach us how to make silk. She a mulatto like Minister Fard and she gonna bring us back the knowledge of the lost art of our people. So we can do for ourself.”
Twenty-three pairs of eyes fell on Desdemona. She gathered courage. She translated what she wanted to say into English and went over it twice before she spoke. “To make good silk,” she then pronounced, beginning her lessons to the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class, “you have to be pure.”
“We trying, Des. Praise Allah. We trying.”