They always think it’s the old-school, gentlemanly routine. The slowness of my advances. The leisurely pace of my incursions. (I’ve learned to make the first move by now, but not the second.)
I invited Julie Kikuchi to go away for the weekend. To Pomerania. The idea was to drive to Usedom, an island in the Baltic, and stay in an old resort once favored by Wilhelm II. I made a point to emphasize that we would have separate rooms.
Since it was the weekend, I tried to dress down. It isn’t easy for me. I wore a camel-hair turtleneck, tweed blazer, and jeans. And a pair of handmade cordovans by Edward Green. This particular style is called the Dundee. They look dressy until you notice the Vibram soles. The leather is of a double thickness. The Dundee is a shoe designed for touring the landed estates, for tromping through mud while wearing a tie, with your spaniels trailing behind. I had to wait four months for these shoes. On the shoebox it says: “Edward Green: Master Shoemakers to the Few.” That’s me exactly. The few.
I picked Julie up in a rented Mercedes, an unquiet diesel. She had made a bunch of tapes for the ride and had brought reading material:The Guardian , the last two issues ofParkett . We drove out the narrow, tree-lined roads to the northeast. We passed villages of thatch-roofed houses. The land grew marshier, inlets appeared, and soon we traveled over the bridge to the island.
Shall I get right to it? No, slowly, leisurely, that’s the way. Let me first mention that it is October here in Germany. Though the weather was cool, the beach at Herringsdorf was dotted with quite a few diehard nudists. Primarily men, they lay walrus-like on towels or boisterously congregated in the stripedStrandkörbe , the little beach huts.
From the elegant boardwalk surrounded by pine and birch trees, I looked out at these naturists and wondered what I always wonder: What is it like to feel free like that? I mean, my body is so much better than theirs. I’m the one with the well-defined biceps, the bulging pectorals, the burnished glutes. But I could never saunter around in public like that.
“Not exactly the cover ofSunshine and Health ,” said Julie.
“After a certain age, people should keep their clothes on,” I said, or something like that. When in doubt I resort to mildly conservative or British-sounding pronouncements. I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying. I had suddenly forgotten all about the nudists. Because I was looking at Julie now. She had pushed her silver DDR-era eyeglasses onto the top of her head so that she could take pictures of the distant sunbathers. The wind off the Baltic was making her hair fly around. “Your eyebrows are like little black caterpillars,” I said. “Flatterer,” said Julie, still shooting. I said nothing else. As one does the return of sun after winter, I stood still and accepted the warm glow of possibility, of feeling right in the company of this small, oddly fierce person with the inky hair and the lovely, unemphasized body.
Still, that night, and the night after, we slept in separate rooms.
My father forbade me to talk to Marius Grimes in April, a damp, cool-headed month in Michigan. By May the weather grew warm; June was hot and July hotter still. In the backyard of our house on Seminole, I jumped through the sprinkler in my bathing suit, a two-piece number, while Chapter Eleven picked dandelions to make dandelion wine.
During that summer, as the temperature climbed, Milton tried to come to grips with the predicament he found himself in. His vision had been to open not one restaurant but a chain. Now he realized that the first link in that chain, the Zebra Room, was a weak one, and he was thrown into doubt and confusion. For the first time in his life Milton Stephanides came up against a possibility he’d never entertained: failure. What was he going to do with the restaurant? Should he sell it for peanuts? What then? (For the time being, he decided to close the diner on Mondays and Tuesdays to cut payroll expenses.)
My father and mother didn’t discuss the situation in front of us and slipped into Greek when discussing it with our grandparents. Chapter Eleven and I were left to figure out what was going on by the tone of a conversation that made no sense to us, and to be honest, we didn’t pay much attention. We only knew that Milton was suddenly around the house during the day. Milton, whom we had rarely seen in sunlight before, was suddenly out in the backyard, reading the newspaper. We discovered what our father’s legs looked like in short pants. We discovered what he looked like when he didn’t shave. The first two days his face got sandpapery the way it always did on weekends. But now, instead of seizing my hand and rubbing it against his whiskers until I screamed, Milton no longer had the high spirits to torment me. He just sat on the patio as the beard, like a stain, like a fungus, spread.
Unconsciously Milton was adhering to the Greek custom of not shaving after a death in the family. Only in this case what had ended wasn’t a life but a livelihood. The beard fattened up his already plump face. He didn’t keep it trimmed or very clean. And because he didn’t utter a word about his troubles, his beard began to express silently all the things he wouldn’t allow himself to say. Its knots and whorls indicated his increasingly tangled thoughts. Its bitter odor released the ketones of stress. As summer progressed, the beard grew shaggy,unmown , and it was obvious that Milton was thinking about Pingree Street; he was going to seed the way Pingree Street was.
Lefty tried to comfort his son. “Be strong,” he wrote. With a smile he copied out the warrior epitaph at Thermopylae: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/that here obedient to their laws we lie.” But Milton barely read the quote. His father’s stroke had convinced him that Lefty was no longer at the top of his game. Mute, carrying his pitiful chalkboard around, lost in his restoration of Sappho, Lefty had begun to seem old to his son. Milton found himself getting impatient or not paying attention.Intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members , that’s what Milton felt, seeing his father sunk in desk light, jutting out a moist underlip, scanning a dead language.
Despite the Cold War secrecy, bits of information leaked out to us kids. The deepening threat to our finances made itself known in the form of a jagged wrinkle, like a lightning bolt, that flashed above the bridge of my mother’s nose whenever I asked for something expensive in a toy store. Meat began appearing less often on our dinner table. Milton rationed electricity. If Chapter Eleven left a light on for more than a minute, he returned to total darkness. And to a voice in the darkness: “What did I tell you about kilowatts!” For a while we lived with a single lightbulb, which Milton carried from room to room. “This way I can keep track of how much power we’re using,” he said, screwing the bulb into the dining room fixture so that we could sit down to dinner. “I can’t see my food,” Tessie complained. “What do you mean?” said Milton. “This is what they callambiance .” After dessert, Milton took a handkerchief out of his back pocket, unscrewed the hot lightbulb, and, tossing it like an unambitious juggler, conveyed it into the living room. We waited in darkness as he fumbled through the house, knocking into furniture. Finally there was a brownout in the distance and Milton cheerily called out, “Ready!”
He kept up a brave front. He hosed down the sidewalk outside the diner and kept the windows spotless. He continued to greet customers with a hearty “How’s everything?” or a “Yahsou, patriote!” But the Zebra Room’s swing music and old-time baseball players couldn’t stop time. It was no longer 1940 but 1967. Specifically, the night of Sunday, July 23, 1967. And there was something lumpy under my father’s pillow.
Behold my parents’ bedroom: furnished entirely in Early American reproductions, it offers them connection (at discount prices) with the country’s founding myths. Notice, for instance, the veneer headboard of the bed, made from “pure cherrywood,” as Milton likes to say, just like the little tree George Washington chopped down. Direct your attention to the wallpaper with its Revolutionary War motif. A repeating pattern showing the famous trio of drummer boy, fife player, and lame old man. Throughout my earliest years on earth those bloodied figures marched around my parents’ bedroom, here disappearing behind a “Monticello” dresser, there emerging from behind a “Mount Vernon” mirror, or sometimes having no place to go at all and being cut in half by a closet.
Forty-three years old now, my parents, on this historic night, lie sound asleep. Milton’s snores make the bed rattle; also, the wall connecting to my room, where I’m asleep myself in a grownup bed. And something else is rattling beneath Milton’s pillow, a potentially dangerous situation considering what the object is. Under my father’s pillow is the .45 automatic he brought back from the war.
Chekhov’s first rule of playwriting goes something like this: “If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two.” I can’t help thinking about that storytelling precept as I contemplate the gun beneath my father’s pillow. There it is. I can’t take it away now that I’ve mentioned it. (It really was there that night.) And there are bullets in the gun and the safety is off . . .
Detroit, in the stifling summer of 1967, is bracing for race riots. Watts had exploded two summers earlier. Riots had broken out in Newark recently. In response to the national turmoil, the all-white Detroit police force has been raiding after-hours bars in the city’s black neighborhoods. The idea is to make preemptive strikes against possible flashpoints. Usually, the police park their paddy wagons in back alleys and herd the patrons into the vehicles without anyone seeing. But tonight, for reasons that will never be explained, three police vehicles arrive at the Economy Printing Co. at 9125 Twelfth Street—three blocks from Pingree—and park at the curb. You might think this wouldn’t matter at five in the morning, but you would be wrong. Because in 1967, Detroit’s Twelfth Street is open all night.
For instance, as the police arrive, there are girls lined along the street, girls in miniskirts, thigh-highs, and halter tops. (The sea wrack Milton hoses from the sidewalk every morning includes the dead jellyfish of prophylactics and the occasional hermit crab of a lost high heel.) The girls stand at the curbs as cars cruise by. Keylime Cadillacs, fire-red Toronados, wide-mouthed, trolling Lincolns, all in perfect shape. Chrome glints. Hubcaps shine. Not a single rust spot anywhere. (Which is something that always amazes Milton about black people, the contradiction between the perfection of their automobiles and the disrepair of their houses.) . . . But now the gleaming cars are slowing. Windows are rolling down and girls are bending to chat with the drivers. There are calls back and forth, the lifting of already minuscule skirts, and sometimes a flash of breast or an obscene gesture, the girls working it, laughing, high enough by 5A.M. to be numb to the rawness between their legs and the residues of men no amount of perfume can get rid of. It isn’t easy to keep yourself clean on the street, and by this hour each of those young women smells in the places that count like a very ripe, soft French cheese . . . They’re numb, too, to thoughts of babies left at home, six-month-olds with bad colds lying in used cribs, sucking on pacifiers, and having a hard time breathing . . . numb to the lingering taste of semen in their mouths along with peppermint gum, most of these girls no more than eighteen, this curb on Twelfth Street their first real place of employment, the most the country has to offer in the way of a vocation. Where are they going to go from here? They’re numb to that, too, except for a couple who have dreams of singing backup or opening up a hair shop . . . But this is all part of what happened that night, what’s about to happen (the police are getting out of their cars now, they are breaking in the door of the blind pig) . . . as a window opens and someone yells, “It’s the fuzz! Out the back way!” At the curb the girls recognize the cops because they have to do them for free. But something is different tonight, something is happening . . . the girls don’t disappear as usual when the cops show up. They stand and watch as the clients of the blind pig are led out in handcuffs, and a few girls even begin to grumble . . . and now other doors are opening and cars are stopping and suddenly everyone is out on the street . . . people stream out of other blind pigs and from houses and from street corners and you can feel it in the air, the way the air has somehow been keeping score, and how at this moment in July of 1967 the tally of abuses has reached a point so that the imperative flies out from Watts and Newark to Twelfth Street in Detroit, as one girl shouts, “Get yo’ hands offa them, motherfucking pigs!” . . . and then there are other shouts, and pushing, and a bottle just misses a policeman and shatters a squad car window behind . . . and back on Seminole my father is sleeping on a gun that has just been recommissioned, because the riots have begun . . .
At 6:23A.M. , the Princess telephone in my bedroom rang and I picked it up. It was Jimmy Fioretos, who in his panic mistook my voice for my mother’s. “Tessie, tell Milt to get down to the restaurant. The coloreds are rioting!”
“Stephanides residence,” I continued politely, as I’d been taught. “Callie speaking.”
“Callie? Jesus. Honey, let me speak to your father?”
“Just one minute please.” I put down the pink phone, walked into my parents’ bedroom, and shook my father awake.
“It’s Mr. Fioretos.”
“Jimmy? Christ, what does he want?” He lifted his cheek, in which could be discerned the imprint of a gun barrel.
“He says somebody’s rioting.”
At which point, my father jumped out of bed. As though he still weighed one hundred and forty pounds instead of one ninety, Milton flipped gymnastically into the air and landed on his feet, completely unaware of both his nakedness and his dream-filled morning erection. (So it was that the Detroit riots will always be connected in my mind with my first sight of the aroused male genitalia. Even worse, they were my father’s, and worst of all, he was reaching for a gun. Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.) Tessie was up now, too, shouting at Milton not to go, and Milton was hopping on one foot, trying to put on his pants; and before long everybody was into it.
“I tell you this what happen!” Desdemona screamed at Milton as he ran down the stairs. “Do you fix the church for St. Christopher? No!”
“Leave it to the police, Milt,” Tessie pleaded.
And Chapter Eleven: “When are you going to be back, Dad? You promised to take me to Radio Shack today.”
And me, still squeezing my eyes shut to erase what I’d seen: “I think I’ll go back to bed now.”
The only person who didn’t say something was Lefty, because in all the confusion he couldn’t find his chalkboard.
Half-dressed, in shoes but no socks, in pants but no underpants, Milton Stephanides raced his Delta 88 through the early morning streets. All the way to Woodward nothing seemed amiss. The roads were clear. Everyone was still asleep. As he turned onto West Grand Boulevard, however, he saw a pillar of smoke rising into the air. Unlike all the other pillars of smoke issuing from the city’s smokestacks, this pillar didn’t disperse into the general smog. It hung low to the ground like a vengeful tornado. It churned and kept its fearsome shape, fed by what it consumed. The Oldsmobile was heading straight for it. Suddenly people appeared. People running. People carrying things. People laughing and looking over their shoulders while other people waved their hands, appealing for them to stop. Sirens wailed. A police car raced past. The officer at the wheel signaled Milton to turn back, but Milton did not obey.
And it was funny, because these were his streets. Milton had known them his whole life. Over there on Lincoln there used to be a fruit stand. Lefty used to stop there with Milton to buy cantaloupes, teaching Milton how to pick a sweet one by looking for tiny punctures left by bees. Over on Trumbull was where Mrs. Tsatsarakis lived.Used to always ask me to bring up Vernors from the basement , Milton thought to himself.Couldn’t climb stairs anymore. On the corner of Sterling and Commonwealth was the old Masonic Temple, where one Saturday afternoon thirty-five years before, Milton had been runner-up in a spelling bee. A spelling bee! Two dozen kids in their best clothes concentrating as hard as they could to piece out “prestidigitation” one letter at a time. That’s what used to happen in this neighborhood. Spelling bees! Now ten-year-olds were running in the streets, carrying bricks. They were throwing bricks through store windows, laughing and jumping, thinking it was some kind of game, some kind of holiday.
Milton looked away from the dancing children and saw the pillar of smoke right in front of him, blocking the street. There was a second or two when he could have turned back. But he didn’t. He hit it dead on. The Oldsmobile’s hood ornament disappeared first, then the front fenders and the roof. The taillights gleamed redly for a moment and then winked out.
In every chase scene we’d ever watched, the hero always climbed up to the roof. Strict realists in my family, we always objected: “Why do they always go up?” “Watch. He’s going to climb the tower. See? I told you.” But Hollywood knew more about human nature than we realized. Because, faced with this emergency, Tessie took Chapter Eleven and me up to the attic. Maybe it was a vestige of our arboreal past; we wanted to climb up and out of danger. Or maybe my mother felt safer there because of the door that blended in with the wallpaper. Whatever the reason, we took a suitcase full of food up to the attic and stayed there for three days, watching the city burn on my grandparents’ small black-and-white. In housedress and sandals, Desdemona held her cardboard fan to her chest, shielding herself against the spectacle of life repeating itself. “Oh my God! Is like Smyrna! Look at themavros ! Like the Turks they are burning everything!”
It was hard to argue with the comparison. In Smyrna people had taken their furniture down to the waterfront; and on television now people were carrying furniture, too. Men were lugging brand-new sofas out of stores. Refrigerators were sailing along the avenues, as were stoves and dishwashers. And just like in Smyrna everyone seemed to have packed all their clothes. Women were wearing minks despite the July heat. Men were trying on new suits and running at the same time. “Smyrna! Smyrna! Smyrna!” Desdemona kept wailing, and I’d already heard so much about Smyrna in my seven years that I watched the screen closely to see what it had been like. But I didn’t understand. Sure, buildings were burning, bodies were lying in the street, but the mood wasn’t one of desperation. I’d never seen people so happy in my entire life. Men were playing instruments taken from a music store. Other men were handing whiskey bottles through a shattered window and passing them around. It looked more like a block party than it did a riot.
Up until that night, our neighborhood’s basic feeling about our fellow Negro citizens could be summed up in something Tessie said after watching Sidney Poitier’s performance inTo Sir with Love , which opened a month before the riots. She said, “You see, they can speak perfectly normal if they want.” That was how we felt. (Even me back then, I won’t deny it, because we’re all the children of our parents.) We were ready to accept the Negroes. We weren’t prejudiced against them. We wanted to include them in our societyif they would only act normal !
In their support for Johnson’s Great Society, in their applause afterTo Sir with Love , our neighbors and relatives made clear their well-intentioned belief that the Negroes were fully capable of being just like white people—but then what was this? they asked themselves as they saw the pictures on television. What were those young men doing carrying a sofa down the street? Would Sidney Poitier ever take a sofa or a large kitchen appliance from a store without paying? Would he dance like that in front of a burning building? “No respect for private property whatsoever,” cried Mr. Benz, who lived next door. And his wife Phyllis: “Where are they going to live if they burn down their own neighborhood?” Only Aunt Zo seemed to sympathize: “I don’t know. If I was walking down the street and there was a mink coat just sitting there, I might take it.” “Zoë!” Father Mike was shocked. “That’s stealing!” “Oh, what isn’t, when you come right down to it. This whole country’s stolen.”
For three days and two nights we waited in the attic to hear from Milton. The fires had knocked out phone service, and when my mother called the restaurant, all she got was a recorded message with an operator’s voice.
For three days no one left the attic except Tessie, who hurried downstairs to get food from our emptying cupboards. We watched the death toll rise.
Day 1: Deaths—15. Injuries—500. Stores looted—1,000. Fires—800.
Day 2: Deaths—27. Injuries—700. Stores looted—1,500. Fires—1,000.
Day 3: Deaths—36. Injuries—1,000. Stores looted—1,700. Fires—1,163.
For three days we studied the photographs of the victims as they appeared on TV. Mrs. Sharon Stone, struck by a sniper’s bullet as her car was stopped at a traffic light. Carl E. Smith, a fireman, killed by a sniper as he battled a blaze.
For three days we watched the politicians hesitate and argue: the Republican governor, George Romney, asking President Johnson to send in federal troops; and Johnson, a Democrat, saying he had an “inability” to do such a thing. (There was an election coming up in the fall. The worse the riots got, the worse Romney was going to do. And so before he sent in the paratroopers, President Johnson sent in Cyrus Vance to assess the situation. Nearly twenty-four hours passed before federal troops arrived. In the meantime the inexperienced National Guard was shooting up the town.)
For three days we didn’t bathe or brush our teeth. For three days all the normal rituals of our life were suspended, while half-forgotten rituals, like praying, were renewed. Desdemona said the prayers in Greek as we gathered around her bed, and Tessie tried as usual to dispel her doubts and truly believe. The vigil light no longer contained oil but was an electric bulb.
For three days we received no word from Milton. When Tessie returned from her trips downstairs I began to detect, in addition to the traces of tears on her face, faint streaks of guilt. Death always makes people practical. So while Tessie had been on the first floor, foraging for food, she had also been searching in Milton’s desk. She had read the terms of his life insurance policy. She had checked the balance in their retirement account. In the bathroom mirror she appraised her looks, wondering if she could attract another husband at her age. “I had you kids to think of,” she confessed to me years later. “I was wondering what we’d do if your father didn’t come back.”
To live in America, until recently, meant to be far from war. Wars happened in Southeast Asian jungles. They happened in Middle Eastern deserts. They happened, as the old song has it,over there . But then why, peeking out the dormer window, did I see, on the morning after our second night in the attic, a tank rolling by our front lawn? A green army tank, all alone in the long shadows of morning, its enormous treads clanking against the asphalt. An armor-plated military vehicle encountering no greater obstacle than a lost roller skate. The tank rolled past the affluent homes, the gables and turrets, the porte cocheres. It stopped briefly at the stop sign. The gun turret looked both ways, like a driver’s ed student, and then the tank went on its way.
What had happened: late Monday night, President Johnson, finally giving in to Governor Romney’s request, had ordered in federal troops. General John L. Throckmorton set up the headquarters of the 101st Airborne at Southeastern High, where my parents had gone to school. Though the fiercest rioting was on the West Side, General Throckmorton chose to deploy his paratroopers on the East Side, calling this decision “an operational convenience.” By early Tuesday morning the paratroopers were moving in to quell the disturbance.
No one else was awake to see the tank rumble by. My grandparents were dozing in bed. Tessie and Chapter Eleven were curled on air mattresses on the floor. Even the parakeets were quiet. I remember looking at my brother’s face peeking out of his sleeping bag. On the flannel lining, hunters shot at ducks. This masculine background served only to emphasize Chapter Eleven’s lack of heroic qualities. Who was going to come to my father’s aid? Who could my father rely on? Chapter Eleven with his Coke-bottle glasses? Lefty with his chalkboard and sixty-plus years? What I did next had no connection, I believe, with my chromosomal status. It did not result from the high-testosterone plasma levels in my blood. I did what any loving, loyal daughter would have done who had been raised on a diet of Hercules movies. In that instant, I decided to find my father, to save him, if necessary, or at least to tell him to come home.
Crossing myself in the Orthodox fashion, I stole down the attic stairs, closing the door behind me. In my bedroom I put on sneakers and my Amelia Earhart aviator’s cap. Without waking anyone I let myself out the front door, ran to my bicycle parked at the side of the house, and pedaled away. After two blocks, I caught sight of the tank: it had stopped at a red light. The soldiers inside were busy looking at maps, trying to find the best route to the riots. They didn’t notice the little girl in the aviator’s cap stealing up on a banana bike. It was still dark out. The birds were beginning to sing. Summer smells of lawn and mulch filled the air, and suddenly I lost my nerve. The closer I got to the tank, the bigger it looked. I was frightened and wanted to run back home. But the light changed and the tank lurched forward. Standing up on my pedals, I sped after it.
Across town, in the lightless Zebra Room, my father was trying to stay awake. Barricaded behind the cash register, holding the revolver in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, Milton looked out the front window to see what was happening in the street. Over the last two sleepless nights the circles under Milton’s eyes had darkened steadily with each cup of coffee he drank. His eyelids hung at half mast, but his brow was damp with the perspiration of anxiety and vigilance. His stomach hurt. He needed to go to the bathroom in the worst way but didn’t dare.
Outside, they were at it again: the snipers. It was almost 5A.M. Each night, the sinking sun, like a ring on a window shade, pulled night down over the neighborhood. From wherever the snipers disappeared to during the hot day, they returned. They took up their positions. From the windows of condemned hotels, from fire escapes and balconies, from behind cars jacked up in front yards, they extended the barrels of their assorted guns. If you looked closely, if you were brave or reckless enough to stick your head out the window this time of night, you could see by the moon—that other pull ring, going up—hundreds of glinting guns, pointed down into the street, through which the soldiers were now advancing.
The only light inside the diner came from the red glow of the jukebox. It stood to one side of the front door, a Disco-Matic made of chrome, plastic, and colored glass. There was a small window through which you could watch the robotic changing of records. Through a circulatory system along the jukebox’s edges trails of dark blue bubbles rose. Bubbles representing the effervescence of American life, of our postwar optimism, of our fizzy, imperial, carbonated drinks. Bubbles full of the hot air of American democracy, boiling up from the stacked vinyl platters inside. “Mama Don’t Allow It” by Bunny Berigan maybe, or “Stardust” by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. But not tonight. Tonight Milton had the jukebox off so that he could hear if anyone was trying to break in.
The cluttered walls of the restaurant took no notice of the rioting outside. Al Kaline still beamed from his frame. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox continued on their trek below the daily special. The menu board itself still offered eggs, hash browns, seven kinds of pie. So far nothing had happened. Somewhat miraculously. Squatting at the front window yesterday, Milton had seen looters break into every store down the block. They looted the Jewish market, taking everything but the matzoh and the yahrzeit candles. With a sharp sense of style, they stripped Joel Moskowitz’s shoe store of its higher-priced and more fashionable models, leaving only some orthopedic offerings and a few Florsheims. All that was left in Dyer’s Appliance, as far as Milton could tell, was a rack of vacuum bags. What would they loot if they looted the diner? Would they take the stained glass window, which Milton himself had taken? Would they show interest in the photo of Ty Cobb snarling as he slid, spikes first, into second base? Maybe they’d rip the zebra skins off the barstools. They liked anything African, didn’t they? Wasn’t that the new vogue, or the old vogue that was new again? Hell, they could have the goddamned zebra skins. He’d put them out front as a peace offering.
But now Milton heard something. The doorknob, was it? He listened. For the last few hours he’d been hearing things. His eyes had been playing tricks on him, too. He crouched behind the counter, squinting into the darkness. His ears echoed the way seashells do. He heard the distant gunfire and the squawking sirens. He heard the hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the clock. To all this was added the rush of his blood, roaring through the channels in his head. But no sound came from the doorway.
Milton relaxed. He took another bite of the sandwich. Gently, experimentally, he lowered his head onto the counter.Just for a minute . When he closed his eyes, the pleasure was immediate. Then the doorknob rattled again, and Milton jumped. He shook his head, trying to wake himself up. He put down the sandwich and tiptoed out from behind the counter, holding the gun.
He didn’t intend to use it. The idea was to scare the looter off. If that didn’t work, Milton was prepared to leave. The Oldsmobile was parked out back. He could be home in ten minutes. The knob rattled again. And without thinking Milton stepped toward the glass door and shouted, “I’ve got a gun!”
Except it wasn’t the gun. It was the ham sandwich! Milton was threatening the looter with two pieces of toasted bread, a slice of meat, and some hot mustard. Nevertheless, because it was dark out, this worked. The looter outside the door held up his hands.
It was Morrison from across the street.
Milton stared at Morrison. Morrison stared back. And then my father said—this is what white people say in a situation like this, “Can I help you?”
Morrison squinted, disbelieving. “What you doing here, man? You crazy? Ain’t safe for no white people down here.” A shot rang out. Morrison flattened himself against the glass. “Ain’t safe for nobody.”
“I’ve gotta protect my property.”
“You life ain’t you property?” Morrison raised his eyebrows to indicate the unimpeachable logic of this statement. Then he dropped the superior expression altogether and coughed. “Listen, chief, long as you here, maybe you can help me out.” He held up small change. “Came over for some cigarettes.”
Milton’s chin dipped, fattening his neck, and his eyebrows slanted in disbelief. In a dry voice he said, “Now’d be a good time to kick the habit.”
Another shot rang out, this time closer. Morrison jumped, then smiled. “It sureis bad for my health. And gettin’ more dangerous all the time.” Then he smiled broadly. “This’ll be my last pack,” he said, “swear to God.” He dropped the change through the mail slot. “Parliaments.” Milton looked down at the coins for a moment and then went and got the cigarettes.
“Got any matches?” Morrison said.
Milton slipped these through, too. As he did, the riots, his frayed nerves, the smell of fire in the air, and the audacity of this man Morrison dodging sniper fire for a pack of cigarettes all became too much for Milton. Suddenly he was waving his arms, indicating everything, and shouting through the door, “What’s the matter with you people?”
Morrison took only a moment. “The matter with us,” he said, “is you.” And then he was gone.
“The matter with us is you.” How many times did I hear that growing up? Delivered by Milton in his so-called black accent, delivered whenever any liberal pundit talked about the “culturally deprived” or the “underclass” or “empowerment zones,” spoken out of the belief that this one statement, having been delivered to him while the blacks themselves burned down a significant portion of our beloved city, proved its own absurdity. As the years went on, Milton used it as a shield against any opinions to the contrary, and finally it grew into a kind of mantra, the explanation for why the world was going to hell, applicable not only to African Americans but to feminists and homosexuals; and then of course he liked to use it on us, whenever we were late for dinner or wore clothes Tessie didn’t approve of.
“The matter with us is you!” Morrison’s words echoed in the street, but Milton didn’t have time to concentrate on them. Because right then, like a creaky Godzilla in a Japanese movie, the first military tank lumbered into view. Soldiers stood on both sides, not cops now but National Guardsmen, camouflaged, helmeted, nervously holding rifles with bayonets. Pointing those rifles up at all the other rifles pointing down. There was a moment of relative silence, enough for Milton to hear the slamming of Morrison’s screen door across the street. Then there was a pop, a sound like a toy gun, and suddenly the street lit up with a thousand bursts of fire . . .
I heard them, too, from a quarter mile away. Following the slow tank at a discreet distance, I had ridden my bike from Indian Village on the East Side all the way to the West. I tried to keep my bearings as best I could, but I was only seven and a half, and didn’t know many street names. While passing through downtown, I recognizedThe Spirit of Detroit , the Marshall Fredericks statue that stood in front of the City-County Building. A few years earlier, a prankster had painted a trail of red footprints in the statue’s size, leading across Woodward to rendezvous with a statue of a naked woman in front of the National Bank of Detroit. The footprints were still faintly visible as I pedaled past. The tank turned up Bush Street, and I followed it past Monroe and the lights of Greektown. On a normal day, the old Greek men of my grandfather’s generation would have been arriving at the coffee houses to spend the day playing backgammon, but on the morning of July 25, 1967, the street was empty. At some point my tank had found others; in a line they now headed northwest. Soon downtown vanished and I didn’t know where I was. Ducking aerodynamically over my handlebars, I pedaled furiously into the thick, oily exhaust of the moving column . . .
. . . while, back on Pingree Street, Milton is crouching behind the crenellated olive oil tins. Bullets fly from every darkened window along the block, from Frank’s Pool Hall and the Crow Bar, from the bell tower of the African Episcopal Church, so many bullets they blur the air like rain, making the one working streetlamp look as if it’s flickering out. Bullets pounding on armor and ricocheting off brickwork and tattooing the parked cars. Bullets ripping the legs right out from under a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, so that it falls over on its side like a drunk. Bullets obliterating the window of the veterinarian office and continuing on through the walls to reach the cages of the animals in back. The German shepherd that has been barking nonstop for three days and two nights finally shuts up. A cat twists in the air, letting out a scream, its blazing green eyes going out like a light. A real battle is under way now, a firefight, a little bit of Vietnam brought back home. But in this case the Vietcong are lying on Beautyrest mattresses. They are sitting in camping chairs and drinking malt liquor, a volunteer army facing off against the enlistees in the streets.
It’s impossible to know who all these snipers were. But it’s easy to understand why the police called them snipers. It’s easy to understand why Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh called them snipers, and Govenor George Romney, too. A sniper, by definition, acts alone. A sniper is cowardly, sneaky; he kills from a distance, unseen. It was convenient to call them snipers, because if they weren’t snipers, then what were they? The governor didn’t say it; the newspapers didn’t say it; the history books still do not say it, but I, who watched the entire thing on my bike, saw it clearly: in Detroit, in July of 1967, what happened was nothing less than a guerrilla uprising.
The Second American Revolution.
And now the guardsmen are fighting back. When the riot first broke, the police, on the whole, acted with restraint. They moved off, trying to contain the disturbance. Likewise, the federal troops, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and 101st, are battle-hardened veterans who know to use appropriate force. But the National Guard is a different story. Weekend warriors, they have been called from their homes into sudden battle. They are inexperienced, scared. They move through the streets, blasting away at anything they see. Sometimes they drive tanks right up onto front lawns. They drive onto people’s porches and crash through the walls. The tank in front of the Zebra Room has stopped momentarily. Ten or so troops surround it, taking aim at a sniper on the fourth floor of the Beaumont Hotel. The sniper fires; the National Guardsmen fire back, and the man drops, his legs tangling on the fire escape. Directly thereafter, another light flashes across the street. Milton looks up to see Morrison in his living room, lighting a cigarette. Lighting a Parliament with the zebra-striped matches. “No!” Milton shouts. “No!” . . . And Morrison, if he hears, just thinks it’s another diatribe against smoking, but let’s face it, he doesn’t hear. He only lights his cigarette and, two seconds later, a bullet rips through the front of his skull and he crumples in a heap. And then the soldiers move on.
The street is empty again, silent. The machine guns and tanks begin ripping up the next block, or the block after that. Milton stands at the front door, looking across at the empty window where Morrison had stood. And the realization comes over him that the restaurant is safe. The soldiers have come and gone. The riot is over . . .
. . . Except that now someone else is advancing along the street. As the tanks disappear down Pingree, a new figure is approaching from the other direction. Somebody who lives in the neighborhood is rounding the corner and heading for the Zebra Room . . .
. . . following the line of tanks, I am no longer thinking about showing up my brother. The outbreak of so much shooting has taken me completely by surprise. I have looked through my father’s World War II scrapbook many times; I have seen Vietnam on television; I have ingested countless movies about Ancient Rome or the battles of the Middle Ages. But none of it has prepared me for warfare in my own hometown. The street we are moving down is lined with leafy elms. Cars are parked at the curb. We pass lawns and porch furniture, bird feeders and birdbaths. As I look up at the canopy of elms, the sky is just beginning to grow light. Birds move among the branches, and squirrels, too. A kite is stuck up in one tree. Over a limb of another, someone’s tennis shoes dangle with the laces knotted. Directly below these sneakers, I see a street sign. It is full of bullet holes, but I manage to read it: Pingree. All of a sudden I recognize where I am. There is Value Meats! And New Yorker Clothes. I am so happy to see them that for a moment I don’t register that both places are on fire. Letting the tanks get away, I ride up a driveway and stop behind a tree. I get off my bike and peek across the street at the diner. The zebra head sign is still intact. The restaurant is not burning. At that moment, however, the figure that has been approaching the Zebra Room enters my field of vision. From thirty yards away I see him lift a bottle in his hand. He lights the rag hanging from the bottle’s mouth and with a not terribly good arm flings the Molotov cocktail through the front window of the Zebra Room. And as flames erupt within the diner, the arsonist shouts in an ecstatic voice:
I saw him only from the back. It was not yet fully light. Smoke rose from the adjacent burning buildings. Still, in the firelight, I thought I recognized the black beret of my friend Marius Wyxze-wixard Challouehliczilczese Grimes before the figure ran off.
“Opa!” Inside the diner, my father heard the well-known cry of Greek waiters, and before he knew what was happening the place was going up like a flaming appetizer. The Zebra Room had become asaganaki ! As the booths caught fire, Milton raced behind the counter to grab the fire extinguisher. Coming out again, he held the hose, like a lemon wedge wrapped in cheesecloth, over the flames, and prepared to squeeze . . .
. . . when suddenly he stopped. And now I recognize a familiar expression on my father’s face, the expression he wore so often at the dinner table, the faraway look of a man who could never stop thinking about business. Success depends on adapting to new situations. And what situation was newer than this? Flames were climbing the walls; the photo of Jimmy Dorsey was curling up. And Milton was asking himself a few, pertinent questions. For instance: How would he ever run a restaurant in this neighborhood again? And: What do you suppose the already depressed real estate prices would be tomorrow morning? Most important of all: How was it a crime? Didhe start the riot? Did he throw the Molotov cocktail? Like Tessie, Milton’s mind was searching the bottom drawer of his desk, in particular a fat envelope containing the three fire insurance policies from separate companies. He saw them in his mind’s eye; he read the fire indemnity coverage, and added them up. The final sum, $500,000, blinded him to everything else. Half a million bucks! Milton looked around with wild, eager eyes. The French toast sign was in flames. The zebra-skin barstools were like a row of torches. And madly, he turned and hurried outside to the Oldsmobile . . .
Where he encountered me.
“Callie! What the hell are you doing here?”
“I came to help.”
“What’s the matter with you!” Milton shouted. But despite the anger in his voice he was down on his knees, hugging me. I wrapped my arms around his neck.
“The restaurant’s burning down, Daddy.”
“I know it is.”
I began to cry.
“It’s okay,” my father told me, carrying me to the car. “Let’s go home now. It’s all over.”
So was it a riot or a guerrilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions. After the riot was over, were, or were there not, caches of weapons found all over the neighborhood? And were these weapons, or were they not, AK-47s and machine guns? And why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.
The following morning, as the smoke cleared, the city’s flag could once again be seen. Remember the symbol on it? A phoenix rising from its ashes. And the words beneath?Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus . “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”