All We Are Saying: Part 1 “E Pluribus Unum”

by iaians

Let’s say you’re twenty. You drive down all the way from Detroit. Three days. 1400 miles. You drive through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida. Places like Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Macon, Valdosta, Gainesville, Orlando, Miami. You travel at top speed in  your Volkswagen Beatle, an empty Coca-Cola can is wedged against the accelerator to keep it around 70mph. Sitting Indian-style in the driver’s seat you check the rear-view mirror to admire all the camping equipment, or lack thereof, contained in your backseat. You’re heading to Miami to help a revolution: the first one started, waged, and won on the engines of peace and love. You and the rest of the like-minded people who will be there can win a major battle by opposing the president, and through the power of intense moral understanding, consciousness raising, or outright public shaming convince delegates at the Republican National Convention that the war against the Vietnamese people is an unjust one. You believe this wholeheartedly.

Five years ago you watched sections of your city burn from your parents’ porch. In the evening hue of modernized Detroit, an old glow of humanity hummed off in the distance, masked by the sounds of faint sirens and the occasional crack of gunfire.

The circumstances that led to the chaos were debatable. You heard from friends it had to do with an illegal bust. Some cops thought they’d rough up a handful of Negros at some unsanctioned bar in the ghetto on 12th. Instead, they walked into a mass gathering (celebrating the return of some brothers fighting overseas) who weren’t in the mood for the traditional customs of an oppressive white community. In other stories you heard the cops walked in on a Black Panther rally, or walked in on a voodoo ritual, or it was an ambush by some congregation of law-breaking Negroes with bedlam on their minds. Whatever the story really was, the results were the same. The citizens resisted, the cops enforced, a crowd gathered, but this time, the script altered in a big way and then the next thing anyone knew bottles were flying, curses were made, windows were broken, goods stolen, cars pelted, fires started, and the worst riot in the history of the nation since the Civil War was afoot.

This went on for a week. You heard more stories, each intensifying with every telling. They seemed to catch fire and spread wildly through the neighborhoods and classrooms mimicking the reality unfolding in the urbanscape. Snipers were firing at policemen and National Guardsmen trying to keep the peace and firefighters who attempted to extinguish burning stores. People were setting fire to trash cans and hurling them at tanks. Armored vehicles were running cars over out of spite. People were being executed in firing lines by the Detroit PD and Michigan National Guard. “They” dragged John Conyers out of his car and spanked him in the middle of the street. Effigies of Mayor Cavanaugh were the cause of several arsonist attacks throughout the city. There was some mention of a hotel where cops found two white boys and a black sharing a bed. They called for reinforcement and proceeded to beat all three to death. The one story that was most frequented, though, (mostly by friends of your parents) concerned a mysterious marauding group of Negroes running through the neighborhoods and even as far west as Dearborn and north as Warren, clubbing senior citizens and raping dogs. Such madness was like a confection.

Everyone searched for an answer as to why this was happening. Your parents, their friends, some of the teachers, many of your schoolmates, friends were confused and hurt by what they saw from their porches, and from what they read in the newspaper, and saw on the television. A massive rejection of all that they knew, the projections of themselves. One man who stood in front of his burnt-out store on 12th Street assembled this thought: “I just don’t understand it. We gave them everything. Cavanaugh’s givin’ ’em everything. Everything they asked for, they got. And this… it’s unbelievable. I’ve been very good to these people. I just… I don’t understand it.” How could this happen? What explained such violence, such vicious rejection of the hallowed concept of law and order? Martin Luther King Jr.? The NAACP? But Charles Diggs was lambasting Johnson, practically daring him not to send troops in—with the support of the colored organization. Possible socialist shadow networks then. Who knew? Most were content to blame it on unruly “niggers” and “social agitators” general “hoodlums and hatemongers” who were not content with what every other reasonable Detroit citizen was.

And yet, other friends of yours, and even more classmates saw it differently, their parents and neighbors and fellow citizens, too. “Man, I see plenty of white boys out there, too, it’s not just us,” your friend Lucas was saying. But it wasn’t merely about this one point in time, which was in itself insufficient to explain these bitterly hot days, but an entire apparatus of spatial and temporal behavior that weighed down on the moment. Their focus was not solely given to the foreground, they did not have the luxury. It was there, it was in the background, it was in the ignored corners, in every paint stroke, every craquelure. They did not just view the painting in its entirety but lived it in a horror of quotidian being. The entire apparatus had failed them, failed everyone, and it was largely perpetrated by you and yours. The police, the real estate agents, the factory workers, union leaders,  store managers, landlords, mortgage officers, car salesmen, bank tellers, nurses, doctors, cab drivers, neighbors, on and on and on in every direction everywhere they looked.

No one was innocent. Not even you. “Goddamned hippie!” one father shouted from his door at you as you walked home with your friend Mary. You were fifteen then. Once the initial terror subsided you wore it with pride, the label was your liberation. You were going to say something, but Mary acted faster: “Rather that than a pig!” she shouted back. She was dressed more “respectably,” which made her response even more shocking to the man. He went back inside; “so he can beat his kids” Mary said. She might have looked like a square, but she was more of a “degenerate” than you. Her parents didn’t allow for the kind of “subversive” fashion the way yours let you “get away with.” It wasn’t that simple. You had to explain to friends that your parents never approved, you just wore them down.

Your father had words with the neighbor later that evening. “He won’t be shouting at you anymore, but you better show some more respect, otherwise I will make you regret it.” That was your father. God love him. He might have been repulsed by the anti-war movement, just like most, but he loved you. And even though he was utterly disgusted by the code of conduct many of his peers acted upon, he still defended them as much as he did you. But if anyone was going to whip you into shape, it would be him. After all, you were all he and Mom had left. Your brother passed away a few years back, so they had to keep you as much as possible. Both would have rather locked you up if they had their druthers. Well, they did. Or they tried at least. Nothing worked. You were your own force.

“I just ask one thing,” your dad requested one early morning, the day you gained your independence. He had stayed up all night, waiting for your return. You were returning from an MC5 show. You smelled of sweat, cigarettes, alcohol, and a few other things. It was a familiar scene. He sat in his chair, turned away from the television set toward the door. You stood, hand resting on the knob, fighting sleep deprivation, ears still ringing, eyes bloodshot, the room reverberating and blurry. “I’m not going to punish you anymore. If I did, you wouldn’t have an ass to sit on much longer. And I’m sick of replacing the locks. So,” he stood up. You flinched. “I’m going to make you a deal. I don’t want to receive any calls from the police. If I don’t receive any calls, then we can work something out.” He couldn’t control you, just save a semblance of his face.

Let’s get back to now. The windows are rolled down. Your foot is hanging outside. The air pushes against your toes and blows your long hair in every which direction. You put it in a ponytail. You’re maybe fifteen, twenty miles out of the final destination where you’ll meet up with your friend Sophie and her boyfriend Mike and about a couple of hundred like-minded weirdos, Yippies, veterans, drop-outs, and more. The Atlantic’s musk is thick in the humidity that coats everything in its damp residue. The most radical song you can find on the radio is “Made In Japan.”  You’re holding a pink poster, it’s flailing wildly. In that fat cloud-like hand-designed writing, it reads: “Come end the war!”

You’ve been told numerous times that this is a fool’s task. Something about how civil disobedience only engenders further resentment and emboldens the resolve of the resistance. But… you are the resistance. You reject the current state, and you do not do it alone. A mass of strangers just like you are assembling down in Miami to make this happen, too. Surely this collective of disparate people, joining together under one banner to resist and reform, is evidence of your righteousness and you cannot possibly falter. You know it won’t be easy, but you also know in the basic nature of people, a common will to bend towards the light and reject the darkness. The people will bring the change, and you and your strangers are going to help usher them.

The sun almost disappears into the west as you reach the campsite. Flamingo Park is a giant field of energy bursting in every which direction. In the fading glow of the sun, all these wonderful colors become saturated and more accentuated: the greens and yellows of the surrounding magnolias and silent hedges that gleam in the oppressive heat, gold stars and crimsons painted on the tents, black and white on the faces of “miscreants,” greens and reds and blues on the kaleidoscopic shirts, vibrant purple and orange banners. Beautiful shirtless bodies are roaming around, long-haired freaks walk with joints in their mouths, and huge tufts of black hair bob atop the heads of their proud owners. Hippies here, Yippies there, and zippies everywhere, the Women’s Coalition, eco freaks, Jesus creeps, the gays, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, too, all the acronyms: SCLC, SDS, VVAW, RLP, PLP, GFP, SWP, PPP, YSA: surf bums from California, New England’s crop of fortunates and misfortunates, the underbelly of the sun belt full of its Christian positivists and agnostic skeptics (and vice versa), those who rolled in from the great vast landscapes of the plains, and the byproduct of American industrial modernism itself: the Midwesterners like you, every skin and hair pigmentation, veterans, civilians, men, women, and children, they all showed up. Even the elderly are sitting around on their favored benches to listen to your generation play guitar and sing songs. People start saying: “Bring your grandparents!” “Radicalize the Omas and the Papas!” “Peace and love transcend the generations!” Inside one of the larger tents is a multi-television display flashing images of Vietnam, Bangladesh, Laos, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Bolivia, Brazil, and the United States, intermeshed in a fragmentary fashion so that you see the poverty of one Latin American country, to the destruction of a rice farmer’s crop, to a production assembly of milk bottles. The North Vietnamese flag is draped over people’s shoulders, covering tents, hanging from trees. A sign reads: “Register for the Pot People’s Party.” A poster requests donations for a local zippie named Pat Small who needed defense for: “…throwing a pie after a city council meeting,” any help would be kind. Some people try to mobilize you into their movement for an extended nationwide rent strike. “I live with my parents,” you tell them. “Far out. Well, stay out past your bedtime then!” You all laugh over that. You pass the food court where the Coconut Co-op is providing food in return for donations of any type. Someone offers you pamphlet titled: “Revised Manual for the Republican Convention,” the letters handwritten in the same style as your pink poster. Another zippie approaches and offers you a joint. A cadre of guitarists start playing through huge loudspeakers on a makeshift stage singing: “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall” and then “The Boxer.” More people gather. Someone puts an arm around you, you put one around the person to your left. A rope of humanity begins to be woven in front of the performers. You start to feel as though your heart is beating in unison with every other one standing in the park right now. Who else feels this? Who else understands what is going on here, what is really happening? This is all for us. All for you. It’s a pageantry you’ve never quite experienced before.

Think back to Detroit in the fall of 1968. Torn newspapers were falling from the windows of skyscrapers on Woodward. Children were running through the sidewalks and streets throwing streamers with one hand and holding sweets in the other. People of different neighborhoods were clinging to one another in tears, strangers embraced in celebration holding one finger in the air and cheering: “Go get’um Tigers!” The headline read: “WE WIN!” Radios blasted the news: “Their first since 1945.” Over twenty years. There weren’t even any Negroes allowed on the team back then. Even after Jackie Robinson, the team did not integrate until more than a decade later. You were six when they finally brought on Ozzie Virgil. Only the Red Sox were more “delayed.” Now, you watched in the store front window with your Dad as Willie Horton put his arm around Al Kaline, doused in bubbly, all smiles.

The pure delirium must have looked so odd to those from outside of the city. For the behavior was not just a celebration of a championship, but much more in line with a kind of post-War jubilation.

To remember how the season started, Opening Day postponed due to nationwide riots over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., America’s Game starting so inauspiciously, the Model City still smoldering along with cities throughout the country as citizens balanced on that razor’s edge the whole summer. Yet despite the origins of the season, and the perturbations outside the walls of Tiger Stadium, the team just kept winning. They had secured first place in the American League by May 10th (only twenty-six games in) and never relinquished the position for another one hundred and thirty-six consecutive games. By the end of the season, they had double-digit victories against every AL team. Denny McLain won 31 games that year (the most wins by any pitcher in the “modern era”—whatever that meant), he would have won at least one more had they not blew it against Baltimore or Washington in the final two games he pitched. They were so dominate they won over one-hundred games and secured the pennant almost two weeks before the last game of the season. They finished twelve games ahead of Baltimore in the final standings, and six games ahead of the National League leader (and defending World Series champion) St. Louis Cardinals.

There was a certain poetry in motion unfolding before you; the beautiful symmetry of baseball’s historical narrative taking hold. The last team to finish twelve games ahead in the American League standings was the 1947 New York Yankees, they won the World Series. Who was in second behind them? The Detroit Tigers. In the previous year, as suburban landowners were still collecting insurance checks on their burned-down property along 12th Street, the Tigers finished one game behind the Boston Red Sox. The last time Detroit finished one game shy of claiming the pennant was 1944, the next year they won the pennant and the World Series. The only other time they had surpassed one-hundred wins was in 1934 when they went to the World Series only to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps now, however, the rhyme might just pivot at the end of the stanza, and the Tigers would be world champions again.

At least, that was the narrative. Not that it really mattered to you. It was just a collection of hundreds of pointless storylines connected from all different corners of a vast sea of statistics, the first-world equivalent of reading tea leaves. It was fun to learn but had no influence in your daily life, neither did it affect the lives of any other person in your city. And yet, so many people were extracting such a wealth of importance from these stories. You did not follow the pennant race, or pay attention to the Cy Young candidates, could not be concerned with how many runs the Tigers averaged in each game (it was just over four), or take comfort in the fact that it was “the Year of the Pitcher,” and yet when your father recalled with pure elation or overwhelming distress how “the boys” played that day, you could not help but listen with interest.

What you remember most about that time was your father. Sitting in his chair throughout the post-season games, accompanied by a bag of salted pecans or some packzi he bought over in Poletown, he would root for those “Bengals to bring the pennant home where it belongs.” For seven long games, he sat and watched history reveal itself to him through the snowy grey screen. Each game he muted the TV and turned on the radio where the “Voice of the Tigers” delivered the play-by-play in that slight genteel Southern drawl of his.

In the first four games, the script did not read the way your father and so many others had written it. Their dreams began to lose form as the subscribed meaning became more void and less obtainable. Not only had the Cardinals won three out of the four, but they had just won back-to-back games in Tiger Stadium, the last one ending in an 8-1 rout. Denny McLain had lost both of his starts against St. Louis’s ace pitcher Bob Gibson. What was worse, the Tigers only managed one run against Gibson in eighteen innings. So in the final game in Tiger Stadium, in what might have been the final game of the season, Mayo Smith decided to start Mickey Lolich, the only pitcher that had been able to stop the Cardinals’ bench, and Tiger Town held its breath.

Your father switched on the set, turned down the volume dial, and sighed as he sat in his chair. You were getting ready to meet up with your friends across town. You were supposed to be studying for an Algebra test the next day, but Love was playing  at the Palms Theatre, so fuck math. You watched your old man slowly open the greasy paper bag of salted pecans. The worry on his skin made you smile. He was so focused on the black-and-white screen that his hand kept missing the opening of the bag. He finally had to look down and practice the most basic hand-eye coordination when the Cardinals got their first run. Your father was nearly in a state of panic by the time he popped a few pecans in his mouth. “Goddamnit!” By the third run scored he shot out of his chair and turned the television off. “Fucking bums!” “Lawrence!” your mother shouted from the other room. “What?!” “Language!” He mumbled something and scratched the top of his balding head. He looked over and spotted you sitting on the stairs smiling at him. He laughed at himself. “Yeah. Well… buncha bums.” The two of you were silent while “the Voice” carried on. Your father looked back at the TV set, then at you. He turned the game back on and sat down. Shortly after the doorbell rang and your friend Yardley was there to pick you up, her boyfriend had a car. Looking back before you shut the door, your father looked wan, sunk into the fabric of his beloved burgundy chair.

The next day, though, the world had not ended. Quite the opposite, in fact, took place. The sun rose again over the city along with the hopes of all its Tigers fans. They had survived to see a Game Six. More than that, they seemed to have weathered the storm once again and were now ready to complete the tale your father and the droves of others had envisioned. In the final two games, the Tigers outscored St. Louis a combined 17-2. Denny McLain redeemed himself and finally got that elusive thirty-second win, and the Detroit darling Mickey Lolich (the “Croatian Kid”) beat Bob Gibson in Game Seven to hoist the World Series for the first time in twenty-three years.

And then suddenly all across the city, a different sort of uncontrollable human emotion sprang forth from the neighborhoods and into the veins of the city heading to its heart to celebrate.

It was an incredible positivity in all directions. A true sight to behold, especially juxtaposed against the reality that some of the buildings on Woodward were still burned down from the uprising over a year ago. None of the people leaning out of the windows in the nearby buildings were holding rifles. Malice was extinguished in that moment. More so, people who once held tightly to formless notions in the year before now let them dissolve in the face of such celebration. “White devils” stood next to “jigaboos” while “fascist pigs” high-fived “ungrateful thugs” and “rapists” danced with “harpies” in the streets. Future Nixon voters and past FDR supporters offered to buy anarchists and drug aficionados beers in the local bars. Something more than any sport was doing this. It was a palpable connectivity. You were witnessing a kind of cognitive syncing of one city’s massive identity. Your dad pulled out some cash and ordered you both a pop and a hot dog. Printed on the back of the currency were those ancient, dead words, the motto of you and your people, the spirit of the city on that day. As you sat with your father and witnessed the jubilation, you couldn’t help but wonder if it could always be like this. Not the confetti and impromptu pomp, but the glee, the pure positivity, and oneness. How to channel all of this raw potential energy into one sustaining kinetic force that transcended the excess heaviness? How indeed.