By Tom Demerly.
I was sick.
Some kind of flu. It’s going around. And not enough sleep. Been up since 4:45 AM working a triathlon down on Belle Isle in Downtown Detroit. The State just took the island back from Detroit so people from the suburbs go there again. It’s OK.
I decided to take the long way home. You drive through factories, past a Mosque and through Mexicantown. It’s colorful and interesting. Like a meal eaten in a small foreign country, you’re not sure what you’ll find in it.
I saw some kind of weird industrial… I’m not sure what it was. Art? Lawn maintenance equipment? Something from a steel mill? Stopped to shoot a photo or two. A little farther down the road, through Mexicantown, the candles and bottles on the corner reminded me, and all the stuffed animals. “Man, I gotta get this…”
When I walked across the street I briefly let my guard down. Men had set up an OP (observation point) on the corner across from where I was headed, offset but with full visibility on my objective. The second they saw my camera I heard them, “He’s takin’ pictures of it.” There were three of them. Now they were between my vehicle and me. Hmmm.
There were liquor bottles, lots of them. Writing on the street, out into the street. Stuffed animals. Notes written on the pole with a sharpie, paint pen, everything. Some in English, most in Spanish. The stuffed animals were fastened all the way up the pole. Some of them were oddly garroted to the pole with wire. They were filthy from weeks in the rain. It looked like a drug cartel had murdered stuffed animals.
“What you takin’ pictures?” The tallest of the three asked. He left off the word “of”.
I walked across the street to make eye contact and speak with them at a normal conversational distance. As if it were normal for me. “I was driving home and I saw this. I’ve seen it before, with people around it at night, and candles.”
The skin on his face seemed drawn tight to his skull. He was tall, handsome and fit. Held his head a couple degrees above level. But he looked tired. “Hey man, lemme show you…”
Now let’s back up a few steps. I’m a guy pretty obviously out of my element, carrying a few thousand bucks worth of camera gear, big camera gear. My truck is parked in a lot filled with broken glass and a car, an old car, with a very large woman in it coughing… or singing… or… I’m not sure. Something really big is hanging down underneath the car. It lists to the side she is on. A man sits obscured by a dense cloud of smoke next to her. I decide this is a great photo op for my friends on social media back in the ‘burbs. The way I would photograph a peacock at the zoo. It was just so… urban.
But this isn’t a peacock in a cage. These are the lives of people, dense and complex, dynamic and evolving.
“I got a picture of him in here.” I walk into a smoky party store with a wall encased behind thick, marginally clear, mostly yellowed plastic. I’m a little wary, heck, I’m scared, so I don’t notice where the fruit pies are. There are lots of bottles behind the plastic wall, and a low man with a gigantic head that melts into an even wider neck. Patches of black hair on his head. Lottery tickets, just a few.
“Here man, this is all about it.” It’s behind the thick, yellowed lexan armor. Glare is coming off it so it’s tough to photograph.
His name was Ryan Dewayne Lee Jenkins. Nickname, apparently, “Duke”. Jenkins was eulogized on Friday, July 25. He was shot to death standing at that corner some days earlier. No one explained to me why, and I did not ask. The funeral card in the party store said, “Celebrating the Life Of…” In the photo Jenkins is making some sort of hand sign and his fingernails appear… unusual.
I do not know what happened. I did not ask. I should have. The man told me Jenkins was shot to death. There was a tension surrounding the topic, perhaps continued pain from the loss. Maybe more. I don’t know. The body language of everyone interacting with me was… guarded. I would suspect it might be, especially toward some odd guy carrying a camera taking photos of what is a sacred and intimate memorial. So I took my photos and left.
But as I was leaving one of the men walked up to my truck. I rolled the window down. “Hey man,” he said, “You wanna see something else?”
“Yeah” I told him.
“Go down there, four blocks. There is a candy store. A veteran and a girl own it. It’s new. It’s all they do. Brand new. Sells candy. They’re trying to make it. Go on down there and take some pictures of it and talk it up. They’re doin’ good, tryin’ to make it…”
I followed his directions but didn’t find the candy store. Dropped a pin on a GPS map on my phone and told myself to come back here- that there was more to the story. Much more. My head felt worse and I was so tired it was hard to drive. I went home. But I told this guy I’d help him by telling his story, so I sat down to type before I went to bed.
Detroit isn’t raw, urban or dangerous. It’s not “on the brink”. It isn’t particularly cool or edgy. It’s small town USA in the second decade of the 21st century. People work, they’re friendly, they welcome you. They strive for a better tomorrow. They aren’t closed off and there are no barriers. Two things missing from Detroit are falsehood and pretentiousness. We know the city is run down and dirty. We’ve been through a lot. We’re working on that. It didn’t happen over night. We’re responsible for it, we’ll fix it, and it won’t happen again in our lifetimes. And as it heals and rebuilds its’ stories peel away like scabs off a wound, and sometimes they reveal scars.