“Movies, Bowling Alleys, and Apartments”

Movies, Bowling Alleys, and Apartments

Chris Lewis

Downtown Detroit, summer 2009. Photo by the author.

I got off work early yesterday, so I walked to the bus stop on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, between John R and Witherell Streets. I sat down and began reading a book. During Detroit’s boom years half a century or so ago, this area was the city’s bustling central business district. Now, the majority of the storefronts are empty, and their un-cleaned glass display cases are covered with “for sale” signs or graffiti. As I sat, a man wearing a red-checkered flannel shirt and carrying a big plastic bag approached me. His face was shiny, round, and a little bit pink; he had salt-and-pepper hair. He spoke fast enough that I could hardly get a word in edgewise, let alone make sense of what he was saying. He was always a step ahead. But here’s how the conversation went, as best as I can remember:

Man [shouting as he approaches from across the street]: “So tell me, what does a guy like you think it takes to fix up a city like Detroit? What do you think? Go ahead, you can tell me. I just want to hear your opinion.”

Me: “…well I don’t know, it’s a hard question…”

Man [now standing beside me]: “Okay, you can least tell me that it’s going to take a lot, right? Say: ‘It’s going to take a lot.’”

Me: “It’s going to take a lot.”

Man: “Down here, there used to be everything. They had movies, bowling alleys, apartments, but now it’s all gone. Isn’t that amazing?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Man: “Say ‘amazing.’”

Me: “…amazing.”

Man: “But you can’t fix it up if everybody dies though, and everybody dies someday. Say ‘incredible.’”

Me: “Incredible.”

Man: “You look old enough to have something to say. How old are you?”

Me: “Twenty-one.”

Man [taking a seat beside me]: “You’re twenty-one. I tell you, they could fix it up down here, but things aren’t like they were. I think it’s the people. They’re different now. Everyone only thinks about one thing, and that’s money. Say ‘money.’”

Me: “Money.”

Man: “That’s right. I grew up down here. This used to be a great city. There were movies, bowling alleys, apartments. It wasn’t perfect, but at least you had something to do, right? Now there’s nothing left to do.”

Me: “Yeah.”

Man: “Say ‘At least you had something to do.’”

Me: “At least you had something to do.”

Man: “It’s all gone now, but at least they help you out with the bottles, and I have a lot of them. [He gestures toward his plastic garbage bag, which is filled with empty bottles.] Hey, I know what you want to see. You want to see this, right? [He reaches into his bag, and pulls out a magazine. I turn towards him, and find a cartoon depiction of female genitalia sticking in my face. I push it away.]

Me: “I’m not interested in that.”

Man: “I’m sorry, I was just trying to make you laugh. You can laugh. [He puts it away.] You can laugh, but no one can beat death. Say ‘amazing.’”

Me: “Amazing.”

Man: “It would take a lot of work, but it would be great if they built it back. Movies, bowling alleys, apartments. Say it: ‘Movies, bowling alleys, apartments.’”

Me: “Movies, bowling alleys, apartments.”

Man: “Then you could go bowling, you could go to the regular show, you could go to the dirty show, you could play pool, and you could go to the apartment. Say ‘You could go to all of them.’”

Me: “You could go to all of them.”

Man: Don’t you think that would be nice? Say ‘It would be nice.’”

Me: “It would be nice.”

Man: “Alright, I won’t bother you anymore. Can I offer you a cigarette? [He stands up, and reaches into the carton of cigarettes in his breast pocket.]

Me: “No, but thank you.”

Man: “I’m off, but before I go, tell me that it’s impossible to beat death. Say ‘impossible.’”

Me: “Impossible.”

Man: “All right, that’s the end. Hope it was good. Tell me if you liked it.”

I give him a thumbs-up, and he starts to walk away. “It was good,” I say. He smiles and walks off as the bus arrives. I get on, put in $1.50, and go back to reading my book.

Originally posted at Campus Progress.