Things started going wrong at my ten-year college reunion – or I guess I mean that I realized how wrong they had gone. You see these people with wives and husbands, jobs and babies and mortgages. None of this had happened to me. I was teaching at the time, somewhere in North Wales. It was just a maternity cover anyway.
The plane ticket to New York had cost me more than I could afford, but I skipped the return flight and took the Greyhound Bus to Baton Rouge. If you’re going to be a bum, I thought, you might as well bum around at home. My mother promised to take the exercise bike from my old bedroom, which was no big deal, because they never used it.
For the first few months, the Democratic primaries kept me going. There’s nothing like an election year for staying busy if you don’t have a job. My dad’s a Clinton guy, so I volunteered for Hillary – it took me a month to forgive Obama for beating her. But then MoveOn sent a bunch of Yalies up to Claremont, New Hampshire, to help out with the grass-roots campaign, and I went, too. It seemed like a good chance to catch up with old friends.
One of them, Robert James, grew up around there, and I ended up spending the night at his mother’s house. Robert had gotten involved in political consulting after college, started a company and cashed out before the crash. In a funny way, he was in the same boat as I was – kicking his heels, looking for the next thing to do. Except that he had money and clout and ambition.
His latest idea was to buy up houses in Detroit. ‘You could do whatever you want with them,’ he said. ‘Set up any kind of society. There’s a guy who talks about plowing the land into farms. But you’d need a critical mass of people to make it work. People like you, but would people like you move to Detroit? I mean, would you?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
Roughly six months later I set off. Obama had won, the economy was going down the tubes, it seemed a good time to try something new. My dad loaned me five thousand dollars and I spent three hundred bucks of it on a second-hand car – a ’91 Taurus, the last in the series to offer a stick shift. I figured the shittier the better. On my last night at home, after supper, my father went into the yard to smoke a cigarette. He smoked maybe one or two a month, and it always put my mother in a sour mood. She made a pot of decaf and passed me a cup across the kitchen table.
‘He’s worried about you, that’s why he’s smoking again,’ she said. ‘You’re too old to play games like this.’
‘That’s just not true, he always smokes – a little. What I’m too old for is living at home with you guys.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘You sound like Granma Dot,’ I said.
A year before she died, after a bad stroke, my grandmother came to live with us. She didn’t want to be a burden, and if you asked her anything, like what do you want for lunch, she answered, ‘I don’t mind.’ My father used to beg her for an answer, something specific, but she never budged; it drove him crazy. At the same time she was highly critical of everything: the heat, the people, the food.
She died from a staph infection after hip-replacement surgery. This was around Easter of my sophomore year in high school. After the funeral, for which my mom held it together pretty well, she waited until we were alone and then broke down. I was helping her write out thank-you cards; a few friends from Puyallup had sent flowers. My mom grew up in Washington state; my dad’s Canadian – they both thought of themselves as southern transplants.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, feeling embarrassed. ‘She was really old. I don’t think she –’
But my mother shook her head. ‘It’s not that,’ she said. ‘I wanted you to like her more. I don’t think you liked her very much. But when I was a girl, she was my mother, there was no one else.’
Of course, this was true for me, too, and here was my mother sitting across the kitchen table. Every year she looked more like Granma. Dot had bad eyes, there was a kind of film over them, like the skin on warm cream, and glasses made her eyes seem bulgy. My mother had started wearing glasses, too, and not just for reading. With her hair cut short she looked like an old little girl.
Then my father clattered in the door, bringing some of the smoke smell with him. ‘Come on, kid, you’ve got a long drive tomorrow. Get some sleep.’
He put his hand to the side of my face, so I turned my cheek against it.
‘Mom says you’re worried about me,’ I said.
‘That’s our job. It’s your job not to mind too much.’
After brushing my teeth and changing into pajamas, I came back into the kitchen to kiss her good night. She was still sitting at the table, which was covered in the bright plastic sunflowers of the tablecloth; they glared under the hanging lamp. My mother let me kiss her sitting down.
‘Greg,’ she said, before I turned away. ‘I know you won’t do anything deliberately stupid. That’s not your style. But you’re the kind of person who could get himself into situations that you won’t be very good at getting out of. There will be people there who don’t want you there. They don’t think like you do –’
‘You mean black people?’ I said.
‘That’s not what I said. That’s not what I mean. But I’ve been doing what Brad always tells me not to do, I’ve been looking things up on the computer. Detroit is the number one most violent city in America.’
‘No worse than New Orleans.’
‘New Orleans is bad enough – that’s why we moved out. But there are good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. From what I understand, you plan on living right in the middle of the worst.’
‘You’re totally out of touch with these things, Mom. All you know is what you read online or see on TV. The news and entertainment industries in this country sell fear, it’s what they do, because people like you want to buy it. But that doesn’t make it true.’
‘Who is they? I don’t know who they is. This is starting to make me angry. You said yourself it’s a war zone.’
‘That wasn’t me, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to have this conversation now.’
Bending down, I kissed her good night again, and then again and again on each cheek, to lighten the mood. But she only sat there, softening into grumpiness. ‘You’re making a joke out of it. It’s not a joke.’
‘Can I say one thing?’ I said. ‘Don’t blame Dad for lending me the money.’
This conversation left a taste in my mouth, because of what I said or what she said, I don’t know. It’s unpleasant to see your parents for what they are, limited people. But you get into stupid fights with them anyway, you’re all tangled up. And afterwards you have to deal with the fact that you don’t always believe your own point of view.
My dreams that night were very near the surface, they were very plausible. I was getting gas and looking through my wallet for dollar bills. It was a full-service station and I never know how much to tip. Later, back on the road, the lanes seemed narrow, there was a problem with my headlights or the windscreen wipers. I kept falling asleep. I should have pulled over but that’s how people get killed in this country, sleeping by the side of the highway. So I lowered the window to let some fresh air in. That only helped a little, every few seconds my head jerked up. I could hear my father in the kitchen, making French toast, and then he came into my bedroom singing, Wake up, you beautiful girl, which had been playing on the radio.
After breakfast we loaded up the car. My mother kept thinking of something else for me to take and cluttered the trunk with a hundred odd things for setting up house – a flashlight, packs of batteries and toilet paper, her old coffee maker. But then there was nothing else and I drove off.
She waited in the driveway until she couldn’t see me – this is what she always does after our visits home. I watched her in the rear-view mirror. When I turned the corner, and a new street slid over to replace the street I grew up on, with other houses and trees and nobody standing in the drive, I felt like you feel when you put the phone down and the room is suddenly different.
Around lunchtime I stopped at the Walmart outside Hattiesburg, Mississippi and bought a gun. The guy behind the counter – a black guy, as it happens, with a dude-like mustache – was low-key, practical and encouraging.
‘What do you want it for?’ he said.
‘Duck hunting. I’m just getting started.’
‘We got a Ruger Red Label. That’s a real classic gun, a nice starter gun. It’ll last you, too.’
‘Last time I went out I used a Remington.’
So he suggested a Remington 870 express with a compact pump and listed other specs, which I didn’t understand.
‘Will it fit under the seat of my car?’
‘What are you driving?’ he said and handed me the catalog to look at while the FBI check cleared. There was a form you had to fill out – I gave my parents’ address in Baton Rouge. Afterward, we talked about shells.
‘It depends what you want to use it for,’ he said. ‘Are we talking home defense or hunting ducks? Because there’s different things I’d recommend.’ He also suggested a couple of accessories, a TacStar SideSaddle, an Elzetta light mount, with a Fenix LD10. ‘That’s a strong light,’ he said. ‘If that catch somebody in the eye, give you an extra couple of seconds. Give you a chance to see who it is.’ He put everything in a doubled-up paper bag.
I picked up some car snacks, too, chips and soda and brown bread and sliced cheese. As I pulled back onto I-59 a crowd of feelings went over me in a wave. Here we go, I thought, here we come. But I still had another fifteen hours of driving, and a night to get through at a Days Inn motel, before reaching Detroit.
Part of the point of driving was to see America, but you don’t see much of America from the road. My views on each side were confined to billboards, exit signs and gas stations. The tallest building I came across between Nashville and Louisville was an Exxon Mobil gas tower straddling a patch of juniper grass by the side of the highway. I stopped every few hundred miles to fill the tank, or stock up on caffeine, or take a leak, or eat – mostly at Wendy’s and Subway, as close to the exit ramp as I could find them. There are no locals at these places. The people I saw picking hot sandwiches out of styrofoam had set their car keys and wallets on the table next to cups of takeaway coffee.
I wanted to make it to Louisville but started dreaming about driving instead of actually driving and pulled off about fifty miles short. It was nine o’clock – a coolish spring highway-flavored evening, with cars like crickets making a low continuous noise in the dark. My motel room was part of a row of cabins running in a long line off the parking lot. The bed linen smelled like cigarettes and air conditioning. Even after a swim in the roadside pool I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing headlights coming at me and moving past. Everything felt like a computer game.
Then around two a.m. someone started banging next door. A drunk man trying to persuade a girl to let him in. ‘I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do,’ he said. ‘You took my fucking money pretty willing.’ This went on an unbelievable length of time – I guess he was drunk enough to be patient. He certainly didn’t mind repeating himself. ‘Don’t make me the angry guy outside the door,’ he said.
I lay in bed, listening, but either the girl let him in or he gave up or I fell asleep, because the next thing I knew a truck was reversing in the parking lot, and my inside elbow lay over my eyes to keep the sun out.
North of Louisville the landscape started to change, and by the time I got lost in Dayton, looking for lunch, I’d crossed the weather line. There was fresh snow on the parked cars and hedges of dirty snow between them. When I set out from Baton Rouge the previous morning, a white blanket of cloud held the heat in. The Taurus had leather seats, which stuck to my T-shirt, which stuck to my back. For most of that first day’s drive, through the open window, the air flowed over my face as hot as a Laundromat. Even outside Louisville, the night was mild enough I could walk barefoot from the pool to my motel room after a swim.
But it was cold in Dayton, and wet in the wind from the snow. I parked outside a Popeyes and spent a couple of minutes standing in shorts and digging out a pair of jeans from my duffel in the trunk.
Eating alone makes my thoughts run on sometimes. There wasn’t much to look at, just a view outside of occasional cold-weather traffic plowing through slush. I thought about Robert. We’d been communicating by email a couple of times a week, but I hadn’t seen him in the flesh since Claremont. His wife had just given birth, prematurely, to a five-pound boy. They spent the first two weeks in hospital. Robert was traveling a lot. He liked to know there was medical expertise on hand, but his wife, he said, just wanted to get home.
My friends were turning into spokesmen for the family unit – even their confessions sounded like White House press conferences. But it was funny hearing this stuff come from Robert, given how we met. He’d started going out with Beatrice, a girl I had the hots for freshman year. Later she dumped him because he hadn’t heard of Harold Pinter. But money seems to change things, or people. Beatrice was working for him in Detroit.
I sat there for a while, letting the ice in my soda turn to water. The street sign at the corner said ‘Gettysburg Avenue’. There was some kind of trailer park across the road, some weird metal canisters, a strip of snowy dirt for cars to turn around in. I mean, real fucking nowhere. Two high school girls were finishing lunch at the next table, dropouts maybe or seniors on a lunch break. A fat one and a pretty one, both eating fries; their chicken wrappings were smeared with ketchup. The thin paper kept moving under their fingers as they pushed the fries around. One of them, the pretty girl (she had a small cute acned face, and a nose ring, and straight dyed-black hair), had to lick her knuckles clean.
The fat one said, ‘Good to the last drop.’
For some reason I felt jealous. They weren’t talking much but seemed comfortable together. I missed the friendship of girls, not just in a sexual way, though that, too.
Robert had told me I could stay with him for a few weeks. Longer if necessary. He was renting a mansion in Indian Village, which he planned to use as a base of operations. They had a full house but could always put a mattress somewhere. We spoke on the phone the night before I set off.
‘It’s good times,’ he said.
This is part of what I liked about him. In his company, I felt close to the center of the action, whereas personality-wise, I’m a periphery guy. My mother sometimes warned me, You live too much in your head. But where else are you supposed to live when you’re in the car.
A half hour later, I stopped by the side of the road to pick up a hitchhiker. This girl, who looked about twenty years old, was standing by the access ramp, holding up a piece of cardboard box with detroit scribbled across it in fat felt-tip. She had messy blond hair and a white face and looked cold. Her nose was reddening in the wind, and she wore cowboy boots and a faded denim jacket.
As soon as I pulled onto the hard shoulder, her boyfriend came out of the trees and joined her with the bags. They were both German, hitching their way from New York, Astrid and Ernst – or Ernest, she said, in her jokey-sounding English-and-American accent. She had the slightly scornful look of pretty girls but turned out to be light-headed and much too chatty for a three-hour drive. I was annoyed with her from the beginning, because of the boy. Ernst sat in the back with his earphones on the whole way. Probably he was grateful for the break. Astrid needed a lot of responding to.
She sat in the passenger seat, peeling an orange and sometimes offering me a piece. The scent of the orange soon filled the car. When she was finished with that, she took a ball of yarn from her backpack and began to knit.
All the artists she knew were moving to Detroit – it was the new Berlin, she said. Hip and cheap. New York was dead already, expensive and dead. The only interesting thing you can see in New York is what money does to cities. And so on.
She asked me why I was going to Detroit and I tried to explain myself. That a friend of mine from college, who had made a lot of money, was buying up run-down neighborhoods and renting out the houses to people who had the skills or energy to bring the neighborhoods back to life.
‘Artists?’ she said at once.
‘Not just artists.’
But she took out a pen and wrote my email address on the back of her hand. For an hour she fell asleep, but when she woke again, on the outskirts of the city, she fished out a camera from her bag.
‘Do you mind if I roll down the window?’ she asked and leaned out of it, against the wind.
‘Where are the cars?’ I said. ‘Where is everybody?’
‘Slow down. I want to take pictures.’
There’s a kind of momentum to driving on the freeway. After a while, it’s hard to come off, everything passes too quickly – the grassy verge, the trees growing up from the streets below, the exit signs and apartment blocks and office blocks and stadiums. But roads are mostly what we saw, around and below and above. I kept driving over the shadows of bridges and said out loud, the way you do for foreigners, ‘Spaghetti junction.’ But really the whole thing reminded me of those sugar-spun cages you get over fancy desserts. I imagined lifting up one of those bridges with my finger, and watching all of the other highways, and not only the highways but also the exits and avenues and boulevards, streets, roads, crescents, lanes and alleys, pulling away from the ground, because they’re all connected, and leaving a tan line across America, the color of earth, with a few worms digging around underneath, some pill bugs and dirty wet leaves.
For a few minutes the sunlight flared in the rear-view mirror, blinding me against it. Astrid kept snapping away, and then the angle shifted and the road opened up in front of me, concrete-colored. There was so little traffic all the cars had the air of survivors.
Somehow I had drifted off 75 onto Gratiot. There was an intersection, and then a park, or at least an open space, covered in snow, with trees in the distance and a skyline behind them; and next to the road, a low gray industrial unit, built out of cardboard, it seemed, with the words chicago beef company plastered across it in cartoonish letters. For a second I thought I was in the wrong city, I could have been anywhere. Navigating by freeway is like reducing the country to binary code. Every exit you pass is a yes or a no and by the end of the process you hope to end up at the right answer, the right place, which is what the code means. But after a while it all looks like code and I pulled off Gratiot onto Vernor, and then off Vernor onto a side street, to see if there was anything there.
By this point it was six o’clock, a few days before the clocks went forward. A late winter’s late afternoon; the streets looked red. After a few blocks I got stuck in some cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs, with cheap executive-style homes. Their gardens backed onto a cemetery, whose front gate made a dead end in the road. I stopped to look at the map and Astrid and Ernst got out.
‘What are you doing?’ I said. I could see their breath in the air.
‘We’ll find a bus or something. Don’t worry.’
‘You can’t get out here.’
‘Americans always think America is so dangerous. Look at these houses,’ she said. ‘It looks like Bamberg.’
When I left she was taking pictures. The snow made everything seem prettier. Ernst had a guidebook in one hand, like a good German schoolboy. The trees of the cemetery looked like the opening of a wood.
But the streets on the far side of it made me worry. I found Vernor again and followed it for a while, past clapboard homes and factories fronted by wire fence. There were churches and barbershops in single-story brick shacks.
Somehow my dad’s presence in the car was very strong. This happens to me sometimes; my reactions take the form of a conversation. But I was also remembering something. A few months after Katrina struck, I flew home for Christmas, and one day he persuaded me to go see the Ninth Ward. It’s about an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge, the last couple of miles through the city itself. Eventually we entered a ramshackle neighborhood, with sagging roofs and broken-paned windows, but there were still a few cars in the driveways and flowerpots on the steps.
‘Is this it?’ I asked him.
‘How bad do you want it to be?’ he said.
Then we came upon streets where the houses looked stepped on. Their insides lay spread out over the yards: refrigerators and rocking horses, cable wires, cheap carpeting. It looked like the end of the world.
‘Satisfied now?’ my dad said, and I heard his voice in my head, asking the same question, as I drove through Detroit. There wasn’t any traffic on the road to force me along. Mostly what I saw was empty lots, not falling houses – block after block of grassland. Trees grew out of the roofs of abandoned buildings. There were abandoned cars, too, and tires, shopping carts and heaps of trash sitting where houses used to stand. The effect was rural, not suburban. Snow turned the lots into fields, and the windows of occupied homes glowed like small fires.
But then I came across a street with the lights on – a row of double-deckers, with front porches and big bays, new siding. Trees, at regular intervals, lined the strip of lawn between sidewalk and road, and cars stood parked along the curb. Probably I’d be living somewhere like this. Robert told me he had a place picked out.
If you looked closely you could see boarded windows and broken steps, but there were also satellite dishes and washing lines, trash cans waiting for collection and kids’ bikes on the stoops. There weren’t any street lamps, though, and when the sun went down behind the trees and telephone poles, I felt about as lonely as I ever have in my life. After pulling to the side of the road, I checked the route to Robert’s house by the light of the glove compartment. I didn’t want to show myself in a parked car.
It was only five minutes away, but east of Van Dyke the neighborhood changed character. The houses got bigger and turned from clapboard to stone; the gardens spread out. I saw a private security vehicle making the rounds. It waited on the other side of the road while I rolled into Robert’s drive, which had an electric gate – part of a tall metal fence, topped by spearheads.
I had to step out of the car to announce myself by intercom. This was the first time I’d been out of the driver’s seat since lunch. The air smelled good and cold; it smelled of wood-fire smoke. And when the gate swung open, the security vehicle moved on.
Three other cars sat in the drive. I parked behind a Lexus. The house itself was stuccoed and painted yellow, lit up from below by spotlights planted under the hedges, which grew under the windows. The windows were taller than me, and arched, and there were lots of them. I don’t know much about American architecture, but the style looked like something from the 1920s and reminded me of what Robert had said over the phone. It suggested ‘good times’. I pushed the bell and heard it jangling – my heart beat faster than it should have.
Robert was changing for dinner when I got inside. The maid let me in, or maybe the cook, since she hurried afterwards back into the kitchen.
The entrance hall had a grand piano in it, covered in photographs and invitations. I looked at the photos for a minute and didn’t recognize anyone in them. There were teenage girls and family portraits, pictures of holidays and weddings, but the cards were mostly addressed to Mr Robert James. From the Rotary Club of Detroit and the Mayor’s Office, from the Ford Foundation and the editors of Time Inc. There were also a number of private invitations: ‘Mr and Mrs David Koerning request the pleasure of your company,’ etc. Nobody else came down.
On one side an opened door led to a living room, and I noticed someone on the couch, reading a newspaper. He stood up when I walked in and shook my hand.
‘Tony Carnesecca,’ he said. ‘I guess you’re one of Robert’s college buddies.’
‘It’s like a fucking reunion around here.’
There was a fire in the fireplace and a decanter of wine on the side table, with several glasses.
‘What do you mean?’
Tony was smiling and showing his teeth, but I think he wanted to offend me, too. He offered me a glass of wine.
‘What I really need is to take a leak,’ I said. He pointed the way, and when I came back in, Tony was still on his feet; he gave me a drink.
‘If this is a reunion,’ I said, ‘what are you doing here?’
‘Because I grew up in the city and actually know what’s going on in this place. Even if I didn’t go to Yale.’
Tony had the forearms of a short man who lifts weights; he wore the kind of T-shirt that would show them off. Maybe he was my age or a few years older. His hair had gel in it and was carefully presented – a working-class white man’s haircut. In fact, he was a freelance writer who dropped out of grad school when he got a contract for his memoir about Detroit. His essays had also been published in Vanity Fair and the New York Times. He told me all this in the first few minutes, while we waited for Robert to come down.
‘You’re a bunch of assholes, you know that?’ Tony said. ‘And here comes the pick of the lot.’
I thought he meant Robert, but an older man walked in, wearing tasseled shoes and a gray silk jacket and tie. This was Clay Greene, one of Robert’s business partners. I kept thinking of him as Professor Greene – he taught at Yale, and even after all this time I found it hard to imagine myself on a level with him. Clay poured himself a glass of wine and sat down in an armchair by the fire. Tony went back to his newspaper on the couch, but I had itchy feet after two days in the car and wanted to look around. There was a bookcase against one of the windows so I looked at Robert’s books. It touched me to see so many of our college editions: Democracy in America, The Republic, Of Mice and Men.
‘Why do you think we’re all assholes?’ I said to Tony.
‘Because you’re trying to help and you haven’t got a clue. In a place like Detroit that makes you one of the bad guys.’
But I didn’t answer him because Beatrice had just come in. Her red hair was piled up high on her head, stretching her neck out long – she looked older and more elegant and somehow on display. From the expression on her face I couldn’t tell if she was happy to see me.
The above is an excerpt from You Don’t Have to Live Like This, published by Faber & Faber on 2 July.
Photograph courtesy of Whatknot