Because my grandfather used whatever vehicle he owned to peddle and transport vacuum cleaners, the rest of the family walked or took the bus. We’d walk to places that were within a few miles of the house, such as the Woolworth’s or the shoe store on the corner of 7 Mile and Gratiot or the Chatham’s grocery store on 6 Mile and Chalmers. By taking the main streets, we could walk to our destination without as much fear. The neighborhood streets were risky and often too racially volatile for us to walk along; black people walked in gangs down the streets or would sit on their porch steps and say things like, “Whitey’s in the wrong part of town,” and much worse. However, even busy streets like Gratiot became more violent and dangerous closer to downtown Detroit, the difference between safety and danger many times depending on a few blocks. Whereas 7 Mile and Gratiot boasted a shopping district busy enough to warrant heavy police protection, south of 6 Mile, the bars, the restaurants, and even the cake-decorating store that my grandmother religiously frequented had signs on the shop windows reading things like, “We reserve the right to refuse service.” And the doors would be locked. The wrong-looking people couldn’t just waltz in and get a beer, or lunch, or baking supplies. These places relied solely on regular customers.
In Detroit, because of crime and gang violence, cops had the most dangerous job. The second most dangerous job was held by anyone who worked south of 6 Mile in places like grocery stores, where the doors stayed unlocked and the employees were directly exposed to the public. As far as convenience stores and gas stations went, every attendant south of 8 Mile, where Detroit stopped and the rest of the world started, worked safely within a cell of two-inch-thick bulletproof glass.
When my mother or grandmother took me downtown, we’d leave early in the morning, during the dawn of the business day, when the busses transported more honest workers than thugs and hoodlums, than thieves and murderers and rapists. And we’d leave the downtown no later than five thirty, when the last of the workers caught the bus back to their homes. Like gangs that aggressively sauntered the neighborhood streets, everyone in Detroit instinctively knew that strength and protection were best provided by numbers. For some people, a gun was the next best option; for others, a gun was the first best option.
The buildings of downtown Detroit resembled thick, square, gray pillars that pushed the clouds against the sky, buildings so tall that when I’d look up, mild vertigo would set in, transforming my vision into a spinning corridor of ash where everything—the overcast sky, the soot-stained stone of the buildings, the periphery of street, curb, and sidewalk—blended into each other, much like the white-out experienced by arctic explorers. In these white-outs, supposedly, the falling snow and the white ground and sky intermesh like fingers, rendering depth-perception difficult, in some cases, impossible. In downtown Detroit, this experience was several shades grayer. Eventually, my grandmother or mother would pull my hand, bringing me out of the illusion, usually for the sake of crossing the street. They’d grip my arm so that I wouldn’t get lost or snatched in the pedestrian herd.
Regardless of the other places we visited downtown, we’d always go to the waiting place, the welfare office, whose lobby accommodated an equal number of black people and white people. There were always more children there than adults. The children always laughed. The adults never so much as smiled.
“You stay by me, Michael,” my grandmother would always say. “I don’t want you playing with any of those little nigger children.”
Sometimes Anne Marie would be there to bully and intimidate me. I liked going there a lot more with my mother, who didn’t care who I played with. When I went with my mother, I could venture to the corner of the lobby, where all the other children played with ragged books and dolls, broken Legos and toy trains, and other heavily recycled toys that the Michigan Welfare Department provided to the children to make the waiting game easier for everyone. On occasion, I’d play with a little black child until his or her grandmother intervened, sneering at me, and saying, “I told you not to play with no honkey children. Come over here and sit down.” Eventually, a welfare department worker would call our number. My mother never got hassled; even though she worked full-time as a waitress, she was a single mother, fully entitled to state aid. My grandmother always got hassled.
“Mrs. Mitre, is your husband still unemployed?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she would lie. My self-employed grandfather supposedly made halfway decent money, but he drank most of it away at the local bars, leaving behind pocket change that my grandmother would use to buy bread crumbs so that she could dilute the hamburger so that we could eat meatloaf all week.
“So he’s been unemployed for almost a year now? Hmmm—apparently he hasn’t been looking hard enough.”
“Please, ma’am, he’s been out looking every day,” my grandmother would plead, developing the lie further. The only thing that her husband did every day was drink at the bar and come home drunk and angry about his life, about the fact that his father had died ten years earlier and stopped paying the family bills. He was angry about the fact that he was left with a beautiful family to support.
“He’s got interviews all next week—good ones—but I’ve got babies to feed,” my grandmother would say and then she’d pat me and Anne Marie on our heads and pull both of us into her hips.
“The unemployment office down the street can find him a job today, Mrs. Mitre. You or him, one of the two. Unless one of you comes down in the next week to try, this is the last time we can give you anything.” I remember my grandmother being told this time and time and time again. Then, the worker would give her a ticket.
“Here you go, Mrs. Mitre. Collect your disbursement at the back door—I guess you already know that.”
“Thank you so much,” my grandmother would say. She’d pocket the ticket, grab me and Anne Marie by our wrists, and hurry us out of the welfare office, as if she feared that the social worker would suddenly have a change of heart and take the ticket away. We’d then stand in another line outside, behind the building. Anne Marie and I called it the cheese-line, because the people at the back door who took tickets traded them for five-pound bricks of cheese and a bag of assorted dry-storage grocery items: honey, dehydrated milk, boxes of macaroni and cheese, Spam.
“C’mon, Michael,” my grandmother said one day after the dispersement. Anne Marie was in class in the third grade on that day. I was still too young to go to school.
“We can make the 4:30 bus still.” She wedged the cheese into her grocery bag so that it didn’t stick out over the top, and I followed her through downtown Detroit, holding on to her beltloop while she carried her cargo over the damp curbs, through the litter-strewn streets, across the cracks in the sidewalk from where weeds desperately reached toward sunlight, and to the bus-stop, where the 4:30 bus had just pulled up and passengers were filing in.
The bus was nearly full, so we walked down the aisle toward the rear, looking for a seat. There were a few half-empty rows, and usually, people would adjust and sit next to someone they didn’t know, especially to make room for women with children and elderly people. As my grandmother stretched her neck in search of a seat she might have overlooked, or maybe to catch the eyes of someone in a single seat that might take pity and move so that she and I could sit together, the bus started to move, throwing her off balance. She dropped the bag onto the floor of the bus, scattering the welfare groceries and block of cheese where the whole world could see.
“Damn it,” she said, crouching onto her knees and gathering boxes, putting them into the torn grocery bag, which had lost half of its storage capacity when it hit the floor.
“Oh, my,” said a woman sitting nearby. She started to grab some of the groceries. “Here, let me help you.”
“Thank you, dear,” my grandmother said. “Do these drivers get their license out of a gumball machine or something?” The woman laughed. She was white. She sat next to a black man. On the black man’s lap sat a child who wasn’t black or white, a little girl whose skin was the color of caramel milk, a color of person I’d never before seen. My language and ideas at that young age consisted of labels, and I didn’t know what label to apply to the little girl. I knew that “mother” meant my mom, or that “Baba” or “Mary” was what everyone called my grandmother; I knew that my grandfather was a “drunk” and a “bastard”; I knew that I called him “Dad” even though he wasn’t my father; I didn’t know the meaning of “father.” I knew that everyone in the world outside of my grandfather was a “son-of-a-bitch”. I knew that “Coleman Young” was the “mayor” of “Detroit” because my family called the cheese from the free cheese line, “Mayor Coleman Young Cheese,” but I didn’t know what these words really meant. I didn’t know what a “mayor” was. I didn’t know what “Detroit” was. I didn’t know what a “motherfucker” was. I didn’t know what “welfare” meant. All I knew is that I needed a label to apply, so I pointed my finger at the little girl and made an educated guess.
“Baba, is she a nigger, too?” My grandmother gasped and turned pale when I asked her the question. Her eyes outgrew their normal size and hung out of their sockets like the yolks of shell-less eggs.
“Michael, that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say that,” she said in a hushed tone, but everyone in the bus looked at us. I heard the drone of engine beneath the floor as the bus proceeded north on Gratiot Avenue.
“You and Dad say it,” I whined. I was getting crabby and tired from walking around the streets all day, and I was starting to get hungry. The woman helping my grandmother gather the groceries stopped helping her and sneered, then began stroking her fingers through the dozens of little ringlets of hair on her daughter’s head. Nobody, black nor white, made room for us to sit. During the entire ride back to 7 Mile, I sat on the floor of the bus while my grandmother stood in the aisle, holding her free brick of cheese and looking only into the places of the bus where there weren’t a set of eyes staring back.