Unfortunately, unlike Pulaski Middle School—the Detroit public school I attended until 8th grade, where I played upright bass and competed in city-sponsored visual arts and journalism competition—the private, Catholic St. Clement High School in the suburb of Centerline did not have orchestra nor any semblance of arts in the curriculum. However, the 350-pound Irish football coach, Coach McLeod, salivated the minute he saw me. I was among the biggest males in the small high school my freshman year, and McLeod badgered me throughout my freshman year until I relented and agreed to play football as a sophomore.
Soon after the season ended, my friend and teammate, Dwayne, turned sixteen. He had been held back in first grade, so he was older than the other sophomores and received his driver’s license before the rest of us. Dwayne lived in Detroit in a neighborhood near mine. His dad was a Detroit cop, so his family had to live within the city limits, a measure enacted by Mayor Coleman Young in the early 1980’s to slow down the rate of residents abandoning the city and fleeing to the suburbs.
Dwayne’s parents owned two cars, and they let him drive one or the other to school. Because Dwayne and I lived so close to each other, my parents gave me five dollars a week to give to Dwayne for gas, and he’d pick me up in the morning on his way to school and drop me off on his way home. Sometimes he would drive the newer, late-eighties-model family car—a gas-efficient, four-cylinder Pontiac. Other times, he’d drive his dad’s baby—a 1975 Ford Thunderbird. Whereas the Pontiac was a sensible and practical car, the Thunderbird was a beast of a vehicle, a significant length of pure steel with an eight-cylinder engine that could beat most cars in a race and probably had enough horsepower to tow a freight train.
Riding with Dwayne gave me a sense of freedom. With his sixteenth birthday and driver’s license, I transformed from a teenager dependent on some type of guardian figure for rides to school, mall, or movies to a more independent person with more independent friends home.
I liked the liberty of getting out of school and going home or hanging out with Dwayne; we’d cruise around, stopping to get chips and pop, to play video games, to do anything that we wanted to with the extra time that the end of the football season had freed up for us. He would often drive other classmates home, and since I lived less than a mile away from him, he’d drop me off last, which I didn’t mind because we’d hang out with the guys he’d drop off. We’d play basketball or listen to music and play Nintendo or watch movies. If parents weren’t home, we’d watch pornography when we could get our hands on some, and at the ages of fifteen and sixteen, someone always had a secret porn stash.
On December 14, 1988, I rode with Dwayne as he gave a ride home to two of our friends and teammates, Vic and John. Dwayne had his dad’s Thunderbird that day, and after school ended, the four of us loaded into that beast of a car with the intention of watching some porn at John’s house because his parents usually didn’t come home until after five o’clock. Before a football practice a few months earlier, I’d told John and Dwayne about the first porno I ever watched, “Big Bad Bertha.” John and I were both sitting in the back seat, and when Dwayne started the car and revved the monstrous eight-cylinder engine, John turned to me and yelled over the thunder that he’d acquired a copy of “Big Bad Bertha, part 2,” that we could watch when we got to his house.
Dwayne drove us around the neighborhoods surrounding St. Clement. He loved to show off the power of his dad’s Thunderbird, and after every stop sign or red light, Dwayne stepped on the gas pedal, pushing it flat against the floor, and the car’s mighty engine roared as the wheels spun in place, filling the neighborhood air with smoke and the squeal of burning tire rubber. Though a few inches of snow had fallen the day before, the streets had since been salted and were dry, but Dwayne drove around until he found an empty parking lot covered in snow. He turned into the lot, drove to the middle, and parked the car.
“Check this shit out,” he said. “Hold on tight.” Vic pushed out his arms against the dashboard to brace himself. John and I were sitting in the back seat, and we both grabbed onto the back of the front bench seat and leaned forward to strengthen our grip. Dwayne shifted the car into reverse, stepped on the gas pedal, and turned the steering wheel all the way to one side. The tires spun, melting the snow and catching the cement underneath. With a jerk, the car lunged backward and turned. Dwayne wrapped his arms around the wheel and held on tightly, and the car spun circles. We tried to keep our grip on the car seats and dashboard, but after a few seconds, the centrifugal force grew too strong, plastering Vic’s face against the passenger-door window, plastering me against the car’s inside backseat wall, and slinging John onto my lap. When Dwayne couldn’t hold onto the wheel and push the gas pedal anymore, he let go and slid across the bench-seat into Vic while the car continued to spin over snow, gradually slowing to a stop as we laughed.
After the parking lot, Dwayne drove south on Hoover then turned left and proceeded down 9 Mile, passing Groesbeck and Scheonner. Just before Gratiot, he turned onto the street where John lived, about a block south of East Detroit High School. Dwayne parked in front of John’s house, and we all sighed at the sight of a car parked in the driveway.
“Shit,” John said as the happiness in his facial expression faded. “My mother’s home. Goddamn it.”
“That’s alright, man,” I said. “Just save that shit, and we’ll watch it some other day. You guys are gonna trip out when you see Bertha’s long, flabby titties.”
“Yeah,” said John with his shoulders slouched in defeat. “It’s just kinda a buzzkill cause I wanted to watch it today.”
“We can watch it at my house,” said Vic. He turned around in his seat to look at us. “Even if my dad is home, I got a TV in my bedroom, and he won’t bother us. I don’t think he’d care, anyway.”
“You think he’d watch it with us?” asked Dwayne.
“Who knows,” said Vic. “Probably—I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“Naw, man,” said John. “I think we’re going to my aunt’s house for dinner tonight, so I’ll have to be home in the next hour or two, anyway.”
“C’mon, man,” Dwayne pleaded. “Why don’t you just give it to us, and we’ll go watch it at Vic’s.”
“Fuck that,” said John. “I want to watch it with you guys; I haven’t watched any of it yet.” He rolled his eyes back and tilted his head upward, as if he were trying to look at something on his forehead. “We can go inside and watch TV and wait. She might leave.”
“I though you guys were going to dinner in a couple of hours,” I said. “Why would she leave?” John sighed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just hoping, I guess.” John got out of the car and went inside his house. Dwayne drove around the block and turned left onto 9 Mile, heading west. Vic lived further out in the suburbs at 13 Mile and Groesbeck. Whereas streets like Gratiot and Groesbeck and Hoover ran parallel to each other, Scheonner cut across at an angle, intercepting the other three busy streets. Dwayne turned right onto Scheonner, taking a shortcut to Groesbeck. When Dwayne turned right onto Groesbeck, heading north toward Vic’s house, he gunned the engine and the car accelerated from zero to sixty miles per hour in a matter of seconds. Groesbeck was a major thoroughfare with a speed limit of fifty miles per hour, and Dwayne continued to accelerate, passing the other law-abiding drivers like they were going five or ten miles per hour. I pulled my feet off of the floor and rested my legs across the back seat. I leaned back and rested my head against the car’s interior wall, enjoying pure speed and the powerful rumble of the car’s engine.
About half a block ahead of us—maybe sixty or seventy yards—the traffic light at the corner of 10 Mile turned yellow, and while the other cars traveling north slowed down to stop, Dwayne pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and we continued to accelerate. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched signs and buildings and cars and concrete blend into a single blurry gray stripe. We were still about twenty yards away from the intersection when the light turned red, but the Thunderbird was going too fast to stop. Dwayne stood up with his foot still on the gas pedal. He braced the steering wheel with both of his hands and straightened his arms, locking his elbows. A car in one of the southbound lanes had already started to turn left, crossing into our path.
I stayed calm. Throughout my life, I’d almost been involved in several accidents that somehow never happened; each time, the car I was in or the other car would swerve just enough to barely miss a collision. I was disillusioned to the point that I thought car accidents happened to other people and were the types of occurrences that would always almost happen to me. I didn’t brace myself. I sat in calm silence, thinking to myself that we’d miss, that we’d always just barely miss, that in two seconds the Thunderbird would still be speeding up Groesbeck on the other side of 10 Mile, and Dwayne, Vic, and I would be looking at each other, wide eyed and marveling over what we’d just avoided.
I don’t remember any visual aspects of the collision. I don’t remember the sensation of my limp, relaxed body slamming into the wide front bench seat and tearing it from the bolts securing it to the floorboards. I don’t remember seeing the Thunderbird’s front windshield that my face crashed through, leaving a head-sized hole in the shattered glass, and I was probably already unconscious as the Thunderbird veered head-on into a telephone pole on the nearby street corner. I only remember the obscene high-pitched shriek of metal scraping against metal, a sound that resembled that of a fork pushing into the surface of a plate or a sheet of aluminum foil being torn in half, amplified a million ugly times.
Then silence. White calm silence. I dreamed a sea of milk inseparable from a solid white sky, and I floated sandwiched inside of the white peace. I floated without a care, as if I were letting out a deep breath that I’d been holding in my body for a painfully long time. I continued to float feet-first into the white nothing, and I didn’t care about anything—I felt alone yet fulfilled in white emptiness. Then sounds, birdlike sounds that felt like the memory of a voice I’d already dreamt about countless times. I could barely hear the voice. I could barely recognize syllables or the sound of my name. “Mike.” I floated. “Mike.” White. “Mike, get up.” I floated; the words grew more faint. “Get out of the car; we’ve been in an accident.” Drifting. “Mike, come on, Mike.” My name. Drifting, letting go. “Please, Mike.” Then gradually louder. “Get up, man, get out of the car. Please wake up, Mike!” I reached toward my name, and the white faded, but I didn’t. I opened my eyes.
I looked to my left, and I saw Vic sitting on a pile of twisted debris.
“Get out of the car, Mike,” said the Vic to my left. I watched his mouth move as the words found my ears. I heard my name again.
I looked to my right and saw Vic crouched underneath the shattered dashboard in front of where the passenger’s side of the bench seat used to be.
“Get out of the car,” said the Vic to my right, and I watched his mouth as his words found my ears. At first, I didn’t know where I was, who I was, how I was, or when I was, then slowly my senses returned. I saw my arms and legs and knew I was still Mike. I saw part of the massive eight-cylinder engine jutting out between the halves of the car’s broken dashboard, and I suddenly understood what had happened. I could still hear the shriek of the collision resonate inside of my head. As I crawled over the transmission and out of the car, my arms and legs shook, and my heart pounded. Blood stained the chest and sleeves of my white jacket. I looked into a single remaining wedge of side-door mirror and saw my eyes and forehead. The rest of my face and neck was covered in blood. Someone grabbed my arm.
“Oh, my god, honey,” said the person holding my arm, a young black woman. Tears flowed out of her eyes, over the top of her cheeks, and onto the ground. “Baby, are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “How are you?”
“Get him to that bench,” somebody else said. I looked in the direction of the voice and saw an elderly white man walking toward me and the black woman. I looked around and saw several people running toward me and more people getting out of cars that they’d parked in the middle of the street.
“Huh?” I asked and started to feel dizzy.
“Did you see that?”
“Yeah, he’s lucky to be standing.”
“We gotta get him to that bench so he can lay down.”
“Hang in there, baby.”
“Is there anyone else in that car?”
“My God, I’ve never seen anything like that; that car came from out of nowhere.”
“Please, Jesus. Please, please sweet Jesus.”
“I don’t think so—that other fella walked away, I don’t know where he’s run off to.”
The black woman and the old white man held my arms and led me to a bus-stop bench. As I lay down on the bench, I looked at the intersection. The car that we hit was folded into a wedge in the middle of the street. The front of the mighty Thunderbird wrapped like crab-claws around the telephone pole. Shattered glass and ribbons of twisted metal covered the entire intersection, from corner to corner to corner to corner. I lay back and looked at the sky. After several minutes, a police officer’s face appeared above me.
“Are you okay, son?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, still dazed. “Where are my friends?”
“They’re alright, all things considered,” he said. “The driver’s laying down over there, and the other guy started walking down the street. He’s in shock. We’re taking him to the hospital in the squad car. An ambulance will be here in a minute.”
“Why?” I asked. “Are they hurt?”
“Don’t worry about them,” the cop said. “They look like they made it out of this better than you did. You guys are lucky—when we got here and saw the car, I called you guys in as dead on contact.”
The cop walked away. I looked at the sky. I heard a distant siren growing louder as it approached. Though winter clouds covered the cold streets, I felt warm, like it was summertime and I was fully dressed and the sun was beating down on me. I felt something dripping down the back of my neck. I started to sit up.
“Whoah, there, son,” said the old man who had helped the crying black woman lead me to the bench so I could lie down. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I gotta take my jacket off. It’s too hot out here,” I said, wiping my face with my hands. “I’m sweating like crazy.”
“You just stay put,” he said, pushing his palm against my chest. “And I don’t think that’s sweat you feel.”
“No,” I said. “I’m alright. I got judo tonight.”
“Baby,” the black woman said, laughing, tears still rolling off of the top of her cheeks. “I think the Judo will be alright without you.”
The distant siren got louder and louder, like someone was holding it next to my head. I looked at the sky. It was white, but different that the calm white I dreamed a few minutes earlier. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, two men in light blue uniforms were standing over me, waving people back.
“Everyone, clear away from the bench,” said one of the men in the light blue uniforms. “We need room.”
“How you doing, there?” asked the other man in the light blue uniform.
“Good,” I said. “How are you?”
“Happy to see you guys alive,” he said, and he pushed his hands firmly against my hips and ribs. “Can you roll over that way a little bit?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I shifted my weight but didn’t have the strength to roll over on my own. The man pushing gently against my hip and ribs rolled me over onto my side while the other one slid a board halfway under my body. They rolled me back to my original position; I felt the thick wood of the board under my back, I felt the pressure on my shoulders and legs as they strapped me to the board.
“Keep your head still,” one of the men said, and he put a foam brace over my neck. “It’s important that you stay as still as possible during the ride.”
“Do I get to ride in an ambulance?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think we can work that out for you.”
They lifted the board and as they carried me away from the bench, I felt the sensation of floating. I could hear and feel commotion, voices, cops telling people to go home, cars driving past. The commotion ceased once the men in light blue uniforms loaded me into the ambulance and shut the door. As the ambulance started to move, I heard the siren start up again. This time it wasn’t distant. This time it stayed with me all the way to the hospital as I looked at the ceiling on the inside of the ambulance. I tried to turn my head and look around.
“Hey,” said a voice next to me, and one of the men in the light blue uniforms leaned over me so that I could see his face. “Remember, don’t move your neck until we get to the hospital.” I started to feel scared, scared like I felt when I was a child, when I was in Detroit Children’s Hospital ten years earlier, when a doctor, before giving me a spinal tap, told me that if I moved while the needle was inside of me, then I may never walk again. Fuck Gullian-Barre Syndrome.
“Am I gonna be alright?” I asked the man.
“Yeah, you’ll be fine,” he said, smiling. “Believe it or not, I’ve seen a lot worse.”