Thursday, August 29, 2013

Interview with 'Face the People'

A few days ago I participated in a discussion panel with CNN-IBN's 'Face the People' on women in the working force facing daily sexual harassment. I have spoken so many times about the difficulty of being a woman going about one's day in India, but rarely have never before gotten the chance to speak with professional Indian women on the subject. This was such an excellent opportunity, and really broadened my perspective on the difficulties faced by Indian women. The conversations I've had thus far with Indian women have been so hushed, and it was amazing getting to see women speaking passionately and openly about how difficult pursuing their careers in this kind of environment could be. Not to mention, the experience confirmed for me a lot of the views I'd had that I'd been making up in my head, for instance, the malevolence present in all those stares. It was a privilege getting to talk to some true warrior women. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mission Detroit


"You didn't look up the reviews?!"



Daichi Ueda, the man I describe alternately as the very hairy Japanese man who lives in our kitchen and my life coach, depending on my mood, sat across from me on the Megabus to Detroit, and was making something very close to an expression, with a tone that was threatening to break out of a mono. It took a lot to get anything that could be transcribed with an exclamation point from Daichi, but the news that we were heading to “one of America’s most dangerous cities” to stay with a complete stranger I’d found on the internet without any research was enough.



He could be a serial-rapist! Daichi paused for a moment, and then his eyebrows crept further up his brow. What if he kills me?


You could look up the reviews on your phone right now,” I pointed out.


Daichi seemed to consider this for a moment and his eyebrows relaxed to their usual placid position.


Nah,” he said, and picked up Civilization and Its Discontents, and continued to read. I went back to my empty notebook, and wrote:




Detroit. The mission: to seek out new life & uncivilization; to boldly go where no man has intentionally gone before. I’m looking for old buildings/new hippies.


I closed the notebook and looked out the window. The bus ride was eleven dollars and the sky was blue. We were bumping and sliding but my manic traveller’s high had kicked in, and I was gliding faster than the bus wheels could turn, feeling the life that only traveling can awaken, desiring anything other than my expectations. I had been 21 for 36 hours; it was my new year. And Detroit was exactly where I wanted it to start.


_______________________________


Sometime, years ago, Detroit had slithered into my dreams. For years I had been imagining a city of abandoned buildings, and ever since I’d found out that my personal fiction was a national reality I’d been aching to visit. I’d heard there were neighborhoods of empty houses that artists were moving into for nothing; I’d heard that the law and left with the industry, that it was Greenwich Village in the sixties meets the Wild West. There was no Google search I could do that would tell me if what I had imagined was real-- I had to get there by foot. It had only been a matter of finding someone willing to brave the danger newspapers so often spoke of, someone insensitive to risk, to reason, to basic common sense. So I did what I had to do: I asked Daichi Ueda.


Daichi, like me, was spending the summer in Chicago obligation-free. Philosophical even by University of Chicago standards, Daichi was the kind of person who would ask you what you thought about true love over your morning toast. He was a member of that rare breed UChicago attracts, a business bro with a taste for adventure, both conservative and out of this world. He had long ago christened me the Wild Child, of the apartment, a term that gave me both the sense of deprecation and approval. On paper we would’ve looked like enemies, but in practice we shared a willingness to embrace the unknown. He was the fifth person I asked to Detroit, and he had agreed without hesitation.


Ten minutes into our visit into Detroit, I realized why.


Yo, I didn’t know Detroit was, like, empty,” he said casually, as we walked through a nearly desolate downtown area in the midafternoon, passing more and more closed shops and restaurants.


Daichi that’s like the point of Detroit!


I didn’t know.” He paused again. “A guy in the bus station said something about shooting me.”


When I was in the bathroom?


Yeah.


I was in America’s industrial ghost town, one I’d heard was filled with gang war, alone with no one but a UChicago math major to protect me. I should’ve been terrified. Instead I laughed.






_______________________________



Not that I wasn't scared.



Eerie was the word that described it, walking through the city so many people had warned me about, with the sense that I’d feel rather guilty if I got Daichi killed. As our bus had brought us into the city outskirts I had seen empty building after building and a deserted downtown. I had expected this, of course, and yet it was surprising to see how immediately apparent Detroit’s economic problems really were. People kept asking us for money, and not the kind of people you’d classify as beggars. I felt as if I were traveling through a third world country, having people ask me for money because my foreignness was a sign of my comparative wealth. Being from out of town you can’t differentiate danger from desolation. We were walking blind.


We were looking for a welcome center, but the few lingering locals were telling us none existed. While walking under a canopy I paused for a moment to look at a strange, headless dummy lying on the ground, until with a chill of horror I recognized a human ankle revealed between the pants and the shoes.


Ohhhhh my god!” said Daichi, with slightly hysterical laughter. The next portion of our conversation consisted of me and Daichi arguing whether or not the person a) had been real and b) had possessed a head. And then suddenly, we walked into exactly the place we needed to be.


The word Welcome suddenly caught my attention, and I stared through a glass building filled with color/people/maps. I pointed it out to Daichi and without a moment’s pause we walked in.


A smiling young woman at a desk greeted us.


Welcome to D:hive, Detroit’s welcome center!


Milling around the room were people with an intentionally cultivated bohemian vibe. The walls were lined with posters on projects concerning sustainability and design. The woman at the desk explained that D:hive was there to connect travelers or locals to ways to engage with Detroit. An event had just finished: a writer from Brooklyn had come to give a talk. The young woman gave us a list of abandoned buildings, art projects and activities with increasing excitement, marking areas up on a map.


Oh my god, it’s Saturday,” she said, her eyes widening. “You have have have to go to the Eastern Market. It’s open all night. And the Charles H. Wright museum is hosting a local hip hop artist, and Les Miz is playing in the park--


Before leaving we talked with a few of the people, and looked at some of the art.


Where are you from?” a woman asked with a green knit hat.


“Chicago,” I answered.


Oh bless your heart,” said a woman wearing heart-shaped sunglasses.


Where are you staying?” asked the first woman.


I told her the address, and she nodded, seeming familiar with the area.


There’s a cafe around there, run by a guy named Dr. Bob. Good, vegetarian food. Last time I was there there was some sort of drama going on. Something about a drum circle. I don’t know, I mind my own business.


"I see I see," I said, scribbling Dr. Bob~ drumcircle drama down in my notebook. 


We said goodbye and left the welcome center with uplifted spirits, amazed at our luck, and looking forward to a long night ahead of us, filled with food, music and local culture. On our way to the market, I reached for my phone.


I’ll just call to confirm with our couchsurfing host, just to be safe.


Good idea,” said Daichi. We kept walking as I reached for the phone to dial the number, and proceeded to have the most bizarre phone conversation I’d ever had in my life.  


Hello?” a male voice answered.


Hi, I’m a couchsurfer who you accepted to host for the night and I just wanted to confirm whether you had the space and stuff.


There was a pause. Then a sigh.


Okay,” said the voice, sounding irritated/tired. “Did you read the profile?


Yes,” I said, although at this point I couldn’t remember anything about it.


Yeah, we’re a radical anarchist commune, and it’s really important that you come by in the day so you can meet everyone and see how the whole thing works.


Okay, well, we were hoping to do some stuff tonight and were thinking about coming back late. Is it okay if we meet everyone tomorrow?


Another sigh.


Ma’am, did you read the reviews?


Uh...


Look, ma’am, how do I say this? We are in the sketchiest, hoodiest hood of all the hoods. A lot of us are good people, just trying to make a positive impact, but not everyone. You can get here at seven at the latest, if you get here after nightfall your life is in your hands. I’m serious.  I’m not gonna lie, four couchsurfers have recently been robbed.


Really? Four?


I personally have been stabbed.


Uhuh.


John’s house just got broken into.

Really.


I haven’t seen John in a week. I don’t know what’s happened to him.


Uhuh. I see.


So you can come later, but you’ll probably have a gun in your face. And we get couch requests all the time but very few of them show up when they hear what it’s all about, so I’m just gonna assume you don’t exist unless you show up here. You can stay at Cara & Sara’s if you want-- I mean people here have a good time, even the couchsurfers who were robbed have a good time. But it’s up to you.


Alright, well, I’m just gonna run this stuff by my friend and then we’ll come by at seven if we decide to. Until then you can just continue thinking we don’t exist. So thanks.


Yeah okay. Bye.


And he hung up.


It was then that I stopped and let out about a minute’s worth of suppressed laughter, to Daichi’s great bemusement.


_______________________________


My first immediate thought: this sounded perfect.


My second thought: will Daichi be up for it?


Running the details by Daichi, he suggested that we find another place to stay for that night and stay with the commune tomorrow. Reflecting that I’d feel rather guilty if I led the hairiest Japanese man who had ever lived in our kitchen to an early grave, I agreed and we began calling hotels and sending out couch requests.


But time was ticking: it was 5 already, and if we couldn’t find a place to stay before 6:20 we’d have to head to the commune. And there didn’t seem to be a hotel in the city under 130 bucks a night. And it was 6:40 that we accepted that we would have to head to the commune.


The bus was late, and we were tense. The conversation took a turn for the morbid as we discussed near-death experiences, which suddenly seemed  highly relevant. We were the only white people going to that part of the city, save for one young woman in a short white dress whose leghair rivaled Daichi’s. It was thirty minutes after we were supposed to get back. A young man asked us for money, and we told him no. We arrived at our stop where he got off too. I pretended to tie my shoe in case he was following us, and when he disappeared we were alone in a suburban neighborhood with run-down houses. We walked down the street, expecting gun-wielding gangsters to pop out of every shadow. Then we reached the end of the street, and suddenly there was a rainbow-colored house.




This must be it,” I said.


The house was a shock of color, with a sign reading “Fireweed Universe City.org” outside. A yellow slide, apparently taken from a children’s playground, was attached to the house and coming off the roof. Two individuals were standing on the lawn, but before I could get a good look at them someone called from across the street.


Hello!”


We looked across the street to see an ordinary-looking house. From an open window a man’s face had appeared, with long, scraggly blonde hair and red-tinted sunglasses.


Are you looking for someone?” he asked.


We’re couchsurfers,” said Daichi.


Do you need a place to stay?” he asked.


Yes!” said I.


Come in!” he invited, and the face disappeared. We walked to the door, which soon swung open.


My name’s Michael.” He paused as if thinking better of it. “Mike.”


Michael/Mike looked like Shaggy, if you added twenty years and twenty pounds. His mouth hung somewhat agape, and he spoke with a druggy drawl that suggested either that he was extremely high, or that over the course of many years he'd smoked enough pot to put himself in a constant drugged stupor. His feet were bare save for a layer of grime that had worked itself under every cuticle and every toenail; the house was bare save for the thick swarms of fat flies circling at head-level. He showed us around as we engaged in introductory talk, batting away the flies that he seemed to no longer notice. The ceiling was covered with the anarchist A.


You need a place to stay? You can crash there,” he said, pointing at a corner of bare, wooden floor. I kicked myself internally for assuming an accepted couch request on the website ‘Couchsurfing’ had meant a couch.


Everyone's gone out. Not sure where,” he said. “Cara, Sara. I don’t know when they’ll be back.


We asked what he did. He proceeded to give us a list of medical marijuana organizations to which he claimed some kind of affiliation.


...Compassion Care, Green Cross--


Is there a place close by where we can eat?” I interrupted, sensing that Mike's list might go on for some time.


Yeah, there’s the Goldengate Cafe just down the street. That’s where Dr. Bob works.


We told him thanks and walked down back to the place we’d originally gotten off the bus. And again, I let out about five minutes of suppressed laughter, again much to the bemusement of Daichi.




_______________________________


This was our first impression of Fireweed Universe City, shown to us by one of the more ridiculous characters we were to meet in the commune, a man commonly known as “Hippy Mike”, remarkable for his ability to turn any given conversation topic onto the subject of medical marijuana, and for his ability to stand upright against all odds. Walking back towards the Goldengate Cafe (“Innate Chiropractic Vegetarian Cafe”) we were left with the impression that the
experience would be somewhat trying, though Daichi to his credit was ready to embrace the challenge (saying something about how he took cold showers in the morning in order to decrease his own comfort...) 










But when we got back to the commune, our stomachs filled with a simultaneously delicious and sprout-filled meal, things began to look up.



This time when we arrived, there were more people in the yards of a neighboring house. A white-haired man asked us if we were couchsurfers.


Are you moving in?” he asked.


We told him only for the next two days.


Well do you know where you’ll be staying? That there [he pointed to the rainbow-colored house] is Cara & Sara’s. Alex here [he indicated a large, blonde man to his right] is in the middle of fixing up his house. You got sleeping bags? No? Your best bet might be Cara and Sara’s.


Suddenly a man came out of a house across the street and addressed us.


Did you see someone come out of that house?


We shook our heads. He and a group of other black guys started talking amongst themselves, angrily pointing at one of the houses.


Someone just walked into our house and stole our platform TV,” he said. “I know just the nigger who did it.


Glenn, the white-haired man, shrugged at us.


It’s usually pretty quiet around these parts, but stuff does happen."


He told us that there was an ongoing tension between two groups in the neighborhood. The group of guys introduced themselves to me and Daichi, and one of them handed Glenn a sixpack. We talked until a car rolled up to Cara & Sara’s place. Two people came out who I presumed were Cara and Sara but were actually Cara and Joel. Both were thin, tattooed and in their mid twenties. Glenn encouraged us to go up to them and shouted the necessary introductions. We told them we were looking for a place to crash.


Cool,” said Joel, looking unconcerned, and walked out onto the sidewalk and out of sight. Cara walked into the house, and tentatively, we followed.

The first thing I saw were two chickens and a kitten on the floor. The living room was small, crowded, and matched the exterior style: a collage of jarring colors and mismatched items, all artistically,
halfhazardly and comedically arranged. The ceiling was covered with anarchist symbols, like Mike’s house, but unlike Mike’s house there was furniture (thank god). Messages had been scrawled on the walls and the ceilings, the kind of stuff you’d find on a bathroom stall (world peace” and “poopsex 313” were the first to catch my eye).Much of the outdoors had crept in: one entire window was only covered by metal fencing and vines were creeping in, and the floor was covered in a thin layer of dirt. 








A broken blackboard was leaning against one wall with a to do list:
-meditate
-sweep (with the “s” partially erased)
-outhouse
-candles
-freest
-love



Cara sat down on the couch. She was hippy from dreadlocked head to her tanned dirty toes. She looked at us through makeupless eyes, and wore a pink, leopard print bikini top under a cut-up yellow shirt and a pair of demim shorts. There were bones in her hair. Joel, a thin man in black jeans in a T-shirt, sat down as well, speaking to us through the rings of smoke he blew.


So have you been talking to anyone else?” said Cara.


Yeah, well Mike showed us around his place,” said Daichi.


Mike?”


The guy with the sunglasses.


Oh Hippy Mike,” said Joel, comprehension dawning. “He doesn’t even have a house. He told you he did? And he told you he worked for Green Cross? Yeah, he only brings that up every fucking second.


I mentioned the phone conversation.


Who were you talking to?” asked Joel, looking at Cara.


I don’t know, but he was saying that there were a bunch of robberies, that this was the ‘sketchiest hoodiest hood of all the--’


Oh yeah,” said Cara. “That was Mars. He’s pretty pessimistic. I mean shit happens but mostly when people are doing something stupid, walking around late.


Yeah,” said Joel, “I pretty much bring my laptop everywhere I go. But it’s not that bad. What did Mars tell you?


Well he told me he’d been stabbed.


Joel laughed hard enough to have to stop rolling a new spliff.


Of course he did.


Well was he?” I asked.


Yes,” said Cara. “But he was asking for it.


What do you mean?


I mean literally, he’s a recovering alcoholic and fell off the wagon one night and got belligerently drunk and asked Chuck to stab him with a screwdriver. And he did. It barely scratched him.


I asked about John's apparent disappearance.


John? Nah, John’s fine. He’s working on a house. Actually, he was just tearing up a carpet and found two hundred dollars and a bag of dope.


With a growing sense of relief, me and Daichi settled more comfortably into the sofa and started asking questions about the commune. Fireweed took its name from the plant that grows in the ashes of a forest fire (“I want Bob to change the name. People just think it’s a weed reference, some place to smoke pot,” said Cara, passing her spliff.) It had been founded about a decade ago by the mysterious Dr. Bob, the mentions of whom made me think of the Wizard of Oz. The commune was a loose organization, whose aims were neighborhood restoration, everything from artistic efforts to getting bikes to neighborhood kids. As we talked, a number of people came in and out of the house, sitting down to smoke, talking for a while and then getting up to leave. All friendly, all asking how long we were staying, seeming completely comfortable with any time frame. Cara starting listing the people in the neighborhood who were part of Fireweed offhand.


There’s John, Mars, Alex just moved in. Cookie, Sara, Coconut--


No,” corrected a man named Shane. “Coconut left.” He looked at me. “Coconut needed a break.


The entire atmosphere was transient; there were those in the commune who’d hitchhiked there and were staying a few months; there were those who’d couchsurfed and ended up staying for years; there were those who’d heard about it and travelled specifically in order to be part of the cause; there were those who were only interested in having a house to themselves and time to do their art. No one was paying taxes, and many of the people were technically squatters, though squatters with livingroom furniture and day jobs. Houses that actually went up for auction sold for about 500 dollars. Electricity was all stolen.




You just pay a crackpot 25 bucks and send ‘em up a telephone pole,” said Shane.


Joel shrugged.


I just did it myself.


The people who didn’t buy food got vegetables out of the gardens that surrounded the houses and went dumpster diving.


You just wait till the stores close and people’ll just hand you boxes of food from out back,” said Cara.


Some people had jobs, but others just worked on getting their houses ready for the winter and made a few extra bucks washing dishes at the Goldengate Cafe or volunteering at the bikeshop. Water they got their water from the hose outside of Dr. Bob’s house.


Then I broached the subject that had sent us here in the first place: abandoned buildings.  


Ah, ruin porn!” said Shane. And Cara and Joel started listing some of the highlights.


There’s the Parcard Plant-- supposed to be the largest abandoned building in the world. People throw raves in there sometimes. There’s an abandoned church down the street but I saw it was boarded up so it’s more of a daytime thing. There’s the unfinished subway on Pilgrim and 2nd. I just found a way in. There’s an old mansion filled with tons of cool Victorian furniture. And there’s the abandoned community college-- Highland Park Community College. It’s enormous. Tomorrow night we can take you on a mission and check something out.


Outside it was noisy: there were crashes of breaking glass, the cracks of firecrackers, and more yelling about the stolen TV in the streets. At one point the flashing lights of a police patrol vehicle lit up the living room window, the only disturbance Joel and Cara seemed to find strange.


Cops rarely come here: they gave up on everything except shootings,” said Joel.

No, they gave up on that, too,” said Cara. She pointed behind her at a hallway that led to the bedrooms. One time someone came at 3 AM and opened fire on the bedroom door. We’ve got the bullet holes to prove it.


Was anyone hurt?” asked Daichi.


Joel and Cara laughed.


Nah,” said Joel. “One guy was hit in the balls, though. He kept yelling ‘my balls! my balls!’” Joel laughed at the recollection.


After a visit from their weed dealer (with whom I had a good interaction: “She’s got balls,” he said, indicating me, “I’m not sure whose, but...”)Joel and Cara left for a party, leaving us with a few of the visitors, such as Non-Hippy Mike, a hitchhiker from Pennsylvania who was strumming a guitar as the kitten pawed at the hand that fingered the cords. We were left with the large, blonde guy named Alex, who asked me what I was writing. I showed him my notebook, and told him I was making notes on the trip.


If you got something deep to say I’ll write it down,” I said, jokingly. Alex, however, fell into deep thought. After thirty seconds of intensive introspection he finally opened his mouth.


Your car breaks down. How many pancakes does it take to fill it up?


“I don’t know,” I said, very much intrigued.


Yeah,” said Alex, nodding. We fell into silence.


Daichi, after some prying, ascertained that Alex was a ex-convict and self-proclaimed monk.


I’m gonna tell people what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen. Gonna tell them to enlighten,” said Mike.


Daichi, who’d whipped out his own notebook at this point and clearly had Freud on the mind, made a thorough effort to get Alex to expand on his life philosophy. I, however, was exhausted, and after a trip to Dr. Bob’s hose (across the street people were continuing to gather to discuss the robbery), I went into Sara’s room and fell asleep, still hearing unidentified crashes, the kitten still pawing at Non-Hippy Mike’s guitar.
_______________________________



Morning crept gently into the commune. It was a Sunday, and we all awoke unhurriedly and late. I finally had a chance to walk around the commune alone, and took advantage of the solitude by taking pictures of the livingroom, walking through the vegetable gardens, and reading the messages on the outhouse door.


When I got back to the house Joel was awake and rolling his morning spliff. We talked about traveling, exchanged our experiences in India. I told him that the lawless state of Detroit reminded me a lot of the lifestyle I’d encountered there.


That’s why I live here. It’s the closest to living in the majority world,” he said.


Joel was an artist, and he was staying at Cara and Sara’s only as long as it took him to make his own house habitable. He didn’t seem so much interested in the ideals of the commune as he was the freedom it could afford him to work on his art. In the meanwhile he freelanced doing graphic design to make money for food and such.


Cara walked into the room, wearing a long skirt and a short grey shirt. She took a drag of Joel’s spliff. Joel looked at her and laughed.


Your shirt is backwards and inside out.


Cara looked down at her chest, and at the tag that was sticking out from over her collarbone.


It’s cleaner that way,” she said.


Sara of “Cara & Sara’s” finally appeared while I was sitting on the couch, waiting for everyone to get ready. She was about the same age as Cara, and wore clothing like a hip sort of college girl, though the style of her boots revealed they were probably around seven years old, too new to be retro and too old to be trendy. She introduced herself with a ready laugh and smile. As we left the house she came up to us with a yellow dress held against her.


What is this kind of dress called? A k--?


Oh, a kimono,” said Daichi.


Yeah, yeah, a kimono,” said Sara. “Think I could wear this to court?


Ha, no,” said Cara.


Well I'm gonna,” said Sara, laughing and throwing it on the couch.


The cops stopped her and she had weed in her car,” explained Cara as we got into the car. Joel and Cara were heading to the weekly flea market, and took me and Daichi along for the ride. Patti Smith was blasting through the speakers. In the bus Daichi had suggested that we both draw portraits of what our host would look like, and when Joel stopped to get gas we showed them to Cara.



Cara doubled over laughing.


Have you met anyone like that yet?” she finally said.


Me and Daichi looked at one another; we thought it was obvious that Daichi’s portrait looked exactly like Joel.


The Flea Market was what you’d expect of a flea market: old people, old things. While rifling around in a pile of sepia photographs Joel told me he’d found the pile in old mansion earlier and had sold it here. We left after Joel bought a burner for a project he was working on and went to a diner. Joel and Cara ordered (an omelette for her; a waffle with extra whipped cream for him) and paid with a debit card. They dropped us off at the bus station, and me and Daichi went off to explore downtown Detroit.














There was tons to see and our day was packed: we went first to the Miller building, a former theatre that had been converted into a parking garage, and still bore rich enamel, flaking gilding and wood carvings of togaed youths holding chalices and garlands of flowers.














We passed through a casino, the most lively place we’d been so far, and watched people behind cages pulling the slot machines. 











We passed through entire neighborhoods that were empty, and walked through a few dilapidated buildings, a few of which we stepped inside to explore.






One block was called the Heidelberg Project had been entirely taken over by an artist who’d used scavenged junk to turn the houses into works of art.










The pieces ranged from whimsical to disturbing, everything from boats filled with stuffed animals and old newspaper stands containing painted shoes to baby dolls nailed to crucifixes and grocery carts filled with mannequin heads. 














Tourists were milling around, and Daichi took a nap under a house entirely covered with vinyl records.












After a bite to eat we headed back to the commune: Joel and Cara had told us that we’d leave to go on The Mission come nightfall.


_______________________________



Fireweed was quiet as we got back, and as children passed riding on donated bikes it was hard to remember being terrified of the neighborhood. On our way to Cara & Sara’s we bumped into Mars, the man I’d spoken with on the phone, who turned out to be a lean guy in a tight, neon yellow V-neck t-shirt and skinny faded jeans and reflective sunglasses that hid his eyes.  


Ah,” he said, “so you came after all.


Yes, despite your efforts,” I said, and Mars smiled.


Well I was sick of people coming so late, and I figured if you did and got robbed you either deserved it or liked it.


I asked him about getting stabbed, and Mars shrugged. “Yeah, Chuck apologized afterwards. He kept saying ‘it was clean!’. So that’s something.


We asked him how he’d gotten involved in Fireweed, and what he did there.


I’m Dr. Bob’s assistant, and I run the bike shop,” said Mars. “I grew up in a commune, actually, in San Francisco. I came here because I heard the stuff going on... it’s not how I imagined, but nothing is.


Mars seemed stressed and somewhat petulant. In a heartbeat he opened up into his personal life.


I have two girlfriends. They both know about each other and everything, but... The nineteen year old just broke up with me. She said she’d have me to herself or she wouldn’t have me at all. We’ll see. She’s, what’s the personality disorder? No, not bipolar. The other one. Yes, borderline personality disorder. She’s that. And the other one has this disease where she’s at pain level ten all the time unless she’s orgasming, so she pretty much wants to have my head between her legs all day. Finally I just had to have my mom sit them both down and tell them what’s what. I’m schizophrenic, myself, so sometimes I get messages from the universe.


Does it tell you to do anything interesting?” I asked.


Told me to come here. For whatever that’s worth.


We were interrupted when a car drove by, carrying three people. One of them, a young woman in overalls, jumped out, ran up to Cara & Sara’s house, got on the roof and slid down the slide. She then skipped towards us, barefoot, and introduced herself as Natalia before leaving, saying she had to grab a cabbage from the garden. She came back a few minutes later, cabbage in hand, nibbling on one of the leaves.


Goodbye you pretty pretty thing,” she said to me and got in the car which drove away.


Leaving Mars, we entered Sara & Cara’s apartment. Joel and Cara were sitting on the couch.


Look,” said Joel, indicating the floor. “We’re watching an act of cannibalism in progress.


They were eating fried chicken and were watching one of the chickens peck at a rib on the floor.


So have you chosen where we’re going tonight?” I said, avoiding looking down.


The community college,” said Joel. “It’s enormous. Tons of cool shit. Science labs full of chemicals, etc.


Awesome,” I said, sitting down. Just then a tall, black guy came in. They addressed him as Chuck, presumably the same Chuck that had ‘stabbed’ Mars. He grabbed a piece of chicken and sat down, looking at home and addressing the kitten as ‘Tiger Hoods’. He told Joel and Cara that he was moving to another house a few blocks away.


I hate to leave you, but...” There was a silence as Joel and Cara continued to eat the chicken and Chuck wasn’t speaking.


Either of ya’ll know how to take out stitches?” asked Chuck suddenly.


Cara, her mouth full of chicken, gave a muffled sound of assertion.


Got the shit to do it with?” he asked.


Cara nodded again.


Get these fucking things out of my neck,” Chuck said with a jerk of his head. Cara put down the piece of chicken and went into the back of the house. When she came back she was holding some surgical looking instruments, and had Non-Hippy Mike with her.


The Christmas lights that were being used to light the living room apparently being insufficient, Non-Hippy Mike held a flashlight to Chuck’s neck where an ugly, gash was revealed. Cara, a spliff between her teeth, worked at Chuck’s neck. Joel kept eating his chicken.


This is gonna leave a gnarly scar,” said Cara, as the wincing Chuck lit a cigarette.


I’m gonna get ‘Death Before Dishonor’ tattooed right on this motherfucker,” he said.


This requires some death metal soundtrack,” said Joel, putting down the chicken and reaching for his soundsystem. A second later screaming voices and guitars were blasting from the speakers.


I don’t need no doctor. I’m getting these stitches out in the hood,” said Chuck, with relish. “I’m fucking Rambo.


“‘Cept if you were Rambo it would be a Vietnamese girl getting them out,” said Joel, laughing.


I don’t need no Dr. Bob. He ain’t no doctor. I got Dr. Cara,” Chuck continued. “I’m gonna get ‘Death Before Dishonor’” tattooed right on it.”  


How’d it happen?” I finally asked.


My old lady,” he said, his voice growing serious. “You think I’m joking, but it’s true. But she’s the mother of my two children.” He thought about it for a second. ”Three children.


Did you deserve it?” I asked.


No,” said Chuck. A pause. “Maybe.”


What’d she do it with?” said Joel, standing behind Chuck now and looking at the gash with delighted fascination.


You know those chicken soup cans? She got the lid and--” he made a slashing motion with his hand.


Ow!” said Cara.


I could kill her. But she’s the mother of my kids. You got a beer?


Joel opened a beer for him and placed it on a drum by Chuck’s chair. I remembered what the woman downtown had said about the drum circle drama, and smiled. “I’ve never hit her,” Chuck continued. “My boy said, ‘Daddy, you can hit Mamma.’ But I never have. I could murder her though.”


Done,” said Cara, straightening up and reaching for the hydrogen peroxide.


Thank you Dr. Cara. Fuck Dr. Bob, I don’t need him!


You’re welcome,” said Cara, sitting down once more.


Who the fuck are you?” he said suddenly, addressing me.


I told him.


Michaela? That’s a beautiful name. I’m gonna remember that for the rest of my life. And you?" he said, addressing Daichi.


I’m Daichi.


Dai-what?


Daichi.


Daichi?


Chuck lifted up one leg and arms in imitation of a kung fu move. Daichi gazed back coldly, until Chuck wilted on the spot with a laugh, looking slightly embarrassed.


Chuck turned his attention back to Cara and Joel, who seemed to take him in good humor. At one point Joel idly mentioned that he should get a gun and Chuck’s response was instantaneous:


You got two hundred dollars on you?


Joel laughed. “Not on me, no.


Chuck paused. “You got a hundred fifty dollars on you?


No.”


You sure?  I can go back to my place and get you something nice.


Dude, I have like three dollars on me right now.


I can get you a bullet,” said Chuck, and laughed. “Well, I hate to leave you guys.” He approached me and shook my hand with great emphasis. “It was nice to meet you.” He turned to Cara and violently stuck his middle finger in her face. “Fuck you!” he shouted, and turned to Joel. “And fuck you!”. He then turned to Daichi. “It was nice to meet you,” he said. Then he left.




_______________________________


By now it was dark. Cara and Joel handed me and Daichi flashlights as we climbed into the car. Driving into the city, the death rock was dispensed with for smooth, eerie electronica. We stopped a block away from the building, got out and walked. There was no need to hop a fence: there was a huge gap where the metal fencing had been pulled aside like a curtain. It seemed that many others had been there before.


The building looked enormous, even from the outside, and once we were inside it became a labyrinth. Turning on our flashlights, we followed Cara and Joel across the asphalt and through a door. The beam of light coming from my flashlight barely made a dent in the dark. It was mostly street and moonlight lighting up the atrium. Cara and Joel headed down into the basement.   


They had clearly come here many times before, and turned instantly into an empty office room. The calendar on the wall was turned to October, 2009. The contents of the room were relatively new, but mostly scattered and destroyed; it had clearly been pillaged before. Joel opened a large metal cabinet, and it was then that I realized why they’d brought empty backpacks. They were shopping.


Bandaids, cottenballs,” muttered Joel. Then he began listing a range of chemicals I’d never heard of.


We need stuff for the house, for my art,” explained Joel as they rifled through the cabinet. “No way!” he muttered as he examined the label of a bottle with a glass stop. It was marked as some kind of acid.


Let’s find some kind of organic matter to pour it on,” said Cara, and went up to a a bit of styrofoam lying on the ground. We gathered round with held breath as he tentatively poured a drop on the foam. Nothing happened.


Yeah that’s what I thought,” said Joel, dumping the contents onto the floor and throwing the bottle behind him.


Hey! You got acid on my leg!” said Cara, laughing. They exited the office, Joel picking up a hammer from the floor.


Have we been through there before?” asked Joel, indicating a door ahead.


Yeah,” said Cara, “that’s the boiler room.


We had to cross to the door by spreading our legs and walking on two separate beams (there being an abrupt absence of floor) in order to reach it. Joel opened the heavy metal door hesitantly.


It’s not gonna close behind us,” scoffed Cara.


Just in case,” said Joel casually, and he placed a metal pipe between the door and the wall. We passed through the door and climbed down a metal staircase.  


We passed an enormous kiln, the kind that looked like the machines used for cremation.


Anyone wanna get inside?” asked Joel.


No,” said Daichi, decisively.


Look at these!” said Joel, picking up some headgear, a kind of white, plastic visor with a screen for the person’s eyes.


A protection visor,” said Cara. “In case you only want to protect part of your head.” She put it on and mugged jokingly for Joel before tossing it aside.


I stuck with Daichi mostly, as we explored. My flashlight was too weak for me to see much of what was in front of me alone. Climbing a steep metal ladder, I could see little more than a rod in front of me. It gave me a sense of false comfort as I stood on the metal landing with its many holes, for I didn’t feel I was very high up.


Look at all these lightbulbs!” said Cara.


Only when she flung a bulb into the darkness and we heard the crash many feet below did I get the sense of how high up we were. She and Joel began smashing bulb after bulb, and soon Daichi joined in. It gave me a strange sense watching them, so like children throwing snowballs, but violent and destructive. Children without innocence. Somehow, even in the face of such overwhelming waste, the destruction felt wrong.


Here,” said Cara, handing me a large bulb. “Throw it against that pipe.


She turned back to climb down the ladder as I gazed into the darkness that had thickened in the absence of her light. The others left, and I was alone, and felt again a sense of false safety, surrounded by the imaginary velvet curtain. I lifted my hand and hurled the bulb hard. It missed the pipe, and I heard it bounce to the floor.


Didn’t break!” Cara’s voice called from far below. I heard distant crashes as the others smashed the surviving bulbs on the ground floor. I picked up another bulb, and tried again. This time it exploded into white flakes as it hit the pipe five feet in front of me that seemed to grow out of the oddly comforting abyss.


There you go!” said Cara. I turned to get down, carefully avoiding the gaps in the metal, large enough for a limb.


Daichi from below held his flashlight to the ladder as I made my way down. I crossed the thick layer of broken white glass that crunched like eggshells beneath my feet to follow the others back to the atrium. Heading back to the entranceway, we climbed the main set of staircase, the kind you’ll find in any public school. What struck me most was how new the building felt; ravaged by youth instead of time, angry young kids senselessly smashing what remained. Glossy inspirational posters showed minority students who smiled blissfully into the darkness, urging students from beneath layers of graffiti to pursue their dreams. We entered a classroom-lined hallway, and I peaked into room after room to see classrooms filled with chairs facing bare blackboards, while Joel and Cara continued to scavenge, hammers in hand. They targeted the science and medical classrooms. We entered a room with white hospital screens covered in stains that in the darkness appeared to be blood, but once illuminated revealed themselves to be black paint. We stayed in the main room as Cara and Joel rummaged through cabinets for more supplies.


Turn off your flashlight,” said Daichi. “See it get pitch black.


We turned off our flashlights, and stood for a few moments in the complete darkness.


We separated from Joel and Cara in order to explore one of the halls. After a few minutes another beam of light appeared, coming from behind us, and we turned around to see Joel.


Just so you know, guys,” he said in a low voice, “we’re not alone.


He opened a door and headed back into a lab. I turned to look at the end of the hall, where three silhouettes were stretched, from floor to ceiling.


Holy shit,” I whispered, and quickly headed in the direction in which Joel had disappeared.


What was left intact was of immediate interest to Cara and Joel. What they didn’t take, they smashed. Every monitor, every computer screen, every piece of glass soon met with Joel’s hammer. When we entered a classroom in which a copy machine stood in the center, we all knew what was coming and stood in a circle to watch. Joel looked at it with a gleam in his eye as he twirled the hammer, and with a sudden violent motion brought it crashing down. There was an explosion of glass shard; I was still recovering from the impact as they all walked away. Daichi was getting into the spirit of the thing, and at one point hurled a metal cabinet, sending it crashing down the stairs, echoing through the halls.


What they took or destroyed was arbitrary. At one point Joel picked up a pile of ‘No Smoking’ signs.


Yes,” he said, looking at them. “Wanna take these?” he asked Cara.


No,” said Cara, and with a flick of his hand Joel instantly sent them flying across the room. “I was kidding,” said Cara. And they laughed, leaving the signs behind without a second glance.


We should show them the auditorium. Wanna see the auditorium?


Yes that sounds awesome,” I said.
Let’s go, then,” said Cara.


They took us through some halls that led to behind the stage. Behind the curtains was a piano and an organ.


I wonder if it’s tuned,” I joked, sitting at the piano. I pressed a key, which came down soundlessly.


I don’t think so,” said Joel, smashing the keys of the organ with his hammer, which wallowed in protest. Cara had climbed onto the ropes and pulleys. Joel came up to her and pushed her, so that she was swinging back and forth.


I pushed through the curtain and went to the front of the stage, looking out onto the auditorium with its two levels of plush, purple seating. Daichi joined me, and jumping down from the stage sat in the
chair that was front-row, center. I felt a sense of deja vu, standing there: a year earlier I’d written a story where the two characters, for no real reason, had journeyed into an abandoned school and had a conversation in an auditorium. I felt as if I’d written my reality into existence somehow.


Daichi was still sitting and had picked up an encyclopedia that had been lying nearby and was flipping through it. I was examining some
old sepia photographs of animals that I’d found on the stage. Cara and Joel had made their way to the stage when Daichi stood up, holding the encyclopedia by its front cover.


Let’s burn this,” he said, and flung it to the ground. It lay sprawled, and pathetic on the auditorium floor.


Shit, is that the OED?


Cara reached for her lighter without a moment’s pause and held it under the book. The flame burnt the edges black but would not catch.


It’s too thick,” said Joel, and they began tearing off the pages in chunks, bunching them up and setting them ablaze. Soon a good-sized fire was going.


But they soon grew bored of lighting up the encyclopedia and started throwing other things into the flame. Clothes were scattered about, and Cara reached into a pile.


Hey let’s burn this bra,” she said, laughing as she dangled it over the flames. “We once had a party here. Just came in with a keg and spent the whole night running around the place. Back when the place was like new.


We walked around the auditorium, and I saw a fire extinguisher that had been completely used up.


Looks like someone had fun with this,” I said.


Yeah, I did,” said Cara with a sigh of nostalgia.


Cara and Joel left the auditorium and went back to the main stairway, where they went down a flight. I waited in the auditorium for Daichi, who seemed to have gone the to auditoriums second floor. Not seeing him, I went back to look down the stairway while I heard a trickling sound. I came back to see Daichi standing on the balcony’s edge.


Are you peeing?” I said.


Yeah,” said Daichi, complacently.


Ew. Barbarian,” I said, I went back to the stairway.


Zipping his pants back up, Daichi headed down the stairs. Before leaving I went back to the fire, which had cooled to a few embers. I picked up a loose page of the encyclopedia, the head of which read ‘Disappearance’. I considered stomping out the remainder of the
flames but shrugged to myself and left. We followed Cara and Joel down a flight of stairs and into a garage. Cara was standing at one end with her head cocked, looking confused.


I could’ve sworn there was a car here.” She turned to Joel. “There’s no way someone could’ve taken an entire car, right?


Joel was busy looking at the robotic equipment, complete with a manuel as thick as a telephone book.


From the garage we entered the gym, passing through a basketball court (still complete with ball; Daichi tried to dunk it and twice missed), particularly foul showers, and an enormous empty swimming pool. We passed through another, larger atrium, which still bore banners saying “Welcome to Highland Park High”, whose floors were covered with bobby pins, ripped-out textbook pages, and oddly enough, confetti. Large, decorative trees were still growing in their pots in the center, though they’d been vandalized. We passed through the room to a new set of classrooms. Joel and Cara again became absorbed in some cabinets filled with medical supplies, and again me and Daichi went to explore on our own.


Passing down a hallway, my foot hit something that rolled. Turning my flashlight towards it revealed two blue, plastic eyes staring back at me. It was a mannequin head. Passing my light over the surrounding area revealed another and another. The last one I saw had its hair partially done up in cornrows.


This is so fucking terrifying,” I said, laughing. “They must be for a cosmetology class.


Walking into the next classroom confirmed this: it was a room filled with mirrors, each with an accompanying disembodied plastic head, gazing at its own reflection.


In the next room we found a number of ties, one of which Daichi tied around my neck.


Look,” said Daichi, facing a wall. I went up to look at it as well. “These inspirational quotes aren’t so inspirational.


The wall was lined with handwritten pieces of paper. I read “It is what it is” and laughed.


Joel’s voice beckoned us back towards him and Cara. We entered a lab.


Check this out,” said Joel. It was another mannequin, this one only partially disembodied, with only a head, torso, and no limbs. Another one lay on an accompanying table, designed to show the muscles of the face. It had no lips, and its tongue stuck out. I touched it, and it responded to the pressure by moving down.



A passed my flashlight over a cardboard box, filled with plastic limbs. Daichi picked up a leg and shook it. The next room, the dentistry room, was filled with models of human teeth, one of which I swiped.


By this time we’d been exploring nearly for three hours, and even though there was plenty left to see I was ready to go. Daichi was ready to see more, but Cara seemed tense for whatever reason, so Daichi and I decided it would be best to end the trip there. When we walked back out into the streetlight Cara and Joel were holding hands. The car ride was for me a sleepy blur. I fell asleep on the couch, the plaster teeth by my pillow.





_______________________________


Round glasses and mangled beard-- I woke up to Non-Hippy Mike in the livingroom, quietly strumming the guitar. What struck me most about the commune was the vastness of time that seemed to exist, so different from my world, where life seemed to be the cracks between classes, between cellphone rings. Mike sat on the couch talking about his travels. He was a hitchhiker from Pennsylvania.


What people don’t know is that hitchhiking in America is easy,” he said. “You’d think with someone like me, with this beard and all, I’d have trouble. But no, I’ve never gone much over an hour without finding a ride. Long as you stay off the big roads, stick to the small ones. ‘Where there are roads, there are cars’: what they say is true. It’s the locals who will give you a lift. They’ll even give you a place to stay and a bite to eat, lot of the time.


Mike paused to put on the Eddie Vedder soundtrack from the movie of Into the Wild, fittingly.


What I want to do next is build an adobe hut in the desert. There’s ways to get water from rocks, from plants. It’s beautiful country.


Are you ready to go?” asked Daichi, who was sitting on the couch.


I told him I was waiting for Joel and Cara to say goodbye, and would at least write and leave a note. Daichi said he was hungry, and Mike offered to make him a salad of things growing in the garden.


That would be great,” said Daichi, and Mike left, returning a few minutes later with a bowl full of mixed greens and mulberries.


I’m just gonna leave them a note,” I said, and tore out a page of my notebook.


Daichi nodded.


Tell them the community college was hopping,” he said.



Dear Cara & Joel,


Thank you for letting us crash at your place & showing us around your world for these past couple days. We’ve had a great time. Good luck on the house/your art. We hope to come again.


Sincerely,


Daichi & Michaela


I showed the note to Daichi.


You didn’t say that the community college was hopping,” he said.


PS. ‘The community college was hopping’ --Daichi.


Hippy Mike came in just then, and Daichi, knowing a good thing when he saw it, asked him his life philosophy. Within two sentences Hippy Mike brought up medical marijuana.


You guys should check out my myspace,” he said, running fingers through his long hair, his red-tinted sunglasses on at an angle.


Ah, I haven’t used myspace in some time,” said Daichi, sadistically.


Knowing a good thing when I heard it, I whipped out my notebook and asked him what his myspace account was. The answer he gave me was a stream of nonsensical letters that were difficult to ascertain through his drawl. (I have since looked upmyspace.com/moetglester, and to my grave disappointment it leads to nothing.)


I left the note on the coffee table, under Non-Hippy Mike’s book, Edible Plants. As we were leaving, Joel came from outside to walk into the house. I told him we were leaving, and he nodded as coolly as he had accepted us as guests.


Take care,” he said, giving me a bony hug. “Do you have the Facebook?


He spelled out his last name for me, and I wrote it down. He walked back into the house and we walked back into the street.


The day was bright and promising; we spent it enjoyably if not excitingly.
We rented bikes and rode them to a place called Belle Isle, where we threw off our clothes and dove into the Detroit river, as anxious for a swim as we were for a shower. Floating in the cool water, I was unable to summon the urge even to look for the abandoned zoo I’d heard about, so content was I to have three days of anarchist communal living wash away. Our bus was scheduled to leave at midnight, and as it was monday night we had time to kill, and spent it wandering and then relaxing in bars, having deep Daichi discussions.
This isn't blurry: it's just artsy.
At one point I excused myself from one such conversation to go to the bathroom. The messages on the bathroom stall bore a distinct difference to those on the outhouse (ie had nothing to do with LSD). But smack in the middle of the stall, in huge capital letters, was this:





We got on the bus and road back to Chicago. Three days later, Detroit declared bankruptcy.