- D Is for the Dance of the Hoursa portrait of prebankruptcy Detroit
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My father performed in his first and only opera while he was a college student working at the Detroit Public Library. He had no aspirations toward performance, just a crush on Leontyne Price. With politicians in the audience, he was warned not to disrupt the dignity of the opera as he played the role of [End Page 129] pharaoh’s guard in Aïda. But he found it difficult to keep a straight face while the men who played the high priest and the pharaoh gossiped about a sexual exploit with a female member of the cast, crass as they breathed between songs. My father was paid a dollar, and missed out on dinner with the company afterward because that dollar was all he had and he needed it to get home.
Both my parents are from Detroit. I grew up in California hearing stories about a city laced with more wonder than desolation. We know it as the birthplace of gallerists and world famous choreographers, of raucous family dinners. Though they spent most of their lives in L.A., my parents began to spend more and more time in Detroit over the last few years, preferring to be closer to family. They moved there permanently this year.
Once my father and I drove across country from Tucson to Detroit. He put on “The Flower Duet” from Lakmé. Two sopranos sang bel canto as the night swelled black outside. Ground beneath us tilting downward, we fell through all that nothing toward a factory’s blinking lights, car cascading into sound.
On a prolonged summer visit to Detroit three years ago, I played classical music in the car while running errands. Each time I turned on the stereo, the world seemed to click—to become suddenly whole. Colors pair best with their opposites: turquoise and vermilion, blood red and new-growth green. In this way, the east side of Detroit is complemented by music that comes from worlds away: burned wood and the entrance of the conductor. Overgrown grass and the sweep of a violin bow. A baby carriage tipped over in an abandoned lot and the hush that comes between a song’s end and the applause.
In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary explains that most writing about Detroit tends to fall into one of three subgenres: a metonym for the auto industry, a lament, or an optimistic delusion. Given that the running metaphor of this essay is opera, I’ll self-select: this is a lament.
My cousin is a police officer who often visits while she’s on duty, scaring the neighbors. One day in the summer of 2012, I went with her to work. When I first stepped into the Detroit Police Department’s ninth precinct, portraits of fallen officers greeted me. Elmer Cox died on May 5, 1925. His face is doll-like, or deerlike, his eyes sheened and shadowed. Alonzo Marshall Jr. died on September 1, 1971. In his portrait, he seems confused. I wrote down their names: Sypitkowski, Bandy, Steward. Somebody died on the year of my birth. I recognized the name of a man, Huff, who died after my cousin became this precinct’s lieutenant.
My cousin tells us stories about her job, like anyone else would. But a normal day for her involves a woman who lived with her dead husband for two years. He sat in their living room as the woman went about her business, silent on an armchair in front of the TV. By the time they found him, he was mummified.
At one house, presumably one of [End Page 130] Detroit’s many mansions, my cousin says there was a branch the size of a large tree in the middle of the ballroom, home to a giant boa constrictor. Cops routinely answer calls about tigers and monkeys, pigs and birds. When I asked what the snake was for, she said, “That’s where they bring people who fuck up.” Certain animals are a form of exotic torture favored by drug...