October 24, 2017

Fishing in the Deep for Stories

fishiing pole on Lake Michigan pier

The Muskegon pier on Lake Michigan doesn’t have warning signs. Only a memorial near the end of it for those who lost their lives on the pier, and for those who tried to save them. Memorial signs of that type are very effective, at least from my perspective. Unlike the river in Grand Rapids, there was only one guy fishing here. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the sun go down on his fishing spot. He hadn’t caught anything. The Great Lake was going to beat him on this night.

I was on a Lake Huron pier last March in fifty mile an hour winds and holding a rail so I wouldn’t get blown into the water. There weren’t any memorials on that pier. Lake Huron is more rugged than the Gold Coast. A friend from the area in the Thumb had been diagnosed with a serious illness. She vowed to beat it, stoic about the slim odds. Her fight ended in November. The rugged land is the hard fought memorial over there. I quoted James Q Wilson in the post last March: “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society set limits to what those members can do.”

Machine politics have set limits on what people can do and now the machine is bankrupt. Ernest Hemingway wrote this in The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Detroit doesn’t have the cash to survive December. Machine politics filtered opposing views for fifty years. The ten cities with the highest poverty rates have followed the same course, restricting what its citizens can do and see on the horizon. The UAW leadership in Michigan was willing to block construction of a new bridge to Canada. Then the unions went down, like the great fighter Manny Pacquiao in the fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Right to work legislation delivered as a right hand punch from Marquez.

Hemingway wrote sentences as tight punches. He learned the craft as a reporter and columnist before turning to fiction, with columns such as this one in 1923 for the Toronto Star Weekly about the Spaniard Don Tancredo:

“No. He was neither an opera singer nor a five-cent cigar. He was once known as the bravest man in the world. And he died in a dingy, sordid room in Madrid, the city where he had enjoyed his greatest triumphs…

Don Tancredo himself tried to learn to become a matador. But he found himself up against a competitive profession in which his rivals had been trained since they were five years old. He proved slow on his feet and not particularly graceful.”

The dingy rooms can be the most profound memorials. The collapse of mass production industry has created a lot of these sad testaments. Union organizers and their political allies are too slow on their feet to compete against this fast moving opponent. Acting as a gatekeeper, opposing the construction of bridges to the future, is a bad bet.

While most reporters still with a decent paycheck chase stories on the union protests, John Carlisle has done it again with more great writing for his Detroitblogger column. He only writes it once every two weeks. “Last Days” is the simple title to his most recent post. He writes of an elderly couple who own the most lonely dive bar in Detroit. The man and wife, in their 80s and failing health, live above the empty bar. No one comes in for a drink anymore. The voices of mentally ill homeless are heard in the street. The casinos have taken the customers and now even the casinos are hurting for cash. As Hemingway wrote about the last days of Don Tancredo- “It takes money to sit in a café.” The casinos are more expensive than the dive bar.

Gradually, then suddenly, it will be over for Detroit. The people of Detroit will have to start over, like Billy Durant who went bankrupt in the Great Depression after creating a company called General Motors. The gatekeepers will move on to some other business where the cash flow is more dependable than the lonely dive bar.

Detroit Deeply can be the American edition to Syria Deeply, a news outlet set up for group reporting on the war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. This was written two days ago on the Syria Deeply blog:

“The whole world has abandoned Aleppo. We are left between the cruelty of the regime and the indifferent mobs of the opposition. But above all this, I cannot blame anyone but ourselves, because those who are raising the prices of fuel, electricity generators, coal, bread and all basics are also people from Aleppo. They are our new warlords, who are making fortunes on the expense of the poor people. I cannot ask the world to sympathize with Aleppo, when we are the ones who are starving each other and leaving each other in the cold. Our children are dying slowly while some people are using the chaos to make as much money as they can. And that is haram, haram money (cursed or forbidden money).”

Substitute gatekeeper for warlord and its problems could be translated into nearly every United Nations language.

Syria is becoming the 21st century Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, had this:

“You and your safety! Did I live nine years with three of the worst paid matadors in the world not to learn about fear and safety? Speak to me of anything but safety.”

Going beyond the warning signs might not be safe but that’s where you’ll find the great stories and storytellers.

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