January 28, 2023

So It Goes, Detroit

Detroit An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff worked for a little while at the New York Times, until his editor got tired of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s desire to write about the working class. His editor, maybe a Princeton grad, described LeDuff’s story subjects as “losers” and for him to stop it. LeDuff got the message and quit and moved to Hollywood for a little while. The City of Cement and Traffic Jams made him miss his family of addicts back in Detroit. His sister died while working the streets of Detroit as a prostitute, leaving behind a daughter who is now a crack addict and hitting up Charlie for cash. His brother, also struggling with the hard stuff, saves a little money on dentists by using pliers to remove his teeth. It’s the kind of story that fuels inbreeding at the Ivy League. Whatever it takes to avoid Detroit. The Great Migration of Charlie LeDuff finally sent him home to Detroit, where he has used his reportorial skills to write the autopsy of the Motor City. He follows the firemen in Detroit with notebook in hand and sees a group of men digging up a corpse in a Detroit cemetery. The men were moving the corpse to the suburbs. Now the dead are fleeing Detroit.

So it goes.

“Since its founding, Detroit has been a place of perpetual flames,” LeDuff writes, quoting the flag of Detroit- We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes. Detroit has burned three times in race riots that required federal troops. Detroit has thousands of arson cases a year. The firemen quickly fill up LeDuff’s notebooks with graphic material. “A man tapped into the gas main with a garden hose because he’s too poor to warm his children. The hose leaks. The block explodes.” The firemen remove the dead children from the flames and “peel a guy’s guts from the jagged window frame.”

A fireman glares at LeDuff and says, “Children are dying in the city because they’re too fucking poor to keep warm. Put that in your fucking notebook.”

LeDuff writes, “I put it in my fucking notebook.” He does a good job of it. The chapter titled “Fire” is the best. The fireman says, “You know what it’s like working this job in this city? It’s like those old black and white movie reels of Vietnam. Like those soldiers waving at the camera, like, ‘hey, Ma, everything’s cool. Everything’s all right. You know? And there’s a pile of corpses behind him and he’s smoking a joint and playing cards.”

But the pile of corpses adds one more when the fireman gets killed trying to put out another fire.

The dead fireman goes in LeDuff’s fucking notebook. 

There are a lot of “so it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Detroit is catching up in “so it goes” to the firebombing of Dresden. The arsenal of democracy at its peak in World War Two is turning into the city of ashes.

“Look at this shit,” a fireman says to LeDuff. They stare at a crackhead wandering the street in a daze. “Look at that guy. He’s a forgotten person who’s forgotten himself.” Another crazy woman starts a fire and while the firemen put out the blaze, tries to drive off in their firetruck. One of the firemen’s car is stolen while they’re at the memorial. The fire is ruled an arson, which makes it murder.

So it goes.

A lot of “so it goes” books about Detroit have recently been published. None like this. All the other writers had a ticket out. Their home and family weren’t dying with the city. You can understand why the editors at the New York Times got sick of LeDuff. He tracks in a lot of blood and grime from the other side of the tracks. The artsy people are mad at him for not being urban cool. Vonnegut didn’t call time out to the war to focus on opera.

In spiritual matters, Detroit is very southern. The Great Migration to Detroit and Flint after World War Two brought the William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor characters north to produce a life from the machine and the church. Walker Percy once said the uniqueness of southern writers came from experiencing the Great Fall. Detroit’s Great Fall is going to be an epic tale, an American autopsy. LeDuff is arrested, not his first, nor his last. He writes, “People took photos and said shitty things about me that were mostly true, but the annoying thing was they were guessing.”

Apologies to the editors at the New York Times.

While in the slammer, he listens to a woman next to him using a jailhouse phone. She says, “Tell him when I see him again I’m gonna put a knife in his neck. Tell that motherfucker I’ll finish the job, soon’s I get outta here.”

So it goes, Detroit. So it goes.


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