September 25, 2017

When Smart Money Hits the Canvas

Tall Ships Ceremony

At the Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, some parents were talking about their son, the cage fighter. I was wondering if he was the smart money or dumb money but was too polite to ask. I don’t believe there’s a great deal of smart money fighting inside cages. The cannon boom from the ship ended the conversation about cage fighting, and among other topics (I have snoopy ears), the promise of stress free living for some condo associations. I thought stress free meant you were dead.

After reading an article on the Great American Novels (Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Godfather, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), the thought struck me, almost like a cannon ball, that the difference between nonfiction and fiction is that the great works of fiction focus on the story of when the smart money hits the canvas.  “When smart money hits the canvas” comes from Ellison’s Invisible Man. An Eudora Welty quote explains it in the New Yorker: “The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive…great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.”

I refused to watch anything on television that had to do with the Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman case and ignored most of the commentary elsewhere. The media is selling the dead kid like he’s shampoo on an endcap at Walmart. When they’re done with him and ratings dip, they’ll put him on the clearance rack and find some other sad story to sell like soap. The polemicists on all sides consider themselves the smart money. For what it’s worth, and it’s not worth a bottle of shampoo, probably ninety percent of the people who think they need a gun for protection are too paranoid to have a gun for protection. Unless you’re working at a liquor store in Detroit, with cops that take an hour to respond, and solve less than ten percent of the criminal cases, you have many options to defend yourself before pulling the trigger. I don’t mean the martial arts nonsense, which is dumb money. But was Zimmerman’s fear more excessive than the response to the Boston Marathon bombing?  Shutting down a major city, SWAT teams with body armor, three hundred shots fired, and so on. The Wall Street Journal has a story about the “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” There weren’t any SWAT teams until the late 1960s. Now there are thousands of SWAT teams conducting thousands of raids, all dressed up in body armor and locked and loaded for combat. So who is afraid of who? 

The city of Detroit used to be the smart money and now Detroit is officially bankrupt, like Tommy Hearns, the great fighter from Kronk, and also Billy Durant, the founder of General Motors. So much for all those union contracts promising a stress free life in retirement at a condo in Florida, protected with armed neighborhood patrols on watch for the black man loose in the neighborhood. I have too much of the Detroit Rules in me, meaning that there are no rules in a street fight, to defend Martin’s right to attack someone who offended him. The prisons and cemeteries are full of young people who went into a street fight believing they were the smart money. When I was young,  I used to run through a very nice neighborhood in Flint, one that Michael Moore actually confused in “Roger & Me” with GM CEO Roger Smith’s neighborhood in a posh Detroit suburb. In those days, Flint and Detroit had some posh neighborhoods. The neighborhood watch patrols would follow me around as I ran late at night. It was kind of irritating, and would have been extremely unacceptable if they also had weapons. But I wouldn’t think of attacking them. It’s unhealthy and unwise to lead with your chin. One day, like the Boston Marathon bomber, you might get hit in the face with an SUV, or shot by a fat guy fearful for his life. The smaller guy you think is easy meat pulls out the gun, or knife, or has a group of buddies coming behind you. Detroit reporter Charlie LeDuff just tweeted his favorite story of a robbery in Detroit where the smart money in this case, the young robber, failed to notice his victim’s cousin coming at him full speed in a car. Those Detroit Rules…Or What They Don’t Teach in Martial Arts Class.

Ralph Ellison writes, “Once I saw a prize fighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific…He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and shocked science, speed, and footwork as cold as a well digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas.”

I would include An American Tragedy, Lonesome Dove, and The Call of the Wild on my list of five Great American Novels, along with Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn. The Great Gatsby just misses, coming in sixth.  In The Call of the Wild, Buck thought he was the smart money, living the spoiled stress free life with his wealthy master, until the man with the club kidnaps Buck:

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect and, while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.”

Buck got up from the canvas. He got the hell out of the cage.

When going through the factory towns, the abandoned buildings and litter on the streets numb the soul. A century of scientific management, the smart money, led to this. While in China, they can’t tolerate the pollution.  The other night, I was running in farmland and a dog came out of the fields and ran alongside me for five miles in the heat while I tried to chase it back home, if it had one. The dog didn’t have a license or identification. The dog wouldn’t quit following me, and I began to think of it as Buck out in the wild. As we got near the suburbs, I turned and chased it one more time back into the farmland. I watched him disappear in the dark. His true master was in nature, not the suburbs.

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The Metadata Belongs to Us

private no entry

In the good ole days of the wild west ’60s and ’70s, a passenger could board a plane with his sawed off shotgun, a dozen or so sticks of dynamite, maybe a M1 and a couple hundred rounds of ammo, or the favorite weapon and steel can full of gasoline. The little kid, caught between the end of little league season and the start of a new school year, could take a ballerina hostage and ask the pilot of a DC-9 to go on a joyride across the Atlantic. If the kid chose the wrong kind of plane for going across an ocean, like the DC-9, not a problem. The airlines would switch planes and crews. Those little kids are now mature adults probably working in the Department of Homeland Security, writing blog posts that celebrate pride for a diverse workforce and admonishing their point of the spear comrades frisking old ladies and kids to carefully inspect shampoo bottles, razors, and snow globes for infractions. The snow globe has more carry on restrictions than the sawed off in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us is a Pulp Fiction goes airborne history of the hijacking craze that began in the early 1960s and peaked a decade later. Without metal detectors at airports, anyone with a grievance and a gun could get on a plane and demand a flight to Cuba. Hijackings became so popular, one plane was hijacked by two different groups during the same flight. If a pilot didn’t feel like drinking margaritas in Cuba, waiting for a new plane to go home (Fidel kept the planes, thank you), he could pack some heat of his own and blow away the hijacker, which one pilot did, shooting a teenager who wanted a free ride in the skies and wasn’t bright enough to take a ballerina hostage. No grievance seemed too petty and minor disputes with the IRS could cause a hijacker wannabe to grab his gun and find a plane with the ultimatum “I exist and I demand to be noticed.”

Almost a trillion photographs are now uploaded yearly to social media sites, making it harder than ever to actually get noticed. Getting a security clearance from the feds seems easier than being verified by social media. All this metadata belongs to the feds and is held in a secure location which means it’s being read daily by the Syrian Electronic Army, known to his parents and classmates as fourteen year old Nabil from Dearborn.

In the good ole days when the fourteen year old kids took ballerinas hostage with pa’s shotgun, metadata was referred to as gossip. You could discern the difference between a signal and the noise by the blushing red cheeks and the fist or a rock coming in your direction. My first and only bowling league was as that fourteen year old and after hazing another kid for his juvenile delinquent metadata, he took off his combat boots and threw them across the bowling alley at me. Our inner city bowling league would have made Chris Schenkel take hostages.

Before metadata, you actually had to go somewhere to find out what was going on. If there was a sign on the property warning to keep off, you just waved it off unless the owner had come out to greet you with his shotgun. Good luck examining the metadata of the most catty nation on earth. The feds didn’t even know about their own Secret Service agents partying with hookers in Colombia. Nate Silver admits in The Signal and the Noise that he had to go to the ballpark to learn the reason behind the numbers. The data failed to reveal the whole story.

The Skies Belong to Us is the kind of story that’ll make you want to minimize the social media accounts and tell the metadata to get a life.

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Fire inside the gates

House fire

New Yorker journalist George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is the latest to explore the industrial collapse. Journalist Gordon Young has written a book about his hometown of Flint, Teardown: A Memoir of a Vanishing City. Packer wrote Assassin’s Gate about America’s war in Iraq and this one’s getting excellent reviews as well. The New York Times calls it a masterpiece. The most amazing fact about Flint is that the number of elementary students in Flint schools has declined nearly eighty percent since the late 1960s and early 70s. I was one of the elementary students from that era, as was Gordon Young. My two elementary schools and junior high have closed. The high school, at one time among the largest in the state, will close next year.

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy is the one published in the last couple of years that I like the most, although no one will ever consider the book a masterpiece. His book is about fire, the epidemic of fires in Detroit raging through the abandonment. It began with fire and will end in fire.

My head felt like it was in an oven when I got too close to this fire burning through the abandonment on Flint’s north side, near the truly vanished Buick City Complex. I saw the flames and black smoke from miles away on the expressway and like a storm chaser, followed the funnel cloud of destruction to its epicenter. The most odd sensation, watching the flames explode higher and threatened to burn the entire neighborhood and come my way, was the absolute silence. There weren’t any cries of anguish or shock. A lone fire truck was on the street and the fatalistic firemen worked to contain the fire as a small group watched with stoicism. A small folding table was set up outside a grimy liquor store and a few men were watching the fire and drinking. More liquor stores were across the street and most of the residential houses were abandoned, probably like this one. An ambulance was parked nearby and a couple of homeless asked another man if it was a controlled fire. After he said it wasn’t, they noticed a man and woman packing food into crates across the parking lot. One of them exclaimed, ‘Food bank!” Then he repeated himself, again, and again. Free food was a bigger deal than the inferno. The two of them wandered over to the food bank with a “cool, man” jaunt. Surrounded on all sides with decay and fire, life was good to these two guys for at least the afternoon.

The Unwinding is thick with profiles, descriptions, and life stories. Data collection is a bigger deal these days than a compelling narrative. Do your research like NSA, collect every little piece of information and cram it into the story. The Unwinding was pretty disappointing, considering the reviews. George Packer is a much better writer than LeDuff. He does better research. Everything about Packer is probably better than LeDuff, like Manhattan is better than Detroit in every way but the coney dog. But something was missing. The autopsy report wasn’t signed, not by Shakespeare or a Kipling.

An elderly blind man was walking through one of the dangerous neighborhoods near the fire. He wore an orange safety jacket, helmet, and waved the cane back and forth in front of his feet. He walked with his head up and a smile on his face past the cracked asphalt, weeds, boarded up houses. I felt like jumping out of the car to ask him what he saw with his imagination that he couldn’t see with his eyes. Was he creating his own reality or stuck in someone else’s?

Close your eyes after reading LeDuff’s autopsy and you’ll see a tired hardened fireman whirling back at LeDuff in a neighborhood that’s one big fire trap, swearing at LeDuff to put the dead kid in his fucking notebook. You’ll see in your imagination that fat homicide detective sinking his teeth into a coney dog and talking murder and the Great Hunts, like Kipling’s Great Game, taking place in the squalor and refuse and enjoying this kind of hunt for the prize at the end. A certificate from Shakespeare or a Kipling for participating inside the gates. Close your eyes after reading George Packer and you’ll see his quality writing from the perimeter. He doesn’t go inside the gates.

I wanted very much for Gordon Young to write it like LeDuff and he almost pulls it off. Flint burns like Detroit. There were more than fifty suspected arson cases in the two weeks after Flint firemen are laid off and Young, an accomplished journalist and college instructor in Silicon Valley, writes of the impossibility of catching arsonists with so little staff. A fireman describes the arsonists as “a spider spinning a web of fires.” They’re sexual predators and suffering serious financial problems, according to the FBI profile. But these fires are not set by arsonists. The fires are set by professionals. Firemen burned down these houses. The fireman explains the difference between the pro and the amateur. The amateur stays on the perimeter, setting fire on a porch or window, always making sure there is an easy escape. The amateur arsonist never puts himself in danger to set a better fire.

The pro, the fireman explains, isn’t afraid of the fire and danger. The pro goes inside and set the house ablaze at its foundation, making the fire burn longer and do more damage before the alarm is sounded. The pro can take the heat.

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History is Everywhere

Vicki Keith

Canadian Vicki Keith is the greatest marathon swimmer of all time. Among her achievements were swims across the five Great Lakes. She began the 48 mile swim in Lake Huron at Harbor Beach. In 2005, she swam for more than 63 hours in Lake Ontario. At one point, she swam four hours without gaining any distance. The waves were that strong.

One day, while working as a swim coach, a handicapped nine year old girl, her arms and legs amputated, came to her with the desire to swim across a lake. The little girl collapsed from exhaustion halfway across the pool. Swimming across Lake Erie was preposterous. She continued to practice and finally, as a teenager, felt ready for the attempt across Lake Erie. Only three people showed up to watch. Their friends were too embarrassed for the girl who was missing arms and legs. Doctors criticized her mother for even keeping her alive.

Vicki Keith believes nothing is impossible. When she was a little girl, the ballet teacher ridiculed her for walking like a horse. She went home and found a book on swimming, staying up all night memorizing the records. She kept telling her friends, “One day.. One day..” She put up slogans around the house and created her own reality. She just kept telling herself over and over that one day…she was going to be a record breaking marathon swimmer. The experts scoffed at her, just as with the girl with the amputated arms and legs.

Halfway across Lake Erie, the critics and naysayers began to notice. Helicopters suddenly appeared and hovered over the handicapped girl as Vicki Keith went alongside her in a kayak. Hundreds of people began to arrive at the distant shore. Only two miles from shore, the girl cried out that she wanted to quit. Vicki Keith didn’t know what to do. They had come this far, were so close. Then she noticed the girl kept stroking after crying for help. All she had to do was touch the kayak and that was it. Her swim was over and they’d pull her out. She’d be instantly disqualified if she touched the kayak. But she never did. She kept swimming and then the shore was in sight. She had done it. Nothing was impossible. Vicki Keith’s TED talk has less than 2,000 views, which is unbelievable. It’s one of the best TED talks that I’ve seen.

Two years ago a Cessna pilot, Michael Trapp, crashed his plane into Lake Huron at Harbor Beach. He came down nearly on the starting point for Vicki Keith’s record swim. She became the first person to swim across Lake Huron. His survival in Lake Huron was a miracle. From CBS:

“All alone and without a life vest, he spotted a smoke stack and set his sights on getting there. He alternated between swimming, treading water, and floating on his back and stomach. He prayed for a rescue.

‘I saw six boats after I crashed,” said Trapp. “Before nightfall came, a big freighter came within 50 feet of me, but never saw me and all the other boats were just too far away to hear me yelling.’

By nightfall, he was exhausted, but refused to close his eyes.

‘If you fall asleep that’s your death calling. So I made sure not fall asleep. I kept my eyes open the whole night, watch the stars.'”

Port Hope and the lighthouse are a few miles up the coast of Lake Huron. On Memorial Day, the old vets held their annual memorial at the cross and flags in front of the lighthouse where Lt. Michael Young crashed his plane  and was swept away in November of 1991. The Great Lakes don’t forgive anything when it turns cold. I’m sure those old vets have some great stories of their own. I listened in on a conversation between an old World War Two vet and a mother with her young son up here awhile ago. History is everywhere.

There’s a remarkable story nearly everywhere and in everyone, if you’re curious enough to look.

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Seeking the Great Forgotten

USS Edson

The destroyer USS Edson 946 is named for Merritt Austin Edson, known as “Red Mike” to his Marines. “Red Mike” Edson earned the Medal of Honor for defending Guadalcanal’s Bloody Ridge, and showing Washington that Guadalcanal could be saved. General MacArthur had been informed that the United States Navy could “no longer support the Marines on Guadalcanal.” Historian William Manchester, one of Red Mike’s Raiders, writes of Colonel Edson in Goodbye Darkness, his World War Two memoir of fighting in the Pacific. Red Mike told the Raiders, in his typical understated manner, that they had come to a “quiet spot.” When the battle begins, a corporal shouts, “Some goddamn rest area! Some goddamn rest area!” Red Mike would become Major General, leading his Marines through some the most brutal fighting of World War Two. In 1955, General Edson committed suicide in the garage of his D.C. home.

Edson’s sergeants screamed, “Raiders, rally to me! Raiders, Raiders, rally to me!” The barrels of their machine guns became warped as the Japanese attacked in waves, jumping in the Marine foxholes with bayonets, forcing the Raiders to defend the last point on the Ridge. Edson pushed stunned Marines back at the enemy, shouting, “The only thing they’ve got that you haven’t is guts.”

Edson’s widow launched the Top Gun ship in 1958 with a bottle of champagne. Six years later, the Edson was at the Gulf of Tonkin, the infamous start to the Vietnam War. In 1967, enemy fire shot off the ship’s flag and wounded the Commodore’s pillow with some shrapnel. Radio Hanoi declared the Edson had been sunk with no survivors. In 1975 and still above water, the Edson helped evacuate Saigon.

The Edson’s found a quiet spot to rest its memories. Bay City, “some goddamn rest area,” is home for the Edson. I knew the Edson was nearby and saw it as I came over the bridge. This old destroyer was parked near downtown. The gates were unlocked and open.

When William Manchester returned to Guadalcanal in 1978, he found a marker buried in the weeds for Edson’s heroics. Some weeds, mud, and brown water are the setting for the destroyer Edson in Bay City. Romance and glamour of war are not here. But they’re working on restoring the Edson as a floating museum. Volunteers from Dow Chemical, the company with flags of the world ringing its headquarter perimeter, have committed several thousand dollars and their time to fixing up the area around the Edson. The highways were jammed for the holiday time up north. Most people probably drive past the Edson without giving much thought for the name on it. There’s an Edson Association reunion in the summer and a wedding scheduled on the Edson in September. In Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness he quotes Thomas Wolfe and the consuming desire to “seek the great forgotten…Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost,come back again.”

The Great Forgotten leaves its trail in the weeds and rust. It must be a grieving wind that swings the gates open to strangers passing by. They’re always looking for someone on these forums, asking about a buddy, a ghost to come back again. A few years ago I was with a friend from Vietnam at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was barns and cows and about one block of commercial activity, including a small restaurant. Even Walmart hadn’t discovered this place yet. The waitress, Vietnamese or Cambodian, stared in amazement and came over and traced her finger around my friend’s face as if she was seeing a ghost from the past. Neither one spoke, just thinking Where? When? O lost…

William Manchester’s nightmares from World War Two finally sent him back to the Pacific in 1978. His first kill made him sob and shit his pants. His Marine buddy burst through the door, looked at the dead Japanese soldier, then at Manchester, and said, “Slim, you stink.” Manchester writes, “I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?'” His war dreams end with tears.

The Great Forgotten is a ghost with guts.

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Shakespeare’s Blanket of the Dark

The Lying Man- Meijer Gardens, at peace without   a security blanket

The Lying Man- Meijer Gardens, at peace in the light

The neurocriminologists calculate that one percent of the world’s population can be classified as psychopaths. Seven billion people means the seventy million criminals, terrorists, and mass killers among us will feel no remorse for the pain inflicted on their victims. Their number will increase without change to the deadly mix of genetics and environment. Genetics are the explosives. The trigger is in the environment. After the Boston bombing, the two brothers supposedly wanted to go on to New York where its 35,000 police and “Ring of Steel” camera system offered a first line of defense. The last line of defense is more Shakespeare than Homeland Security, more dark theater than 24/7 cable. The equipment of the modern law enforcement, the high tech security blanket, is beaten and the knife in the drawer, a Shakespearean instrument, becomes it. Shakespeare never exhausted his ammunition when writing about the dark soul of the human race. Macbeth can out run the modern killer. There are nearly half a million names in the FBI’s database and if the neurocriminologists are correct, the watch list will add many more names from underneath the blanket of the dark. Millions of applicants to choose from, excluding misspellings and fat fingered mistakes.

Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

Investigators sift through the landfills and human sewage with the ghost of Shakespeare hovering over their shoulders. The criminal’s grandiosity comes to an end with the FBI searching for evidence in the trash. How they start is often how they finish. A new report lists the most violent neighborhoods in America. The neighborhood ranked tenth most violent is in Saginaw where I stopped to get a picture of the abandoned manufacturing plant. The three most violent neighborhoods are in Detroit and a fourth from Detroit is seventh. A Flint neighborhood makes it into the top twenty. Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff went to the most violent neighborhood and saw the same story lines found in Saginaw- abandonment, grievances, churches, liquor stores, and from all of this the criminal habits that makes heaven weep and the FBI staffed at full employment.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been translated into every living language. Understand Detroit or any city on the crime lists and you comprehend better than most violence all over the world. The FBI and Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, stake out the mosque in Dagestan where the oldest brother visited nine months before detonating his bombs in Boston. Dagestan is the most violent place in Russia. Its most “notable” people achieved notoriety through either violence or sports. The Boston Marathon has its history in the Battle of Marathon and Phidippides’ run to Sparta.

Shakespeare’s blanket of the dark is a metaphor for the comfort of illusions that soothes the painful truth.

“A man with nothing left to lose is a very dangerous man and his energy/anger can be focused toward a common/righteous goal.”- Timothy McVeigh

McVeigh watched the final gun battle and flames of Waco from a farmhouse in Decker, Michigan. He had left his home in New York without love and without a mission in life. He drove for thousands of miles in his clunker and finally found his mission among the Michigan militias. He had a tribe that wanted him.

“Americans were shocked to learn that the prime suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing were not foreign terrorists but men from the nation’s heartland. The plot was not hatched in Beirut or Baghdad but possibly in the backwoods of northeast Michigan by a paramilitary cell that investigators allege McVeigh formed with accused conspirator Terry Lynn Nichols and Nichols’s brother James.”- Washington Post, July 2, 1995

Those backwoods of northeast Michigan become very dark at night. The only lights are from the stars on a clear night. It’s cold and lonely at night in the winter and warm and lonely at night in the summer. Michigan has a lot of lighthouses and the most rugged is in that northeast corner, sending its light far out in the dark, cold water warning ships of the rocks in their path. I think about Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bombing, Michigan militias, when I drive out there. It’s where McVeigh found his blanket of the dark. Violence in rural areas doesn’t get the attention of a Detroit. The neighbors are too scattered into the dark to receive a ranking. But it’s there with the stockpile of weapons.

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”

Only when everyone is dead will the curtain come down on Shakespeare.

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We’re All Dead Enders Now

citizen memorial

This memorial isn’t a tourist stop. The landscape is all about abandoned homes, high weeds, liquor stores, crime, and makeshift churches run by the ghetto’s whiskey priests. I had to pass a tiny one room “Hope Center” to get here. That place didn’t look so filled with hope. It looked abandoned. There weren’t any windows on it and the only door had protective bars and the house next to it had a wanted sign on its front door. Everything here is makeshift, including the hope. The guys walking the streets did it with the usual hopeless slouch. Their winter coats were unzipped. Around here, spring clothing is just the winter clothing unzipped. If there’s a zip code for this country’s dead enders, here it is on the north side of Flint. The Buick City Complex that used to be here is now gone, swept clean as a computer chip. But this makeshift memorial continues to grow. A prisoner of war memorial is across the street. The dead ender architect of this memorial keeps adding and expanding. The man’s a dead ender for hope.

“…a decade in america already, I want out”

Cultural alienation is now being blamed for the Tsarnaev brothers’ violent acts in Boston. The younger brother’s tweets and older brother’s YouTube account display some of their hostility, including the younger one’s whine about wanting out. The older brother, the boxer, got in trouble for hitting his girlfriend and the father explained you “can’t touch a woman”  in America. The dead ender memorial is a few miles from  the gym where Claressa Shields , a girl who hits back, trained for her Olympic Gold in boxing. She trained against the boys and “hit the heavy bag until it split.” Take that, Mr. Jihad.

Boston is famous for its crime writers, being the land of Eddie Coyle and Friends. I believe very much in the criminal mind and criminal seed. The isms and religion are just articles of clothing, team uniforms. I also believe everything starts with footwork. I noticed the older brother was wearing Arabic sandals in the photos of him at the Boston Marathon. Interesting footwear for a spectator at a marathon. I thought the older one’s sunglasses could have meant that he was in some intelligence agency’s file and wanted to hide his face. Not bad. Two guys with sunglasses might have drawn too much attention. Eh, perhaps. Their body language, attire, looks, reminded me of the Mossad agents who assassinated the Hamas leader in Dubai. Whoever trained them was in the ring with the Mossad, an enemy of the Mossad, and learned to fight with similar tactics. Maybe a stretch, maybe not. Choice of the Boston Marathon was odd. Had to be someone familiar with it. Right on. A college educated mentally ill runner, a Unabomber in Asics- nope. Militias don’t give a crap about the Boston Marathon but Patriots Day… Must not forget the war raging in the shadows with Iran. Saudi Arabia arrested 30 spies from Iran, and there’s a restaurant in Washington that could have gone boom! The land of the dead ender has one of its own imprisoned and on death row in Iran for being a spy. The Iranian-American Marine from Flint left the military to work for a company that produces reality based war games. The company signed a contract with the Pentagon for language training. One of its reality based games is “Assault on Iran” which wasn’t interpreted with benevolence when he visited family in Iran.

The land of the dead ender can be more cruel than the land of Eddie Coyle and Friends. Almost like Chechnya and the Middle East. I doubt that authorities would lock down this area to hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. In this area, you don’t throw a punch to miss or shoot to miss. Grandma has a gun underneath her pillow for the intruder and it’s one and done, either way. The Arab store owners have guns. The cops aren’t coming to the rescue. They’ve been laid off. Wolf Blitzer isn’t on the front lawn. Miranda has skipped town with everyone else. You’re on your own, a certified dead ender. While in Boston, it’s a frenzy. Thousands of law enforcement, robots, SWAT, ATF, FBI, flash bangs, hundreds of rounds fired, and the 19 year old pot head comes out from the boat under his own strength. His worst wound is self inflicted. The commentators from England and Israel, veterans of terrorism, bite their lips. The dead enders for hope add another flag to their memorial.

The man in Flint wrote on the memorial for love and prayers to go out to the world. We’re all dead enders now.

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A Long Goodbye for the Company Town

abandoned GM plant

A GM Powertrain plant decays into the earth

The University of Michigan recently received a donation of $50 million for its Writers’ Program. That kind of money can buy a lot of coney dogs. A 350 pound Detroit homicide detective with a hunger for coney dogs is one of many great characters in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff has a bachelor’s from Michigan and master’s from California-Berkeley but I don’t think his 350 pound homicide detective is the kind of creative writing material that Helen Zell envisioned when she made the donation. The 22 students chosen from almost a thousand applicants in creative writing will split one million dollars yearly. LeDuff got his start working in a slaughterhouse before the New York Times hired him. So it goes.

The picture isn’t from Dresden or Detroit, or even Syria. The rubble is what remains of a General Motors plant in Saginaw. Someone had punched a hole in the fence so I slammed on the brakes and ducked through the hole to get a quick picture. I have seen this kind of destruction in so many cities, I can’t even take a guess at the number of abandoned manufacturing sites. Detroit has 139 square miles of abandoned property and 45,000 abandoned houses. Smaller company towns that had built America’s industry are incapable of dealing with closures and abandonment. School closings are on the front page of every newspaper in the dying company towns.

I didn’t intend to drive past the abandoned GM plant in Saginaw. A week of heavy rain created flash floods in many rivers around the state. The rising water chased me away from a nicer area and into this one. Small groups of “irregular” kids, wearing dirty clothing, their young faces looking too old already,  wandered the street in the rotten weather. LeDuff was asked why should the rest of the country care about Detroit. Because it’s spreading, he said. Like the rivers cresting and flooding the streets. Bill Moyers reported on homeless in of all places, Silicon Valley. A commentator said the country was splitting apart. As Detroit goes, so it goes. There have been a number of high profile articles on Detroit in the last week. If you really want to understand a city, watch the schools, grocery stores, and the morgue. There’s a photo in LeDuff’s book of the unclaimed bodies at the morgue in Detroit. An elderly man was in the morgue for two years. No one wanted to make the effort to give him a burial. The dead are abandoned like the buildings.

On the Michigan Writers’ Program website, Helen Zell explained why she made the record donation: “Books have the power to inspire and change people, to create action, to generate movements, and to better understand those qualities that are uniquely human. We want to capture important stories that might otherwise go untold.”

The stories in the crevices of these company towns are worth a dozen coney dogs, at least. The stories will be written through the eyes of a 350 pound Raymond Chandler character who makes too many damn phone calls after midnight. Or perhaps a ruin porn brick salesman, some bland bastard with too many stale stories and takes too long to say goodbye. The Atlantic asked Walter Mosley for his favorite passage in literature. Mosley said Chandler wrote it at the end of The Long Goodbye: “He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.” The innocuous line hit Mosley “like a thunderbolt,” turning the ordinary sight, an adobe wall, into a sinister canvas. “It juxtaposes light and dark, serenity and violence, in a way that reaches beyond the physical into the anguished struggle of the human heart.”

Vision that punches a hole in the fence around the company town and the human heart.

Chandler writes in The Long Goodbye:

“The average man is tired and scared, and a tired, scared man can’t afford ideals. He has to buy food for his family. In our time we have seen a shocking decline in both public and private morals. You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what is sold this year look unfashionable a year from now… The stuff inside is mostly junk.”

A hard boiled autopsy report for the company town.

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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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The Artistic Coma v the Digital Animal Farm

Animal intelligence

My protest has ended. The algorithms have won (for now) and Google can continue with plans to kill its only product (Google Reader) that granted unfettered (ferreted?) access to the Animal Farm. All animals are equal, of course, but you know the ending…some are more equal than others. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs and humans ultimately merge into one, the rules enforced with brute force and snitches. In the real world of today, as the algorithms spam with “suggestions” of VIPigs to follow, the real pigs float dead across the dying rivers of China.

The Napoleons in the digital Animal Farm of today call it Data Darwinism. The algorithms will choose the winners and losers, and who will lead the weaker pigs…to slaughter on the riverbank. For years, researchers have underestimated the intelligence of animals. The animals were given tests devised for humans and when the monkeys and elephants failed to think as their human researchers, the results came back in red that some were obviously more equal than others. When the researchers change the methodology to how the animal thinks, they discovered the test subjects were smarter than human testers. The Napoleons are writing the algorithms for the rest of us to behave, and keep us inside their digital pen. A closed ecosystem where some are more equal than others.

Checking footnotes and facial expressions is a habit that’s hard to shake when coming from a history background in a high crime area. The FBI trains its employees on detecting those nonverbal clues. The store television in a bad part of town was showing an interview with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. She and the host were talking about her book and how hard they had to struggle. Life wasn’t easy. The volume on the television was loud. It was a small store and the owner tried to pretend that he wasn’t listening to two very wealthy people discuss the struggles and hardships. I watched owner’s facial expressions as he tried to hide his feelings. He was an immigrant…from Beirut. His customers, their faces battered and stomachs sloshing from too much booze, came in for more of it and to get some lottery tickets. The owner snapped a little too brusque at one of his clerks. He was listening, and irritation crept into his voice. The digital farm of Facebook ain’t Beirut.

Google is competing with Facebook for a closed ecosystem, its Animal Farm, and the Apple CEO apologized profusely to the Chinese government for showing signs of independence. No one has apologized to the pigs. Scientists are concerned now about a pandemic as the fate of pigs and humans collide.

The algorithms are at war with the higher imagination that wants to be free to roam and explore its whims. To entice the higher imagination to stay in its digital pen, to remain on the farm, it’s offered stars and check marks and authorship rankings. Stay here on the farm for another season. Don’t go pro. You’ll be a number one seed. You can be our pig named Napoleon.

The digital Animal Farm fears most of all the “artistic coma.” The period of stillness where activity appears to cease. The page views would plunge and the flow of data would become a trickle and then stop. But deeper thinking is actually taking place. A vision is being created. The pigs are plotting to bust out.

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