I’ve never driven a car or had a driver’s license. My life in the city has been lived on foot. I’ve been a regular on the Detroit buses since the late 1960’s, when I was in high school. Sometimes, I get rides from family or friends, but a lot of the time, I’m out there on the streets.
There’s a whole science in trying to be streetwise. A lot of it is just trial and error. You live through it and hope for the best. It’s often tricky to know just when you should acknowledge people or even say hello. If you don’t, people might think you’re rude or snobbish. Yet sometimes a simple nod can provoke a fight or a robbery. You learn how to size things up a few blocks away. I’ve found ways to make myself blend in, to be invisible.
The fact that I “appear to be a white person” in a mostly black city can’t be ignored.* Sometimes I forget about it. It only exists in the back of my mind or as subtext. Other times events force it to the forefront. It’s rarely a problem for me.
I do need to be careful what I read on the bus. Books having anything to do with black history or other racial issues can provoke a confrontation. I’ve learned to read those at home. Every few years, I get hassled as a pedestrian. The worst of these events happened when I was young.
Part of the story is that I look more dangerous and imposing than I am. This is less true as I get older. I think this helped keep me from being bothered.
I used to take long walks just for fun. I’d explore different neighborhoods and areas of the city. Other times, I’d take long walks because the buses stopped running and I wanted to get home. Once I walked from Woodward and 8 Mile all the way to the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.
This is down by the Detroit River between Conner Street and Grosse Pointe. I lived there for nearly 25 years.
In the 1970’s I saw a few dead bodies on the streets. Some died from natural causes and others not.
I’ve always been wary of dogs, especially if they’re in a pack. I’ve had a few close calls.
Sometimes, it seems as if the cars are trying to run you down intentionally. You need to look both ways on those one way streets. Cars seem to come out of nowhere, and fast.
I’ve rarely used bicycles. Early on I rode a lot. I stopped though. I didn’t have a bike and I just got used to going without one. Maybe I’ll try again sometime. Bikes are good.
You get a different sense of the city when you’re on the ground. You’re not protected by being in or on a vehicle. You can get really wet in the rain. Big snowstorms create challenges. You notice details on buildings and in nature. You see other pedestrians.
I see strange things. Once, I was in a party store on McNichols. A man stumbled and fell at my feet. He was cocooned in an unraveled video tape. He tripped over the plastic case, which was in two pieces. I later referred to him as the man eaten by video tape.
I run into the same people, over and over again. Some of them beg for money. You get to know a lot of the people who are down on their luck or homeless. Others are just walking, like me. Walking courts chance encounters and coincidence. You run into people who you know.
You never know what you’ll see next. You see a lot of interesting things, when you walk around Detroit.
Grand Circus Park
When I first started riding buses in Detroit this was a very different city. I used to bus to protest rallies downtown. Some were against the Vietnam War.
Downtown Hudson’s and Crowley’s Department stores were still open. There were cool book stores and record stores. I was just getting used to getting around the city on my own. The novelty of that made everything seem electric.
Over the years there would be performers on the bus. People would sing, rap or give speeches. It still happens, but not as often.
One guy would introduce himself : “Ladies and gentlemen, here on this coach, the one and only Black Sinatra.” Then he’d sing a few songs. Then there was the “Button Man.” He’d always have a lot of buttons on with an emphasis on the red, black and green. He’d giver Black Power speeches. Sometimes he’d confront or challenge his fellow passengers.
Some of these people were really putting on a show. They were trying to get a response from the other passengers. Others just sang or talked to themselves. They didn’t seem concerned about whether others were listening or not.
When I’m riding the Detroit bus system, there often seems to be a contest between order and disorder. Usually, order wins out. Yet there’s a bit of tension or drama.
It was in this early period where I saw people inject drugs on the bus. That was just once or twice. Maybe it was insulin or something, but I doubt it.
It’s been years since I’ve seen someone try to smoke pot on the bus. Yet I often smell it on people. People still drink alcohol on the bus. Sometimes I see people drinking early in the morning. Some of these are obviously on their way in to work. You must be discreet and careful. Even if you are, you still risk being tossed off the bus, or worse arrested.
I also saw people with guns and knives. That’s always troubling. Now, I know people have weapons, but I never seem to see them. This is a good thing.
Sometimes people have a strong odor about them. They can behave in unexpected ways. When we’re packed in like sardines, standing up, I’m always careful. It’s rough getting your feet stepped on. Then, too, you hate to step on someone else’s. There was even a recent story where a passenger was shot for either stepping on another person’s shoes or bumping into him!
Once, a drunken man was looking through a pile of pornography on the bus. It was mostly the women who rose up and got him tossed off of the bus.
It can be interesting to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. People talk of the most personal things. I’ve heard some pretty wild stories. The cellphone had made this phenomenon far more unpleasant. It’s worst is when you can hear both ends of the conversation. In these cases, I’m always glad to put on my headphones and listen to music. This drowns out part of it at least.
Occasionally I’ve had really interesting conversations with strangers on the bus. I have little interest in sports, so this limits it in ways. Some of the best were around September 11, 2001 and in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected. Now and then I run into people I know too.
I’m often drawing on the bus. This has led to some nice encounters with fellow artists, members of my “tribe.” Sometimes, they even show me some of their work. I get questions and comments. People get curious when someone’s making art in public.
I’ve been caught in a bad spot while transporting art too. One time I had to carry a heavy piece of framed art with glass on the front. The passengers were packed in tight, standing room only. That was a challenge.
Most of the bus drivers seem fine to me. Sometimes they have music on. Some have a real sense of style. One told jokes. They have a hard job, as often as not.
There was the one who deliberately passed me by, even though there were a lot of seats. I ran into someone later that day who’d been on that bus. She said it was a shame that he’d passed me by like that. Some of the passengers were even shouting for him to stop.
Once, after waiting hours after our bus broke down, another bus finally arrived. We got on that and then it broke down as well! The buses remind me of elephants when there’s a big blizzard. They push slowly through the swirling white curtains of snow. Once, after waiting hours and freezing we saw three or four buses coming all at once, as if in a parade.
There have been a lot of close calls. I’ve seen people cut right in front of the bus, both cars and pedestrians. Once this happened as I was paying my fare. I got hurt as I slammed into a metal bar really hard. It could have been worse.
There have been epidemics of people attacking the buses from the street. They shoot at us or throw rocks, bricks or bottles. One time the bullet hit the window right was I was sitting! The driver came over and pointed at me and at the window. He said “You’re lucky. This is a lucky man.”
*It’s too complex to go into quickly, but “some white people are whiter than others.” Suffice to say, my pigmentation is not among my top ten things that are important to me. Yet I’m aware of the privileges that are connected with that, whether I try to claim them or to go after them, or not.